The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day 13: First-Person Shooter Games

Old Man’s War is my most famous novel to this point and one of the things that people like about it is that its structure and tone angles back to the “golden age” of science fiction — the review of the novel that Tor plasters on the paperback cover proclaims it reads like a Robert Heinlein original, which is about as “golden age” as you can get. The observation is true; the book reads like “golden age” writing because I like that style and I wanted more of it, and if no one else was going to do it the way I liked it I was going to have to do it myself. But there’s another, very significant and much more modern, influence on its storytelling as well: First person shooter video games.

Before I get there I have to explain a little bit about why I like first person shooter video games more than any other type of video game. The first reason: I use video games for recreation and when I do that, I don’t want to have to do a lot of thinking. I’m glad people like strategy games and role playing games and all the other sort of games that make you engage your brain to keep track of inventories or whether your Sims are happy with you as the mayor, or whether you need to go to war with the Hittites or whatever. Enjoy that.  What I want to do is be moving and kinetic and shoot lots of things and have things explode and have discrete missions that have a beginning, middle and end and don’t make me think all that hard because, dude, that’s what I do all the rest of the day. I’d rather headshoot a zombie than build a civilization.

The second reason: First person is far more immersive for me than the games in which the player is represented by an entity onscreen, whether it’s a person or a spacecraft of a ball of goo or whatever. When I play a video game, I don’t really want to play as Mario or Lara Croft or Desmond Miles or Niko Bellic or whomever. I want to play as me. Now, in first person games you’re still often supposed to be someone else, like Gordon Freeman or Master Chief or Chelle. But in point of fact you’re playing the game from the point of view of you — eye level with no object in the way of interfacing with and navigating through the game world. The characters can call me Gordon Freeman all they want; I know I’m me.

This makes a huge perceptual difference. Things are more exciting when they are happening to you and not some representation on the screen; the scares are scarier, the accomplishments more satisfying, the frustrations much more frustrating. I fully grant that some games and some game genres are better in something other than first person, but generally speaking, as noted, those games are less interesting to me because of it. I think of it this way. It’s the difference between remote control piloting an X-Wing, and being in the cockpit yourself. When it comes time to descend into the Death Star trench, where do you really want to be?

Back in the day, first person shooters were not necessarily known for their stories — early versions like Doom and Quake and Descent were all about the shooting, killing, occasionally finding keys and getting the hell out of the dungeon — but it’s a mistake to see them as being storyless, and it’s also a mistake to suggest there was not effective storytelling. The original Half-Life in 1997 was famously scripted by an accomplished novelist, Marc Laidlaw, who rolled out the story as the game progressed, for example. Other first person shooters of the era also tried their hand at telling a full, compelling tale as the player went along; two that stick out in my mind were Clive Barker’s Undying and Requiem: Avenging Angel, not to mention System Shock 2, which scared the living crap out of me at the time. These days it’s more unusual for a shooter not to have a story than to have one, and these stories are often as engaging as any you’ll find in a novel — not in the least because game studios are now frequently following Valve’s lead and hiring science fiction novelists to plot out their stories.

So when it came time for me to write Old Man’s War, what did first-person shooters teach me as a storyteller? First, to keep the story first person — I wanted readers to be looking through John Perry’s eyes the whole time and feel like what was happening to him was happening to them. I didn’t want them to be standing over his shoulder and having an opportunity to distance themselves from what he was going through. It’s not to say that third person storytelling can’t be effective — note The Ghost Brigades was third person, in part because I wanted the separation between the reader and Jared, the main character — but for their first time in my universe, I wanted my readers to be immersed in it exactly as much as John Perry was, to feel what he was feeling.

Second, to keep things moving, and to make each chapter its own “level” — that is, to have each chapter have its own achievable goal even as it led through to the overall story development and plot climax. Essential information and equipment is doled out when necessary, exposition kept to a minimum and always in the service of keeping the reader moving through the story, and any chance of letting people get sidetracked kept to a minimum, lest they wander off and get bored. This way — and as with good level design in a shooter — every chapter had its own little payoff, and at the end of each John Perry (and by extension, the reader looking through his eyes) “leveled up” in some way. Not every story has to be told this way — that would get boring, fast — but it sure worked for what I wanted Old Man’s War to do.

The more observant of you will note that the fundamentals of storytelling in FPS games are not actually that much different than what is often suggested for novels, and you would be correct about that. But I do think first-person shooter storytelling, when it’s working, boils these precepts down into a highly concentrated form that has more of a visceral impact. In regard to how it applies to Old Man’s War, it helped to bring a modern sense of narrative propulsion to the “golden age” format I was working in. Indeed, you could say that in this particular storytelling argument, the thesis was a Heinlein-like story, the antithesis was first-person shooter narrative dynamics, and the synthesis was Old Man’s War. Hegel would be proud, and I suspect excellent at headshots.

(I’ll note also that OMW gave me an opportunity to fix one thing that really bugs me about first person shooters, which is characters walking around with a ton of weapons and ammo and still able to, you know, move. From this kvetch came the MP-35, which thanks to advanced nanobot technology could give you all the benefits of a rifle, a shotgun, a grenade and rocket launcher, a flame thrower and a particle beam weapon, all in a single piece of armament! And yet FPS characters are still walking about with 43,000 weapons on them. Sigh.)

I’ve noted before that one of my goals before I leave this planet is to write a video game myself. Specifically, I want to write a first person shooter, because I think it would be cool, and because I think there are certain things I could bring into the storytelling, from the novel world, that aren’t there now (or more accurately, I suppose, which I have not seen yet). Dear game makers: You know where I am. Call me.

In the meantime, I’m thankful to first person shooters, not only for helping me write the novel that put me on the map, but also for giving me a way, at the end of the day, to shut off my brain, run around and shoot the crap out of everything I see.

Speaking of which, I’m off now. Those zombies aren’t going to shoot themselves, you know.

102 thoughts on “The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day 13: First-Person Shooter Games

  1. I feel kinda bad about this, because I’m the exact sort of personality who should totally adore FPSes, and I hate ‘em. The controls are always too sloppy, the “your character’s head is a steadicam” gives me motion sickness, you can never turn you neck, and of course the kids always have some kind of urgent* need right where I am at the point that an interruption means starting the frack over from the beginning.

    *”Urgent” defined as something like “Mom, have you seen my Sliver deck?” or “My brother is bugging me!” rather than, say, “The house is on fire”.

  2. I have an addiction to Call Of Duty. I “prestiged” ten times. Those familiar with the game will know thats about as addicted to the game as anyone can get. there is definitely a lot of ‘not thinking’ involved. The other game that would suck me in was Civilization, and that was all thinking. as for story telling, meh, COD has the flimsiest backdrop “story” when playing the game offline/single player and absolutely no story when playing online. … the only other thing that feels like it shoukd be pointed out is this: COD and just about every other FPS game I have ever tried is about is to realistic portrayal of war or even of simple weapons logistics the way “trickle down economics” is a good demonstration of human compassion. … unfortunately, FPS are always designed for “playability” where playability is defined by a group of 13 year old’s idea of what they would like combat to look like. i.e. they usually run across open fields with no cover, and a single hand to hand attack is fatal, whereas a Barrett 50 might requirw two shots to kill. wtf???

  3. I much prefer open world games in which I can control the pace to some extent and wander in and out of plotlines.

    The whole inventory thing has always bugged me as well, but I know it’s there because “gathering loot” tweaks something in a lot of people’s minds that keeps them playing. I suppose someone could get around this by having a changeable weapon you could loot “templates” for that allow you to change it into new weapons. Same thing could be done for armor.

