Nowhere was the machismo of the 80s action movie better exemplified than in the delightfully absurd first-person shooter (FPS) genre of the early to late 90s. In the days before Half-Life revolutionized the genre with its seamless fusion of gunplay with story, shooters were built around one simple concept: a lone bad ass with an arsenal of guns is mankind’s only hope for survival. Unlike more cerebral shooters such as Half-Life, Rainbow Six, and Ghost Recon, 90s shooters were cut from the same mold as 80s action films, imbuing the player with machismo through a focus on unrealistic combat conventions such as dual-wielding chainguns, using weapons nearly as large as the player, and slaughtering hordes of enemies without worrying about stealth, cover, puzzle solving, the psychological consequences of war, or any motivation for killing other than clearing a path to the exit and feeling bad ass in the process. Similar to 80s action films, 90s shooters offered a pure gameplay experience—narrative, character development and other concerns were ignored, or at least extremely downplayed, in favor of the action.
It all began in 1992 when Id Software released Wolfenstein 3D--actually the followup to a series of stealth action games—which became the genre-defining FPS. As B.J. Blazkowicz, players were tasked with killing Nazis, Nazi experiments, and even Adolf Hitler himself, in a mechanized battle suit equipped with quad-chainguns.
A year later, Doom exploded onto the scene, taking the sci-fi absurdism of the genre to new heights by pitting the player against a demonic legion from Hell. For the next five years, the FPS genre only knew one style of play: run-and-gun. With each passing year, each new release aimed to push the genre even further towards the violent and the absurd, culminating in Duke Nukem 3D in 1996, a game that succeeded as both a prime example of the run-and-gun FPS as well as an intentional parody of the genre. Due to the hordes of enemies coupled with technical limitations that prevented ducking behind cover and aiming up or down, the player’s goal was to escape each level as quickly as possible without getting killed in the process. This focus on speed and survival, rather than methodically clearing each area of enemies, resulted in a frenetic experience, in which the player employed whatever weapons were at his disposal to clear a path to the exit.
But just like chain wallets, slap bracelets, XTREME marketing campaigns, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bulging pectorals, the run-and-gun FPS couldn’t last forever. In 1998 with the release of Rainbow Six, the FPS genre saw a shift away from the hectic, fast-paced action and absurdist backdrop that had defined it toward a more realistic setting featuring a soldier, spy, or special operative armed with more realistic firearms and who might perish to a single bullet. Gone were the days in which the player could charge headlong into hordes of Nazis, demons, and aliens and kick some ass. Instead, players were forced to seek cover from enemy fire and plan their approach tactically. In contrast to the run-and-gun of earlier FPS games, these games were tactical shooters or condescendingly, stop-and-pop shooters.
It took a few years for tactical shooters to catch on, but with the resounding success of the Half-Life multiplayer mod Counter Strike in 2000 along with Metal of Honor in 1999 and Call of Duty in 2003, by the mid-2000s tactical shooters had become synonymous with FPS. What the FPS genre had gained in realism, it had lost in machismo.
The video game market of the present day has shifted focus away from testosterone-fueled celebrations of violence and towards more mature portrayals of combat, warfare, and survival. While tactical shooters adequately serve as reminders of the grim realities of war, run-and-gun shooters approach violence with a carefree, guilt-free tone that provides a purer gaming experience. Eschewing any serious attempt at narrative, run-and-gun shooters provide players with a continuous, unbroken gameplay experience. Just as classic platformers like Super Mario Bros. offer players the opportunity to rush through levels, hopping from platform to platform with little need to stop for long to plan the next move, run-and-gun shooters offer large, non-linear levels that the player can rush through in barely controlled mayhem slaying hordes of enemies with a hailstorm of bullets from his arsenal. Yet while continuous platform jumping is considered an acceptable method of achieving a “flow” in gaming, continuously shooting and killing enemies affords no such excuse.
In the real world, war is a terrible tragedy, and gun violence poses a legitimate threat. But video games occupy fantasy spaces in some of which one man with a gun can rush headlong into Hell and come out the other side only slightly bloodied and even better equipped than when he entered. Likewise, in the fictional spaces in which 80s action movies lived, violence solved problems, one-liners could lighten any grim mood, and even the most over-the-top genre conceit was ignored because it was all part of the experience. Run-and-gun shooters, unlike their tactical counterparts, do not champion a socio-political platform, nor do they reveal an underlying message. Run-and-gun shooters are meant to evoke the same sense of unapologetic masculinity and sheer escapist fun found in 80s action movies. Can games be art? Maybe so, but games only need to be fun.