Shooters are fun, engaging players in a loop of adrenaline-fueled gameplay that occupies them for hours. Take a trip to GameStop and you’ll notice that everyone has figured that out—most games for teens and adults have guns and shooting in common. The big franchises sell millions of copies to players of all ages. Shooters are also likely to be blamed for real-life violence, even though there’s no proof that video games cause violence.
But violence isn’t the problem I have with shooters. My problem with them is their lack of creativity. Why is shooting the default action in video games, and why is the shooting mechanic so boringly consistent?
I think if we’re going to insist that games be treated with the respect accorded to other art forms—which they should be—we need to start making games that push boundaries.
The Portal series is a great example of a game series that uses the first-person shooter mechanic and flips it on its head. In Portal you don’t shoot enemies. You shoot interdimensional holes into walls to solve puzzles and move forward in the game. Gameplay can be methodical or fast-paced, and it’s always a mental challenge.
What’s more, the shooting in Portal is completely in alignment with the game’s story.
The goal of Portal is simple: you must escape from Aperture Laboratories. This explains the existence of the gun—the lab built it—as well as the shooting—you use the gun’s portals to further your escape. In short, the goal of the game tells you what to expect from the gameplay, and the gameplay feeds into how you accomplish your goal.
Everything about the mechanic of shooting in this game seamlessly contributes to the richness of the world. Along the way you find other inventions from Aperture. Repulsion Gel, for example, allows you to bounce great distances, so that you can reach portals in places you wouldn’t normally have access to. The game’s complexity increases, and you learn new ways to use the mechanics that you’re already familiar with. Yet everything remains consistent within the inane world of Aperture Laboratories.
So what happens when shooters go wrong?
In Bioshock Infinite, the player needs to retrieve a girl named Elizabeth and escape from the beautiful but rotten city of Columbia. Columbia is a paradise for the wealthy and the white, while people of color and poor Irish laborers are kept in the slums. There are military police, but they are clearly only there to maintain the status quo. They evidently do a good job of it, because the streets are generally pristine and peaceful.
How would we expect to move through this space?
If your answer is “by constantly breaking out a gun and mowing down police officers,” you are unfortunately right. In Infinite you can travel peacefully to one part of the city, get discovered, shoot dozens of police officers, and then zip along to another part of the city and be immediately anonymous once more.
In Portal, the treatment of the player is consistent. The villain, GLaDOS, toys with you. She puts you through dangerous tests and is surprised, amused, or annoyed when you survive. And then she tries again.
In Infinite you go from anonymous to criminal and back again repeatedly. At later points in the game, the player has to blast through areas of the inhabited city on firepower alone.
In this case, the shooting mechanic removes a lot of complexity and choice from the world and from the story. Shooting is one way to accomplish the goal, but in Infinite’s case, shooting is not nuanced, and occasionally it’s nonsensical. As a one-man army in a city of soldiers, the player is heavily outnumbered.
It’s hard to break away from such an intoxicating and pervasive model of gameplay, and I don’t think shooters need to go away completely. They’re the action movies of the game industry. They’ll always be popular, and they’ll always be fun. Still, there is a need for games that break this model, and developers need to start challenging themselves to create new, compelling game mechanics that reinforce the story they’re trying to tell.
If you like shooters, try a game like Portal and talk to your kids about how the shooting mechanic is different than in conventional shooters. Or try challenging your kids to invent a game that doesn’t use shooting–or that uses shooting in a creative new way.