  4. Some of the best and most popular games of the last 15 years or so have had professional writers making sure the story is really good and engaging (Halo, Mass Effect, etc). It’s been a very encouraging trend.

    Maybe you’ll get to make a game based on OMW when the movie comes out. Nowadays it seems to be fairly common to have games made in conjunction with movies. The key will be to make it not suck since a lot of the movie & game combos suck (Transformers comes to mind).

  5. I’ve never played a modern videogame or computer game, except for 5 minutes of some car-racing game once at a Best Buy (involving a blue hotrodded Subaru WRX). If I were 10-20 years younger I would have spent thousands of hours playing them by now, probably.

    As for the title of this post (versus the previous ones in the series): The first thing I thought of was the sudden, sharp-left-turn appearance of the “Live Organ Transplants” chapter heading in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which I’m always happy to be reminded of.

  6. I’ve been a fan of FPSes since Wolfenstein 3D, but have been frustrated by the current crop. Everything is about online these days, but the online communities have gone way downhill in terms of enjoyment for me for whatever reason. That, and that with a few exceptions, to many of the current crop are just wildly derivative and uninteresting. The last single player FPS I played was Resistance 2, and I just got bored. A lot of the “modern” features, like generating health and weapons limited to two make things more boring. This, coupled with the boring stories, just doesn’t do it for me. (How many space marines can we have? How many nuke owning terrorists do we need to stop?)

    Valve certainly helps, though they haven’t given anti-social single player people much love lately.

    When I want to turn off the brain, I lately have been playing [something -- the coding got messed up and swallowed it, sorry Steven - JS] as they make FPSes look slow and strategic.

    I wouldn't expect an OMW game to be any good mostly because those tend to get farmed out to mediocre game studios with limited budgets. I can't think of a single movie tie-in game that was worth anything. Maybe it'd buck the trend, but I wouldn't get my hopes up.

    I do like open world games, not because they make me think but because they suck me in. I got Skyrim two days ago, and if I wasn't fo

  7. Scalzi:

    Have you enjoyed hybrid FPS/roleplaying games like Fallout 3? Something in that vein is how I imagine an OMW-universe game.

  8. OMW as an FPS…

    I’d spend my hard earned cash on it. Then again, I spend my hard earned cash on things I enjoy, and I enjoy your work. This being said, I’d be happy to play any game you wrote the story for. And spend money on it. GAME DEVS, MAKE IT HAPPEN!

  9. I was big on the first 2 Doom & Quake games after a buddy at work convinced to download load the shareware demo from a BBS (yeah, I know. Get off my damn lawn. At least it was a 19,200 bps modem) Soon, my brother & I had set up a LAN at his house so we (plus his 3 sons) could all play together when we got together at Christmas time.

    I got back into PC gaming when Starcraft 2 came out and another buddy at work expressed interest. He then talked me into getting Left 4 Dead and L4D2 and rekindled my interest in FPS games. Now Valve/Steam has a bunch of my money and I have lots of fun playing games of several genres.

    Many PC gamers have been crying lately about how crappy new games are now thanks to ‘those console losers’ as PC hardware far exceeds the performance of the aging PS3 and XBox 360. The reality is, console sales far surpass PC game sales and the developers are all using multiplatform tools to create games. They’re just playing to the money. There are still great games being made for all platforms (though not necessarily across all platforms in the same game).

    @our esteemed host: Try out Hard Reset. It’s a (Russian) Blade Runner-ish game and not very long but you only get 1 weapon but with 3 modes. There’s a demo on Steam. Or get some Team Fortress 2. Also on Steam and Free To Play. The only thing better than killing zombies is offing a @#$% Spy. Plus hats!

    @Greg: If you want an FPS with more brains and realism than CoD, try Red Orchestra: Heroes of Stalingrad. It’s a reasonably historic take on the Battle for Stalingrad in WWII. You play as either a German or Soviet soldier with territorial objectives being more important than kill streaks. It can be hard to find a server to play on at times. Getcha some history that isn’t well known to Americans.

    Gotta give a shout-out to Gabe Newell and his team at Valve. Not only do they put out some great games themselves but they also do a lot for the indie game shops. Thanks to them, there is a growing market for good games for the PC that are above the level of Angry Birds and yet don’t cost you $60 like the console clones.

    @Mythago: I don’t get your point about neck movement. My real world experience is that you should always keep your weapon pointed where you’re looking (in a combat scenario not the firing range) so FPS movement is accurate. What you appear to get is waist rotation in an FPS as you can move in one direction and look in another which seems to me to be a lot more realistic than the on-screen animation of that movement (when you’re watching another player move in your field of view or a replay). You don’t say if you are a PC gamer or a console player. As I have attempted both, PC games can be a lot tighter than the console version of the same game just because the digital W-A-S-D and mouse combo is much more precise than the sloppy analog double joystick or D-pad/joystick of a console controller.

  10. SpiritZeroThree: The only reason hubby bought an Xbox 360 was to play the newest version(s) of Madden. I think Madden X was the last version that was available for PC play, everything since has been console-only. And, given the size of our TV, he gets a bigger “playing surface” than he did on his laptop anyway.

    I never got into FPSes, or the Civ/Sim type games. I dunno if it’s “because I’m a girl”, but shooting things for fun and profit never really did it for me. And there’s too much stuff to keep track of, whether it’s inventory or population or what have you, in either kind of game. If I’m going to turn my brain off, having to keep track of multiple extraneous things in order to “enjoy myself” just isn’t the way to do it.

  11. I dislike FPSs because they reinforce the #1 cause of firearms mishaps: Improper target acquisition and discrimination. OK, the bifocals might have something to do with it, too… as does the major problem of unsympathetic characters. As (with great, no doubt coincidental, timing) a columnist at the Grauniad puts it in his column for this week, “The trouble with videogames isn’t the violence. It’s that most of the characters are dicks.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/13/charlie-brooker-modern-warfare-3
    Besides which, my left brain has no off switch.

  12. Love FPS, but I like tactical stuff too. I’m pretty skeptical of games coming out of movies. My first thought is: ‘cheap of marginal crap only designed to milk a cash cow’.

  13. I tend to get lost in stuff like Tetris and QBert. And lately in replaying (for the 120th time) hidden object games where the objects aren’t in the same place every time you play. Turns my brain off quite nicely.

  14. So!

    #1: You said you liked System Shock 2: – ever played System Shock 1? The graphics and interface are dated, but the story is *much* better and the interface isn’t unplayably terrible. I’m sure we can hook you up with a free copy if you’re interested.

    #2: I remember Way Back When you said you liked Left4Dead but mostly played singleplayer. Do you ever play Left4Dead multiplayer? It’s a much better game with more humans, as long as the other humans aren’t shitheads – and filtering for non-shitheads is surprisingly easy on Steam.

    #3: Do you ever play First-Person Semi-Shooters like Fallout 3/New Vegas or Elder Scrolls 4/5?

  15. I see where you’re coming from.

    Games-wise, there’s one particular series of games that I’m really a fan of called “King’s Field.” The first two were on PS1, and the third on PS2. They’re first-person action RPGs… but basically they play sort of like “Doom” with a sword and some magic spells. Now, the same company, “From Software,” recently put out some spiritual successors called “Demon’s Souls” and “Dark Souls” (which were both highly critically acclaimed), but good as they are, I sometimes wish for the first-person perspective. It really is more immersive.

