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The Aesthetics Of First-Person Shooter Video Games


It's no secret that the first person shooter games dominate the video game industry. From "Wolfenstein" to "James Bond" to "Duck Hunt," games and guns go, well, hand in hand. But over time, these games have evolved to offer more stories and more choices as players race from firefight to dust-up.


CONAN: That's an excerpt from "Call of Duty: Black Ops II," which came out last week. And, well, it could be the biggest moneymaker of any video vehicle this year, any entertainment vehicle this year, unless it's beaten up by "Halo 4," which also came out earlier this month. Video game critic Stephen Totilo hailed them both in the New York Times and offered a defense of the shooter genre.

So if you play first person shooters, why? What's in it for you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also find us on Twitter: @totn. Stephen Totilo is editor-in-chief of the online video game publication Kotaku and a video game critic for the New York Times. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

STEPHEN TOTILO: Thank you, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And when asked to defend video games as something other than a complete time-waster, some go for, well, they say some are very clever. Others say some are very artsy. You go right for the jugular.

TOTILO: Well, I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that video games are not often violent and therefore ghastly to the people who look at them. And you might look at them from afar. You might listen to the clip that you just sounded off, and it sounds like just explosions and guns and some sort of boy's fantasy of blowing things up. And I think that's not that appealing to a lot of people. But I think about games in another way as well.

Let's think about solitaire or basketball or chess. Any good game is a series of decisions. They're not necessarily always decisions that you enjoy intellectualizing or thinking about in terms of their context, but they're interesting. What can I do next? What will I do next? What will I choose not to do next? And the shooter games wind up presenting some of the most interesting, in-the-moment decisions available when you're playing games. Simple things that you wouldn't really want to have to worry about in real life, but should I run here or should I hide? Should I shoot? Should I shoot here? Should I shoot there? Constant decision making is what these games are all about.

And so when people play these essentially for sport or for pastime online, it's really a test of will and improvisation and clever tactics, and it becomes something that millions of people find themselves investing in. And that, I think, is not as apparent when you're just looking at them from afar, but it becomes something that really draws people in, and I think that's one of the main reasons why shooter games have been so popular for so many years.

CONAN: As we mentioned also, and as you mention in your piece, they continue to evolve with more and more story and more and more cinematic effects.

TOTILO: Certainly. So that sometimes has been to the detriment. People who don't really play a lot of video games think that, oh, if only video games were more like movies, they'd be better. Some people who make video games think that as well. But video games succeed not when they're trying to be something else, not when they're trying to adopt the storytelling techniques of cinema or literature but when the people making those games remember that these are games. A lot of people play "Tetris." Think about the decisions that you make when you play "Tetris," when the blocks are falling. Do you turn this piece? Do you let it straight down? Do you put the piece down to the left? Are you planning ahead, two steps ahead for the next piece that might fall? There's some luck. There's some planning.

The best games are all of that. It's figuring out a system, and then figuring out how you're going to beat that system. It's the kind of the thing we aspired to do in our everyday lives, but we usually can't. We don't have that much predictability. We can't really see through the system that well. But...

CONAN: Speaking - well, I was just going to say, speaking of predictability, many of these games usher us from one scenario to the next in order every single time.

TOTILO: Yes. And that's something that I talked about in the piece of The Times. I said, the worst shooters are the ones that have been criticized for, when you play them a single player, for being too linear. They don't give you enough choice. And there'd been complaints from some of the players. I want more freedom. I want to be able to do more things. And that's why the games had have allowed more choice, have developed more and more of a favorable critical response, and why it's gratifying to see something like "Call of Duty," which we just heard a bit of.

It's beginning to open up and give players more choice as well. Where do I want to go? Who's going to live or die? What will be the consequences of failure? Some of the games didn't have consequences for failure, just restart. Now, sometimes, games force you to deal with it. You mess this thing up, you're not going to be able to try again. And we're seeing that in some of the games, and this really makes these games much more interesting.

CONAN: You described - in fact, you and a friend both played "Call of Duty" and - as individual players - and ended up in very different places.

TOTILO: That's right. It was my colleague, Patricia Hernandez. She (unintelligible) in Kotaku, and she - she and I were comparing notes at the end, what happened at the end. It's like, what happened at the end of the movie that we just saw? Totally different things occurred, different - I don't want to really give it away, Neal.

CONAN: No, no, no.

TOTILO: ...if you're going to know you're going to be playing "Call of Duty" at some point. So I don't want to spoil your experience. But this was not something you could do, even in last year's "Call of Duty." Everybody's game ended the same way. This is something that other genres of games have done before. But the shooter genre, which has really been more of the macho, kind of marketed as such, you know, lived out the action movie star fantasy yourself, hadn't given people that much choice.

People - I think that's why people have gravitated more to the multiplayer. Millions of people play these games online against each other all the time. For a lot of people, this is their poker. This is their golf. This is their going out and playing basketball outside, but they're doing it inside. They're competing with each other and rising the skill ranks and what have you and having a good time chatting to each other while they're doing it.

