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Seeing without crosshairs: a survey of the first-person non-shooter

Chaz Evans is a co-director of Chicago’s Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery, an organization that promotes—you guessed it—video game-related art. We’re fans of the work that the VGA is doing, so we invited Evans (and previously, his partner Jonathan Kinkley) to give our readers a game-centric art history lesson. Here’s his look back at first-person games that forgo violence for, well, just about anything else.

The center of gravity around the first-person shooter genre cannot be over-emphasized. Shooters function as more than a pop cultural phenomenon with astonishingly wide appeal. To some they are the main event of video game competition, in more than one sense. Competitive FPS play, both online and in eSports tournaments, demands harsh training and discipline that combines the attitude of athletics with kinesthetic repetition, not unlike learning a musical instrument. (I once spoke to a competitive Halo player who bragged about intentionally burning the thumb pads off his controller to build callouses and play for longer durations. He also claimed it was totally worth it.)

But beyond players of the game, there is also a competition between FPS games themselves, for both developers and connoisseurs of the genre. Who will move the needle forward in an increasingly vertical and disciplinary conversation on calibrating a war game just right? Who will balance the weapons, design the flow of the boards, or integrate player classes perfectly? It’s a community singularly driven toward a very specific goal that cribs the obsessive historical arc of modernist painting over the 19th and 20th centuries (i.e., who will finally achieve pure painting?). In a genre with so many releases and a rather strict format (first-person perspective, interaction with the world through ranged and, sometimes, melee weaponry), what can possibly be improved? And when improvements do come, is the achievement really that great a departure or just a piecemeal adjustment packaged as something brand new?

The strategy for how to move the genre forward might not be a matter of recalibrating crosshairs or introducing new weapon customizations, but instead playing the FPS-competition meta-game by stepping outside of it. The 7DFPS game jam, for example, has sent a video game-worldwide call to spruce the genre up for three years running. Without having any particular dogma or position other than to “keep first-person shooters interesting,” the open game jam carries a subtext of letting preconceptions about FPSs go, simply by cultivating a temporary creative zone for new ideas. The challenge is simple: Create a new FPS in seven days, and then submit it. The game jam’s efforts have returned some stylistic and innovative results altogether removed from space marines or contemporary theaters of war.

Several of the titles created during the event invert or mutate the act of shooting in unfamiliar ways. For example, Opera Sentai by Twoplus Games politely asks for access to your computer’s microphone before you begin and then thrusts you into a cartoon space combat scenario where rather than clicking the left mouse button, singing fires off rounds (over an electronic version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera theme). Cactus Farming Simulator 2014 by Chris Maire replaces bullets with projectiles that create or harvest beautifully rendered cactuses. Elemental Zeal’s Slop Slinger replaces guns with cafeteria food to be tossed at rival classmates.

Other titles make the yet-more experimental choice of omitting shooting altogether. Some achieve this with a non-anthropocentric approach and instead use a first-animal perspective: godspeed, noble spirit by nine baobabs, Ratta Tat Tat by mikethetike, and Voxel’s Bird of Prey offer the perspectives of a house fly, a rat, and a hawk, respectively. Other titles exchange weapons for the absurd, disturbing, or psychedelic. This raises the question: How did we get to a point where removing weaponry from first-person perspective could be seen as a novel departure?

While the energy that 7DFPS infuses into the genre is needed and well received, the event is an important part of a larger first-person experimentation ecosystem. Many first-person non-shooter games can be situated in different sectors of game-making culture, as well as different points in video game history. The success of deviations like Portal, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, and Gone Home stand as evidence that the genre is well established and diversified. For further evidence of the genre’s volume look no further than Gameological’s previous Inventory of 21 games that include virtual photography (and add Michigan: Report From Hell to the list for good measure). Games like Pokémon Snap ask what could be a better use of video game-enabled vision than video game image-making? Going even further, the following examples offer different contexts for the lack of ranged weaponry, and how the option to replace guns with something else can be viewed as a statement on what we can do with the power of sight in imaginary spaces.

Untitled Game (JODI, 1996-2001)

This is a landmark in both the deconstruction of the FPS as well as the incorporation of game-making into contemporary art practice. Nearly two decades before the 7DFPS, artist duo JODI exploited the code of Quake to make a multi-part work of minimalism and optical art where imagery conjuring Victor Vasarely is rendered in real time and navigable through keyboard-driven controls.

Room Of 1000 Snakes (Torah Horse, 2013)

To describe Room Of 1000 Snakes is to destroy its secrets. Such is the mystery of the snakes. Suffice to say, Ben Esposito, a.k.a. Torah Horse (part of LA-based collective Arcane Kids), removed the weapon component of the first-person video game and replaced it with the altogether essentially human pursuit of seeking forbidden knowledge for one’s own self, even if includes listening to The Verve. Don’t forget to visit the gift shop.

Minecraft (Mojang, 2011)

Now that Minecraft is available on virtually every platform, has been played by virtually everyone, has been officially bought by Microsoft, has a narrative spinoff in development by Telltale Games, and has a Hollywood feature in the works, it might seem like repetition to mention it again in this context. But aside from its massive popularity and impressive creative community, it’s worth briefly mentioning what is at stake in Minecraft as a first-person builder. Instead of shooting, the first-person perspective is used for creative labor. Instead of guns we are given tools. There are few enemies and abundant materials. This is the real novelty that Minecraft adds to first-person games: seeing the world around you not as the stage of a performance or the arena for competition but as one made of raw material that can be broken down and converted into productivity.

Viscera Cleanup Detail (Runestorm, currently in Steam early access)

Viscera Cleanup Detail not only stands as a first-person non-shooter but also functions as a commentary on the FPS itself. Suppose you were a space marine with the highly specialized roles of dispatching enemy space aliens with high-tech weaponry. Or, conversely, you were a raging alien who had no role other than attacking space marines with your own version of alien laser blasters. In either case, you would never need to consider what might happen after raging space battles die down. Viscera Cleanup Detail dares to focus exclusively on the equally banal and revolting task of cleaning up the biological remnants of fallen space combatants on a remote space station. It foregrounds the consequences of first-person violence rather than its real-time execution.

FATALE: Exploring Salome (Tale Of Tales, 2009)

FATALE is the very first video game where you get to play as the disembodied spirit of the recently beheaded John The Baptist. Although the player takes the perspective of the famous biblical prophet, the game is an advanced study of Salome, step-daughter of Herod and cultural symbol of innocence and carnal desire through the traditions of visual art and literature. Tale Of Tales adds to these traditions by transposing the visual style of Gustave Moreau and the text of Oscar Wilde’s Salome into interactive media. FATALE shifts the visual conventions of the FPS into an analysis of desire, sexuality, and power—a study of female agency but viewed from a passive male perspective.