    But I also tend to like first-person novels. I take Robin Hobb’s “Farseer” and “Tawny Man” trilogies as Exhibits A and B of this. I’m more immersed with first-person stories because it’s the way we *normally* tell stories… because we’re all telling them all the time. We come home from work or school and tell our spouse/son/daughter/parent/friend about our day, a story in which we are the main character. And we don’t tell those stories third-person (well, not unless you’re really an ass). So I’m naturally more caught up in the tale when it feels like someone is actually telling it *to* me, rather than some third-person omniscient narrator jumping around in different people’s heads all the time. Of course, there are plenty of third-person books I do like, but I’ll take first-person as a general preference.

  16. Jennifer Davis Ewing:
    Nerds don’t play sports, even in the virtual world. *big grin* Hence, sports games don’t get ported to PC. Lots of laptops can be plugged into HDTVs now although it would not be the most ergonomic setup. If you have lots of money, a powerful desktop PC and 3 side by side monitors beats the bejeebus out of a 45″ HDTV and a console game. (Like the difference between Blu-Ray & a DVD)

    *You* may be ‘too girlie’ to play video games but there are plenty of ‘gamer chicks’ online nowadays. One place you’re not likely to find many is on Xbox Live due to the incredible number of snot-nosed, over-privileged little 13 year olds (actual age or maturity level) who live just to ruin people’s days. While they’re complete jerks to whoever they play, they reserve a special hate for female players. (And no, they’re not very tolerant of darker skin tones or alternative lifestyles either, if you catch my drift).

    A good game for you might well be Left 4 Dead 2. While you can play it on your XBox (and you may want to rent it or download the demo from XBLA), due to the kiddie problem I’d recommend playing on a PC. It’s not a high-powered game so you may be able to play it on a laptop if you have a fairly recent and powerful one. You may like it because the only thing you have to remember is to NOT shoot your teammates. It’s fairly common to come across females playing L4D2 online. PC gamers are usually much better mannered than the XBox horde. Having a headset and microphone enhances play. (teamwork!) Valve has ported all the maps from the original Left 4 Dead and will be releasing them as DLC soon.

    Little known fact: despite the fact that one of the Survivors is a girl, that’s not always the one who’s a live ‘gamer chick’. ‘Rochelle’ is frequently the best player on the team and the last to join up a new campaign.

    The Lego Universe games are good mindless fun for all ages. They take some classic action-y films (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and Harry Potter) and reimagines them as dialog-less Lego parodies. No surprises (if you’ve seen the movie, you know how it’s going to end) and there is no innovative technology or graphics. Available on PC, PS3 and XBox 360.

    Jaws:
    Civilization V should be right up your alley. Be your favorite historic ruler from nice guy Genghis Khan to that dick George Washington *grin*. Rulers from all the major continents and societies are represented. Warning: one game will take FOREVER but you can stop and save at any time & resume later.

    pezibc:
    By tactical, do you mean games like the Company Of Heroes or Red Orchestra series? (Both are set during WWII) Other co-op games like Borderlands and Portal 2 have tactical elements in that teamwork is much better rewarded than everyone for him/herself.

    Don’t lose hope.Some very creative people are learning new and very innovative ways to share their vision.

    The tools for creating games are getting better and with the money being sunk into them these days the line between a $150 million epic game and $500 million blockbuster movie is starting to get real blurry.

    There’s something called machinima which has been around since Doom & Quake and is basically anime created using a video game. Studios now use digital pre-visualization (storyboarding) before they start making films which can transition right into the final screen output (or a video game) rather easily.

    With all of the CGI going into a modern movie, why wouldn’t the studio want to offset the cost of all that IP by selling it in game form? Look at the numerous games based on the Lord Of The Rings movies. It would not be surprising to me to see a game tie-in with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movie. I expect it to be the best movie/game combo yet made by a wide margin.

    The Wachowski siblings may have climbed on a trend with The Matrix multimedia experience. There were the 3 films plus Animatrix (anime) and Enter The Matrix game all of which had different parts of the whole story to tell. Blizzard is incorporating a grand story into the Starcraft single player campaigns. Bioware is working on Mass Effect 3 which may be the closest thing yet to a fully interactive storyline.

  17. @Scalzi:
    When I read “thanks to advanced nanobot technology could give you all the benefits of a rifle, a shotgun, a grenade and rocket launcher, a flame thrower and a particle beam weapon, all in a single piece of armament!”, my mind flashed to the SNL skit proclaiming “it’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”. ;)

  18. Undying is one of my favorite games of all time, and along with Psychonauts is one of the few games I can think of that seem more accurate to describe as “well-written” than any other superlative.

  19. Mmmmm, FPSeses. I play other things, but nothing is as good for blowing off steam/recovering from yet another project working with terrible inherited hardware and a lazy, passive-aggressive engineer.

    I just picked up Dead Space two weeks ago (yay, Steam!), finished it over four addicted, sleep-deprived nights, and immediately had to get Dead Space 2 and obsess my way through that. The Dead Space series has a great combination of ‘epicness’ (slowly coming to understand how overwhelmingly large and ancient your opposition is) with a Tortured, Guilt-Ridden Hero. Plus lots and lots of squicky gore, nicely-done vacuum & zero-G parts, and strategically dismembering enemies is a lot of fun.

    I don’t understand people who complain about weak stories in games…maybe people who like them fill in a lot more with imagination? I’ve generally been quite pleased with the stories in a lot of games–including FPSes–over the past decade or so (teh Haloz, Prey, anything Valve, but even the small goofy ones like Time Shift). I hope it all keeps getting better, ala the new Deus Ex.

  20. FPS’s on my system: Call of Duty, COD: United Offensive, COD2, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.

    All my COD games are the original WW2, ’cause shooting at bad guys with an M-1 Garand is a worthy exercise.

    As regards S.T.A.L.K.E.R., well sometimes ya just gotta go muck around in radiated areas around blown to hell nuclear reactors while avoiding a hostile military, opportunistic bandits, and trying to play Duty and Freedom against each other all while having to whack mutated dogs, wolves, vampire-like creatures with Cthulu type mouth tentacles, mutated and deranged soldiers who creep around on all fours and jump way too far, psychic creatures that can cause brain damage, gravitational anomolies that make any trip turn into a potential minefield, all while trying to scrounge better weapons, food, medical supplies and vodka if you like while running big time missions or small time pest controls jobs and working your way slowly to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

    As I said… sometimes ya just gotta.

  21. Doom. Lights off, sound cranked up high. Shotgun selected and in the echoing caverns of the map the pitter patter of little zombie feet. No teams to manage, no directions to give, no massive anything until you got to the BFG. Turn off all higher reasoning capacity because all you are going to need is eyes, ears, and trigger finger. Nirvana.

  22. All my COD games are the original WW2, ’cause shooting at bad guys with an M-1 Garand is a worthy exercise.

    I just had to chime in that I loved that! I was talking to my wife’s uncle about shooting one time, and I asked if he’d tried an AR-15. He–a Vietnam vet for whom I have tremendous respect–responded that he didn’t shoot “plastic guns”. He took me out shooting a while later and I got to try his beautiful M-1 Garand for the first time, and now I understand his derision for plastic guns. It’s just a beautiful weapon.

    Also: I love FPS both for the mindless side of things (Modern Warfare 3 on Xbox Live) and the cooperative strategic play (Battlefield 3 on my PC), but my favorite FPS memories are of playing Halo alone. I’m probably one of the only guys whose significantly more excited for the remastered Halo in HD than for Halo 4.