CONAN: And these skill levels, one of the things you described in your piece is that the games have become more tolerant of people who may not be at the same skill level.

TOTILO: Yeah. The worse thing when you get into some of these games, if you haven't played - I mean, you know, I don't know what your KD ratio is.


TOTILO: It the kill death ratio. It sounds foolish, right? But it's - how many times do they...

CONAN: I'm the one with the target on my chest.


TOTILO: Exactly. My ratio isn't so good either. But it's the - you're rated in a lot of these games. There's how many times you can defeat other players versus how many times they defeat you. How many times you've killed their character versus them you. It's running around. It's essentially a glorified version of playing tag right? It's - I got to be on you. I shoot, you're gone. You come back to life in 10 seconds. You try again. But all running around.

And when you're playing these games, you're trying to get better, but it's tough. Some of the newer games are introducing a systems that basically - they keep - not only do they keep the better players away from you, but sometimes if you're within a team and you're providing a support role, then you're actually contributing to the success of the overall team. The games have ways of calculating that and determining, oh, he didn't run out and shoot everybody, but he was able to hold up a shield and - and protect his friends. It's what they're talking in theory with the new "Call of Duty."

My colleague, Patricia, who I mentioned, she actually found, unfortunately, that players of these games, in particular, the "Call of Duty" series, have come so habituated to being the alpha player, running out, taking out everybody else, that they don't yet know how to play as a team. So they don't typically do that. And you'll find that in other shooter games. People are better at that.

And you see there's different cultures within the different communities, people playing different shooter games. In some, you'll find very supportive, very welcoming to new players, tolerating their - maybe their skill deficiencies that, you know, might happen in the games. And some games have it baked in. They can actually, again, calculate the performance of the lesser players and somehow give them a boost. Maybe think of it like a golf handicap or something like that.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from those gamers in our audience who play first-person shooters. Why? What do you get out of it? 800-989-8255. Email us: Ryan is on the line with us from Cincinnati.



RYAN: How are you doing today?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

RYAN: The reason I am calling is because I think I bring, maybe, a somewhat different perspective to the whole first-person shooter thing. I've been playing shooters since "Doom." And I think one of the things that really appeal to me lately - at least with the advent of the Xbox - is the fact that I can play my first-person shooters cooperatively with my friends. And the difference, I think, between the first-person shooters and other multiplayer games, is that I think it's a little bit more immersive. And the nature of actually going out in a team with your friends and actually accomplishing something is very compelling, especially when you're 41 years old and you have two children and you don't go out at night because you do things that parents do.

CONAN: Ryan, let me ask you about that phrase you just used, actually accomplished something.

RYAN: Well, when I say, actually accomplished something, you know, we're talking about an artificial accomplishment. I mean, you're talking about an achievement that's given you by the Xbox for shooting X number of people in the Y number of times or, you know, accomplishing a goal. But you're working cooperatively, and there's a feeling of success when the artificial accomplishment is met. And, you know, while I think, to a lot of people, you know, it doesn't really make a lot of sense because you're not really accomplishing anything. You're playing a game. But, you know, it's so artfully constructed and crafted that it actually feels like something is happening, and you're actually doing something and...

CONAN: Stephen Totilo, go ahead.

TOTILO: Yeah. Ryan, I think, actually, you are accomplishing something, and I know that sometimes when we play games encounter folks who don't play games as much, we find ourselves feeling guilty. And some of that is because when we play games, we sometimes fail so much that we don't actually move ahead in the game. And it feels like, why do I just sit here for two hours? What I was doing? And some games are manipulative that way, and they kind of prevent you from moving ahead.

But the same way that you would read a book, and you'd feel like you've accomplishment something because you got to the end of it, and you read a story, and you were exposed to some interesting, aesthetic experience. I'd say that when you're playing a cooperative game, you are crafting a story. It's what you did with your friend when you're playing. And you could probably tell us right now if we had, you know, tons of time, about every little adventure that happened, and when you took this turn and something happened you didn't expect to have happened. And these, I believe, are real experiences. And this is a real way of socializing. And this is a real way of interacting with a piece of fiction and creating your own fiction out of it. I think that is something. That is accomplishing something.

RYAN: I absolutely agree with you. I mean - and although my - I think the distinction I was trying to draw is, you know, if I'm building a piece of furniture, I actually have a tangible item at the end of it.


RYAN: The thing that I am accomplishing when you and I are going, you know, and we're playing "Halo," and we get a particular achievement, is more of an abstract material thing, but it's no less real because we've actually done it. And I think the difference between playing a first-person shooter versus playing "Uno" with my friend in Australia, is that, you know, it feels like we're doing something, I guess, because we are doing something, but...

CONAN: Ryan?

RYAN: Yes, sir.

