Column: The Player: A pioneer of first-person shooter games talks guns, violence and catharsis
Shooters. That’s what the most ubiquitous genre of video games are colloquially called. They are the reason critics constantly say that video games are obsessed with guns.
Since the early 1990s when titles like “Doom” and “Wolfenstein 3-D” popularized the concept of a gun-based game from a first-person perspective, shooters have dominated.
The bestselling video game of 2015? “Call of Duty: Black Ops III.” The bestselling video game of 2014? “Call of Duty: Advance Warfare.” Four of the five bestselling video games in May of this year? Shooters.
It’s a gun-obsessed medium that mirrors a gun-obsessed society.
But as mass shootings become an increasingly regular part of the news cycle, it’s fair to ask: Did the industry create a monster?
When the genre rose to prominence, one of its primary architects says the goal was simply to create some scares and some laughs.
“We were in our 20s, so it was the perfect age for that,” says John Romero, the legendary game designer whose credits include early and genre-making shooters “Wolfenstein 3-D,” “Doom” and “Quake.”
But why so violent?
“I loved watching horror movies,” he says. “Those were just great. It was just the fact that we could make something like a horror movie, but make it interactive and repeatable. It was something we had never seen before. We totally thought it was awesome when we made it happen. We were like, ‘That was awesome! Let’s make it cooler.’ So we kept amping it up.”
Guns almost weren’t the weapon of choice for Romero and his collaborators, who wanted a game that was fast and mimicked the action scenes of Hollywood blockbusters.
“We made two first-person shooters before we made ‘Wolfenstein’ that were not good,” Romero says. “We were still exploring what is fun to do in first person. Rescuing scientists? Using a tank to kill monsters? Shooting fireballs at orcs? Finally settling on World War II weapons just gave us better feedback and sound effects and everything than the other stuff did. It just feels better when you’re holding a weapon.”
But is it healthy?
“It’s super cathartic,” Romero says. “It’s a totally different kind of entertainment. It’s unique. When do you ever play against friends and call them the worst names ever and you’re just joking and having fun?”
Of course, what started as fun and, well, games among a group of gore-hungry young dudes has now overtaken an entire industry. And this has led to cringe-worthy moments for the still-growing medium. At this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, the trade show that is arguably the industry’s biggest close-up, most mainstream titles emphasized kill-or-be-killed gameplay, be it the realistic grit of WW1 in “Battlefield 1,” a zombie bloodbath in “Days Gone” or the gruesome creatures of “Gears of War 4.”
Business as usual, sure, but this year’s E3 occurred just days after the massacre at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub that left 49 people dead. Violence surrounds us, in our digital worlds and in our real one, and suddenly it felt like too much. Even the supposedly still-coming virtual reality revolution is adding gun-like peripherals, just in case it wasn’t clear that your virtual avatar is indeed holding a gun.
There is, however, a growing nuance to many video games. The independent movement, in particular, brings us risk-taking titles almost weekly. Games such as “Gone Home,” “Prison Architect,” “Firewatch” and “Oxenfree” explore serious — and often emotional — terrain. Gun-based titles aren’t excluded. This year’s “Uncharted 4,” for instance, turns a film interactive and uses violence as a metaphor to explore larger themes of addiction and commitment.
And while politicians or cultural watchdogs like to single out video games as a motivating factor for real-world violence, Romero doesn’t buy it.
“People love playing video games with guns because target practice is really fun when you hit the target,” he says. “You know that what you’re doing in a game isn’t real. It’s a fantasy. We didn’t look at it like, ‘We shouldn’t make this.’ What we thought was, ‘Why would we stop?’ Nobody was conflicted. We were not religious. We were just making entertainment that we hadn’t seen before and we totally loved.”
And games aren’t just toys, he says.
“It’s an art form,” he continues. “It’s artistic expression. It’s a form of entertainment. People know that’s what entertainment is.”
While Romero concedes that not every game player wants “crazy first-person shooters,” recent releases show the genre is at least attempting overtures to new audiences. Or maybe shooters are just getting better at winning over the unconverted.
There are still military-esque blowouts — the aforementioned “Battlefield 1” and a sequel to “Titanfall” among them — but they’re no longer the norm. Today, the star of the genre is “Overwatch,” the team-based shooter whose tone is more “Guardians of the Galaxy” than urban warfare.
When we made it happen, we were like, ‘That was awesome! Let’s make it cooler.’ So we kept amping it up.
— Legendary game designer John Romero on the creation of first-person shooters
Outlandish characters are the center of the show — there are cowboys, robots, Grim Reapers and even a woman who has the power to alter weather. All of them come with individual weapons and a smile.
And though I still prefer to play with the chat functions off — strangers, in shooters, aren’t always the most hospitable of folks — I’m charmed every time “Overwatch” drops me into a game map that’s set in a cartoonish version of Hollywood Boulevard.
Lesson learned: Diverse characters — and space guerrillas — make a shooter more palatable to the uninitiated. “Overwatch,” instead of anger or fear, emphasizes silliness.
And then there’s “Superhot.”
“Superhot” may not like you. The game may not even like first-person shooters, as it completely upends the idea of what they’re supposed to do. Instead of quick reflexes and fast action, “Superhot” places a premium on stillness. Time, in the game, only moves when the player moves, allowing bullets to linger in mid-air.
With its security camera-like cuts and abstract figures — enemies are red blurs that shatter like fine porcelain — “Superhot” imagines a frightening future in which everyone is a fragile, anonymous target.
And it taunts. Are video games too violent? “Superhot” answers the question by implying it’s too late to close this Pandora’s box. Midway through the game, the following statement flashes on the screen: “Try to disconnect.”
Some battles have already been lost.
On Twitter: @toddmartens
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