The FPS Grows, Genres Bleed Together - Nikolas Davidoff Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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The FPS Grows, Genres Bleed Together

Impatience overtaking reason Micheal rushes down the streets in his freshly repaired European diva, focused on reaching his target before the sky loses its radiance. Cars angrily honk at the diva when he runs through a red light, as more people shout in response to an accidental crash behind a taxi due to a hasty stop. Nearing the target, he swerves around a startled pedestrian betrayed by the crosswalk and roars past a man ironically bellowing out “see ya at the bar!” In record time he emerges in front of the target, breaching its doors just as he spies a window shopper answering a text on her smartphone. The minutes fly and the cashier prattles on as the mission of wardrobe enhancement turns to reconstruction, and Micheal finally departs feeling financially light enough to hit the road once more.

Even the most uneventful days in an open world game like this come alive like little else. If video games are the ultimate entertainment medium for escapism, then the likes of Skyrim and Los Santos are two dimensional incarnations of Rekall; virtual vacations free from jet lag, language barriers and accidental diarrhea. Dual wielding the primary weapons of credible geography and loosely scripted AIs, they excel in dropping the player into a wilderness that feels spontaneous or a city that looks like it could service its casually meandering populace. This surrounding life also exists in spite of the player, fleshing out the world with voices and actions regardless of player interaction, which reinforces the feeling that the protagonist is just one of many individuals that live in a perpetually existing world. After all, real life doesn't revolve around one person, so how could a simulation of it do otherwise? The final crucial element is the freedom to interact with the world away from the main path, making it feel less like a sight seeing tour and more like a tangible place that one can play a game of poker in. So when one is caught cheating at said game of poker it feels like meddling in people's lives; no matter how influential, the player is just one person who's actions elicited a response from another, and in the process disrupted this flowing ecosystem. Now in retrospection to a fine 2013, thanks to Irrational Games' BioShock Infinite and 4A Games' Metro: Last Light, this chain of events can be associated with first-person shooters as well.

As these two games are shooters, and not the open world FPS hybrid of Far Cry 3, they do not reach the level of simulation that an open world game requires, instead relying on a remarkable illusion that the non-combative people populating it are conducting their set behaviour by choice. Queueing up in chronological order, BioShock Infinite opens its theatre - the floating, Art Nouveau tinted city of Columbia - at a time of peace, allowing the player to become an eyewitness to the city's identity instead of recounting it from a state of decay. While the collapse of this intended utopia is inevitable, it happens gradually. So there is more than one instance of tranquil exploration to get lost in, the most impressive of which resides very early in the game.

Here Columbia puts its best lane forward, welcoming protagonist Booker DeWitt with smiling bowler hats and cotton candy but while Mr. DeWitt is unimpressed by anything, the player is given all the time they desire to revel in an adult Disneyland. Irrational Games have proven their ability to create a fantastical yet believable world with the original BioShock so the immediate comfort with Colombia's infrastructure is expected, while Infinite treads new ground by filling these jaunty sections with citizens that ignore Booker's presence altogether. Instead they get their shoes shined and chastise their flirtatious children in secluded hallways, while the player can go compete in a target shooting game, disrupt the training regimen of a group of weightlifters and walk in on an African American janitor who tries to hide his potentially flammable discontent with the city's white supremacist values. Then when Booker triggers the ire of Colombia's ruthless police force the ensuing conflict feels intimate because of the depth given to the city, paired with a sense of responsibility equal to the guilt from being caught stealing cheese in Skyrim, despite it being a scripted encounter.

While Booker is conscious of this cracking facade Infinite's most integral and unique element, the near constant presence of a partner in the mysterious Elizabeth, then takes the now established interactive detail and turns it on its head. Fascinated by everything in a world she scarcely knows, Elizabeth constantly points out things that catch her attention, from a sign to a bookstore, many of which spur full-on conversations between the pair. These plentiful moments make suggestions about her personality and what she feels on a moment to moment basis while also adding to the depth of Columbia by presenting more opportunities to reflect on the city and often an entirely different way to interpret it. Like Columbia, Elizabeth is an omnipresent entity that feels genuine; an NPC with depth that reacts to the player's actions in and out of combat while also taking the lead, in the end coming across as a real person and not a gamey interpretation of one.

Conversely, Metro: Last Light starts in a more traditional guided fashion, throwing leading man Artyom into combat much sooner than Infinite as it establishes its uniquely hideous portrayal of humanity early on. Sequel to Metro 2033, a direct adaptation of Dmitry Glukhovsky's post-apocalyptic book of the same name, the turning point of Last Light is in the peaceful station-towns that lie at the heart of the subway system that the people of Moscow now call home, with each built around a key purpose informing both their physical makeup and the kind of community they harbour. This ensures that they feel like unique districts of a larger city, and as predicted they aren't clusters of hollow halls either; market vendors aggressively promote their wares in more than one line of dialogue as a suffocating amount of people crowd the 'streets' in an important mix of purpose and aimlessness. While the haunting tunnels that present the game's combat and stealth gameplay demonstrate the perilous nature of travel in the metro, the stations give an intimate evaluation of how people have created an impromptu home out of a place most would rather speed past.

