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A People's History Of The FPS, Part 1: The WAD

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“A People’s History” is a three part essay series by Robert Yang. He told us that he wanted to write an alternate view of the traditionally accepted history of the FPS genre as entirely dominated and driven by the mainstream, commercial industry, and to “argue for a long-standing but suppressed tradition of non-industry involvement in the first-person genre”. This is part one.

In 1994, the New York Times filed a review of a first-person game under its “Arts” section, proclaiming it to be “a game that weaves together image, sound and narrative into a new form of experience.” It sold millions of copies and inspired dozens of imitators. It seemed poised to define an era.

That game was Myst and it failed to define an era. Instead, a game called Doom came out three months after Myst — and then it shot Myst in the face.

Myst died a slow, painful death. The sequel, Riven, sold well but caused the New York Times to seemingly backtrack, downgrading its Riven review to “Technology” instead of “Arts.” Years passed with increasingly worse sequels and declining sales. Finally, the series’ funeral in 2005, called Myst V (did you even know there was a Myst V?) was sparsely attended; the longtime developer, Cyan Worlds, laid off all but two employees and ceased all projects before making a last-minute deal to remain operational with the generally defunct game service GameTap. These days, they’re porting the Myst series to iOS and seem somewhat healthy, but nowhere near the peak of their influence.

Still, some of today’s boldest indie first-person games inherit many of Myst’s sensibilities, and some directly borrow the general premise. It seems, given the growing number of experimental non-violent first-person shooters in development today, that Myst would be an integral part of first-person history… but it’s suspiciously omitted from popular history.

Instead, we call Myst a “graphic adventure” and stuff it into the bottom of a locker in a closet in an attic. To give it a place in first-person history would be to highlight the lack of diversity and subtlety endemic to commercial practice in the genre today, and first-person history must remain the story of how a nascent manshooter empire became the hypermasculinized captain of the football team. That’s the story the industry tells itself as it faces its mid-life crisis and buys itself a Ferrari, and even its critics believe this narrative.

In organizing the 7 Day FPS slow jam, indie darling Jan Willem Nijman tweeted, “… Fpses are a horribly oversaturated genre, indies can easily do amazing new stuff…”

This attitude is prevalent among players and designers, both in / out and for / against the AAA game industry. The popular narrative is that the first-person genre has long been an industry-funded enterprise of carnage, a linearly-structured, corridor-filled wasteland bereft of innovation. And now, only recently, are the “pretentious” cultural elite and avant-garde beginning to defile / liberate this lovely camera perspective from the muddied obsidian-clawed clutches of the AAA game industry.

But even criticizing the FPS in this way is playing directly into the industry’s hand: it accepts the premise that the industry has always owned and nurtured the first-person genre… when that simply isn’t true.

Yes, Doom was a wild success, built by industry veterans who are now industry emperors.

Yes, we used the term “Doom clone” as a short-hand for first-person manshooters until game journalists and players invented the term “first-person shooter,” months after Doom’s release.

Yes, Doom succeeded for many reasons: its compelling open floorplan levels, appealing graphic violence, multiplayer deathmatch capabilities, and online distribution / shareware model. In many respects, it was simply better than anything else available on the market.

But.

Doom also had a well-engineered engine architecture. Its levels and game assets were stored in modular .WAD files (“Where’s All the Data?”) that could be swapped in and out. That is, Myst mods were impossible or impractical — but Doom mods (or WADs) flourished, powered by a strong player community that reverse-engineered file formats and code pointers to make substantial game modifications possible.

In this way, Doom empowered people outside of the industry. Myst did not.

There were countless Doom mods, many illegally co-opting Hollywood’s intellectual properties as in the Ghostbusters WAD or Batman WAD, betraying a sort of punk attitude toward modding, now somewhat defanged and depoliticized in today’s age of the regulated Steam Workshop. Back then, modding was new, more like a wild frontier without a single monolithic community or a handsome PC-only games blog to offer coverage — it was somewhat fragmented, with at least a dozen editors developed for Doom, each with their own userbase. One of the more notorious mods was distributed in select boxes of breakfast cereal, called Chex Quest, reskinning Doom’s demonic imagery and graphic violence with gentle political satire, cartoon aliens, and heroically crispy rice wafers that were part of a balanced breakfast. (From this perspective, even the advertising world’s relationship with the FPS was somewhat subversive.)

To many Doom players though, one notable early mod stood out above the rest, and perhaps marks the beginning of a people’s history in the first-person genre:

The “Aliens TC” was a total conversion mod by Justin Fisher, released in 1994. Fisher used an early community-made modding tool, DeHackEd, to hack the Doom executable to add acid blood, flashing proximity sensors, hatching alien eggs, and other fiction-building flourishes. His custom campaign roughly mirrors the structure of the film Aliens, with a masterfully paced first level called “Landing Pads” that contains no monsters whatsoever and exists only to setup tension and tell a story — you just move through the level, with no “challenges” whatsoever, then push the exit button.

That is: this skillfully hacked piece of game design, the first level of the first mod of the first explosively successful, bonified first-person shooter… was a highly experimental, non-industry-affiliated, functional equivalent of Dear Esther, designed back in 1994.

Yet in spite of this profound legacy in modding, or of Myst’s influence in present day FPS design, we still hold both types of design as less legitimate and less deserving of representation in the history of the genre than the 2005 film adaptation of Doom — which the genre’s Wikipedia page currently mentions twice. Again, this bias is pervasive, even among the industry’s critics: ex-industry now-indie developer Steve Gaynor (designer on Minerva’s Den) remarked that “there’s sort of this zeitgeist of people saying the first-person perspective is really interesting. What happens if you take out shooting?”

In “A People’s History,” I wish to argue that this interest in experimenting with the first-person perspective is not a zeitgeist nor a recent trend. It’s more that we’ve been systematically denying the “first-person” genre label to such games, which is based on pleading semantics rather than any meaningful distinction.

There has been a steady current of non-manshooting / avant-garde-manshooting thought in first person game design, starting with Fisher’s Aliens TC in 1994 — basically, ever since the term “first person shooter” got coined. Which is not to imply Steve Gaynor is a fool (he’s street-smart and handsome) nor that he’s necessarily wrong (he’s just a little wrong) nor that the AAA game industry has always deliberately suppressed independent design and thought (it just happened to do it, accidentally).

However, we must be aware of the institutions that shape our perspective on game design — including the simple awareness that such institutions exist, that alternate histories exist, and that some institutions stand to profit from supporting a certain version of history — because that is how we can begin to take greater control as people.

Next time, Part 2: how the FPS modding scene was tamed and domesticated.

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