Hole in the Head

by Delta V, last updated 18 Jul 2012 03:57

Singleplayer shooters have a problem depicting machineguns.

If I were to be constrained to only one statement about where the current evolution of first- and third-person shooters1 has led, it would be this. Not in terms of causation, certainly, but as the intersection of inherent limitations and stultifying conventions, and a metonymy of the divergence between the shooter class2 and the reality it attempts to otherwise portray.

This is not to condemn all shooters3 to the dustbin, or to call for a new hegemonic mechanic to usurp the old. This is also not intended to dwell upon the reasons we play shooters, which vary as widely as the games themselves. This is an examination of the various game design and technological limitations which conspire to exclude the weapon at the heart of all infantry tactics, the weapon which dominates the kind of small-unit battles shooters so frequently involve, and how that exclusion points to fundamental conceptual restrictions which limit the class to a narrow range of gameplay.

Machineguns are dependent on position

This may seem obvious in the age of near-ubiquitous cover systems, but cover is only one part of positioning. Arcs of fire, chokepoints, high ground, concealment - many of these are truncated or irrelevant in the close quarters and chest-high walls of most shooters, and many ground smooth by constant testing and balancing in multiplayer titles4. All are also necessary to a proper portrayal of machineguns, where displacement is nontrivial, where firing on the move is difficult or impossible (or just plain useless), where choosing the proper location is more important than dashing between (handily-placed) cover pieces or madly circle-strafing. The last shooter I played which integrated all these elements well was Day of Defeat5, which had what so few portrayals of machineguns do: a prone stance and a set-up command for MGs. One had to look for a good spot, with clear lines of view, then set up and trust your teammates to keep your flanks clear.

Instead, in most singleplayer shooters we only see machineguns as emplacements in pre-determined locations, in turret sequences and vehicle mounts, both on offense and defense. We get them as part of preset skirmishes, their layout set by level designers, either as a fixed obstacle to overcome, or a brief aid to the player to be used and then abandoned. Sometimes, as in Halo 3 or Crysis 2, we can even pull the gun from its mount and fire it from the hip as a temporary power-up of sorts — but it is only ever temporary, only ever for a discrete sequence.

Much of this, I believe, is directly traceable to the relatively tiny, close-quarters arenas most shooters6 take place in; to the paucity of stealth mechanics and the difficulty of evading detection once seen; to the all-too-common device of forcing the player directly into the firefight instead of allowing them to reconnoiter and choose their angle of approach7; and to the insistence by most shooters of moving early and often, with strong redoubts which act as force multipliers relatively uncommon in a given arena. There are simply few positions to take, few avenues of entry (frequently only one), and few opportunities for stealth to find another. Encounters are so commonly designed around frequent, brief engagements instead of fewer, larger ones that the effort and resources required to provide spacious battlegrounds for each are impractical.

Machineguns are long-range

The effective range of the M16A4 assault rifle is 550m against point targets, and 800m against area targets8. Its big brother, the M249 squad automatic weapon, has effective ranges of 800m and 1000m, respectively9, firing the same 5.56mm cartridge. This is due to a number of factors: greater weight to absorb recoil, a longer barrel, a bipod or tripod to stabilize its aim, and it is designed to be fired in longer bursts10. Machineguns of larger, more powerful calibres have even longer ranges11. And though the decades since WWII have seen armies around the globe embrace weapons designed for engagements under 300m, starting with the Sturmgewehr-44 in late WWII and the legendary AK-47 shortly after, and culminating in the US Army's adoption of the M4 carbine as its standard infantry weapon, there is increasing evidence that such truncated ranges are not as universal to infantry warfare as once thought12.

Even setting aside the technical and logistical demands of level design at such ranges13, there is a valid game design justification for spurning combat scenarios at long range. As Tom Bissell eloquently notes14, however, the basic feedback loop of shooting is incomplete (or broken) when the player can barely see the enemy, much less be sure of their deaths. This much, at least, I can understand — if a game is not intended to be a simulation, is not intended to be as closely representative of real-world warfare as is possible, then concessions to player enjoyment15 are almost inevitable. Pace and the perception of fairness are paramount: ranges must be close enough to allow traversal in seconds or a few minutes at most, instead of dragging out the engagement over hours, and enemies must be discernable16, so as not to frustrate the player with unavoidable deaths from mysterious sources.