    I think that the FPS genre is probably the most versatile, but storytelling in FPS is really just scratching the surface of what is possible. Truly breakthrough moments–like a protagonist dying n CoD4: Modern Warfare or the big reveal in BioShock–are few and far between. And just getting across a fun story in a compelling way (like Halo) tends to be the exception rather than the norm. I’m looking at you, Gears of War 2. And entire Call of Duty franchise. And Battlefield. (You get the picture.)

  23. My personal dislike for FPS comes as follows: first, the field of vision, second, the field of vision, third, terrible controls deliberately gimped, fourth, field of vision.

    To elucidate: I can easily look up, down, left, right, closer, and further away, in my physical body.
    I have peripheral vision in my physical body.
    I can move, whirl, duck, shift sideways, etc. with decent speed in my physical body.
    And I can look at my hands, feet, etc and don’t walk around like a zombie with my arms curled in front of me.

    Some of this is clearly intended. But I rather like how several MMOs handle this, offering both first and close-camera second person.

  24. When it comes to story, the thing that always brings me up short in FPSes and related games is the way that the necessary gamey elements–respawning, checkpoints and respawn points, powerups that give you skills, experience points you can “spend” as you like, those unrealistically copious personal inventories, etc.–cannot possibly exist in connection with worldbuilding that makes sense. And the more the game does to explain them in-world (the plasmid dispensers in “Bioshock”, the whole irritating frame story in the “Assassin’s Creed” games) the more ridiculous it seems.

    It seems to me that this places a limit on how engaging the overarching, novelistic story can get in a game that is good as a game. It bothers me less if the whole world of the game is completely ridiculous and cartoony, like Mario’s universe, or kind of jokey like “Borderlands”, where you end up not really caring that you have to scrounge for ammo but there’s a machine that can materialize automobiles in limitless quantity.

  25. That really is an issue with the workings of the first person shooter – your character is a fridge on wheels with a little peephole to peek out through. Brink tried to do something about it, but with limited success. Games where you can’t run sideways or at a diagonal always bug me, particularly. No, it doesn’t mean sidestepping at a running pace – if I need to go one way and look in another direction, I have hips and a neck.

  26. I really love FPS’s as well but I feel really old when I try to play COD on an Xbox/PS3 with my nephews. Damn console buttons and clumsy fingers!

  27. I just this evening finished Portal 2, which is about the closest I’ve got to an FPS since the days of the Marathon trilogy. And now I want to write GLaDOS/Durandal slashfic.

  28. I think I don’t really like FPS games for exactly the reason you like them: “This makes a huge perceptual difference. Things are more exciting when they are happening to you and not some representation on the screen…”

    In the real world I have developed a keen New Yorker’s ability to ignore reality’s sensory overload, but FPS games are designed to get past that filter. The colors are more saturated, the sounds are more specific and meaningful, and if you don’t remain on continuous high alert, you are very likely to get shot in the back. The lower-than-reality resolution means I have to pay closer attention to determine just what I’m looking at (whereas reality is more easily interpreted).

    Marathon freaked me out since at the time I was living in a basement apartment and my computer was in a closet. I loved it, but it made waaaay too deep inroads on my brain with the aliens. I much preferred playing against my coworkers on the office network at the end of the day. Without the mood music, dark lighting, and random aliens popping out, I could just focus on finding my friends and shooting them. :-)

    I suspect part of my dislike is that so many FPSs are oriented to horror/zombies or contemporary war (or both!). Are there any which are less intense?

  29. @Nathaniel Givens
    Re.: M-1

    My father got sent to Germany during WW2 and would’ve loved to have been able to keep is M-1; he wouldn’t have minded sneaking home a Thompson either. Of the two though he woulda brought home his Garand.

    Years ago (before I enlisted in the Army) I did a short stint in a state run militia we had at the time. Our Captain was a local guy–a WW2 Marine Lieutenant who was one of the first people to hit the beach at Nagasaki after the bomb. His choice of weapon for us was: if you guessed anything other than an M-1, go to the back of the line.

    While it might be heavy compared to other rifles then and now, you knew you could club an angry moose with it and get some attention. As far as holding and sighting: it always felt right in my hands. My goal when I get the finances a bit better is to buy one and go pop off some rounds. :D

  30. @Matt McIrvin

    When it comes to story, the thing that always brings me up short in FPSes and related games is the way that the necessary gamey elements–respawning, checkpoints and respawn points, powerups that give you skills, experience points you can “spend” as you like, those unrealistically copious personal inventories, etc.–cannot possibly exist in connection with worldbuilding that makes sense.

    I love FPS’s, don’t get me wrong, but you have a valid list here. I think that is one of the reasons I love S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. There are no spawn points as such. There isn’t an endless stream coming out at you. you enter an area and encounter a group of bad guys; it may only be one, or a squad. fight, hide, evade are all valid choices. If you die, you don’t respawn at some random point… you pop up where ever your last save happened to be. The funny thing is that when you get back to where you were, you may find things have changed… for good or bad. That group of 3 guys may have moved on or never arrived, or it may be a larger group. The weather may have changed. If it was cloudy it may be raining–a gentle sprinkle or full out thunderstorm–or it may be the rain is clearing out. The light is time based. Days run a sped up 24 hour cycle. You fight in the dark, daylight, rain…

    In order to get supplies you have to search the bodies of the dead. You get weapons, ammo, food, meds, and info about hidden stashes of more such goodies. If there is something you want, you better take it with you then, because dogs or NPC’s may drag off the body later on. Oh… and you do have a weight limit. So, take too much stuff and you get weighted down to where you can’t move at all. Better to find a stash point and stick it in there. Everything has a weight cost. You almost always need some bandages, med kits, anti-rad drugs (or vodka–don’t ask), food, artifacts to boost abilities, ammo, and weapons. The trick is to balance it out so you have a bit of room left for new stuff you find and can use or sell, and not go over the weight limit. The more you carry, the slower you run, and the less distance you can run before you come to a panting halt.

    There is much more I could try to describe but those show that not all FPS’s have to be run and gun carrying 12 weapons with max ammo loads. Hell, you might wind up in a pissing contest with a bunch of Army types and all you have is 9mm with 11 rounds of ammo left. Head shots won’t cut it; get your ass out of the A-O as quick as you can and hope you don’t get popped in the back of the nogging for your trouble. ;-)

  31. If OMW came out as a PC game I’d not buy it. I’d want to, but you see, I have a video game problem. Oh, it’s not that I spend too much time on games; it’s that I buy them (usually when they first come out) and never finish. The latest in my “to finish” pile is the new Deus Ex. So I’ve given Liz, my gf, authority never to let me buy a new game until I’ve finished two old games. It sucks since the new Star Wars is coming out this Christmas and I have to study for the Applied Statistics Master’s exam (thankfully it’s not the Math Stats exam) so no gaming.

  32. And also since I spend my “down time” relaxing reading Science fiction. I go for easy stuff mostly, like SW, so I don’t strain the neurons.

  33. @Digital Atheist

    While it might be heavy compared to other rifles then and now, you knew you could club an angry moose with it and get some attention. As far as holding and sighting: it always felt right in my hands. My goal when I get the finances a bit better is to buy one and go pop off some rounds. :D

    I know exactly what you mean. I’ve shot a fair number of rifles, and none of them seemed to fit quite like the M-1. I remember pulling the trigger the first time and thinking “Oh, this is what a rifle is supposed to be.” Unfortunately, I will also have to wait a while before I can acquire one of my very own.

