THE HISTORY of the First Person Shooter
P A RT I
Writers of videogame histories often think in terms of individuals and periods—great innovators and clear-cut ‘epochs’ in design, typically bookended by technological advances. Events or people who contradict those accounts have a tendency to get written out of the tale. According to one popular version of the medium’s evolution, the first-person shooter was formally established in 1992 with id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, a lean, thuggish exploration of a texture-mapped Nazi citadel, and popularized in 1993 by heavy metal odyssey Doom, which sold a thenludicrous million copies worldwide at release. The company’s later shooter, Quake, meanwhile, is often held up as the first ‘true’ 3D polygonal shooter.
Founded in 1991 by former employees of software company Softdisk, id’s contributions to what we now call the FPS is undoubtedly immense. Between them, Wolfenstein3D and Doom brought a distinct tempo, savagery and bloodlust to first-person gaming, and programmer John Carmack’s engine technology would power many a landmark FPS in the decade following Doom’s release. But we shouldn’t view that contribution too narrowly, as simply one step along the road to a game such as CallofDuty:WorldWarII. And nor should we neglect the games—before, during, and after id’s breakthrough—that took many of the same concepts and techniques in different and equally valuable directions.
To think about the shooter’s origins is to think about labyrinths. Among the earliest pioneers of first-person videogaming is 1973’s Maze, a game cobbled together by high school students Greg Thompson, Steve Colley and Howard Palmer during a NASA work-study program, using Imlac PDS-1 and PDS-4 minicomputers. The three had been carrying out research into computational fluid dynamics for future spacecraft designs, an early show of what would become a problematic relationship between the commercial games business and the US militaryindustrial complex. Initially a single-plane, 16x32 tile wireframe environment for one player in which you’d turn by 90-degree increments, Maze grew to include shooting, support for a second player via serial cable, a corner-peeking functionality, and indicators for which way the other player is facing.
After completing his spell at NASA, Thompson took the game with him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With access to a more powerful mainframe, and the aid of David Lebling—who would go on to create the legendary text adventure Zork, and found Infocom— he added eight-player support over the US defence department-run ARPANET, a map editor, projectile graphics, scoreboards, a spectator mode, and ‘bots with dynamic difficulty’, all features that would resurface in
mass-market shooters many years later. MazeWar was very popular on campus—it used up so much computing resources that the MIT authorities created a ‘daemon’ program to find and shut down sessions. In one of its later forms, the maze extended along the vertical axis, and players could fly, shoot, and take cover in any direction.
If MazeWar sounds like a fully-featured FPS in hindsight, it’s important to note that the category ‘first-person shooter’ is of much more recent inception— according to a 2014 study by the academic Carl Therrien, it only entered popular discussion around videogames in the late ’90s. Many studios, including id, preferred terms and slogans like ‘3-D adventure’, ‘virtual reality’ and ‘the feeling of being there’ when describing games that are played from a first-person viewpoint. Nor was the perspective exclusively, or even predominantly, associated with on-foot gunplay. There were racing games, such as Atari’s 8-bit arcade offering Night Rider, which treated the player to a dashboard view of a road made up of shifting white rectangles. There were cockpit simulators such as 1974’s Spasim (often granted dual honors with MazeWar as the first-person shooter’s oldest ancestor), a 32-player space combat game in which unofficial approximations of Star Trek vessels wage war at a mighty one frame per second.
There were dungeon-crawlers such as Richard Garriot’s Akalabeth in 1976, which combined a top-down
Many studios, including id, preferred terms and slogans like ‘3-D adventure’
world map with first-person dungeon segments featuring colored wireframe graphics. MazeWar spawned a number of sequels and imitators, attractively billed as ‘rat’s-eye view’ experiences by a 1981 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine. The first-person shooter genre as we understand it today arose from the artistic friction between these approaches, shaping and being shaped by them in turn.
