Part Two: Serious Realism
So, we’re stuck in the late nineties. We’re hearing all of this chatter about “evolution” and “breaking out” and “innovation”. It’s not surprising that when we firmly plant our feet in 1998, we find what is perhaps the greatest year in the history of the video game business. I bid you luck in trying to comprehend how consumers toyed with their money on November 30th, when StarCraft: Brood War, Starsiege: Tribes, Thief: The Dark Project, and Baldur’s Gate were all released on the same day. Of course, that assumes consumers weren’t fully absorbed in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which was released nine days prior. But if you didn’t own a Nintendo 64, you were likely too busy with another game that went to market on November 19th. At the time, nobody thought much of it. Then people played it. Video games changed forever. The game was Half-Life.
Describing the achievements of Half-Life to newer audiences is kind of like explaining to Family Guy fans how The Simpsons revolutionized cartoons by airing a dysfunctional family, pop-culture name-drops, and nonsensical sight gags in a prime time network slot. On first glance, Half-Life looks quite ordinary. It features ordinary shooting with ordinary gunplay and ordinary weapons. Don’t get me wrong, the enemy design was fantastic. The artificial intelligence was also fantastic for its time. However, Half-Life was never a difficult game and never bothered to try and be one. It was rather contrary to the shooters of the time. So why do we discuss this landmark title in awestruck tones? All goes back to what we discussed earlier: When you remove a game mechanic or de-emphasize a skill required to master a game or genre, you add something back. Half-Life forfeitted a punishing difficulty level and eliminated superhuman feats of strength, limiting its platforming elements to what an ordinary scientist like Gordon Freeman could accomplish. In its place, Half-Life told a story. Yeah, shooters have been telling stories since their inception. Wolfenstein 3-D had a pretty good one: Hitler is an asshole, shoot him. It was the way that Half-Life told its story.
Half-Life did things that had never been done before. The game used clever level design tricks (dressing the end of one level with the same architecture as the beginning of another and then conjoining them) to present the illusion of a gigantic science facility that was only separated by short loading times. Yeah, the levels in 1996’s Strife were connected through an overworld and Doom level creators were managing very similar concepts. Half-Life did it on a scope that nobody had ever matched before, a scope firmly established by Half-Life‘s now-famous opening introduction.* It’s pretty simple: Valve did “gigantic hub world” better. Up next, the company took a genre that was obsessed with the power of the individual and instead focused on his or her vulnerability. Previous shooters put you by your lonesome and told you to kick some ass; Half-Life told you to go out and simply survive. Everything was out to kill you: Aliens from another dimension, military special ops forces, radioactive waste, shoddy building engineering. To make it out alive, the player had to maneuver through narrow ventilation shafts (a practice that spawned nightmares for millions of players who didn’t see that Headcrab in the dark) and perform tight-rope platforming acts across decaying structures.
Games like Doom and Quake moved ridiculously fast, making their game worlds feel rather small. Half-Life encouraged you to think about every step, making the Black Mesa Research Facility seem outright gigantic. In the genre that had always emphasized the untouchable power of the individual, Half-Life was at least as much survival-horror as Resident Evil 5. (You can make your own opinion of what the Resident Evil 5 comparison is worth.) Half-Life then bridged these elements with a storyline driven by the rumors and hearsay of fellow terrified survivors, a series of plot devices and storytelling mechanics presented in real-time and without interruption from cutscenes. And by presenting weapons and items to players at logical points in the game (where you get access to machine guns by killing military personnel, secure additional ammunition by destroying supply crates, and regain your health with conveniently-located wall units scattered throughout the facility), there was no chance of “weird item placement” reminding the player that, you know, he was playing a video game. Half-Life did it all, and it all worked.
How does that sell shooters to console gamers, anyway? Well, are we forgetting what the biggest game of 1997 was? It was Final Fantasy VII, a three-disc epic that was built, presented, and sold to consumers as though it was a major motion picture. Years after the Japanese Role-Playing Game established itself on sixteen-bit consoles as a preferred means for video game storytelling, the genre broke out in the West with assistance from “production values”. Little did the industry know that even as Final Fantasy was firmly establishing itself as the most popular ticket on the Sony PlayStation, Half-Life was the beginning of the end for the JRPG in the West. It would convince Western gamers that the “body count” genres (and their superior combat systems) were every bit as capable of compelling narrative. Western developers would quickly realize this and respond with mainstay franchises like Grand Theft Auto, God of War, and Assassin’s Creed.
