Killing Quake Softly ('98 Week)

The Quake Killer was supposed to arrive with the launch of Unreal earlier this spring, and while Unreal was a visually stunning accomplishment, somehow its lackluster level design and overly familiar mechanics left it unexpectedly wanting. Then all eyes turned to Sin, and though there are brief glimpses of brilliance, it’s still too often pedestrian. For a platform that has become defined by first-person shooters, and equally vilified in the media for the same, it’s hard not to notice that the biggest genre in the world has become predictable at best and lazy at worst.

Granted, the promises of Daikatana and Duke Nukem 4 mirror those of Unreal and Sin--and let’s hope that both games see the light of day come 1999 and help to redefine the aging genre. But, as it turns out, we may not have to wait that long after all to get the windows open and fresh air flowing again. For that we need turn only to Half-Life.

If the winter of ‘98 is teaching us anything, it’s that innovation and driving forces of change in stagnant backwaters of gaming often come from unexpected places.

There’s this moment in Half-Life where you realize that the cavalry you’ve been racing to meet through the first major act of the game is not your knight in shining armor, but the snarling visage of War horrifically resplendent on his apocalyptic steed. It’s a moment that is almost cinematic, not just because it is cleverly presented, but because it stands your assumptions about the world you are participating in on their head and elicits an emotional response beyond those born strictly from adrenalin.

While I have countless times felt fear, trepidation, anger and even a kind of digital bloodlust in the dozens of first-person games to grace my computer screen, I have never felt betrayal, never felt a sense of loss like I did at that moment.

A game like Unreal can, in many ways, be defined by the hair-raising experience early in the game when you are plunged into darkness in tight confines with a furious alien, and the echoes of cacodemons in Doom still curdle the blood. But, honestly, how hard is it to scare someone by sneaking up behind someone in a dark room and shouting, "Boo"?

All of John Romero’s comic posturing aside, I haven’t been able to shake the idea that perhaps the FPS has run its course far too young. What are we to expect of a shooter in five years, in ten? The same run-and-gun with fancier pictures? Is that enough? Hey, I’m as much for another romp in the mud with Duke as the next guy, but at some point the PC’s defining genre has to offer innovation more than the ability to interact with toilets and stick dollar bills in the g-strings of virtual strippers, or it's going to potentially slip into irrelevance.

I just never expected Sierra’s unknown developer, Valve, or someone like them to be the kind of company that stepped forward to show us how to leap the chasm. And, maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe it has to be someone that can step out from the shadows without the burden of expectation or fancy Dallas development studios to shock the world. As video gaming lurches drunkenly toward becoming a legitimate entertainment medium in a world where music, movies and television are the comfortable old-men of media in their impenetrable fortresses, it may be that the biggest developers can no longer afford to be daring.

It’s not like I expect Half-Life to change the world or even the genre. It’s the flavor of the month, a well-deserved owner of that minor crown, but by this time next year it’s unlikely anyone will remember much about crowbar wielding scientists. But, even as I consider the future of the shooter genre, I have to take into account also games like Rainbow Six, and the recently released Thief by Looking Glass Studios. As a whole, these games give me an unexpected hope for tomorrow.

Imagine the possibilities for the future. Games that play like a film, putting you in the scene of an action movie rather than just asking you to find the red key to open the red door to shoot the monsters on the other side. I imagine a future where something like Saving Private Ryan plays out before you, putting you into the thick of action with story and even something like acting to go along.

With luck, in ten years, people will look back on these early precursors, the Half-Lifes of the past, and look on them as the unsophisticated relics from which the golden age of PC gaming was born.

Comments

It's hard to comment on these retro articles because the undercurrents of irony are too strong. It's impossible to divorce them from the context of the present and what you might be suggesting about the current state of FPS games. (Although, I'll give you props, Elysium. I think you've done the best job with this article of writing something that doesn't break the illusion of having come from '98.)

Anytime someone asks me what my favorite video game of all time is, I tend to linger between Baldur's Gate II and Half-Life.

Half-Life wins out in the end because not only was it ground-breaking at the time, but it still remains playable and fun today. Oh, and because I played the game start to finish six times. Seeing the little crowbar image up there makes me smile.

Although that might have been a little bit inspired by the fact that back in the late 1990s I was in college and had no money.

In 1998 I was able to hang out at a friend's house and watch him play Half-Life. I only got to see bits of the game and whatever set piece he happened to find cool and wanted to show me.

In 2010 I bought Half-Life on a Steam sale and was able to play through it for the first time. The level design still rocked my socks and I immediately jumped into Half-Life 2 upon finishing the original.

I just never expected Sierra’s unknown developer, Valve, or someone like them to be the kind of company that stepped forward to show us how to leap the chasm.

Whatever happened to Sierra?

There’s this moment in Half-Life where you realize that the cavalry you’ve been racing to meet through the first major act of the game is not your knight in shining armor, but the snarling visage of War horrifically resplendent on his apocalyptic steed.

Oh come on! Thanks for spoiling the twist

ClockworkHouse wrote:

It's hard to comment on these retro articles because the undercurrents of irony are too strong. It's impossible to divorce them from the context of the present and what you might be suggesting about the current state of FPS games.

I have to think that, at least in this article, such irony is entirely intentional.