  34. Re: the Heinlein comparison, I’ve got a thing for military fiction, whether historical (Cornwell, O’Brian, etc.) or science (Heinlein, Pournelle, etc.), or even — don’t hate, guilty pleasure — contemporary (Clancy, Griffin, etc.). My girlfriend’s been asking me if she would enjoy any of this, especially the sci-fi, because she’s a fan of the genre. I’ve had to qualify my otherwise enthusiastic yes because of the casual chauvinism or even misogyny in some of those books that I’m pretty sure would jar her from the immersive experience. Then I remembered I had OMW sitting on my bookshelf, and put it into her hands last night with no reservations. She’s probably halfway through by now. So really, in some important ways, the Heinlein comparison sells you short.

  35. This is going to make me sound like a complete suck up, but I’ll say it anyway. Maybe I need to read a lot more Heinlein, but at least from what I’ve read the Heinlein comparison sells John WAY short. My most recent Heinlein read is Starship Troopers, which to me seemed about 50% novel and 50% political essay (ok, maybe 60-40). I struggled mightily to wade through the discussion of the legitimacy of war. Blech. I enjoyed OMW far, far, far more and I’ve been recommending it to friends for years now.

    I’d love to see OMW as a FPS! I’m a FPS nut as well, and I think it’s a great fit. If not OMW, then I hope you get a chance to write for a game, John. Good stuff. Personally I think that the storytelling is improving in games to the point that it surpasses movies in many aspects. Generally speaking, of course.. there are tons of real duds out there in both cases, obviously. In any event, I’m ecstatic to see a great author who considers video gaming to be a viable medium for good storytelling.

    Just out of curiosity, John, are you a console gamer or do you game on a PC/Mac? And are you an Xbox or PS3 guy? :) I’ve had to go strictly to console gaming… otherwise it interferes with my productivity too much.

  36. @kwove:

    I think most of the comparisons to Heinlein (blessed be the Master) are comparing his juveniles to the stuff John rights. While I love Starship troopers–novel and movie–I can understand your problems. I would suggest novels along the lines of Red Planet, Space Cadet, Between Planets, or some of the others. You might also want to check out some of his early short stories such as “The Roads Must Roll”, or “The Green Hills of Earth”. If you are a really sentimental kinda shmuck you might also want to check out “The Man Who Traveled in Elephants”.

  37. My fiancee is a fanatic for Modern Warfare 2. She tried Call of Duty: Black Ops and didn’t like it as much; now she’s on Modern Warfare 3 and trying to get used to it. And she’s over 40…

    She plays on Xbox Live, and she’s encountered her share of foul-mouthed loons. She abuse-reports the worst ones, but, most of the time, she just cusses with the best of them. I know she’s playing because of the stream of profanity from the living room. (She plays with a headset on the audio outputs and the TV muted.)

    I used to play a number of FPSs, but I don’t play online as much as she does; I just never developed that kind of killer instinct, it seems.

  38. @Nathaniel:

    Tell me about it. For me, stuff such as reach to the trigger, angle of the stock, balance, and curvature of the forestock all just seemed to be a work of art as much as a functional machine that was designed for a purpose… mind you an ugly purpose, but then German troops who got issued the Sturmgewehr 44 probably thought it was the do all, be all.

  39. Heinlein was in the military but never in combat and Heinlein himself said Starship Troopers was written in response to people pushing to stop nuclear testing in the 50’s. apparently, we need atomics so the big bad bugs dont get us. I never read the book but have read a bumch of other stuff by heinlein and the morality swerves into borderline silly. When I saw the movie, I kept waiting for some obvious reveal at the end to show humans as the fascist that Verhoeven was portraying them as. When it didnt come, I was a little surprised. But gpogling revealed Verhoeven did in fact intend it to be a satire of jingoistic American politics, but he showed it by being faithful to the material and letting its own fascism speak for itself. Which was brilliant because no one could criticize him for turning the story on its head. (oh sure, no power suits, but its not like the caliber of your rifle indicates whether you are fascist or not).

  40. Dana@3:19, zomg, i just read your link. I got to the bit about “Frankie goes to Hollywood” video and fricken laughed. Awesome!

  41. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is the one that’s partly inspired by the Strugatsky novel _Roadside Picnic_ and the Tarkovsky movie _Stalker_, right? (The novel’s a favorite of mine; the movie didn’t do it for me.)

  42. @Matt:

    Yes it is inspired by “Roadside Picnic”, a novel I hope to get my hands on, the movie, and the sad events at Chernobyl NPP and the city of Pripyat. The scary part is that after playing the game, you can look at pictures–especially of Pripyat–and recognize buildings and where battles take place. Former residents of Pripyat have said it is like actually being there. :O

  43. John,

    Your gaming sounds very much like mine. Almost the whole entirety of my gaming these days is playing halo with the stepson. I apprecaite the World’s that RPG’s create, and admire their breadth, but I never have the time to play them. With time being such a limiting factor, I find that what I really want more than anything else is to blow stuff up. Jump in, shoot things, jump out. You captrued that perfectly, and I am just as thankful for them as you!

    All the best,
    Paul

  44. John, you’ve probably posted this before, but have you listed your favorite FPSs? I’m not a great gamer, but I genuinely enjoyed the Halos and Half Life because the stories were so interesting. I would buy any game you wrote!

  45. David: “Verhoeven’s movie is faithful to the material in the same sense that Will Smith’s I,Robot was faithful to Asimov’s work.”

    Does the movie show a fascist world? Does the book? There you go.

  46. Does the movie show a fascist world? Does the book? There you go.

    Greg, given that you’ve already admitted not having read the book, how would you know what it shows?

  47. My only problem with shooters is that I’m a bad shot. If I were diligent and practised more it would be less of a concern, but I tend to think too much about the shot and bungle it. One of the things I’m really enjoying about Arkham City is the lack of guns (except for those with grapple hooks). You’re the goddamn Batman, and your job is to perch on gargoyles, look cool, and occasionally glide down to the streets and lay the smackdown on the pitiful dregs the Joker has managed to coerce into working for him. (You also have story-based missions, but it’s an open world and you can proceed at your own pace. It’s the perfect fit for Batman’s persona, as you often have to choose between helping people, looking for evidence, and chasing down bad guys.) AC is 3rd person, but it’s worth it to watch the cape in action (and to play as Catwoman). It feels less like remote control than watching the pages of the comics come to life.

  48. David, the novel forwards the notion of a world where citizenship is only conferred to those who serve two years in the military. That is fascism at its most fundamental.

    the novel makes a point to mock contemporary democracies saying they collapsed because “people had been led to believe they could simply vote for whatever they wanted” and he
    makes fun of the declaratiom of independence saying everyone has a right to happiness, but life and liberty are things you only get if you pay for them. capital punishment is argued as morally just. only military veterans are allowed to teach history and moral philosophy.

    Fascism is as fascism does. And the book does fascism in spades.

  49. David, the novel forwards the notion of a world where citizenship is only conferred to those who serve two years in the military. That is fascism at its most fundamental.

    Fascism is about incorporating all aspects of public and private life into the state. As Mussolini put it: “The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.” To put it more succinctly: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”.

    The fundamental trait of fascism is that every aspect of human life, from romance to art to economics to education, is evaluated in terms of its benefit or detriment to the state. From this, you get a complete degradation of human rights, because civil liberties can’t exist if they are contingent on the collective welfare. Who you marry, where you work, what you can sell your goods and services for, how many kids you have, the kind of movies you see and books you read, what your religion preaches: in a fascist state all of these things are evaluated and regulated by the government to see if they help or hurt the common cause.

