Post news RSS Perfect Dark is a subversive FPS.

I hear a lot of talk about two games in particular, Spec Ops: The Line, and Far Cry 3, as being examples of games which subvert the war game, or first\third person shooter genres. While affirming of refuting these claims is an article in itself, I will say with confidence that in my opinion these two games are the very thing they supposedly are the antithesis of, and are merely an excuse for writers to preach to us via a storyline which is bolted onto simplistic and violent game mechanics.

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::Perfect Dark::
Who remembers Perfect Dark? Rareware's swan song FPS? The game which broke the Nintendo 64's hardware like Bane broke Batman in Dark Knight Rises? The game which some people stopped playing when they discovered it had aliens in it? The game some people hate, some like, and others love with a religious passion? (Guilty as charged?)

While Perfect Dark is frequently praised for things like dynamic lighting effects, comprehensive multiplayer and a vast array of weapons, the singleplayer is in fact a deeply subversive experience which deserves to be examined as an example of how to subvert the FPS genre via mechanics, not story.

::Perfect Dark vs Goldeneye::
In order to explain the basic nature of Perfect Dark's subversion, it is necessary to compare it to its predecessor. Goldeneye took the stylings of a Bond film and translated them into an FPS. Weapons fire big and loud, bullets spark when they hit wood, and enemies are plentiful, generally poor shots, and die for the satisfaction of the player. The only time they speak is to grunt when taking bullets to the chest. Killing people in Goldeneye FEELS GOOD. Killing forms the backbone of gameplay, and is euphoric. Just about anything which can be shot explodes in a classical fireball which was exaggerated in scale so Rareware could mask the switch between the 'live' model and the 'dead' husk. You are James Bond, mowing down waves of mooks as bullets spark off wooden surfaces just like the movie, and generally feeling good about yourself the entire time. In my opinion, no game since has recaptured the sheer impact of Goldeneye's combat.

However, Perfect Dark is a very different creature. Weapons are more subtle, explosions are smaller, and your enemies are no longer silent. They get angry with you, they talk among themselves, and most importantly, they surrender.

::Non-Lethal Combat::
Perfect Dark has simple, but servicable non-lethal combat mechanics. Besides several missions when the player is provided with tranquilizing weapons, players can at all times perform standard punches, pistol whip NPC's, or alternatively disarm them. Disarming can be done via punching enemies or shooting the weapon from their hands, the latter requiring significant skill. Disarmed enemies will either pull a handgun, pull a second, or even third handgun, pick up a discarded weapon, attempt to attack the player with martial arts, or, quite commonly, they will simply surrender.

(Excuse the emulation glitches.)

In almost every situation, killing is a choice. You kill in Perfect Dark because punching a squad of trained soldiers with assault rifles into unconsciousness is really, really difficult. (But still possible.) Action movies make taking on 5 armed guards with your bare hands look really easy. It isn't and Perfect Dark makes no attempt to cheat this basic reality.

However, it also is quite possible to rush enemies and snatch their weapons in rapid succession, and\or sneak up behind them and delivery an instant knockout punch.

::Surrendering mechanics::
It is this, surrendering mechanics, I feel, which are Perfect Dark's true subversion of the FPS genre.

Death barks - When NPCs die, they will sometimes speak, saying lines such as "Why me?", "Oh, God, I'm dying!", "I don't wanna die!"

Standard surrender behavior - Upon throwing their hands up, NPCs will plead, "Please, don't kill me," and "I'm just doing my job!"

Throwing down weapons - occasionally, enemies will simply throw their weapon, usually a handgun, down on the ground, then announce, "I don't like this anymore!"

::The Half Life of a Perfect Dark::
Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Skyrim are examples of popular FPS games (if we're willing to class Skyrim as an FPS) with enemies who beg for mercy, but their words always contradict their subsequent actions - which always involved attempting to kill you. In most combat oriented games, including the much praised Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line, anyone who is opposed to you must die.

Granted, Fallout 3 is hardly a subversive FPS. But it stands as an example of a half-implimented surrendering mechanic which could have profoundly influenced the gravity of the player's attempts to follow some sort of moral code.

Spec Ops - The Line is a simplistic cover-based third person shooter where you murder hundreds of nameless enemies in kill or be killed situations. The attempts to be deep and meaningful and criticize war are shoehorned into pretentious cutscenes.

You spend almost the entirety of The Line shooting people or inanimate objects.

Jason Brody from Far Cry 3 makes sacrifices to save the ones he loves - by shooting hundreds of basically identical pirates and running around the jungle turning native animals into wallets. The Jason Brody outside cutscenes wouldn't know anything about humanity, since the game mechanics never allow him to demonstrate basic human qualities like mercy and compassion.

Half Life 2 has a storyline which is supposedly about humanity and free will and how Gordon Freeman might be doing the world a disservice via his actions. But the gameplay consists entirely of shooting identical enemies and pressing colour-coded buttons. Your only choices consist of shooting enemies, blowing them up, throwing things at them, tricking them into fighting another AI faction, or killing by some other means.

