There is always a bit of methological slowness when it comes to the first person shooter genre of computer games: developers are lazy to trying something new, lest they fall flat on their faces. This is sort of true when it comes to advances in level design and graphics, where there’s a bit of tendency to move along, but only on known lines – next to nobody really adopts open levels. If they do, they are either of (next to) no impact at all (I’m looking at you, Frontlines: Fuel of War), or they change the whole game into something that gravitates around certain hot spots, as in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadows of Chernobyl, for example, or the first actual FPS doing this, Strife. And something so open like Operation Flashpoint, even though sporting quite impressive graphics, was never as successful as a rehash like Crysis which just slapped supreme graphics on old and proven FPS concepts.
Then, there was the other extreme, wer something radically new was tried. Games like Trespasser, which was a game set in the Jurassic Park universe with some rather nice graphics, and a very freaky control system. In this, you directly controlled the arms of your character, moving them around, rotating hands and clenching fists manually to grab levers or push buttons.
It was horrible.
But the thing which hasn’t changed at all for quite some time is how your character interacts with the world at large. The big changes in this category:
- Doom started out with using your keyboard arrows to move you along, and
PgUp and PgDn for aiming up and down.
- Quake introduced the mouse into the mix, which still took some time to get adopted, though.
- Then, Half-Life introduced the WASD key layout to accompany its plethora of special keys, which also popularized the “use” button to interact with environment objects, instead of just running into or shooting them.
- Recently, gamepad controllers are often used, and there’s a shift in layout mapping to conform with the limited amounts of button available on a controller.
And that’s very much it. For eons, you run around using your use button to make stuff do other stuff. Besides just activating switches, you have your use key triggering dialogues, opening doors, picking up things, and just about everything you can imagine. If you do anything that borders on complexity, you’d probably get a pop-up dialogue explaining your options to you, totally breaking game immersion and, in a few sorry cases, actually kicking in the fourth wall with a vengeance.
This was the case even with my beloved complex games like System Shock, even if they tried to be somewhat immersive in their interface. But then, there came the least likely candidate for reform ever: Doom III. Nobody expected D3 to be anything but a new “shooting demons” thingy; yet not only did it come along and introduced story to id Software games (which Quake IV continued to flesh out), but it also introduced a revolutionary immersive way of using computer consoles: instead of activating them with your use key and then clicking around on the screen, D3 just changed the crosshair into an arrow when you viewed at the controls of a terminal and allowed you to push and manipulate buttons without ever breaking immersion into the universe.
An example (just the first few seconds, really):
Example screenshot, blatantly stolen from the site in my post scriptum:
But it didn’t last. And I wonder: why? Was it too complex? Did it alienate the traditionalist that he had to do more than push ‘e‘ to use a computer? It’s just so good, yet nobody seems prepared to adopt it to their games. Bioware’s Mass Effect is quite good at trying to keep immersion high and making the player experience the game, rather than just play it – but they, too, resort to breaking immersion when it comes to computer terminals, using a combined inventory/data storage system on a separate screen.
The question remains: Why? It’s good, it works, it’s not hard to learn – so why avoid it?
P.S.: While searching for good screenshots, I found an article called Through The Looking Glass – Fully Interactive Surfaces In DOOM3 by Bernd Kreimeier, which explains things in a bit greater detail.