The title of my article is a bit unfair because in truth No One Lives Forever is so much more than just Doom with a female protagonist.
Arriving two years after the original Half-Life, No One Lives Forever shared with that much celebrated game a more careful attention to environmental detail as well as a sense that the FPS could be so much more than a genre about a roving gun hunting monsters or hunting Nazis or hunting monstrous Nazis.
No One Lives Forever is interested in experimenting with the genre, featuring unusual FPS situations (fighting through a shark infested sunken freighter with a spear gun, battling H.A.R.M. agents while falling through the skies, sneaking or shooting or both through a level, and even levels that have little to no shooting in them at all) as well as adding a plethora of gadgets to the usual assortment of guns that shooters are known for.
Additionally, the game leans heavily on the campy charm of the era and cinematic genre that it is inspired by, 1960s spy thrillers of the James Bond variety. Cate Archer, a female spy and thief, whose competence her male counterparts are extremely incredulous about, is awash in a world of stock super spy send ups and a rather absurdist approach to humor overall.
The best moments of the game’s comedy come in the form of overheard conversations while Archer is sneaking about a mission. In particular, the game takes a great deal of glee in “developing” the character of the countless thugs and minions that Archer will need to wade through during various missions. We often get to hear what those “monsters” that we normally eradicate without a second thought in an FPS think about their lives, their hobbies, their families, and other mundane things by listening in to their chatter while they patrol, seeking, of course, to put a bullet through the head of our erstwhile heroine.
Certainly, No One Lives Forever isn’t interested in creating genuine pathos for the faceless enemies that we so often execute in frightening numbers in games. Indeed, part of the cleverness of these sequences in the game is how little we normally even think about these opponents as anything resembling anything with a personality and how it might be funny to see what it is that they do think about before we plug them. And while played for comedy, this does give the game a greater sense of being a living world, rather than the hellish battle arenas of a Doom or a Quake, which seem to only exist for the purpose of housing monstrosities for a nameless, practically faceless protagonist to skillfully execute. These previous FPSes were games, nothing more. But, again, like Half-Life, No One Lives Forever suggests that an FPS could actually represent a world to explore, not merely a “game board” to move across.
Where No One Lives Forever really outshines Half-Life, though, is in the development of an FPS protagonist that actually has a voice and a distinct personality (by contrast to the non-entity that is Gordon Freeman). Admittedly, Archer is a stock character. She is an attractive brunette with an aristocratic bearing and a British accent (*cough* Lara Croft). Nevertheless, Archer works in a game that is full of stock types and more importantly is really of a piece with the narrative genre and time period that the game represents.
Archer’s struggle to prove herself the right woman for the job amidst the chauvinism of the 1960s and the old boys club of political intelligence is a compelling enough hook to keep the story interesting. Archer’s missions are often deemed failures by her higher ups, and the great thing about the character is how she fails to lose her cool under the circumstances, confident that she will prove herself eventually and comfortable in the knowledge that she is in fact doing the best work possible under the circumstances.
The game so emphasizes a “voice” being necessary for an FPS protagonist that it does feature conversation trees and the like (a concept that seems to me largely unheard of in FPSes of the era—possibly I’m forgetting something, though). These conversations are fun because Archer has essentially two basic modes of discourse: polite and cheeky. I prefer to let Archer be as cheeky as possible given how exasperatingly condescending her male superiors can be.
One unfortunate design decision, though, concerns these dialogue options, as they actually do have some relevance to gameplay. Sometimes Archer can acquire some of the collectibles (intelligence items) that increase your end mission score and may factor into awards at the end of a level by responding in particular ways during conversations with characters. The unfortunate part about this mechanic is that it essentially only rewards Archer if she acts like a “good girl.” In other words, it is polite responses that get those she is speaking to to cough up these pieces of information.
For my part, I prefer to eschew pursuing a “high score” in the game, though as I would rather let Archer be herself and let the boys “have it” verbally when it seems most appropriate to me. Screw the congratulatory nature of the end of level stats screen – for me, the character takes precedence. And, again, this is part of what makes No One Lives Forever such a good experience. It is an FPS that actually has real character.
No One Lives Forever is one of those gaming classics that I hear a few talk about with reverent tones, but it is also a game that I missed playing a decade ago. I’m glad that I am playing it now, though. It seems worth the effort to reconsider, as it really does offer some great moments. The game has its faults (especially its pacing—levels tend to go on entirely too long—though in my mind this is a problem that is common to most FPSes of the era and often persists today), but I can see why it maintains its cult status as one of those games that you really should have played.
It really is a title that looks forward to more interesting modern FPSes and FPS-style games like Portal, Bioshock, or Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Looking back at it does allow one to also clearly see how the industry has moved forward, and frankly, this now retro title still has a few tricks up its sleeve that still could inspire more innovative approaches to a genre that too often only concerns itself with shooting holes in bad things and not enough time considering what its perspective on play can potentially allow for.