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.