Remember about 15 years ago or so when to the non-gaming public videogames were synonymous with blood, carnage and youth-corrupting violence? When concerned parents around the country banded together out of fear for the well-being of their children? Fortunately for us (and our parents), games have evolved quite a bit from the violent, blood-soaked heyday of the ‘90s. However, while games have developed and evolved considerably over the past decade and a half, the first-person shooter is still around and still going strong. Here are some of the most notable games in this staple genre—but put your goggles on, as the first two rows are probably going to get a little spatter on them.
Despite the fact that the Nintendo 64 took some of our most beloved franchises into the third dimension, it still represents the awkward adolescent stage of videogame hardware. Even though the system suffered from blocky graphics and one of the most Escherian controllers ever encountered, some titles were so good they shined through anyway.
Goldeneye 007 is one of those titles. Aside from the fact that it’s a licensed game that manages to not suck—a noteworthy accomplishment in its own right—this game almost single-handedly brought competitive first-person shooter gaming to console owners. Almost everyone who owned a 64 has memories of patrolling the hallways of the game’s many multiplayer maps stalking their friends while trying not to get caught secretly looking at their screen. Rare’s later offering, Perfect Dark, may have been the competitive shooter hill the developer chose to die on, but Goldeneye paved the way.
Industry innovators Valve put their own spin on social shooting in 2008 with Left 4 Dead. Cashing in on both the zombie “thing” and the massive contingent of shooter fans within gaming, Left 4 Dead was unique in that it allowed players to play with each other instead of against each other.
Much of what made Left 4 Dead important was under the hood. The game’s AI “director,” which adapted in real-time to players to make sure the levels were never the same twice, and an engine that could handle unreal numbers of enemies on-screen at the same time make the game stand out as a surreal sort of social experiment for players. You never knew until you were locked out of a safehouse with two dozen zombies nipping at your heels which asshole to not invite to your birthday party.
Regardless of setting or platform, first-person shooters are all about one thing—constant movement. At least, until Superhot. This game, which has the distinction of being perhaps being the shortest game on the list, nevertheless managed to change the genre completely with one simple trick. The game’s interesting spin on time, which only moves whenever the player does, drops us into a series of levels that are as much puzzle game as they are shooter. In a genre that makes its living off of stuffing its players into as many fast-paced, stressful situations as possible, Superhot offers a luxury rarely seen in the world of shooters—time to stop and think about your next move.
Ion Storm, 2000
If there were one game on this list to stretch the bounds of what is considered a first-person shooter, it would be Deus Ex. While viewed from the first-person perspective, Ion Storm’s 2000 opus takes a crowbar to almost all of the conventions that had previously been synonymous with the genre. Not only did Deus Ex shake things up by adding skill progression and experience points to the mix, but it actually fundamentally changed how shooters were played.
Shooters are so named because in 99 percent of cases, the primary—if not only—interaction players can take is, well, shooting things. But Deus Ex changed that, transforming its levels from the linear death corridors of its contemporaries to more open-ended puzzle boxes, giving players solutions to problems that don’t necessarily come out of a gun barrel. In fact, the game’s skill system worked in such a way that shooting your way out of a problem was often the least desirable answer—skill-affected accuracy reticule bloom and limited inventory space for ammo encouraged players to use their heads.
In recent years, there’s been a trend in the shooter genre of asking the player to examine the violence and interactions that they’re carrying out, and Bioshock was the catalyst for this critical shift. The game’s charming ‘60s atmosphere and spooky aesthetic make the game interesting, and its beefy if uninspired arsenal of weapons and the addition of superpowered “plasmids” provide variety, but the real reason any of us are still talking about this game seven years after its release is its clever metanarrative twist.
While maybe not the first game to do this, Bioshock stood out because it actually dared to comment on the nature of the games we play, speaking not to our character but directly to us as players. Whatever your thoughts on Randian philosophy, everyone can agree that the famous “Would You Kindly” moment stands out as both a tremendous plot twist and a commentary on the linear nature of game design itself.
Bioshock did much to highlight some of the narrative and metanarrative quirks of the genre, but when it comes to marrying narrative and mechanics and using the conventions of the genre to critique its themes, Far Cry 2 is in a class of its own. Although the game receives flak for some of its mechanical peccadilloes and somewhat questionable design choices, few shooters—indeed videogames—have as clear a handle on how to use mechanics to inform narrative effectively.
