This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee explores the appeal of the so-called “boomer shooter” style of FPS and its ongoing renaissance.
Extra Punctuation Transcript
The term “boomer shooter” refers to retro first person shooters, such as those that were coming out during the era of first generation 3D graphics in the mid to late 90s. The genre is currently enjoying a nostalgic revival on Steam marked by the release of a small handful of retro styled indie FPSes such as Dusk, Ion Fury, and Amid Evil. And Ultrakill, Project Warlock, Nightmare Reaper, WRATH: Aeon of Ruin, Prodeus, and Hedon. And HROT, Blood West, Dread Templar, Viscerafest, Forgive me Father, Golden Light, Postal Brain Damaged, Superhot, Berserk Mode, and Turbo Overkill. And Selaco, Extraneum, Beyond Sunset, Graven and Strafe. Oh wait, should we be counting the remasters, as well? Blood: Fresh Supply, Powerslave Exhumed, Duke Nukem 3D 20th Anniversary – oh you get the point. There’s a lot of it about, madam.
So what’s brought on this present wave of interest in boomer shooting? Actually can I just say, I kinda hate “boomer shooter” as a term. In meaning an old-style shooter, that is, shooters for old people, i.e., boomers. But these are the shooters I was playing when I was a teenager and I’m not a fucking boomer. Boomers are people who were born in the baby boom after the second world war and proceeded to grow up and divert all the money to themselves, I was born in the 80s, I’m just as much a victim of the boomer economy as you young scrotes. Yes I am being overly prickly about this.
I suppose “boomer shooter” also implies that these games tend to be much more violent and feature protagonists capable of dealing out more violence than the kind you see in your more modern, more realistic triple-A shooters. Fine, forget it, so back to the point, why are so many of them cropping up now?
Well, a lot of it’s the usual nostalgia wave. Popular culture always being nostalgic for the world of 20 to 30 years ago because that’s when the people who create popular culture and generate the most profit for it were around the age of 12, that wonderful nostalgic period in most people’s lives when they’re just old enough to properly appreciate their entertainment but not yet old enough to be cynical about it. That’s certainly part of it, and most definitely the motivation behind the boomer shooter design of Doom 2016 and Doom Eternal which arguably kickstarted the current wave. But I think there might be something more to it than that. I think retro-style boomer shooters still provide something that modern triple-A shooters do not.
The onus of new, cutting edge video games has always been to make things bigger, more impressive, more complex, and frequently more realistic. That was what drove the progression of shooters in the 90s. It started with Wolfenstein 3D being nothing but single level corridor shooting that as far as the engine was concerned was basically a 2D game being viewed from a funny angle. Then Doom discovered how to make one bit of floor higher or lower than another bit of floor and that set the world ablaze. Quake introduced full polygonal 3D while simultaneously Duke Nukem 3D discovered that you could have levels that look like cinemas and fast food restaurants and actual places that exist rather than demonic labyrinths.
And the innovations didn’t stop there, as technology improved and memory capacity expanded people were discovering all kinds of wonderful ways that first person games could be more than just popping at dudes in a room. Half-Life, Thief, System Shock and Deus Ex all paved the way to the immersive sim, in which player choice was king. Stealth, alternative paths, talking your way around problems as well as shooting. There was also the likes of Gears of War adding realism to gunfighting by emphasising cover mechanics and minimising incoming damage rather than soaking it up and hoovering up medkits.
But as we entered the era of the “cover shooter” and the “realistic shooter” there was a sense that gaming had lost touch with part of what was fun about the original boomer shooters. Realism has its place, it creates immersion and enhances a game’s atmosphere, and shows off the potential of graphics hardware if that’s important to you for some reason. But it doesn’t have much to do with what makes boomer shooters appealing.
That comes down to what I always brought up in my Dev Diary series as the most vital aspect of game design: the primary gameplay loop. It’s all about how you’re making the player feel on a moment-to-moment basis. And in a boomer shooter, when you’re running around at the land speed record pouring damage into your foes as easily as looking at them, players gain a sense of catharsis from feeling like they’re acting with speed and efficiency.
And do I feel like I’m acting with speed and efficiency when I play, say, Gears of War? No I bloody don’t. As my chunky soldier man trundles from one chest high wall to the next, I feel like I’m transporting a wheelbarrow full of expired haggis. Modern games with top of the range graphics can render spectacular environments full of detail and ultra atmospheric lighting, but does any of that make me more efficient? Not really. I cast a look around a room and my brain has to do a load of extra work to differentiate important elements from cosmetic background details. Is that a monster behind that bit of wall? Oh no it’s a pot plant. That’s a monster over there, I couldn’t tell at first because the incredibly beautiful realistic lighting was making that part of the screen all murky.
You don’t get that in the original Doom. You go into a room where everything’s lit evenly like the corridors on the Starship Enterprise, that’s the floor, that’s a wall, and that’s a demon, fucking hell, shoot it. And that’s what boomer shooters with their primitive graphics and unrealistic movement speeds still offer that, say, Call of Duty Modern Warfare doesn’t: a cutting to the chase, if you will.
The times when technology has still been in the process of improving have been times of innovation, of making games bigger and better by building more and more upon what has already been achieved. But eventually technology plateaus, or at least stops improving in a way that affects the fundamental ways in which games are designed, and what usually follows is a time for introspection, of getting back to the essence of what makes games work and stripping away the unnecessary chaff. That, I think, is what we’re seeing with the current boomer shooter, er, boom, in the indie circles.
It’s also what we saw with Breath of the Wild. As the open world genre had become bogged down with the excessive clutter of the Ubisoft model that had built up feature by feature over many years, a critical moment of rediscovery occurred when Breath of the Wild stripped itself back down to basics. Here is the world, go where you please, come to the final boss as soon as you’re confident he won’t instantly spread you across the floor like Nutella. The Battle Royale boom reflects the same principles. Multiplayer gaming had been overthinking things for years creating more and more complexity, team modes, capture the flag, control point defense, that thing where you pit four shitty players against one really tough one. And then along comes PUBG going “Hey, this all started with deathmatch. Everyone gets in a room and tries to kill each other. Let’s just do that but with as many people as we can fit in a server.”
The march of technology has given us some wonderful things, but I think it’s true of shooters in particular that sooner or later people always gravitate back to the simple pleasures. Modern Warfare can certainly offer a realistic take on what happens when you point your rocket launcher at the floor and pull the trigger, but it’s hard to take pleasure from it when you’re lying on the ground being gently misted with what remains of your bottom half.