Why modern mainstream FPS games flee from the demons of their forebears
Running through hallways. Low on health, out of ammo, not knowing if the next corner would lead me to the salvation of a health pack, or to a horde of demons ready to slam dunk a fireball down my throat with no way left to fight back. Haggard, tense, tired.
This was my experience with Doom in the 90s, and one I’ve found sadly lacking across the last decade of mainstream games, replaced instead with regenerating health, demons that explode like piñatas of goodies, and a misplaced sense of near-immortality. Games, unlike any other medium, provide unique experiences at the intersection of story, setting, and mechanics, but it’s a fundamental shift in mechanics across the medium that is responsible for this spiral from horror to god complex.
In the 90s, finite resources in the face of overwhelming odds evoked a fundamental sense of panic, a need to manage your resources sensibly and approach combat tactically. As technology changed, so did mechanics, with a shift to cramped dark hallways, the limitations switching from ammo and health to light, best exemplified by Doom 3’s much maligned flashlight mechanics. Dynamic lighting technology meant uncertainty: would what few lights there are around you go out? Did you need to ration what little control you had over light? What lurked at the end of the darkness? Blind corners turned into duplicitous gods; would they bring you a moment of respite in a hectic gauntlet, or cloak a torrent of demons?
The mechanics had changed, but the outcome was the same. Panic. Every moment, you felt as though you held on by a thread, firm in the knowledge that a single misstep could be the difference between life or death. We learned to strafe into corridors, scan our surroundings, scope for subtle cues that the next threat was about to finally break the tension. Even rest was fraught with tension. I have to go back out there eventually, back into the darkness. The unknown. This was the horror FPS genre at its best, eking out new ways to beset the player on all sides with panic, tension, fear.
By the 2010s, the FPS genre at large had shifted focus to new mechanics, dynamic drops giving you what you needed when you needed it most, recharging health, the ever-present respite of a chest high wall. The FPS turned its eye back to its early iterations and self-assuredly declared that it knew how to recapture the magic of those early games.
Speed, it was decided, was the magic ingredient missing from modern FPS fare, and there was a renaissance of games misguidedly chasing this single subjective concept. Doom 2016 was at the forefront of this reclamation, touting its speed, heavy metal riffs, and badass moments as the screen was awash with gore, drops, and glory kills, something previously relegated to the oft-mocked playground of Brutal mods for earlier games.
Talking to the modern horror FPS vanguard one finds oneself inundated with overconfident claims that the genre has finally rediscovered what made it great: a hard-to-fail god complex simulator where avoiding imminent death is just a blood-soaked, electric-guitar-punctuated punch away. These games aren’t bad per se; however, I can’t say that my personal hopes for a new Doom game are to recreate the sensation of playing a video game rendition of the Doom comic’s rip-and-tear, chainsaw-obsessed protagonist.
I’m not here to tell game developers, or fans for that matter, how games should be made; however, it’s with overwhelming sorrow that I’ve watched the genre’s early experiences reinterpreted and simplified to “fast, bloody, and with a kickass soundtrack”. It demonstrates both a fundamental lack of understanding of those early games, and the art that went into developing their atmosphere and feel to evoke those primal, interlocked sensations of panic and horror.
There’s an unfilled niche in modern games for these experiences that continues to be hastily painted over with their shallowest aesthetics by companies that market their games to that very niche.
The only panic that these games have managed to evoke in recent memory is the panic of sprinting around the blind corners of game reviews and youtube commentary wondering whether the dark recesses will push back to reveal an actually evocative horror FPS experience, or another banal heavy metal riff.
“The Horror Of Panic” is a part of an ongoing series on design, pacing, and interactivity in horror games.
Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.