A couple of weeks ago at the 2013 Game Developers Conference, EA showed off a 17-minute demo of the upcoming Battlefield 4. It’s unusual (but awesome) for such a substantial gameplay video to be released at the same time as a game’s official announcement, but this is also a unique situation. The demo wasn’t just showing off Battlefield 4, it was also showing off the Frostbite 3 game engine that runs Battlefield 4 and that will run most of EA’s major next-gen games. This demo was meant to show off the graphical future of all EA games.
With all that weight on its shoulders, I’m left wondering, though: “Why feature a first-person shooter?”
I’m not wondering why EA would make a first-person shooter. That’s got an obvious answer. I’m wondering why use a first-person shooter to show off the company’s advances in graphics? Because if any genre was tailor made to be a poor graphical showcase, it would be the modern first-person shooter.
The field of vision is too narrow. At one point in the video, the player comes to a construction yard with a massive flock of birds circling overhead. The scene looks incredible, and I want to admire it. But then the player jumps down from his ledge, the sky scrolls upward (out of his field of vision), and the frustratingly narrow perspective of the first-person viewpoint becomes all too clear. The player needs a specifically designed perch from which to admire the world because it’s unlikely that he’ll see much of it during his general course of play. In this case, the sky and the birds are just too high. Lots of work goes into creating the world around me, but even a guided demo meant to show off the graphics must necessarily ignore most of that work. At best, a cursory glance is provided before the level forcibly tunnels my vision away from anything that might be interesting. Now, this wouldn’t be so annoying if it weren’t for point number two.
The gameplay: The core gameplay of a first-person shooter keeps me focused on only what’s right in front of me. Take away the shooting, and at least, I’ll be free to look around, which would make up for this narrow field of vision. First-person games like Skyrim or Bioshock Infinite do such things. They give me a substantial amount of time outside of combat to explore the world. There’s a significant element of exploration in these games, and their worlds are specifically designed to be closely examined, which makes them a much more natural candidate for a graphical showcase. However, these are not the games that get shown off at press conferences. Instead it’s Crysis, Killzone, Halo, or Battlefield, the kinds of games that explicitly train me to ignore the detail of their worlds in order to concentrate on the constant supply of enemy soldiers in front of me. All that artistry, all that texture work, all that effort put into a game that demands that I look the other way.
The camera tricks: That’s not to say Skyrim or Bioshock Infinite are good graphical showcases since they too are hampered by the same camera tricks that are common in those other shooters (though admittedly, Skyrim is the superior showcase since between the two because it rarely takes control away from the player and actually includes a wide-angle third-person view). For as beautiful as these games are, it’s hard to admire the world when the camera is being thrown around like a doll, and mud, blood, and bloom are slathered over the virtual lens.
But don’t misunderstand me. I think these camera tricks are awesome in most cases. I loved Mirror’s Edge, I’m not bothered by all the shaking in Bioshock Infinite, and I even liked the confusion of the collapsing building in the Battlefield 4 demo. The whole point of the first-person perspective is to limit our view. We’re meant to see the world from an intimate, ground level angle. We’re supposed to be confused. We’re supposed to be blinded by soot and light. We’re supposed to feel like we’re missing something because we are missing something. We’re too close to the action to see it all clearly. That’s precisely why the first-person perspective is so cool, and that’s precisely why the genre is such a poor graphical showcase. When showing off your fancy graphics, you want the player to see as much of the world as possible, but when you properly embrace the first-person point-of-view, you’re forcing the player to see as little of the world as possible.
Most of these issues can be solved simply by changing the perspective from first to third-person. The field of view is wider, and the character can be thrown around while the camera stays still. Tomb Raider, for example, does this exceptionally well. The camera shakes and sways just enough to gives us a sense of what Lara experiences, but we’re pulled back far enough so that we can actually admire what’s on screen as she’s tumbling around, whether that be the world, the framing of the action, or the animation of Lara herself. The gameplay might still focus my attention on a narrow swath of world but at least that swath is bigger.
It makes me wonder why first-person shooters have become the default genre for showing off cutting edge graphics. The linearity of a Call of Duty is understandably appealing to developers since it’s far easier to pretty up that narrow stretch of land than it is to beautify a world the size of Skyrim. But then why not more third-person shooters? They can still be linear and don’t come with all that first-person baggage. Is there too much animation involved in a third-person shooter that would distract from the graphical fidelity (if so, thanks a lot Uncharted, you ruined it for everyone)? Maybe FPS games are appealing because there’s always a gun hovering right in the middle of the screen; a high resolution model constantly in your face, insisting on its super HDness. But as a player, I’m never actually looking at my gun. I’m looking at the crosshairs above the gun, and they’re always a standard white line or dot. Sure, the white lines on a PS3 look better than the white lines on a PS2, but they’re still just white lines.
I like first-person shooters and I like the first-person perspective, but I don’t understand why so many developers insist on using this genre as a graphical showcase.