This is the second of three posts about the Animators’ Roundtable discussion at the Game Developer’s Conference this year.
So why are shooter games so popular, if people don’t actually want to experience the sensation of killing? I tend to understand things through analogy and personal anecdote, so I’m going to frame my thoughts in that way, rather than try to sound like a bad social psychology journal article. I think most of us, and by ‘us’ I mean especially males, enjoyed competitive group play as kids. I don’t mean sports — we have to be drilled and trained to enjoy sports. Few children start playing sports on their own; it’s almost always under gentle pressure from an adult. I mean instead the kind of ad hoc, free-form kids’ games that often involve some form of attack and defense, like freeze tag or capture the flag. Children also love inventing games that involve role playing. These two types of play are wired into us, in the same way puppies play-fight, and kittens play stalking games.
My family moved around a lot when I was young, and the most popular outside game throughout much of my childhood, in multiple locations, was what we simply called ‘playing guns’ or ‘playing army.’ We would get our toy guns (or use a baseball bat as a bazooka if your parents wouldn’t let you have a toy gun), divide up, and head out in opposite directions. And then you would stalk and hunt and attack each other, sounding out your own gun fire, and demanding that your ambushing enemy fall dead when you had gotten the drop on them. “Bam, bam bam, you’re dead!” In winter, we used snow balls as grenades, and keeping score was easier. As we got older, laser tag and paintball became popular, since they were the same thing, except now it was cool to play a child’s game as a young adult.
Having mock gun battles occupied hundreds of hours of my childhood. It was free form, competitive, exciting, and utterly natural. While it was fun playing with toy soldiers and G.I. Joes, actually being out there, role-playing, was much more fun. And it was bloodless, so bloodlust was not even a consideration. When you ‘killed’ somebody, you had bested them, and protected yourself and your team, but it had nothing to do with violence or causing pain and death. This was not Lord of the Flies, and if someone actually got hurt the game was ruined. It was thrilling to belly crawl along a ditch, or sprint from bush to bush, not knowing if one of your enemies was just ahead, ready to ambush you, before you could spot and ‘shoot’ them. When the battle was over, you started again, or went and got some popsicles if it was hot.
Which calls up another appeal to this form of play – camaraderie and social connectedness. Even though the nature of the game was based on what appeared to be emulating extreme violence, the actual play connected us, and gave us common ground (really important when you’re the new kid on the block).
I get similar satisfactions when I play a well-designed FPS game. Working through a hostile, unknown game environment is like being Carlos Castaneda’s warrior: “In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.” It’s exhilarating and satisfying, playing the role of futuristic Marine or samurai or resourceful scientist, and hunting and being hunted. And it’s even more fun doing it with others, even over the internet, even with allied non-player characters.
This excellent New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova nicely describes the pleasurable and self-reinforcing feeling of ‘flow’ that one gets when playing a good FPS. ‘Playing army’ and playing Half Life 2 and being in primal warrior mode are all about agency and emotionally-charged decision making. And the ‘scoring’ couldn’t be simpler, for those who like scores.
And as John Carmack showed, this kind of game play works well in computer games. It’s not just the ease of programming the physics of ballistic weapons and the clarity of the shooting mechanism, not the simplicity of the NPC artificial intelligence. The GDC Animators’ Roundtable discussion on this subject wasn’t to demonstrate that there won’t be successful FPS games in VR. It’s a game form that works. But the people in the discussion realized that the things that VR brings to the table are probably not things that will make FPS games more pleasurably immersive.
As VR shooter games are adapted to work within virtual reality space (which will likely require finding a way to avoid much ambulating), they will likely have to avoid being too real or too claustrophobic. I recall Gabe Newell saying that the exact same scene from Half Life 2, one that is pretty frightening in the original game, becomes extremely frightening in VR, to the point of being intolerable for some people. You need to dial back the number of demons, and not let them get as close. The enemies, and the killing, will likely need to be more stylized, too. But I don’t think ‘shooting NPCs’ will be a fundamentally different experience in VR, at least when done successfully.
If shooter games will need to be designed so that they don’t overwhelm players with a realistic and nauseating sense that they’re actually killing, then what’s the next big thing now that we have functional gaming VR? And what can animators bring to VR that in some way scratches the itch that shooting NPCs has scratched in non-VR shooter games?
Hmmmm . . . what if the NPCs aren’t trying to kill us? What if they actually have not just physical but behavioral presence within the scene?