Aim, Fire, Rinse, Repeat: The banality of first-person shooters

BioShock Infinite's Columbia is beautiful...even if it's seen down the barrel of a gun.

I’m tired of being a mass murderer.

There, I said it.

I just finished playing BioShock Infinite. I bet you are playing it, too. Or at some point this year you've played a first-person shooter. But at one quiet moment early in the game, after laying waste to yet another wave of bad guys, I found myself tiring of taking aim and pulling the trigger. How many bad guys have I offed in BioShock already? Which faction were those guys? And how many have I killed in all the other games I’ve played?

I know this is hardly a new problem in gaming. How many goombas and turtles did Mario jump on in his efforts to save Princess Peach? Mega Man and all those little robots? Hell, at least Sonic was freeing trapped woodland creatures when he defeated enemies.

Consider: The FBI’s definition of a mass murder is “murdering four or more persons during a particular event with no cooling-off period between the murders.” Four people. How many of you scoff when an encounter in a first-person shooter tosses you four enemies? How many non-sports games have I played where I killed fewer than four enemies?

Just how many police officers do they have in Columbia, anyways?

I’m tired of pulling a trigger, watching the body count rack up, and just moving on to the next section. It’s as if shooting down five foot-soldiers is par for the course in Our Hero’s everyday life. (“That’s nothing,” he thinks, “I usually cap eight enemy redshirts before I brush my teeth in the morning.”)

Please take note that I’m not coming from this from the point of view of a shrinking violet outraged at the violence. Hardly. Some of the things I see make me squeamish from time to time (Korean and Japanese thriller movies are a hell of a thing), but that’s not where I take offense. Instead, all this shoot-shoot bang-bang is, well, boring. The first-person shooter has been refined to such a degree that any new games feel like a slight twist on the theme instead of a major revelation. BioShock is a shooter with an interesting setting and magic from your off hand; Battlefield is a modern shooter with really pretty graphics; Call of Duty is a war-porn carnival ride doing its best shooter impersonation.

Aim, fire. Aim, fire. Reload.

Rinse, repeat. Yawn.

It’s almost despite this sameness that I enjoyed BioShock Infinite. The shooting was competent, the tonics and environmental tricks add a nice flavor, but it’s the story and traversal and world that kept me going. I shot some dudes, and I did watch my blood pressure rise as a situation got tense, but it’s not the same oh-my-god feeling I get from other kinds of set pieces.

How can something that looks like this be boring?

And that is the root problem: Shooting feels like a very tired, banal mechanic. Even at its best, staring down the barrel of a gun and pulling the trigger feels like a mechanic that’s been done a million times before...because it has been. Some of the biggest, most-hyped games every year are M-rated shooters, despite those kinds of games are in the vast minority of games released every year. The most recent data, from 2011, suggests M-rated games are over 25 percent of the titles sold every year -- including six of the top 10, with five of those being shooters. However, M-rated games are five percent or less of the titles rated each year by the ESRB.

What’s the solution to the problem? Shooting scores of enemies is a power trip that’s very addictive. Gamers have grown so accustomed to mowing down hordes of enemies that scaling that number down is sure to be a let-down unless done properly. Even third-person action games like Uncharted and this year's Tomb Raider reboot fall guilty to racking up ridiculous body counts. I guess that’s where we’ll see if Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, due out this summer, will be a success or not. It promises to make encounters feel much more realistic -- fewer enemies, more dire consequences.

Strangely, I’m fine with shooting in multiplayer games -- there, it’s a digital game of laser tag where you can master the mechanics against other humans. That's fine. My issue lies with being the one-man army, the Rambo that gamers have been since Contra first put a gun in your hands, and the resulting stories that rely on you mowing down scores. It's become a lazy narrative construct. Whether first-person shooters, third-person action games, or even a side-scroller, it’s frustrating that the default interaction is “kill the enemy.” And it doesn’t have to be this way: In First Blood, Sylvester Stallone’s character killed one man; in succeeding Rambo films, the body count rose exponentially.

Moreover, how about games moving away from focusing solely on violence to move plot elements forward? The Walking Dead proved that dramatic tension and engaging gameplay can come away from firearms. Journey was the other standout of the year, and it focused less on out-and-out violence and more on exploration.

I know I’m asking the impossible question -- for games to mature, and for publishers to take a risk on something other than a proven quantity. But I hope for their sake and our own that the body counts stop rising someday soon; otherwise, I won’t be the only one bored of it all.