Here also the limitations of AI hamper proper implementation. Detection ranges are frequently truncated17, due to the technical difficulties of abstracting enemy vision in the presence of camouflage or concealment, but (as is common amongst shooters in general) once a player's location is known, it becomes difficult to break the AI's lock18. This factor also encourages developers to restrict engagements to close quarters, where visibility is more sharply defined and detection can be assumed instead of proceduralized in a complex manner. Snipers are impacted similarly to machineguns, here, as both classes of weapon are poorly-suited to close quarters battle19, and snipers especially depend on their position to be difficult to perceive by the enemy, pinning them in place and giving a longer window of opportunity to fire unopposed. Thus, one facet of shooting is given precedence over all others: the close-quarters frontal assault. Games such as Crysis and ArmA II give a greater breadth of options (and thus player experiences), but somehow, sadly, this seems to be the exception.

Machineguns are lethal

Wound ballistics are strange. The human body has no hit points. It can take a dozen bullets to kill a human, or merely one. 'Stopping power' is controversial and misunderstood20. Bullet wounds can leave the victim incapacitated, though not immediately dead, or can barely be noticed until after the firefight, or somewhere in between. Most gunshot casualties will live21 if treated promptly, and many of those return to service after a few weeks or months — but this is far too long a timeframe for shooters22.

Instead, in shooters the traditional quantified damage model persists. Permanent damage is unheard of. Even location-specific damage is almost always taken from the character's global health bar (whether a higher or lower amount), forgoing the kind of subsystem damage seen in flight, space and mech sims for decades23. In the vast majority of shooters, the most crippling element of damage is a clouded, bloody screen. Whichever side of the health-pack/regeneration divide one occupies, both are a means of total or near-total recovery within seconds. Any accumulated damage is wiped away as if it never occurred.

On the player side, of course, this is primarily due to the many narrative complications24 incurred by the player character's vulnerability if it were otherwise. Few games25 are willing to require the player to avoid being hit at all during the course of the entire game. On the enemy side, this is generally an attempt to prolong engagements, to push AI survival times past a few seconds, and to add difficulty to late-game opponents and bosses.

Machineguns exacerbate the compromises on both sides. Player-equippable machineguns function most often as more powerful and less accurate versions of assault rifles, useful primarily for saturating bullet-sink enemies at close range. Usable machinegun emplacements are designed as short-term shooting galleries (either in turret sequences or as temporary aids in small arenas). And enemy machineguns, if given the lethality they attain in real life alongside the rapid, sustained fire and long time between reloads they generally retain in shooter form, would become nigh-insurmountable obstacles. A game which asked its player to repeatedly assault MG positions, un- or under-supported, and survive26 would be pilloried as far too difficult and demanding.

Instead, players (and often enemies) can readily survive a round or two (and sometimes more), requiring machineguns to be held on target far longer than their real counterparts. For player-used machineguns, this also removes the ability to rapidly engage a whole group of enemies — instead, it's often balanced to bring down each target more quickly. This results, ultimately, in weapons which frequently require closer ranges to be useful, exacerbated by the general lack of prone and setup mechanics which mitigate their fearsome recoil. This seems…backwards.

Machineguns are key to suppression

Suppression is a tricky thing, dependent on a number of factors. Snipers and machineguns are the two best methods of suppressing the enemy, the first due to their range and concealment, the second because of not only their rate of fire but how long that fire can be sustained27. This is due to heat buildup28, something rarely modeled in shooters other than for infinite-ammo MG emplacements and turret sequences.

Suppression mechanics are common enough, these days, in some (usually truncated) form or another. Most shooters with a cover system also give their AI behaviors to seek cover and return to it when under fire, or duck back into it when nearly hit29. Squad AI in many games allows for some enemies to suppress the player's position30 while others advance or flank. The systems are there, but it's rare to find suppression used as a viable tactic for the player.