    Rampant militarism is just one possible way fascism can be expressed. It’s neither necessary nor sufficient. You can have a fascist state without requiring universal military service (the state might decide it’s better to send people to the mines) and you can have universal military service without fascism. Connecting voting to military service is certainly controversial, but it’s still not “fascism at its core”.

  50. Should have put this in the original post: the reason Heinlein can’t seriously be considered a fascist is his strong belief in civil liberties. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is a paean to anarchy, for crying out loud. This idea that some things are just not the government’s business, or not your business, for that matter, was a fundamental part of Heinlein’s complex ideology and makes it truly and totally incompatible with fascism.

    This doesn’t makes his politics good, either in real life or in his novels. It just makes them something other than fascist.

  51. David, the novel forwards the notion of a world where citizenship is only conferred to those who serve two years in the military. That is fascism at its most fundamental.

    See, here it would help to read the book. One is not required in _Starship Troopers_ to serve in the military to get the vote.

  52. @David-

    It’s been a while since I’ve read the book (and I never say the movies), but I do remember that you needed to serve in the military to become a full citizen with the right to vote, and Wikipedia seems to support this:

    Interspersed throughout the book are other flashbacks to Rico’s high school History and Moral Philosophy course, which describe how in the Terran Federation of Rico’s day, the rights of a full Citizen (to vote, and hold public office) must be earned through some form of volunteer Federal service. Those residents who have not exercised their right to perform this Federal Service retain the other rights generally associated with a modern democracy (free speech, assembly, etc.), but they cannot vote or hold public office.

    I may be missing something, of course, but I think the debate isn’t whether or not military service was required to vote, but whether or not that’s the core of fascism.

    Apologies if I’m missing something here.

  53. Like mythago, I get motion sickness from FPS’s. And anything else without a steady horizon, alas. Didn’t used to be that way, but I played one of the later Tony Hawk games, got REALLY nauseous from the motions, and thereafter playing anything without a steady horizon renews that nausea, which annoys me no end. Limits what sorts of games I play.

  54. Nathaniel: Connecting voting to military service is certainly controversial, but it’s still not “fascism at its core”.

    An infatuation with (1) power (military power, powered armor, guns, guns, guns) and (2) obedience/control (only veterans can vote and therefore control the government, only veterans can teach history and morality and therefore control what people think), and (3) a gleeful willingness to “other” anyone outside your “tribe” (Heinlein could have chosen any sort of enemy, even a human enemy, and what he chose was an enemy that was for the most part an unthinking bug), and even a gleeful willingness to mock anything INSIDE the nation that doesn’t toe the philosophical line contained in (1), (2), and (3). (a character mocks the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”, and another one mocks the democracies in the novels past, our democracies of today, that the novel says collapsed at some point).

    (1) National power, (2) obedience to the nation/control of the individual, and (3) xenophobia towards anything outside the nation. This is the triumvirate at the root of any fascism. And it is at the heart of Starship Troopers, it the very core of the novel.

  55. Mr. Scalzi,
    You have (perhaps inadvertantly) hit upon my #1 complaint against the modern crop of first person shooters – lack of immersion. Never played Halo, but Dr Freeman and Chell are my poster children for how games SHOULD be written – they never speak. Whenever “your character” speaks to someone in a game, its a jarring disconnect of the any immersion you’ve managed to acheive, as you’re foceably reminded that this character isn’t you.

    When it comes time, please remember this when writing your FPS.

  56. Greg-

    The problem with your most recent argument is that you’re still giving secondary definitions of fascism. Nationalism, for example, is not the exclusive domain of fascism. Monarchies can be nationalistic. Democracies can be nationalistic. You could easily envision an ultra-nationalistic anarchy. (Perhaps exhibited by the extreme pride in the fact that they managed to make anarchy work where everyone else has failed.) Then you talk about fascism having control over the individual: so must all governments (other than anarchy) as a matter of definition. What do you think the IRS is, if not a manifestation of government control over the individual. Everyone who supports the idea of liberal democracy (liberal in the historic, not the partisan sense) supports the basic concept that in order to have basic liberties you first need to establish a central authority to enforce those liberties. Does that make liberal democracies authoritarian states? Finally: xenophobia, like nationalism, can exist in any system of government.

    All three of your examples are associated with fascism, but none of them are actually intrinsic to fascism in any unique sense.

    So I think we should get back to a valid definition of what fascist means. Unlike a liberal democracy, which strikes a balance between individualism and collectivism, a fascist state is an expression of total collectivism in which individual don’t matter at all. Mere obedience / control is totally inadequate: it’s the idea that the nation as a collective is the only thing worth considering and that all individuals are meaningless except insofar as the functional ability to serve the interests of the state.

    Heinlein is adamant in his writings that individual rights matter intrinsically and not because they serve the interests of the state. Similarly, in Starship Troopers, every single civil liberty is unconditionally granted to the entire populace except the right to vote. I’m not defending this policy. But it is quite obviously not fascist.

    Let’s just recap: fascism says that nothing matters except the collective. As a result, individuals are only important insofar as they serve the state and have absolutely zero intrinsic value. Liberal democracies hold that individual civil liberties are intrinsic and strikes a balance between civil liberties and the good of the collective. (See also: shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.)

    Starship Troopers presents a society that is clearly not fascist because of the widespread existence of civil liberties and lack of anything like totalitarian control over the lives of individual citizens. It may be militaristic, jingoistic, and xenophobic, but it’s not fascist.

  57. Sorry, I am ashamed that I included 2 paragraphs at the end of my post that are clearly repetitive and ought to be cut. I shall do penance before the shrine of good writing for my carelessness while I weep for the lack of ability to edit my posts.

  58. Scorpius, I don’t have to read Mein Kampf to know Hitler was full of shit, but if you want to make that argument, go right ahead.

    Federal Service is not limited to military service, as this wiki page describes

    While we’re quoting wikipedia, here’s a good summation:

    “the characters assume Federal Service is military; for instance, when Rico tells his father he is interested in Federal Service, his father immediately explains his belief that Federal Service is a bad idea because there is no war in progress, indicating that he sees Federal Service as military in nature, or not necessary to a businessman during peacetime. Some Federal Service recruiters wear military ribbons, and a term of service “is either real military service… or a most unreasonable facsimile thereof.” Moreover, the history of Federal Service describes it as being started by military veterans who did not originally allow civilians to join and are not described as allowing them to join later. Gifford decides, as a result, that although Heinlein’s intentions may have been that Federal Service be 95% non-military, in relation to the actual contents of the book, Heinlein “is wrong on this point. Flatly so.”

    And given that you read the book, (I might even assume multiple times), how many characters do we meet in teh book who have the right to vote, how many of them have scars? Missing limbs? plates in their head? permanent wounds of one sort or another?

    And how many of the characters we meet who have the right to vote, how many got that right withOUT serving in the military?

    I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and say it boils down to all of them versus none of them.

    Maybe Starship Troopers doesn’t require military service if you read someone’s defense of the book outside of the book. But in the book, its pretty clear. Either that, or there’s a lot of people who are losing legs doing community service in that world.

    Nathaniel: Then you talk about fascism having control over the individual: so must all governments (other than anarchy) as a matter of definition. What do you think the IRS is, if not a manifestation of government control over the individual.

    Really? You don’t see a difference between a constitutional representational democracy that derives its power from the people compared to, just say, a monarch who imposes his power based on some divine birthright that says he is descended from God? Really? Control just means one thing to you, and it applies to every form of government except anarchy? Seriously?

    Generally, this is the sort of black/white, all or nothing, argument I see from libertarians and anarchists.

    a fascist state is an expression of total collectivism in which individual don’t matter at all.