Naturally, methodologies shifted as new technology became available. Among MazeWar’s more intriguing descendants is Paul Allen Edelstein’s WayOut, released for the Atari 8-bit in 1982. It made use of a rendering technique known as ray casting, whereby a 3D environment is generated from a 2D layout by sending out beams from the player avatar’s eyeball and drawing a pixel where they intersect with an object’s coordinates. Where light in reality bounces off many surfaces before entering the eye, ray casting simulates a ray’s collision with an object only once. While incapable of nuanced effects such as refraction, it was also much less resource intensive than other 3D projection techniques, which allowed for faster performance on the hardware of the day. If WayOut was a potent demonstration of ray casting’s utility, it is also worth remembering for its eccentric, non-combat premise. You play a clown trapped in a maze with a spinning, sinister ‘Cleptangle’ that will steal your map and compass on contact. A wind blows through the level, its direction indicated by floating fireflies. This interferes with movement, but also helps you get your bearings should you lose your map.
Cockpit simulations were especially popular during the ’80s, beginning with Atari and Ed Rotberg’s arcade game Battlezone, a tank sim featuring wireframe vector graphics that came with a novel ‘periscope’ viewfinder (the US Army would later try, and fail, to convert the
game into a Bradley tank training simulation). In 1987, Incentive Software released Driller: Space Station Oblivion— the first game to run on its proprietary Freescape engine, which allowed for complex 3D environments dotted with simple geometric objects. The game assigned a sizeable chunk of the display to your offworld rover’s dashboard, a fat slab of buttons and indicators. In part, the prevalence of cockpit games reflected the influence of Star Wars, with its lavishly realized starfighter dashboard displays. But it also arose from attempts to make often-unwieldy simulation technology more convincing by representing players at the helm of a lumbering vehicle. Among id’s subsequent achievements was to narrow the gap between the player’s body and that of the avatar, thus helping to open a space in which ‘first-person’ denotes not merely a perspective, but a narrative in which the player is protagonist.
id’s career as a first-person developer began with Hovertank3D in 1991. A cockpit sim brought to life with ray casting and featuring animated 2D sprites, it featured players searching for civilians to rescue, and tentacular UFOs to blow up. It was followed by Catacomb3-D— id’s first crack at a first-person character-led action game, with a visible avatar hand and portrait. Catacomb also featured texture maps, flat images attached to surfaces to create the illusion of cracked stone walls and dripping moss. In this respect, id had been strongly influenced by
id’s career as a first-person developer began with Hovertank3D in 1991
Blue Sky Productions’ breathtaking UltimaUnderworld: TheStygianAbyss, often cited as the first ‘immersive simulation’, which offered 3D, texture-mapped environments featuring sloped surfaces, rudimentary real-time physics and the ability to look up and down.
Wolfenstein3D and Doom— both developed after John Carmack glimpsed Ultima in action at a 1990 expo—can be considered combative responses to Ultima’s representation of the possibilities of first-person 3D, eschewing the latter’s more complex geometry and gigantic array of variables in favor of pace and immediacy. Though busier with ornaments than Catacomb3-D’s levels, Wolfenstein’s environments are designed to run at speed—designer John Romero once planned to let players carry and hide bodies, but dropped the idea to avoid bogging players down. Where Ultima set out to make players feel part of its world via deep, consistent systems and a wealth of lore, Wolfenstein dealt in simpler, visceral effects—the sag of your avatar’s body when you take a step forward, gore spraying from the pixelated torso of a slain Nazi. If the game pushed violence and politically charged imagery to the fore, it also harkened back to the maze games of previous decades, with secret rooms to discover behind sliding partitions.
This emphasis on the avatar’s bodily presence would set the tone for many shooters—notably Call of Duty, with its blood spatter damage filter—as would id’s sense that player participation should take priority over narrative elements. When it came to Doom, there was disagreement between Carmack, Romero, and id’s creative director Tom Hall over how much plot and backstory to weave into the game. Hall had planned something akin to Ultima, with large, naturalistic levels built around a hub area and a multitude of arcane props. “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie,” was Carmack’s infamous rebuttal. “It’s expected to be there, but it’s not important.” Hall resigned in 1993. In his absence, the team stripped out a number of more fanciful weapons, turned many plot items required for progression into generic keycards, and cleaned up certain environments to allow for speedier navigation.
Loaded with taboo imagery, ultra-moddable thanks to id’s decision to store game data such as level assets separately from engine data as ‘WAD’ files, and equipped with four-player multiplayer to boot, Doom was a phenomenal success. Such was its impact that before ‘FPS’ became an accepted term, many in the development community used ‘ Doom clone’ as shorthand for any first-person game involving gunplay. No game can claim to define a genre for long, however, and id’s work would attract plenty of imitators and rivals in the years to come.
