THE JOURNEY SHOOTER
Apropos of absolutely nothing, I’ve been thinking about Doom 3. Although there are much older and more venerated games, it is, to me anyway, a classic in its own right. In 2004, Doom 3 was a hit, scaring the hell out of many and garnering respect for its state of the art visuals. The nightmarish, gore-smeared shooter was a twisted shoot-’em-up literally descending into the bowels of hell, streaked through with a cold, science fiction vibe. In terms of story, it was hardly special. It was hardly a story. Gunplay was solid, yet you had to wonder if there was anything terribly special about firing rockets off at skeletal space marines and floating, beholder-esque gas bags. Two enormous aspects of any game seem easily discarded from Doom 3, which leaves one to wonder: What did it do right?
Similarities can be drawn between Doom 3 and one of its contemporarie, another FPS of somewhat greater legend: Half-Life 2. Although Half-Life 2 was and (I maintain) is an exceptionally well rounded game, it, like Doom 3, was a long and winding journey, at times sickeningly constricting, and at times dizzyingly open. In maintaining the player in one long, continuous journey up and down an established world, these “journey shooters” gave a sense of progress and distance to the player, not unlike what many RPGs can make a player feel about character progression. They also are both sparse on interruptions. The Half-Life series is famous for its lack of cutscenes (even if it does find ways to simulate them) and Doom 3, although it featured cutscenes set in a jarring third person, preferred to let scripted events happen in front of an active player. In both games, the objectives often reflect changing the environment (often the removal of an obstacle on their journey), and don’t bother shoehorning in a cutscene to show it.
Creating a proper sense of length and progression, as well as giving the player adequate reaction and immersion into a situation, can go miles in making a player’s journey seem more real, and it is this steadfast progression that allows us to form attachments and imprint upon these journeys. Fragmenting the narrative by means of cutscenes, levels, sudden shifts in location and perspective; these often take away as much attachment to any sort of gameplay as any freedom they might add for the creator.
Sometimes all you really want is a neat little scenario for you to jump in and play with, and there are games for that. Most modern shooters are completely pre-constructed for the player, infamous for their linearity. They’re also disjointed, almost schizophrenic experiences that glaze over getting from point A to point B, instead cherry-picking the most interesting scenarios. Linearity is really not a bad thing, done correctly. For that matter, greater dependence on separate levels, compartmentalized play, and schizophrenic narrative are not, I think, a positive trend. They may let us cram in a hell of a lot more polygons and be easier on the render, but there’s a power in the seamless experience, and any game pining to be more open, immersive, or engaging ignores it at its own risk.