But Half-Life came at a significant cost to the first-person shooter genre. When the id Software team was working on Doom, Romero and Carmack noted that the level design of co-worker Sandy Petersen was hideous. But the boys didn’t give a crap. It played well. On contrast, Tom Hall’s realistic military design was outright rejected by Carmack and Romero. (Hall was torn by the event and it would go a long way towards his departure from id Software.)* Carmack and Romero understood that “Does the level play well?” was the first question to ask. Half-Life marked the beginning of a shooter market where narrative drove mission structure. In order for this to happen, warehouses needed to look like warehouses and urban environments needed to look like urban environments. In creating that compelling narrative, abstract level design began to fade out of existence. And thus, developers lost a valuable tool in the creation of good level design.
That’s not to say that “realistic level design” is a hopeless endeavor. Even as Half-Life rewrote the rules, its level design was fantastic, presenting the player with not-so-obvious progression points and teasing the player at every turn. You know, those “Dammit, the exit is behind that cage. How do I get back there?” moments. For the rest of the video game industry, “narrative-driven single player” became a mixed bag. Back in 1996, Descent II was the embodiment of the arcade-style first-person shooter, emphasizing high scores and bizarrely-designed levels with even more conviction than its predecessor. It didn’t try to focus on its paper-thin plot. Come 1999, Descent 3 attempted to make sense of that plot, exchanging colored key cards for a ridiculous storyline and a plot twist that even a six-year-old could have seen coming. That game still played well because Descent enemy and weapon design was still quite varied and plenty capable of making up for sloppy level design. But “WE NEEDS STORYLINEZ!!1” even caught up with the guys at id Software, as 2004’s Doom 3 was envisioned itself as a slower, narrative-driven retelling of the events in the 1993 original. And even as Doom 3 sold millions, its boring level design (most memorable for its jump scares, a practice that even Resident Evil had begun to abandon) and de-emphasis on large-scale carnage yielded perhaps the most disappointing computer game of the last decade. As time passed, “good level design” would almost exclusively become the domain of multiplayer shooters, where arenas still needed to entertain the most talented players. Today, single-player level design has become so fruitless that even when 2011’s Bulletstorm advertised itself as a departure from military-themed shooters, the game’s level design turned out to be no more advanced than 1984’s gallery shooter Hogan’s Alley. (That’s not to say Bulletstorm was bad. I enjoyed it. But the level design was crap. True story.)
So console developers got their blueprint for narrative. All they had to do was find that special shooter subgenre that could work well with a controller. Let’s head back in time five months before the release of Half-Life. A company by the name of Red Storm Entertainment was cutting checks as the developer of video games based on the Tom Clancy series of novels, a tale of sabotage and espionage that will never end because Tom Clancy is a dimensional vortex where the free market prevails. Red Storm decided to try their hand at the first-person shooter with a game based on the upcoming Tom Clancy book Rainbow Six. And, for lack of a better name, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six was born. What Half-Life would do for narrative, Rainbow Six would accomplish for shooting mechanics.