I don't know how you all are writing them, though. I can't basic events from twelve years ago, much less detailed visceral experiences of games I played at the time.

I hear there's some guys working on some kind of modification, or mod? or something of Half-Life. Some kind of counter-terrorism game online against other people. I dunno, I played some Jedi Knight and X-Wing Vs Tie at the Microsoft Gaming Zone the past year, and it was ok, but I don't know how well this terrorist thing will work.

Polliwog wrote:
I just never expected Sierra’s unknown developer, Valve, or someone like them to be the kind of company that stepped forward to show us how to leap the chasm.

Whatever happened to Sierra?

They got bought by these guys.

Minarchist wrote:

I have to think that, at least in this article, such irony is entirely intentional.

Sure, but it's not clear what's ironic and what isn't. Is it this?

What are we to expect of a shooter in five years, in ten? The same run-and-gun with fancier pictures? Is that enough?

Or is it this?

Imagine the possibilities for the future. Games that play like a film, putting you in the scene of an action movie rather than just asking you to find the red key to open the red door to shoot the monsters on the other side. I imagine a future where something like Saving Private Ryan plays out before you, putting you into the thick of action with story and even something like acting to go along.

Both have come to pass. The Call of Duty series makes good on both the fear of "the same run-and-gun with fancier pictures" and on the promise of "putting you in the thick of action with story and even something like acting to go along." Treyarch and Infinity Ward have both embraced Valve's revolutionary idea of 360° experiential storytelling but have done so in the context of decidedly non-revolutionary run-and-gun gameplay. If anything, that pursuit of games as movies you play has lead to designs far more restricted than finding red keys for red doors.

Perhaps the irony is supposed to be that we've gotten the dreams we had back then, and it turns out to be what we already had.

What's 98 Foot week?

It should be '98 Week.

*Legion* wrote:

What's 98 Foot week?

It should be '98 Week. :)

I bet it was wordsmythe's mess up.

Hooray, for once a typo in my article wasn't actually my fault!

ClockworkHouse wrote:

If anything, that pursuit of games as movies you play has lead to designs far more restricted than finding red keys for red doors.

Yeah, at least trying to find the red key means you look around. The scripted cinematic game just means you need to push forward.

Having said that, the Saving Private Ryan moments in the first two CoDs were very cool.

Stele wrote:

I hear there's some guys working on some kind of modification, or mod? or something of Half-Life. Some kind of counter-terrorism game online against other people. I dunno, I played some Jedi Knight and X-Wing Vs Tie at the Microsoft Gaming Zone the past year, and it was ok, but I don't know how well this terrorist thing will work. :?

It's a full remake of Half Life using the 'now, not so new' Source engine. I've been keeping an eye on their site for a few years now as this will be an instant download for me. Even if it wasn't free

http://www.blackmesasource.com/

Dremandred wrote:
Stele wrote:

I hear there's some guys working on some kind of modification, or mod? or something of Half-Life. Some kind of counter-terrorism game online against other people. I dunno, I played some Jedi Knight and X-Wing Vs Tie at the Microsoft Gaming Zone the past year, and it was ok, but I don't know how well this terrorist thing will work. :?

It's a full remake of Half Life using the 'now, not so new' Source engine. I've been keeping an eye on their site for a few years now as this will be an instant download for me. Even if it wasn't free

http://www.blackmesasource.com/

I think he's actually talking about Counterstrike. :p

Stele wrote:

I hear there's some guys working on some kind of modification, or mod? or something of Half-Life. Some kind of counter-terrorism game online against other people. I dunno, I played some Jedi Knight and X-Wing Vs Tie at the Microsoft Gaming Zone the past year, and it was ok, but I don't know how well this terrorist thing will work. :?

Reminds me of this: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/20...

MrDeVil909 wrote:
Dremandred wrote:
Stele wrote:

I hear there's some guys working on some kind of modification, or mod? or something of Half-Life. Some kind of counter-terrorism game online against other people. I dunno, I played some Jedi Knight and X-Wing Vs Tie at the Microsoft Gaming Zone the past year, and it was ok, but I don't know how well this terrorist thing will work. :?

It's a full remake of Half Life using the 'now, not so new' Source engine. I've been keeping an eye on their site for a few years now as this will be an instant download for me. Even if it wasn't free

http://www.blackmesasource.com/

I think he's actually talking about Counterstrike. :p

Yeah I was being in-character, a la 1998. At least someone appreciated it. Heck, summer 2000, the guy next door in the dorm was running a cs server, and I helped him admin. And played for weeks... like every day. Crazy times, summer in the dorms with only one class... lots of free time.

Elysium wrote:

Hooray, for once a typo in my article wasn't actually my fault!

Yeah, I own that one.

wordsmythe wrote:
Polliwog wrote:
I just never expected Sierra’s unknown developer, Valve, or someone like them to be the kind of company that stepped forward to show us how to leap the chasm.

Whatever happened to Sierra?

They got bought by these guys.

Which then were sold to Havas, which were bought by Vivendi, which were bought by Activision, which merged with Blizzard.

And that's the story of how two of the greatest companies in PC history (Sierra and Blizzard) became a bunch of douchebags, with the biggest bastard of all at the CEO spot.