It takes more than words to subvert or break new ground within a videogame genre. You can dress your murder simulation up in as many subversive colours as you like. Unless the gameplay mechanics speak differently, you're blowing hot air. And the opposite is true - if you design your game as some sort of anti-gun\anti-violence statement where using guns or violence invariably leads to bad things, you're just preaching - and presenting a warped view of reality in an attempt to push a point.

::Perfect Dark vs Goldeneye vs the FPS genre::
Which brings us back to Goldeneye. Killing in Goldeneye feels great. It feels, dare I say, empowering. It feels better than most other FPS games simply because its mechanics are so elegant. Killing in Perfect Dark is a deeply conflicted game mechanic. Enemies are real human beings with a very real fear of death. Some of them will fight you to the death no matter how many opportunities you give them to surrender. Many of them cry out in desperation when killed. But most importantly, a significant portion of them will surrender, throwing themselves upon your mercy. There is no scripted cutscene, or QTE prompt. The NPC merely surrenders in real time, and the choice of whether to shoot them or move along is entirely up to the player.

Playing Perfect Dark, I feel a pang of regret when I rarely, and accidently, shoot someone who has surrendered. Perfect Dark makes no attempt to comment upon your actions as a killer. It gives no speeches. It has no moralising. The only anti-gun sentiments come from members of Rareware who have occasionally expressed less than approving attitudes towards gun ownership. (This can reasonably be attributed to them being British, and the attitudes towards firearms in the UK.) Despite having no pretense of subverting anything, Perfect Dark subverts the first person shooter genre more powerfully than any other videogame I can name. For that, it deserves recognition, and it deserves praise. It gets plenty of praise from people like me for being a bloody amazing videogame. But it has been criminally ignored in the lively debate over subversive shooters.

Anyway, thanks for reading my fanboi rambling. I encourage you to break out the N64, buy the HD re-release ON XBLA, or use an emulator to play this classic, if you haven't already. Perfect Dark is a must-play FPS which deserves to be cherished for its achievements.


I agree with what you said buddy.

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Moral choices are always a touchy subject in video games because most of the time they are just a cheap gimmick to make you play a game more than once (see "Fable" or "The Cave" for a recent example) or if they are not then it is hard to implement, time and money consuming for the developers or simply doesn't match with the story, not realistic.

I don't like how you mix gameplay and AI behaviour like that is a thing that can be compared together.
With this logic I wonder why didn't you brought up GTA which also has people running away from you if you are walking around with weapons.
Also you forgot the context in your examples:
- In Half-Life 2 the enemies are either alien animals and parasites or ex-humans full of cybernetic implants that brainwashed them. The reason these enemies don't surrender is given.
- In Far Cry 3 the enemy are animals again or pirates lead by an insane idiot, who would most likely kill them if they fail on their mission and get back wounded.
There are also non-lethal way to approach gameplay objectives in many games that are otherwise support the violent approach. I don't think this is an idea that Perfect Dark invented.

I'm a moral gamer also (probably my weakness) and it's also hard for me to do the "wrong" choice in a given "good" vs "bad" situation in games, but that is because I forget that in the end it's just a game, an interactive story and the way it makes me feel a certain way is because of my own standpoint in real life. Also real life is not really so black&white two-sided like what you can see in games.

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Back on Perfect Dark, the reason it might not come up as an example is most likely because it is old and developed for console only. I'm not against any of that, it's simply the fate of older games. If I ask you an example for a recent world changing invention you more likely to say "smartphones" for example than "the first cellphone". I never played PD, but maybe, just maybe it isn't as good, everyone remembering it too fondly with pink glasses on. That is the reason I'm usually stopping myself from playing old games I liked in the past: Nostalgia can do some bad things to your memory. It's a dilemma with me like the case with the first Half-life and Black mesa.

So next time please be less "fanboi" and be more objective, don't mix up game elements and consider time and past technology and yourself ageing.

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Ambient_Malice Author

Okay, so let me address these sequentially.

My problem is with the way the games handle combat. The issue of morality is more to do with the paradox of games which claim to offer deep moral choices which matter, then force you into killing. People got rightfully grumpy when Deus Ex: Human Revolution forced you to kill bosses, when the rest of the game made killing fully optional. In real war, you don't win by brutally killing all the bad guys. You win by demoralizing them and making them surrender.

In Half Life 2, the cops are humans who just follow orders. Barney shows this. He's "behind on his beating quota." Half Life is Quake with a more complicated story, and it doesn't pretend to have great meaning on commentary on the human condition. However, it is held up as a grand achievement of PC FPS design. Yet you spend the entire game shooting people with no context or justification. You HAVE to shoot them because the game mechanics are Quake's. With a gravity gun.

Far Cry 3's problem is the fact the game deliberately sets out to covey themes of loss of humanity, etc. The fact that a pirate with a pistol doesn't surrender in the face of a crazy yuppie with a grenade launcher drives home that FC3 is a blunt shooter, no different to Far Cry 2, or even, yes, Quake, only with story bolted on.