Once again interaction with the world is paramount; letting the player observe an old man's attempts to educate children born in the Metro about animals from the surface or donate some money to a knowledgeable beggar. The proverbial cherry atop this exotic cake is in the fact that there are no obvious gameplay rewards for being kind, keeping every social interaction rooted in the sombre world. After all it would be hard to feel the ambiance of a resource strapped, post-apocalypse when the beggar's real purpose in life is to reward the charitable hero with a super gun. Coming to these communities offsets the human caused horrors witnessed throughout the bulk of the game, providing a reminder of people's perseverance and letting the player tangibly interact with their ability to create and support each other, boosting the morals to push on with Artyom's altruistic mission and more importantly making it feel like the events of the game only cover a slice of the rich world of the Metro.

Both the BioShock and Metro series have broadened their design philosophy of building large spaces for freeform combat to allow the player to indulge in the world so that down-tempo moments can also be thoroughly interactive, rather than falling back on the 'story needs to be peaceful so just walk to this checkpoint to get back to the good stuff' sections so many FPSs leverage. Even more accomplished narrative driven FPSs like the mighty Half-Life or the less widely appreciated Resistance 3 fail to enliven their surroundings through relentless chaperoning from point to point without any indulgence to deter the mission. Instead Infinite and Last Light once again adopt the structure of open world games where the player needs to get to a specific place to advance the story, but that place resides within these expansive locations filled with things that the player doesn't need to do, so when they are undertaken they feel personal and special.

However both games still proudly declare themselves as shooters, a genre now synonymous with multiplayer and strict linearity, exemplifying how frail video game genres are. These classifications are merely fallen upon based on the one thing done the most in a given game, and when that very loose logic fails to line up there's always the 'action' label to fall back on. Action used to more specifically define games like Devil May Cry that focused on melee combat but nowadays it is used to classify any union between multiple gameplay elements and some sort of aggressive interaction. Uncharted's most recurrent mechanic is gun combat with that illustrious Gears of War style cover system, yet the series evolved into an amalgam of puzzles, climbing, melee fighting and limited stealth so it's dubbed 'action' and not 'third-person shooter.' While on the other hand Dishonored is famously a complex stealth game that offers the alternative of loudly hacking off heads alongside power and gear customization, but since stealth is more of an implied style it also went on to win a wealth of action game awards.

An even more complex species are the open world games that Infinite and Last Light resemble so strongly as this term only describes a kind of world structure that houses a multitude of activities that the player can engage with at their own discretion. However the actual nature of these activities can vary wildly from moment to moment, creating what is more of a sub-genre, like the distinction between arcade and sim racers. This disparity is no more evident than in the comparison of the trait's denizens, from the Assassin's Creed series that blends fighting and stealth into an ornate 3D platformer to Grand Theft Auto V, an eclectic union of third-person shooting, driving, flying, character stats, stock markets and even missions that unfold into the kind of multiple stage quests seen in RPGs – yet another rabbit hole of a genre.

A breed of game that has historically resembled its programming language namesake a bit too closely, RPGs have over the years learnt the importance of clarity and variation. Diablo II introduced immediate combat and Deus Ex brought forth a fusion of shooting and stealth in the old days of 2000, while in more recent years the likes of Borderlands, Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 continue to prove that the loss of number crunching and encyclopedia-like complexity does not imply a drought of intelligence or depth, in the process promoting the cross-pollination of traditional RPG systems into other genres that have given rise to cocktails like BioShock Infinite and Metro: Last Light.

Such chaos is important for the industry, as it allows video games to be a rapidly changing medium where showstoppers like Destiny and The Division can strut their stuff and leave everybody slack jawed and at a loss for how to describe them in a tidy fashion. In spite of rampant cynicism particularly aimed at FPSs, Infinite and Last Light prove that leaps can be made in these sexily branded genres, as trends eventually get stretched to a breaking point and an inventive developer's seemingly tin foiled design becomes all the more alluring for a publisher to gamble on and the public to throw their monetary trust at. Just as Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder camera and Kill Switch's cover system inspired the backbone of the original Gears of War, a game whose footprint is evident in all succeeding shooters and action games, Infinite and Last Light's indulgent worlds have broken down profound barriers in FPS design, lessons that perhaps will be utilized by other genres as well, as one form of game design informs another. Most importantly however, they represent in a very succinct way that the handcuffs of a genre are only psychosomatic, with the seed of evolution often only a fence vault away.

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