    Oh lord. This is nothing but a No True Scotsman argument. You’ve raised the bar to fascism high enough that Starship Troopers clearly does not qualify. But unfortunately, you raised it so high that NO REAL WORLD EXAMPLE of fascism fitting your definition exists or existed.

    Heinlein is adamant in his writings that individual rights matter intrinsically … Similarly, in Starship Troopers, every single civil liberty is unconditionally granted to the entire populace except the right to vote.

    Holy shit. Can you think of any REAL WORLD example of a government that tells the people “Your rights matter to us intrinsically, but you’ll have to trust us to defend those rights, because you don’t get the right to vote”??? Well, lets see. First there were the racists who said that blacks counted as 3/5ths of a person. Had to go to war to straighten that bullshit out. Then there were the misogynistic pricks who didn’t want to give women the right to vote. Hell, we could go back to ancient greece and find their “democracy” was reserved for third generation land owning males. Woo hoo!

    Every single one of them said “trust us”. And that’s exactly what you’re defending now.

    So besides the simple fact that Starship Troopers is fascist, here’s the bigger problem: It’s propagandistic, wish fulfillment bullshit written by Heinlein who has the political astuteness of a thirteen year old. Anyone who SERIOUSLY BELIEVES that a government will protect your civil liberties without giving you any say in how the government is run, is insane or stupid or a shill for the government they’re defending. Heinlein clearly believed what he was writing. He wanted it to be true.

    Except anyone who takes even the slightest step back and reads it for what it is, reads pure fascism, that is covered with the thin veneer of “don’t worry you little peacenik, we’ll protect your sorry ass excuse of rights as much as the folks who really deserve it.”

    That you DEFEND the make believe benevolent dictatorship based on its own propagandistic assertion that it is benevolent and will look out for the rights of even those who they decide don’t get a voice, raises far more redflags about your assumptions THERE that the definition of “fascism” seems tiny by comparison.

  59. Guys, I believe our host has griped about people who have to inject their politics into everything and how that makes him not want to post.

  60. Either that, or there’s a lot of people who are losing legs doing community service in that world.

    You would, in fact, know the answer to this, IF YOU HAD READ THE BOOK.

    You would be able to make criticisms invoking the book itself, rather than quoting others or asking others to provide the evidence, IF YOU HAD READ THE BOOK.

    It is a remarkable foolish position to defend, not necessarily because you can’t make the argument IF YOU HAD READ THE BOOK, but because you are being willfully illiterate about it.

    I don’t have to read Mein Kampf to know Hitler was full of shit,

    No, but if you wish to discuss what Hitler was actually saying, you should. “Duh, Hitler bad” is about the level you’re at at the moment. Shockingly, people may not take you seriously.

    Oh, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law

  61. @Kevin-

    Guys, I believe our host has griped about people who have to inject their politics into everything and how that makes him not want to post.

    It’s all fun and games until someone breaks out the CAPS LOCK OF ANGRY DOOM(TM). :-)

    @John-

    I write a piece on video games and a cat fight on Heinlein breaks out. Real smooth, folks.

    Wrap it up, please.

    I’m learning my way around the Whatever. Until the last couple psots things had been cordial, and I’d hoped they could remain that way. Political theory is interesting without the partisanship. Apologies to the extent that I helped this one over the edge. :-/ I’ll let it go.

  62. Greg, I don’t know who Giffords is, but it is the height of arrogance to declare an author “flatly wrong” when stating the composition of an institution in the universe that author created. And remember that we, as the reader, are following Rico through this fictional universe, a man who has decided to join the military and spends all his time in the military after a short introduction. So of course the “majority” of characters are military.

    you’re obviously letting your political ideology and your pathetic, infantile need to call people you disagree with “fascist” interfere with your enjoyment of a classic work of science fiction.

    And with that, I’m finished with this thread.

  63. @Andrew C-

    Whenever “your character” speaks to someone in a game, its a jarring disconnect of the any immersion you’ve managed to acheive, as you’re foceably reminded that this character isn’t you.

    This is really interesting to me. When you read a book or watch a movie you actually rely on the characters doing and saying things that betray their emotions, and it’s based on that revelation of who they are that we are able to identify with them and become immersed. I emphasized “identify” ’cause it’s such an interesting verb in this context: we’re not actually necessarily thinking “Oh, that’s what I’d do” when we read the book. Sometimes the best characters are the ones who surprise or even frustrate us. But despite this fact we still sense some kind of connection between our own identity and the character’s.

    That’s the model I have in mind when I think about strong narrative in an FPS. For example: I really loved the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana in Halo. You wouldn’t get that if you didn’t have the communication.

    But I can see your perspective as well: I think there’s another take on the FPS where you really attempt to make the protagonist disappear entirely so that you can imagine yourself actually in that role.

    Can you give me an example of that kind of a game? It sounds like role-playing: good in theory, but whoever does it? I’ve played D&D and various other pencil/paper and computer RPGs for years, but very rarely have I really attempted to role-play in the way your describing. And when computer games have tried to hard to make a really interactive reality, it too often ends up looking like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.

    The best, for me, is an FPS with well-drawn characters including a protagonist who says and does things that draw men in and allow me to empathize and identify with him or her. The worst is an FPS with badly-drawn characters who say and do things that make me think: A- someone wrote this and B- they weren’t very good.

    In theory I can imagine an absent protagonist, but I’m not sure it’s really possible in execution.

  64. Quick addendum to above: I keep thinking of “Myst” and, to a lesser extent, “Doom”. In those cases you had a silent protagonist, and I did feel immersed to some extent. So I guess first-person is doable, but it really changes the structure of the story you can tell. You have to do all the communication implicitly with the environment, I think, because any explicit communication with other characters requires the protagonist speak. Either you need a branching dialogue (see: CYOA) or you just have to assume the protagonist says something (might as well have him say it) or you have to make the protagonist’s 1/2 of the communication totally irrelevant (then why have it?)

    So I guess it’s not that you can’t have a silent / absent protagonist, it’s just that if you do you have to make pretty much all the characters silent / absent (monsters in Doom aren’t really characters) or removed from the actual action (like the flashbacks in Myst). You can do a normal protagonist or a silent one, but it fundamentally alters the storytelling you can use from that point on.

  65. Dear Mr. Scalzi,
    Please note that my only contributions to the Heinlein part of this thread is saying that I like both the novel and movie versions of Starship Troopers (having long ago learned to divorce movies from books), and mentioning a few RAH books a reader might wanna try out.

    As regards FPS: please note that I also mention that I love them (especially the original COD games–WW2), and mentioned some of the reasons I like S.T.A.L.K.E.R..

    When the velvet wrapped mallet of discipline starts swinging, please for the sake of my sanity, do NOT point it at me. I already got enough headaches between dealing with my maternal parent, DCU online, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., COD, unemployment, Republicans, and reading my way through 800+ pages of H.P. Lovecraft (@ a mere 99 cents; yay B&N Nook).

    Beyond that, I hope that Mrs. and Ms. Scalzi are in fine health and that you are toeing the line appropriately. Good day Sir, and make sure that Cthulu, Lord Snuggleston (shudder at his visage) is semi-sorta-almost-nearly merciful to the mammals in your homestead/household/zombie-proof domicile.

  66. @Nathaniel Givens:

    In FPS games you need one of three paradigms: A) the Doom kind where you are a silent protagonist and your actions are your own totally, B) something along the line of the original Call Of Duty games where you are again a silent character, but only a cog in a much larger battle, or C) a character where the actions revolve around you, in which you are interacting with NPC’s and such, but you are the focal point of the game, such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or DC Universe online.

