Every so often a games comes along that is so revolutionary that it inadvertently kills its genre as everyone scrambles to replicate its success. For shooters, that game was Epic’s 2006 shooter Gears of War. As covered in Tom Bissell’s excellent book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski re-imagined the shooter genre as one of chaos and fear. Where big meaty soldiers would still feel vulnerable when faced with the onslaught of enemy fire chipping away at concrete mere inches from their face. In short, Gears of War wanted to change the old nature of “war is horrible, but isn’t this fun?!” with “war is terrifying for even the most macho of soldiers, but doesn’t it make you feel alive?” It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. Shooters were no longer about catharsis – or rather they weren’t just about catharsis: they had to instil a feeling of vulnerability.
That’s fine for some games (it worked for Gears), but it shifted the pulse of the genre’s single-player side from the free-wheeling escapist fantasies of the original Doom into the the Michael Bay style of excess by default. How many ‘splosions can we have? Can we cram more NPCs into this battle? Is this shootout “cinematic” enough?
Ironically, this focus on excess took away from the freeform interactive thrills that made the genre popular. Soon, the lion’s share of shooters would look exciting, but in terms of interactivity they’d became increasingly content to let players cower behind cover while scripted series of enemies would filter in following the same familiar patterns. No matter how rousing the surface details were, the bulk of shooters in the last decade came down to cautiously popping in and out of cover.