Rainbow Six belied a cardinal rule of game design: It’s always more important to create a game that’s fun than it is to create a game that’s realistic. But it turned out that realistic games could be fun, too! Realism, bitches! Rainbow Six would be all ’bout realism. The game was built around a number of special ops scenarios. The player’s goal? Direct and manage numerous squads (i.e. more than one squad) of good guys. This made the planning phase just as important as the execution. The hallmarks of the modern shooter were in full force: Players would have to line up their shot (or suffer a loss of accuracy) while carefully navigating rooms and covering every angle with a level of patience. They would have to choose their weapons before the fight began. But most importantly, Red Storm Entertainment made a subtle design decision: They acknowledged that bullets hurt like hell. One good shot from a pistol (a weapon long portrayed in the genre as a popsicle stick in a sword fight) was all you needed to take down a target. Goodbye, rocket launcher. Goodbye, railgun. Goodbye, one-man armies. Rainbow Six forced players to cooperate and employ semi-realistic urban warfare tactics to get the one-up on opposing forces. Teamwork, bitches. All ’bout teamwork. Along with 1998’s Delta Force, the tactical shooting genre would pretty much inspire the state of modern shooters as we know them. Keyword: Inspire. Rainbow Six was too slow and too patient for a wide audience. The tactical shooter has become a niche product, the torch best carried by the United States Military’s own tactical shooter America’s Army. Rainbow Six fans haven’t even been able to coax Ubisoft into developing a spiritual successor to the 1998 classic. The company is apparently more interested in using Tom Clancy video games to recreate the “Exciting Arcade Action!™” present in Halo and Call of Duty. So Rainbow Six, “some game”, modern shooter. What game was the intermediary that would inspire the combat in console shooters?
Well, there’s a much greater range of options than I’ve been letting on to. Doom didn’t simply take the first-person shooter concept into the mainstream. It didn’t merely popularize the concept of multiplayer deathmatches. It also legitimized the concept of custom content creation. Doom level creation wasn’t simply limited to different shades of map design. Entire overhauls of the graphics, monsters, and weapons became stunningly commonplace. Wanted to play Aliens? Somebody had you set. Wanted to shoot Barney the Dinosaur in the face? You were covered. That’s not to say every mod was a ripoff of somebody else’s intellectual property; totally original and spectacular campaigns such as Memento Mori and Osiris got in on the “custom graphics” fun as well. Come 2000, content creation had become such an important part of the purchasing process that consumers developed the expectation of easy-to-manipulate game files. In the eyes of many people, they weren’t buying a video game, they were buying a game engine. Thanks to the client-server online gaming model, players could host their custom multiplayer content independently of a company-run centralized server. All the playing audience required was a legitimate product key. Valve would profit in droves from the philosophy. They embraced “This map is fun. Let’s give him a job!” better than any other company on the market. Amongst others, the amateur creators of 1996’s Quake mod Team Fortress found employment with Valve. The Team Fortress creators would whip up a commercial version of the game in 1999, and its success would ultimately yield a million-selling sequel in 2007. It was a wonderful work environment for talented amateur developers. It’s not much of a surprise that another Half-Life mod would light computer video games on fire.
Let’s go ahead and put it this way: If Rainbow Six was John Madden Football, with its intricate plays, strategic element, and incredible detail for the sport, then 2000’s Counter-Strike was NFL Blitz, with first down and ten headshots to go. Team deathmatches had been around for years. Team Fortress and Starsiege: Tribes built an entire legacy around the idea, but nobody did team deathmatch quite like Counter-Strike. The Half-Life mod had a different way of going about winning and losing. It was a simple concept: Democrats vs. Republicans. That is, terrorists vs. counter-terrorists. The goal? Depends on the mission. The most popular game type is known as “Bomb Defusal”, so popular with its player base (and the competitive scene) that we might as well discuss the game type as though it’s the only game mode. In that mode, the objective is to win as many rounds as possible. There’s three ways to win a round: Wipe the other team out, successfully plant a bomb as part of the terrorist team, or successfully defuse that bomb as a member of the counter-terrorists. Unlike most games in the genre, death acted as a penalty box. When the round ended, you went back into the field of play. But like Rainbow Six, it was atypical of most shooters in that you would purchase your armaments on a round-by-round basis. In a multiplayer shooter, this added a particularly interesting element of strategy, allowing the player to customize his playstyle in order to better suit the situation.
