Modern shooters and the atrophy of fun


— 9:07 AM on April 5, 2013

I finished BioShock Infinite last weekend. It's probably one of the best shooters I've ever played.

I loved the cleverness of the storyline, the expressiveness of the characters, and the unique beauty of the graphics. I loved how the game got so immersive that, during late-night sessions, I almost felt like I really was fighting my way through Columbia—like I really was trying to tear a young woman named Elizabeth from the clutches of her fanatical, despotic father.

I loved everything about BioShock Infinite. Except for the gameplay.

Don't get me wrong. The exploration was great. Watching the story unfold was incredible. But the combat and looting got so repetitive—so downright boring—that I couldn't stand to play more than a couple hours at a time. I got sick of digging through trashcans inexplicably filled with silver coins and of fighting wave after wave of enemies, each one more indistinguishable than the last. The combat sequences blurred together, ran into one another, and I found myself praying for them to end, hoping that I could proceed without playing hi-fi wack-a-mole with steampunk guns and angry crows.

So why is BioShock Infinite one of my favorite shooters? Because the others are just as bad, if not worse.

Since the days of Doom and Quake, we've seen shooters take quantum leaps in graphics, writing, voice acting, and just about everything else—except for gameplay. Somehow, gameplay hasn't evolved. It hasn't gotten more fun or more engaging or more interesting. Instead, it's atrophied into a bland rut, to the point where big-budget shooters feel just like old light-gun arcade games (Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, and so on). Players are still stuck on rails, still made to gun down easy target after easy target, pausing only to reload and to watch cut scenes. Today's visuals and stories might be Oscar-worthy, but the interactivity still feels like tasteless filler.

Shooters could be so much more. Instead of trivializing combat, they could make fights less frequent, longer, and more memorable. They could reward players for acting rationally when outnumbered—hide, flee, or die. Shooters could, when appropriate, encourage problem-solving and exploration over brute force. Hell, why couldn't they have players decide how the story plays out? But no, that's all too much to ask. Studios and publishers seem to have forgotten that games are supposed to be games, not CG films with playable action scenes.

Things weren't always this way. I have very fond memories of System Shock 2, BioShock Infinite's spiritual pre-predecessor. I remember desperately scrounging for ammo, cowering in fear from even lone mutants, since I knew a fight might leave me badly wounded—and the noise might attract other creatures. I recall sneaking past enemies and reprogramming turrets to dispatch them so that I wouldn't lose precious health or bullets in combat. I can still recall the satisfaction I felt when, later in the game, I finally had enough upgrades to gun down monsters in one shot.

In System Shock 2, each enemy encounter was an event: memorable, frightening, dangerous, and sometimes exhilarating. Getting lost in the corridors of the Von Braun was part of the game, and it made the experience all the more immersive. There was a real sense that you, the player, had to use your own cunning and skill and sense of orientation to survive. Because of that, beating the game felt like a true achievement, and it made you want to start all over again. Nothing about it felt like watching a bad Michael Bay flick.

System Shock 2's formula should have been spread far and wide and polished to a mirror shine by now. But instead, after 14 long years, that formula has been largely forgotten. 

Source: GOG.com.

There's nothing dangerous or memorable about BioShock Infinite's gameplay. While players must still hunt for ammo, combat is so frequent that bullets are strewn everywhere, and picking them up feels like a chore rather than a relief. The anguish of an empty gun is nowhere to be found, either. Elizabeth replenishes your ammo supply during combat, and when things go south, dying causes you to be magically teleported to a safe location with spare magazines in your pockets. There's no longer any danger. Skill and cunning aren't really rewarded anymore.

Not even the game's "vigors" manage to spice up combat. Most of them basically do the same thing: stall bad guys for a few seconds and inflict a small amount of damage. Using a vigor at the right time can mean the difference between a cleared battlefield and a forced resurrection, but there's nothing hugely satisfying about the process. It just adds more steps to the tedium of depleting each enemy spawn point.

The most depressing thing about BioShock Infinite, though, is that it's actually one of the more original shooters out there. Compared to the endlessly multiplying Call of Duty clones, its gameplay is textured and tinged with depth and variety. While I was able to beat BioShock Infinite and derive pleasure from the experience, I've had to stop myself from playing war-themed shooters altogether. Their single-player campaigns are just awful. The last one I bothered to finish was Battlefield 3, and I hated everything about it.

I'm not sure who or what to blame. Maybe this is all an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Maybe game studios are so intent on catering to brain-dead 14-year-olds with Xbox 360s that they've lost sight of what makes games fun. If that's the case, then there may be little hope. It's entirely possible that the next crop of consoles will bring us unimaginably pretty games with sugar-free, decaffeinated gameplay that's as boring as ever. That would be even more soul-crushing than BioShock Infinite's failings.

Our only hope is that, eventually, even 14-year-olds will get sick of playing the same game over and over. They'll start to clamor for better games, where interactivity involves more than just pointing and aiming. And game developers will deliver. It might seem unlikely, but I remember being 14 quite well. It was around the time System Shock 2 came out, and I didn't toss that game aside for something with more instant gratification. I dug in, and I loved it.

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