CONAN: I just want to say thanks very much.

RYAN: Oh, no worries. Have a good day.

CONAN: You too. Appreciate it. We're talking with Stephen Totilo of The New York Times about the first-person shooters' "Halo" and "Call of Duty" came out with new versions just last week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And before we go too much further, are these the greatest video games ever made?

TOTILO: No. They're better versions.

CONAN: Are there good ones?

TOTILO: They're good. "Halo 4," "Call of Duty Black Ops 2," they're both good games, but there's - we're in the season where most of the biggest budget games come out. This is, as the summer is for movies, is November and October for video games. You'll hear about games like "Assassin's Creed," they have huge marketing budget's behind them. But there are fantastic games that come out all year round. Some people are just playing on Facebook. Some people are playing on their cell phones. I would recommend people try either of these games, but there's a host of other games.

"The Walking Dead," the zombie show, that actually has a fantastic spin-off video game that a lot of people are into and they're talking about as one of the best games of the year. So there's always a lot out there. And it's hard for some people to figure out which one is for them because there are so many choices. But there's some good stuff.

CONAN: Here's some tweets we've received @totn. Queen of Spain, son says it's exciting because he gets to play an adult-type again with his dad, to feel older and more responsible. Non-mating Panda: For engaged relaxation. Zombie at you: Here, I play "Black Ops II" to taste the sweet, sweet nerd rage tears. I like that.


CONAN: And this is from Amanda in Wichita: I'm a girl who very much enjoys playing "Call of Duty." My boyfriend of over three years and I met playing "Call of Duty" online. I enjoy meeting and talking to people over the headset, almost as much as playing the game itself. She raises an interesting point. We think of, well, teenage boys. That's not really the audience.

TOTILO: No. I went to a wedding a couple of years ago of two people who met each other playing "Halo." They actually had - the officiant(ph) was somebody dressed up as the main character, Master Chief, in big green space Marine armor. And they proceeded out to music from "Halo." Yeah, there's a lot of people of all types who are playing these games.

Some of the games that we talked about, "Call of Duty" and "Halo" in particular, are - it's meant to be sold to people 17 and up. It's legal to sell them to anybody. The games are protected speech. But that has been a controversial thing. And typically, you're hoping to play against grownups, men, women, when you're playing. Teenagers show up and wind up playing these things a lot. It's sort of what kids do.

CONAN: Let's go next to Patrick. Patrick on the line with us from Minneapolis.


CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.

PATRICK: I wanted to discuss not - multiplayer games would not only been successful for first-person shooters, but the single-player genre has actually had a renaissance as well. And specifically, I would like to reference "BioShock." "BioShock" came out in '06, and it not only succeeds as a game game - it's got ammo, and health, and manna, and exploration and all the things that you'd expect from just a game for game sake. But it also succeeds without sacrificing that on being a completely narrative and immersive game.

You got all these different situations where your hands are right in front of you, and your hands perform as actors that really give a visceral experience to what's happening. I don't want to give too much of the game away, even though it's old. And it makes you feel that you yourself are the person that are doing the stuff. And with a narrative that compels you to continue, that you feel you are making a lasting change in a truly compelling environment on top of picking up ammo and killing the dragon, getting the gold, getting all of the basic loot that you get from video games as well. So praise on both levels. And the single-player genre, specifically, has been able to channel that with new technology and graphics in the last few years better than it ever had before in its history.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, Patrick. That's an impassioned endorsement. We appreciate the phone call.

PATRICK: You bet. Have a good one.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, Stephen Totilo, to some degree, I hear a sense of defensiveness the same way I heard a sense of defensiveness all these years about comic books. Hey, yeah, there's a bunch of them that aren't very good, but there are some of them that are really, really good. And as they've gotten more exposed to their kind of storytelling to the American public, they've gone over pretty well. Do you think the analogy might hold up?

TOTILO: It does and it doesn't. What works about the analogy is that both are, sort of, forbidden pieces of entertainment that scared people until people actually experienced them. What's different is that video game, I think, are more like a foreign language or a musical instrument, which is that you know it exists, but it really requires some skill and some practice in order to be proficient at it. And I think, therefore, there will always be some people who just won't want to take the time to play and to learn.

So those of us who do play games, I think, wind up being maybe set apart from those who do. And even those who do, they play different types of games. You might play a game on your iPhone and you develop certain skill set for that. But there's always going to be some alienation, I think, between those who play, say, shooter games and those who don't. And so it'll be more like a dispatch from a foreign country. Hey, I was here. I did this. I had this experience.

CONAN: Stephen Totilo, thanks very much for your time today.

TOTILO: My pleasure.

CONAN: He's the editor in chief for the online video game publication, Kotaku, and a video game critic for The New York Times. He was with us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, outgoing Ohio congressman, Dennis Kucinich, joins Ken Rudin and me for a Political Junkie exit-style interview. Joins us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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