It may lack explosive cut-scenes, Hollywood-style set-pieces and memorable dialogue, but Far Cry 2 is the only post-Bioshock-era first-person shooter that truly understands the tools it’s working with, and it uses them masterfully. While most other games fall victim to the cut-scene-action-cut-scene chain, struggling to pause and deliver a story through cinematics after 10 to 30 minutes of corridor shooting, Far Cry 2 embraced the mechanical limitations of the genre, using rote violence and open-world wandering as the basis for its limited narrative rather than trying to reconcile a heavy-handed story with arcade-y action. Rather than try and soapbox about the state of violence in games, Far Cry 2 simply holds itself up as a mirror of player interaction in shooters and silently prompts us to draw our own conclusions from what we see. Masterfully understated and incisively observant, Far Cry 2 is the pinnacle of what narrative in a first-person shooter can be.
Infinity Ward, 2007
Like it or not, it’s hard to think about first-person shooters these days without the image of the Mountain Dew-drinking, teabagging “gamebro” springing to mind. While the value of this contingent of the market segment may be up for debate, the influence they’ve had on gaming, not just within the industry but in the larger public consciousness as well, is undeniable. And the game most responsible for the genesis and explosion of this phenomenon is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
The decision to leave World War II behind and step into present day affected more than the setting for the storied franchise. Whole new generations of frat boys and gamebros latched onto the 21st-century power fantasy ejected out of the barrel of far, far too many realistically researched and rendered guns. The introduction of experience points and leveling to the multiplayer set the stage for pretty much every competitive shooter since. And of course, the nationalism and jingoism that underscore our modern-day military conflicts crept in as well.
Long ago, in days of legend, first-person shooters were widely considered to be the province of PC gaming. Sure, there were exceptions, but in general, the precise aiming and extensive inventory management required by the genre made it much more conducive to computer keyboards and mice than console controllers.
And then, in 2001, little-known developer Bungie changed everything. Halo was everything console fans never knew they wanted in a shooter—it was fast, it was lean and it was gorgeous. The unwieldy “carry an arsenal on your back” inventory was replaced with a clever 2-weapon alternative that not only fit a console controller much better, but also added a level of strategy to the game. And although this didn’t come until the series’ second installment, the regenerating health introduced in 2004 is perhaps one of the most defining features of first-person shooters today. Halo may not have been the first—not by a long shot—but it’s a primary example of how lean design and a knowledge of the limitations and benefits of your hardware platform can turn out an excellent game.
Savvy readers will remember that Valve had another entry further down this list. That’s no accident—the company made a name for itself by fundamentally changing how the industry approached first-person shooters. Previous genre staples were designed primarily as shooting galleries. Even games lauded for their setting and atmosphere such as Quake were little more than stylized murder boxes, designed more with player movement and challenge in mind than any cohesive sense of place or function.
Half-Life changed all that. It was one of the first shooters to look at its setting and attempt to flesh it out and make it believable, crafting an actual narrative players could invest in rather than providing monster mazes to gun through. Valve’s methods still hold up as a paradigm of game narrative. Rather than lean on the crutch of cut-scenes, Valve put unprecedented effort into developing the game’s ambient environments to flesh out the story and give Black Mesa a real sense of place. The game abandoned the genre’s arcade roots for believable spaces, complete with weapon placement that was more rooted in reality than simply spinning in space.
Valve also experimented with implicit narrative constructions in Half-Life. Things players would normally be told through cut-scenes were instead delivered through the game’s then-novel scripted sequences, allowing for narrative delivery that didn’t lend the game a stop-and-go pace.
Id Software, 1993
It’s hard to make a list of best first-person shooters that doesn’t have DOOM somewhere near the top. id Software’s 1993 cyber-horror shootfest is a masterclass in everything that the first-person shooter has the potential to be, and has influenced the genre in every aspect from thematic presentation to level design.
Of course, it’s easy to look at DOOM and just see it as zombies and shotguns and demons, but that’s just the tiny tip of a massive iceberg. As one of the earliest seminal shooters, DOOM is a veritable Formula-1 car of a game, custom-designed to be as lean and efficient as possible. The game engine maximizes the limited resources available from the computer hardware of the day, providing a fast, kinetic shooter that literally couldn’t have existed on the PC prior to DOOM. The level design built on the efficiency of the game’s engine, taking advantage of the unique opportunities it allowed—new technical features like dynamic lighting and variable level heights were as much essential parts of thematic design and level characterization as they were window dressing.
Most importantly, DOOM succeeds because of its dedication to just being a good shooter. Its levels are disparate, disconnected arenas that don’t need to be strung together in any sort of narrative cohesion, because DOOM recognizes its strengths. It’s one of the first—and only—shooters to embrace the strengths of the shooter and build on them rather than trying to hide them under layers of story.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer. He writes his bios in the third person because that’s what everyone else does. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you will find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.