I was partly inspired by Orson Scott Card's take on videogame writing:

-- It’s like golf. Sure, you could put on a World War II uniform and pretend that each ball was a bomb that needed to be dropped down into the underground bunker of some Nazi generals, and call it “Golf: The Dirty Dozen,” but the GAME is about you and your contest with the obstacles placed in your way by the course designer. You can compare your score with other players, but the things they do are completely irrelevant to your game. It’s just you against the golf course designer (and, of course, the groundskeepers).

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Ambient_Malice Author

In most videogames, you’re still just playing golf. The story exists only to justify cool new gameplay features. Yes, we respond to greater and greater realism; yes, there’s an element of escapism and power fantasy and all that crap that we hear about from psychologists – but lousy games have those just as much as good ones. What makes a difference is the degree of challenge and freshness in each new game. Everything else is window dressing. You’ve got to have it, but nobody should ever get confused and think that the window dressing IS the game.

The “story” elements of game are the window dressing. No wonder you skip them.--

And Grand Theft Auto? Well, GTA is a complex beast, and it to an extent is a satirical. But outside of scripted cutscenes, people never surrender. I think surrendering is such an integral part of war, that games omitting it are presenting the hollow view of war geared towards an action film.

Perfect Dark is very, very good. It's still good. Some people find its aged poorly in terms of textures and the original N64 framerate, but the game mechanics haven't been matched. The closest thing to Perfect Dark would be Deus Ex, released the same year.

And as for nostalgia? Not at all. I play Perfect Dark almost every week on a PC emulator. It's still my #1 FPS game, over all 3 Deus Ex games, Half Life, etc. It's simply an astonishing game. The fact it treats combat as something vaguely unpleasant, thus setting it apart from most other FPS games, is simply icing on the cake. The paradox is that combat in PD is awesome. The weapons are great, handle well, and the destroyable light sources mean setting off explosive weapons has visible effect on the environment.

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Ambient_Malice Author

I guess the point I was trying to make is that games like FC3 and Spec Ops attach a wanky story which is openly meant to criticise war games onto gameplay mechanics which are idenitical to the war games it criticizes. Perfect Dark's game mechanics are bizzare because of its non-Quake heritage. It's predecessor Goldeneye was based on Virtual Cop, a light gun game, with the collision system from Mario 64.

And the AI and game mechanics in PD are one and the same. The fact enemies surrender changes the basic game mechanics. Sure, a lot of people played the game as a straight FPS and shot everyone, and bizarrely the failed to notice that cornered enemies drop their weapons and surrender, that AI can't see properly in the dark, etc.

A lot of games have non-lethal combat, but it's no different to hitting them with a magic weapon which does 'sleep' damage instead of 'kill' damage.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment.

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I understand your points and partly agree. Yet I still never noticed that people refer to these game as a criticism of wargames, except for Spec ops but I yet to play that.

The thing is when people say this or that game is innovative they are referring to parts that made something other games did differently or haven't before. That's why HL2 was awesome because it did something new with it's physics engine, story, etc. and it was a fun game, which is why people tend to look away that it's basically a linear shooter.

In the end it all boils down to whether the game is fun to play or not. There is no scientific evidence that video games lead to violence, so moral choices in game come second to gameplay.

And who knows, maybe in the future this trend will come back. I seen it in a few games now that I thought about it, although it doesn't really add much more to me than the feeling that "The devs thought of everything".

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So if i wanted to download the emulation and relive my childhood days how would i do that?

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Ambient_Malice Author

Here's an emulator bundle I put together:

You'll have to find roms without my help, since they're a bit legally black, even if Rareware basically don't care anymore, and have said as much to people asking about emulating Conker's Bad Fur Day.

Send me a PM, or hit me up on twitter, (twitter's probably preferable, but your choice) if you want help configuring the emulator. I'm always happy to help.

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Recently got cartridge,it was so beaten up,it looked like it was buried in tons of dirt for years after failed attempt of being destroyed by hammer.
Anyway after some cleaning I was able to start a game,and I see why cartridge was in so bad shape,someone actually wanted to destroy it,
I assume person that had it back in the day was real young at that time,
and complexity of mere basic menu probably made him furious,
not to speak about actual game...
I must say even I at the age of 20 and something struggled just to start
a game,moment I've started to play I was getting more and more impressed,
gameplay and its unique mechanics blew me away every few minutes,
and yes I was playing at that time 14 years old game on a even older console.
One of mechanics that is most impressive is one your text was revolving
about,enemies that surrender and taking opponents weapons.
Oh yes,and shooting their weapons from their hand.
I can go on with this but most of things I would say would be copy/paste
of ones you already mentioned above.
Point was,this game no matter how much praised,is still hugely overlooked,
and superior to lot of games that came in between of moment of its release
and moment I am leaving this reply,and no nostalgia is not speaking out from me since like I've said above,I've first time played it year ago.

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This game is hugely under-rated. Just started playing again myself and I'm still amazed by the mechanics in this game. Playing it today I can see that this game was WAY ahead of its time. Especially for anything that was on the N64.

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