Four months before Doom’s arrival, a fledgling Chicago studio founded by Alex Seropian and Jason Jones released Pathways Into Darkness, a Wolfenstein homage with a pinch of Ultima- style item puzzling. It thrust players into the boots of a soldier fighting through a pyramid in order to nuke a sleeping god before it can bring about the apocalypse. One of the few Mac exclusives available at the time, Pathways was hailed for its colorful hand-drawn art and menacing atmosphere. It deserves mention today for the ability to commune with the ghosts of other explorers using special crystals and elusive keywords—an engaging, melancholy approach to textual backstory. The developer, Bungie, would build on this concept during work on two of the 21st century’s best-known FPS series, Halo and Destiny.
Before Halo and Destiny, there was 1994’s Marathon, the series often billed as the Mac’s answer to Doom. A suspenseful sci-fi offering set aboard a hijacked colony ship, it was a more complex game than id’s offering— adding free look with the mouse and a range of terrain dynamics, such as low gravity and airless chambers. It was also a more convoluted work of fiction, which relied on players scouring its open-ended levels for narrative artefacts. In place of the souls of the slain, Marathon offered computer terminals through which you converse with various sentient AIs about the wider universe.
The game’s reach was limited by its choice of platform, but it attracted a dedicated community thanks to its elusive narrative backdrop and infectious eight-player, ten-map multiplayer. 1995’s Marathon2: Durandal added co-operative play while 1996’s Marathon Infinity introduced a ‘Forge’ level editor, two features that would become central to the studio’s projects. Just as significant, however, was Bungie’s work in the emerging real-time tactics genre. Conceived by Jason Jones in a bid to stand apart from id Software, the top-down Myth games equipped Bungie with a feel for how different unit types and variables might react together. This would yield fruit in the shape of Halo’s famous combat sandboxes.
Its sheer brilliance aside, Doom’s pre-eminence during the ’90s owes much to id’s embrace of the modding community, with players able to create their own maps using the developer’s own editing tools (and thus, squeeze many hours of enjoyment out of the free shareware version). Fan concoctions ranged from Batman and Alien-themed conversions to trashy oddities like TheSky MayBe, in which zombie men moonwalk and the legendary BFG-9000 has a chance of conferring immortality on its target. Many up-and-coming designers cut their teeth on Doom mods, and other studios were eager to license it for commercial use. Among them was Raven Software, founded by Steve and Brian Raffel, which created the fantasy-themed shooters Shadowcaster, Hexen and Heretic using their own bespoke versions of John Carmack’s engine technology. The two companies were at one point based just down the road from each other, and formed an enduring bond—id would eventually hand Raven the keys to the Doom and Quake franchises.
Raven’s games were eclipsed, however, by the noxious excess of 3D Realms’ DukeNukem3D, a celebration of B-movie tropes that occasionally resembles a postmodern satire, and occasionally the aimless, chauvinist doodlings of a 13-year-old boy. DukeNukem3D is an intensely antisocial game, its levels grimy parodies of real-world locales, such as movie theatres and stripclubs, guarded by porcine cops and strewn with the corpses of cinema idols like Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker.
While technically accomplished and formally inventive—it introduced jet packs, shrink rays, animated props such as arcade cabinets, physically impossible layouts and a protagonist who provides audible commentary throughout—the game is remembered today mostly for its jiggling softcore imagery. In years to come, shooter developers would spend as much time dispelling the notoriety DukeNukem generated as they would profiting from his example.
Doom’s success also won the regard of franchise owners in other media. Maryland-based Bethesda—flush from the success of its eye-catchingly vast roleplaying effort, TheElderScrolls:Arena— released a Terminator adaptation in 1995, endowed with lavish polygonal models. In hindsight, the game’s vast, cluttered wasteland feels almost like groundwork for the studio’s later first-person Fallout titles. In the same year, the venerable adventure game studio LucasArts shipped DarkForces, the first Star Wars-themed FPS, inspired (and perhaps, annoyed) by the appearance of Death Star mods for Doom. LucasArts had designed a number of historical cockpit-based simulations during the late ’80s and early ’90s, but DarkForces was a straight riff on id Software’s work. The developer’s impressive Jedi engine allowed for vertical looking, environments busy with ambient details such as ships landing on flight decks, a range of effects such as atmospheric haze, and the ability to stack chambers on top of one another.