The vast majority of shooter engagements can be characterized as frontal assaults on entrenched positions (or occasionally defense of an entrenched position, as in horde-mode or turret sequences). The player is expected to advance under fire, commonly mitigated by some regeneration mechanic denied to the enemy (or used in much weaker form) in order to give some possibility of success, and some tolerance for the large volume of fire perpetually incoming31, without a clear mechanism to silence it. Suppression as a true mechanic for the player, instead of a mere brief side-effect of other actions, would seem appropriate — but the player (and in some games, their squad) generally lacks both the firepower required32 and the interface options to make use of it.

Machineguns are a squad weapon

This, I believe, is the crux of the conceptual rut shooters are predominantly mired in33.

The basic principles of infantry section tactics are fire and movement. One element fires while the other advances. Shooters too often - almost universally, in fact - lack the squad mechanics to realize those tactics within the game. Designers have seemingly fixated on the frontal assault34 without even giving players the proper tools to execute it — namely, machineguns and the squads which underpin their use. Machineguns are not individual weapons in the way shooters understand them. They require others to carry their ammunition, to guard their flanks, to press home the assault while they provide covering fire. And they require the kind of group coordination singleplayer shooters seem to have lost interest in providing.

It wasn't always this way. It isn't always this way. And it doesn't have to be this way.

The original PC Space Hulk35 preceded the near-deified DOOM by half a year36. It presented you with a whole squad to command, both through an overview map where orders could be given, and a five-way first-person interface, controlling one marine at a time but seeing through all eyes at once37. It also used the unique (and sadly never duplicated) mechanic of "freeze time", essentially a limited-duration version of the paused order interface so common in real-time tactics games since. In a similar vein, Rainbow Six (1998, and a year after Half-Life essentially decided the direction of singleplayer shooters to come) was predicated on the squad model, with the player required to draw up elaborate initial plans, and then able to take control of any squad member during their execution. Squad members could be killed, thus unavailable for future missions. And planning frequently took longer than the execution.

It's not entirely alien territory for modern shooters, either, but a matter of incomplete or muddled execution. Mass Effect puts great stock in the selection and usage of squadmates, but their usefulness is largely limited to special abilities and contextual dialogue38. ArmA II contains almost all of the elements I've listed to enable cohesive squad tactics, but the shoddy39 AI and the thoroughly obtuse interface conspire to prevent it. Multiplayer shooters understand this dynamic, too — they rely upon coordination between their players (thanks to the ready availability of voice chat) and specialization of their roles which are almost anathema to singleplayer games. (Battlefield 3 goes so far as to make its suppression mechanic explicit, giving points to those who suppress even if they do not kill, and forcing debilitating effects on those suppressed.) These mechanics are available, but sit unused or truncated, because they are not deemed to fit.

Shooters, after all, are almost universally predicated upon the conceit of a lone warrior, or sometimes a very small team40, is tasked with taking on a long series of engagements, outnumbered and unsupported. The cumulative odds facing the player first bend, and then inevitably break any sense of verisimilitude, both of the likelihood of survival and of the very concept that such a limited force would be employed at all. This fundamental ludonarrative dissonance is nothing new to the class, and neither has it gone unremarked: games as far back as Marathon and as recent as Max Payne 3 have made attempts to narratively justify its protagonists' superhuman abilities (as in Half-Life or Crysis), thematically comment upon the lopsided slaughter (as in Max Payne 3), or occasionally both (as Bungie did in Marathon and Halo). The Call of Duty series, in its more recent incarnations, makes an attempt to escape this with its cast of allies and its large-scale (and largely-scripted) battles — which is promptly undermined completely by how little your character is required to do.

But there is only so much to do with that model, only so much one can say about and through it. There are only so many times we can be asked to wade through a regiment's worth of enemies on our own (or even with a companion or two). And there are only so many variations of the same gameplay scenario we can enjoy before we hunger for something different. War stories focus on the group - the company, the platoon, or at minimum the squad - because, if nothing else, shooting is a group activity.

Now give me my twelve-man squad, my discrete missions, my tactical maps, my freeze-time, and my detailed commands. And pass the machinegun. There's shooting to be done.

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