    The games that seem to fall somwhere in between any of these 3 always seem to jar me out of the game. It is part of the reason I have never been able to finish any of the Final Fantasy type games, because so many bits of the story line wind up being tangents off of other characters in the “world”.

  67. Scorpius: to declare an author “flatly wrong” when stating the composition of an institution in the universe that author created

    Right, and if D. W. Griffith said “Birth of a Nation” isn’t racist, who are we to judge? I mean, it’s his universe, and if he says it isn’t racist, it would be the height of arrogance to question his universe, his creation. But then, I’ve never actually seen “Birth of a Nation”, so I can’t even comment on the movie either way apparently.

    Scorpius: your pathetic, infantile need

    Your Lord Worfin is weak.

    Lord Worfin: “May I pass along my congratulations for your great interdimensional breakthrough. I am sure, in the miserable annals of the Earth, you will be duly enshrined.”

    Now that is a supervillain level smack down.

    As for the thread, Heinlein is mentioned twice in the original post and half the post seems to be about novels, writing, narratives, golden age SF, and such, so pointing out the facts of why Heinlein himself said he wrote the novel (pro nuclear weapons and against any ban on nuclear testing) and Verhousen’s stated intent for the film (he saw the novel as fascist and used that in the movie), didn’t seem completely off topic or even debatable. That it spiraled into the current state was not my intent.

    My apologies.

  68. That it spiraled into the current state was not my intent.

    Because discussions of Heinlein never spiral out of control.

    But then, I’ve never actually seen “Birth of a Nation”, so I can’t even comment on the movie either way apparently

    Not as more than a ventriloquist’s dummy, blindly mouthing someone else’s words.

    If someone came along and announced that OMW was fascist, because, even though they hadn’t read the book, they’d heard it was just like Heinlein, how would you react?

  69. I played first-person shooters from the very beginning, and they have never failed to damage my immersion with dubious physical models and an interface that was useless precisely because it was incomplete. Playing a first-person shooter game doesn’t feel like being in combat.

    It feels like exactly what it is — directing (for example) William “B.J.” Blazkowicz in combat with the benefit of only one of his eyes and at best both of his ears. And with a very limited ability to direct his actions.

    And I won’t even get into that incident where the gravitational constant of the universe changed for a decade just because Quake 2 was set on another planet.

    I guess I just don’t get the idea that something’s more immersive if you’re in the action. To me, it feels more immersive if I’m not there, if I’m merely directing the actions of someone who is. Perhaps the problem lies in the notion that in non-FP games, the player “is represented by” something on the screen, rather than merely controlling it.

    I have a similar problem with 3-D films. If the action’s in my lap, it tends to remind me that I have a lap, which breaks immersion hard.

  70. I’m a games writer working on my first novel, and I’ve been surprised both at how much I naturally think in videogame terms while writing and how much that’s helped me. Each chapter is a level, with its own challenges that the main character has to overcome and its own emotional tone. I’ve also found it useful to think in terms of game mechanics–what are the game mechanics of the MC’s life?–which suggest the kind of challenges he’ll face and give him a consistent set of tools and abilities he can use to overcome them.

    The downside was that in my first draft the MC was something of a cipher, because I was used to letting the player project themselves onto their character. I ended up rewriting chunks of the book to fix that.

  71. John, would you ever consider writing for a different universe? I’m gallumphing through Halo: CE Anniversary Edition at the moment, and can’t help but think that your writing style would *really* work in that universe. As opposed to the Grim, Gritty Halo:Reach where all actors were either Grimly Determined or Determinedly Grim. (Yes, I like fun things more than I like depressing things. What can I say? I value my joi de vivre).

  72. I wouldn’t have a problem working within an established video game universe in principle, although of course I would want to consider for myself how good a fit I would be in any real-world situation.

  73. After reading this discussion I wonder if we need to have some sort of corollary to Godwin’s law that expresses the amount of it takes in an online discussion mentioning Robert A. Heinlein and “Starship Troopers” (the book, not the execrable movie) before someone who doesn’t really know what fascism is (Greg, go read Robert O. Paxson’s “Anatomy of Fascism”) starts trashing Heinlein as a fascist.

    I love FPSs as a way of working off stress. I got GTA III for the PS/2 after a motorcycle accident that put me in a level one trauma center for eight weeks and cost me my left leg below the knee. After a long day of dealing with rehab and learning to walk again and with the huge shit sandwich that life had just jammed down my throat I was incredibly angry and didn’t want to build a new civilization or buy my Sims a plasma TV. I wanted to break things and running amok in Liberty City was just what I needed. What I like about the GTA series versus other shooters was the element of whimsy (the DJs on the radio stations were hilarious) and the fact that you could either just run around Liberty City and wreak havoc, run the smaller missions like the ambulance pickups or do the larger missions. So if you couldn’t complete one of the larger game-goal missions you could practice your skills by doing the smaller missions. I also like the GTA series because it doesn’t glorify the military as Call of Duty and Men of War does.

    To me one of the most disappointing things about Call of Duty was the fact that you weren’t allowed to kill your drill sergeant on the rifle range during the training phase of the game. I’d like to see Men of War, Call of Duty, or America’s Army modified with missions where you perform such traditional military make-work as picking up cigarette butts on police call, or performing completely pointless guard duty on something that doesn’t need guarding, or getting kicked out of bed in the middle of the night and red-lined by your training company’s senior drill sergeant so he can drunkenly scream at you and tell you what a bunch of useless pussies you are and how none of you would have lasted in ‘Nam. Come on, let’s add an element of realism to these games. The military isn’t just fun and games and blowing bad guys away, there’s also plenty of pointless make-work dreamed up by sadistic morons and brutes. Unfortunately the gaming companies don’t want to talk about this, which is probably why they rejected my pitch for “Call of Duty – Friendly Fire” in which an Air Force pilot with the call sign of “Psycho” gets jacked up on amphetamines and wastes your buddies.”

    Right now I’m playing “L.A. Noire” which is so freaking awesome that it makes me want to squeal like a little girl (I was going to say “touch myself”, but that’s TMI). It’s “L.A Confidential” as a video game, with a soundtrack that brings back every single noir movie ever made. If you like the novels of James Ellroy or the movie “L.A. Confidential” you’ll love this game. OK, it is kind of lame that you can’t just randomly run over civilians and beat them up (what, I thought that this was a game based upon the LAPD), but its still pretty good.

  74. Reading this again and paying heed to “I’m playing as me”, the end of Halo 3 must’ve been a blast. “It’s been an honour serving with you, John” ;)

  75. John! Amazing write-up! As a purveyor of fine shooter products, reading about my favorite author write about how my artform influenced the creation of my favorite novel is a super-satisfying bouquet of recursion.

    Seriously, thank you for this article. I think you’ve finally validated what I do to my parents :)

    …and yes, I’m still hunting for some funding to do a shooter. When I find it, you’re my guy!

  76. [Deleted because this is not the right thread for advertising. Wait for one of the threads where I let people promote their own stuff -- JS]

  77. Just now finding this post as I search through Whatever to find where you’ve talked about video games before — I read in a recent post that you’d done some work in the games industry and was wondering where.

    This is a fascinating post, though. I work currently for a company founded in part by John Romero and Tom Hall, who made Doom and Quake with the id folk in time immemorial. They’re very friendly types and are fond of writers and storytelling. If you’re ever out toward San Francisco I’m sure they’d enjoy meeting you!

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