By the mid-’90s, developers had begun to shift from so-called ‘pseudo-3D’ techniques such as ray casting to fully-polygonal worlds, capitalising on the spread of 3D hardware acceleration and the arrival of the first mass-market graphics processing units. Released for the Mega Drive’s 32X add-on in 1994, Sega’s lumbering Metal Head is often touted as the first ‘true’ 3D shooter. Pitching
large, plausibly animated mechs against one another in texture-mapped urban environments, it was a handsome creation let down by repetitive missions. There was also Parallax Software’s Descent, released in the same year—an unlikely but gripping hybrid of flight sim and dungeon crawler with 360-degree movement. But the game now regarded as a byword for polygonal 3D blasting wasn’t, to begin with, a shooter at all.
John Romero had intended Quake to be a hybrid of Sega AM2’s arcade title Virtua Fighter and a Western roleplaying fantasy. Conceived back in 1991 and named for a Dungeons & Dragons character, the game would have alternated between first-person exploration and thirdperson side-on brawling. Romero envisioned circling dragons, a hammer massive enough to send shockwaves through the earth, and events that trigger when players
As Big Robot’s Jim Rossignol has noted in a 2011 retrospective, something of this failure lingers in Quake as it stands. Though cut from the same coalface as Doom— it offered fast, brutal gunplay, levels made up of corridors and arenas, and a multitude of secret areas—the game’s aesthetic and fiction are curiously divided, at once crustily medieval and high tech. You can expect banks of computer monitors and teleporters, but also broadswords and monsters ripped from the pages of Lovecraft. In hindsight, it plays like a representation of the tipping point from avant-garde into profitable convention, the point at which the chimerical possibilities of 3D action solidified into the features expected of a modern first-person shooter.
In at least one respect, though, Quake was transformative—it introduced a thrilling element of verticality, with players dashing through the air above opponents rather than simply strafing or corner-camping. This quality proved an asset in the emerging field of online multiplayer: By the late ’90s, Ethernet connections and modems had become ubiquitous and internet usage was rocketing. Quake’s multiplayer was initially designed for high bandwidth, low latency local area networks—it would check with a server before showing players the result of an action, which led to jerky performance online when there was a build-up of server requests. id swiftly released an update, titled QuakeWorld, which added client-side prediction. The result can be held up as the original esports shooter—software company Intergraph sponsored a US-wide tournament, Red Annihilation, in May 1997, which attracted around 2,000 participants.
As with Doom, Quake’s modding tools made it an attractive platform for amateur developers—its community gave the world Team Fortress, which would later flower into a standalone shooter, along with early
specimens of machinima, including an epic known as The Seal of Nehahra. Its greatest descendent, however, would prove to be a shooter from a developer founded by Microsoft alumni Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington.
Created using a modified version of the Quake engine, Valve Software’s 1998 epic Half-Life remains extraordinary for how it reconciles the abstractions of game design with narrative tactics redolent of a novel (the game’s tale of secret government research and alien invasion was, in fact, written by a novelist, Mike Laidlaw). Its achievement versus earlier shooters can be summed up as the creation of temporal unity: Almost everything is experienced in real time from the lead character’s perspective, with no arbitrary level breaks. In place of cutscenes, Valve weaves its tale through in-game dialogue and scripted events such as enemies smashing through doors—a tactic that both gives the player some control over the tempo and avoids jerking you out of the world. The game also sells the impression of a larger, unseen universe not via gobbets of textual backstory, but through the detail, responsiveness and consistency of its environment. The intro sees Gordon Freeman riding a monorail through Black Mesa, gleaning information about the location and your character from PA announcements and the sight of other employees at work. Following a disastrous experiment, you’re asked to backtrack through the same areas, now fallen into chaos.
1 Wolfenstein 3D
2 Maze War
DoomII ’s final boss is voiced by designer John Romero.
The Catacomb series began its life as a 2D dungeon-crawler.
4 Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
3 Hovertank 3D
2 Doom II
1 Catacomb 3-D
1 Pathways Into Darkness
3 Doom Batman
Now a fading memory, LucasArts was once an industry giant.