It used to be my favourite genre, the first person shooter, this was way back when my friends simply weren’t on board with it. I was convinced that it would change the face of gaming as we knew it. That the future of gameplay would take place behind the eyes of heroes and killers alike. I was such a fan of Doom that I’d happy scream from the rooftops- “I can see the dead imps’ arseholes and I don’t even care!” To which my friends would promptly reply “Get off the roof, shut up and play your fucking game already. You’re making a scene!”
I love a game that tells a good story. From classics like Final Fantasy to under-rated wonders like Primal. A good story jam packed full of good characters in crazy situations can really propel a game. The last gen saw shooters taking that on board. The likes of Call of Duty’s Modern Warfare series spun some great yarns about impending wars and a crew of battle hardened bastards with fabulous moustaches and Jason Statham accents. This is even more evident in CoD’s first Black Ops game; which probably boasts the best story out of any title in the annual franchise that arrives each winter like clockwork. Just as dependable as knowing damn well that you’ll receive a Cadbury’s selection box in your stocking every Christmas without fail. In fact, you could almost bet your yearly Curly Wurly on it. Black Ops’ plot was quite intriguing. It played out like a well written conspiracy theory about soldiers being brainwashed during the Vietnam War. It also featured one of the most thought provoking endings to a video game this side of Enslaved: Odyssey to The West. Unfortunately it went from there to complete nonsense in the sequel, and we’re destined to see it fall even further into absurdity in the upcoming third instalment.
The unfortunate thing is that although these games’ single player campaigns were homes to some interesting tall tales, I could never really form a connection to their characters. They all blend together into a human mush, while I reside inside the fictional characters’ skull as they go about their business. From this perspective, I see the world as they do. Every breath, every step, and every other thing that Sting would sing about; as they take it so do I. I’m not watching them; I am them. I engage in combat on a personal level with their enemies, yet I still feel zero connection to my character themselves. I cannot see my character and this really hurts the experience as a whole. Especially in Call of Duty games where the player character hops time and time again to relay the story from a number of scenarios in different locations at once. To me, they all quickly begin to feel the same; like nothing more than a moving screen or a single collective dude with a camera for a head. The only part of these men that I actually see is their hands grasping entirely indifferent fully automatic weapons. For all I know, I could be playing as a six foot fucking turnip.
It could simply be a case of out-of-site-out-of-mind, because I don’t have these kinds of issues with other gaming genres. There are countless characters that have made me laugh, cry and, most importantly, feel across a mind numbing number of games. I felt soul crushing fear as disgusting necromorphs chased me across the depths of space aboard the Ishimura. At times I’ve seen eye to eye with complete head-cases like Kratos. Adrenaline surges and sheer bouts of panic were a pound a penny as I was being hunted by War Dogs as James Earl Cash. The unshakable feeling that I was being watched sent shivers up and down my spine as Alucard traversed a haunted castle… Upside-down, I might add. Hell, don’t even get me started on my connection with my various teams of pokémon! These are just the tip of an iceberg large enough to sink the Titanic, and any of its sister ships that happen to be in the surrounding area. All of these characters made me feel something. I was there battling with them and wanting them to succeed. However, I had a visual connection with each and every one of these. I could tell you what Jill Valentine’s S.T.A.R.S. uniform looks like because I spent hours manoeuvring her around the screen, or the subtle differences between Dante’s outfits in each Devil May Cry title. These visual indicators are a lot more important than they might seem. In the same way that having eye contact with a person during a conversation is imperative, I need to see my character. It makes a difference by creating a sense of familiarity between me and who or what I’m playing as. In fact, it’s absolutely crucial. This is storytelling 101.
I must recognise a character in some form in order to relate to him or her. If not, then we are quite simply strangers. The occasional close up shot during a cut scene or when I happen to run past a mirror in-game is not enough to make me feel any love for my character. I connect a lot more with the supporting cast in many of first person shooter games than I do the person I’m supposed to be playing as, because they were often in my line of sight. This never mattered too much back in the day before any real story was added into the genre. I didn’t mind being dude-with-gun in Doom. I had too much fun playing with the crazy mystical weaponry in Exhumed to really give two shits about the person who was holding them. But at that particular stage of FPS history, plotlines were minimal and characters were pretty much non-existent. This was the norm at the time so it would have been odd to expect anything else. There was only one first person shooter character back then, and in my eyes that’s still quite true. FPS’ only true hero, even though he only spent a short stint within the genre, and only half of that was actually good. The man. The myth. The man again. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mister Duke Nukem.
Bit of a womanizer? Yip. Egotistical? His head was as big as your TV! A walking talking stereotype of male stupidity? You betcha! And that’s what made him so damn charming.
Duke wasn’t supposed to be taken with a grain of salt. No, the overgrown powerhouse was designed to be taken with a whole bucket of salt. Nothing about him should have been taken seriously. He spent his time blowing up aliens and making dick jokes. Something that, at the time, was quite simply unheard of in the world of gaming. I’ll never forget the first time I played Duke Nukem 3D, his only good game. It was Christmas morning and I’d received the Playstation port are a present. I had already read up on the character and the game itself, and I needed something to follow up my love for Doom. This seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered. So I fired up the PS1 and while I was having untold amounts of fun launching lead into the stomachs of mutated pig-cops and unloading shotgun shells into grunts as I ran around a porno cinema, Duke himself decided to join in. He began to react to the carnage around him and pass judgment on the effects of well-placed pipe bomb in the middle of a crowd of aggressive aliens. “Hehehe. What a mess!” He exclaimed as a flurry of guts became airborne. This was followed by bouts of “Blow it out your ass” and “It’s time to kick ass and chew bubble gum… and I’m all out of gum.”
Just like that he went from being a gun-wielding nobody trying to end yet another alien invasion to a full blown character. Although the gameplay here is some of the fastest and most entertaining FPS action you’re ever likely to find, it was Duke Nukem himself and his comical amounts of testosterone that made the game the legend that it was. To say the very least it’s unfortunate that he went from starring in one of my favourite games of all times to one of the worst games ever created. The Dukester is now the laughing stock of the gaming world. However, this sexist sunshade wearing pig with his schoolboy attitude and laughablely overcompensating arsenal of massive firearms is still more of a character than anyone in modern first person shooters. I’ve heard whispers that the cast of Borderlands hold their own against the colourless slices of bread that you play as on most FPS games nowadays, but unfortunately, I haven’t played them myself so I cannot pass judgement. Equally so Elizabeth from Bioshock: Infinite has become an icon in her own right and apparently steals the show in her game. However, she’s not a player character, so therefore doesn’t fit into the discussion. After the short lived, well remembered, reign of Duke Nukem, the closest anyone else has gotten to being a memorable lead character in this genre is Bulletstorm’s Grayson Hunt who ironically starred in an amazing game that simply wasn’t picked up upon by the general public.
It can be difficult to convey emotion from a mouth that you can’t see, eyes that you can look through but never look into and facial expressions that can never be witnessed. The distance between the player and the one their playing as can make the game feel lonely and impersonal. As these eyes take in the world around them and tell their tale, it seems that sometimes they are simply nothing more than tools through which we view the story instead of truly engaging in it.