We covered the macrocosmic elements surrounding game narrative in this article, where we discussed narrative in horror. Now, let’s look at first person shooters by diving into the specifics, shall we?
First Person Shooters
First person shooter is a far larger gaming genre than horror likely ever will be. Countless titles from Resident Evil to Splatoon fall under the FPS umbrella, and boast stories ranging from non-existent to franchise-spanning epics. However, while a horror game can excel on its narrative alone, no FPS will ever have that luxury.
A mechanically inept shooter is perhaps one of the most painful gaming experiences out there, next to badly built platformers. If you want examples, the Steam storefront is littered with them. Shooters stapled together from unity assets with as much code as a children’s crossword puzzle. Or something like Alone in the Dark: Illumination, which boasts the same level of quality.
For that reason, no FPS should ever put story above its mechanics. Even as someone fanatical about stories in games, I’d never try to argue that point. With that out of the way, it is debatable just how important the stories are.
That goes double for a genre that boasts some of the most financially successful pieces of media ever created. Such as GTA V, literally the most successful, having raked in almost six billion in profit.
While GTA V’s single player is a lot better than I expected, you can bet a decent chunk of that money was made on multiplayer microtransactions. So much so, that while the multiplayer gets countless content updates, the single player hasn’t had one since Ill-Gotten Gains Part II on 8 July, 2015.
Multiplayer shooters have long since topped not only the FPS genre, but the gaming world as a whole. Call of Duty spent a decade atop the gaming mountain on its multiplayer alone, with most of the player base never touching the often-underrated campaigns. In fact, even the series itself is beginning to shirk them.
Just behind them falls series like Battlefield, with the most recent Battlefield 1 boasting some of the most mechanically robust multiplayer combat I’ve played. And if it wasn’t for the awful micro-transaction debacle, Battlefront 2 would rank right up there beside it.
So, clearly tight mechanics and good visuals alone are enough to carry an FPS game to monster success. It’s by no means a genre that relies on or even draws on narrative. But not every game is aiming to be a Call of Duty rivalling financial monster.
Stories in Smaller Titles
Those mid-range games that don’t have the budget to chip away at the player base of something like COD have to rely on single-player. And without the competitive elements to make them compelling, narrative is far more important in those titles.
A prime example of this is the Bioshock series, a humble venture by comparison. Bioshock is a series that couples distinct and interesting shooter mechanics with compelling narrative to create one of the most critically well-regarded series of recent years.
The Mass Effect series (although technically they are third person shooters) falls into the same vein. It sets itself apart mechanically with its bionics and surprising weapon diversity, while keeping players engaged with its characters. Even more generic military shooters like Medal of Honour or Spec Ops: The Line employ stories as their main strength, to varying degrees of success.
How Halo Does Both
Few titles balance both exceptional campaigns and robust multiplayer, especially at that tier. Perhaps the best example is the Halo Franchise. I absolutely adore the Halo campaigns, with the exception of Guardians, the most recent title. They offer an excellent sci-fi universe and a narrative within it to match.
But the Halo titles also have some of the best multiplayer out there, incorporating the diverse weapons and vehicles from the campaign into the proceedings to make it feel refreshingly different.
So much so, that Halo 2 is largely considered one of the most revolutionary multiplayer titles around, sparking the entire trend in the industry. It’s likely that even without its campaign, it still would have been a stellar success. And ever since Halo 4, the multiplayer has begun to outpace the single-player in terms of engagement.
Why is it then, that in the case of COD, Halo and GTA, the multiplayer always seems to gain more traction than the single-player? It’s simple enough. That’s because FPS games have to be mechanically enjoyable to survive. And the enjoyment gained from those mechanics is often more crucial than the story itself.
If you want to enjoy the mechanics of Bioshock, you have to replay it. And while it’s certainly enjoyable, the narrative is rarely what compels you to do so. In games that boast expansive multiplayer modes, the single-player can be enjoyed once for the narrative, then the multiplayer can be used to enjoy the mechanics. And the latter can keep you engaged for far longer. So, it’s only natural that the focus be on that instead.
Ultimately, this means that the verdict is that narrative is not so important for any game that touts itself as a shooter title. And shooters that rely on their narrative are often stories first, shooters second.