When 1991’s Street Fighter revolutionized competitive video games, it attracted an audience dissimilar to video gaming’s nerd stereotype. Nerds still got their kicks, sure. But it was definitely a game that the jocks could channel their roid rage into. What Street Fighter did for competitive versus play, Counter-Strike would do for competitive team-based multiplayer. At the time of its public release, Counter-Strike was merely hugely anticipated and hugely popular. It’s not hard to see why. Sure, previous shooters had all kinds of “party game” appeal to them, but they typically involved friends getting together and beating the crap out of each other. Counter-Strike was different. In this game, that social aspect was critical for accomplishing victory. Players would have to run plays and alert their teammates to incoming danger. You had offense, you had defense, you had short-and-long-term strategy, and players had to work as a team in order to execute. And if you got to experience the thrill of victory, you got to experience that thrill with your teammates; your friends. Guess what? Counter-Strike was virtual sports. The game allowed the people who grew up playing team sports to continue getting the rush. That had a demographic appeal that previous shooters didn’t have. Sure, Counter-Strike players get mad at each other and stab and beat their adversaries, but at least they aren’t nerds, right?***
Most elite-caliber Counter-Strike players are the kinds of guys who once excelled in youth sports but washed out at higher levels of competition. Counter-Strike is for athletes too old for the JV team and not good enough to make varsity. So they get their competitive fix where they can, in e-sports.
Tr1p was too small for hockey, Warden too stocky for soccer. Punkville had a knee injury in football. Moto and Rambo both excelled in roller hockey, and ShaGuar was a skilled Little League pitcher who ruined his elbow throwing curveballs at too young an age. Now Counter-Strike is their substitute.
Michael Kane’s Game Boys, Pages 45-46*
Shortly after the public release of Counter-Strike, then-thirty-year-old pizza parlor owner Frank Nuccio got his buddies together for a night of Counter-Strike. Unlike most of the people associated with the practice of all-night video gaming, Nuccio had played sports when he was a child. He immediately realized it: Counter-Strike was the digital equivalent of sports. He figured that this game could be a hell of a lot of fun. All somebody would have to do is codify a set of established rules for the new sport. Nuccio did exactly that. He took his knowledge of professional sports and developed the ground rules for Counter-Strike. Hockey has five offensive players on the ice at any given time. Therefore, Counter-Strike will take place between teams of five. An originally-popular seven-versus-seven format for competitive Counter-Strike proved too crowded and ultimately faded from competition. Five was enough players to emphasize teamwork while giving star players room to shine. Nuccio attached his model to a league called Domain of Games and divided his sixteen-team league into two conferences, using the “two points for wins, one point for tie” system used by the National Hockey League at the time. It worked. Nuccio was lauded as a genius by gamers, most of whom didn’t understand that he had simply copied professional hockey. By the next year, Domain of Games was absorbed by the Cyberathlete Professional League and renamed the Cyberathlete Amateur League. By 2004, the CAL had 200,000 Counter-Strike players under registration. Yes, 200,000 people signed up to play in a league format. To this day, Counter-Strike is the most internationally-popular competitive video game in the history of the medium, finding a level of worldwide success not even professional StarCraft could match.*
To make all of that happen, Counter-Strike did a couple of things that team shooters hadn’t bothered to do. For years and years, deathmatch had become increasingly complicated. Counter-Strike simplified offense. The game isolated its weapons into classes, forcing the player to select a primary weapon (a shotgun, rifle, or machine gun) and a pistol to go with grenades and a knife. Proper use of those weapons in the correct situations was a must, but Counter-Strike was a stern rebuttal of the days of juggling four and five weapons, a skill critical to mastering Quake or Unreal Tournament. In conjunction with a paper-thin health tally, the player was forced to use both cover and his teammates to get good shots at the opponent. Counter-Strike derived its depth from two simple concepts: Offense would become “shoot the guy in the head”; defense to “don’t stick your head out from behind that wall”. The dodges and double-jumps that had come to define the genre were predictably absent. In the deathmatch shooter days, making opponents miss was just as critical a skill as proper aim. What did this mean for Counter-Strike? It meant that one man couldn’t dominate a match at its highest levels of play. Counter-Strike simply wasn’t designed for it. If one player walked into a gunfight with two opponents, it usually meant picking off one man before the other tagged him. In order to win the game, players would have to rely on their teammates and coordinate their actions efficiently. In order to establish a different skill set, Counter-Strike was ultimately a simpler game (i.e. containing fewer game rules) than the shooters that had preceded it.
In other words, console gaming devtopia found their model.
Continue to Part Three: Xboxification