Dark Forces lured me into the recent Star Wars Humble Bundle sale. In the last couple of years I’ve grown to appreciate the older era of FPS games, those which followed in the wake of Doom’s release. It’s hard to believe it now but at the time FPS games were often referred to as ‘Doom Clones’, regardless of what unique qualities they possessed. True, many games companies were following in the enormous wake of Doom but there was a lot of variety and some truly great games.
Dark Forces stands up as a fun, ambitious game even now, some 19 years after its initial release. It has the swift movement and “kill anything that moves” arcade element of Doom, but it has a story and style straight from its cinematic progenitor. The Star Wars theme isn’t just a coat of paint to the game; it feels like it informed every part of the development. Weapons look, act and sound like their film equivalents, the blasters lack of accuracy over distance feeling almost comically loyal to the nature of Star Wars fire fights. Some levels are set within places seen or mentioned within the films, yet the story doesn’t overreach like the absurdly out of place yarns spun by The Force Unleashed, it is a small side story that lets you be a part of the wider Star Wars world.
What I appreciate of older FPS games, that I feel has been somewhat lost to the genre, is the freedom to explore the space. The genre has become better at driving players forwards, better at giving them thrills and delivering story beats in bombastic spectacle, but it has, in some ways, given up the wider spaces to multiplayer gaming primarily. Exploration is now mostly given to games that are parts of hybrid genres, like the FPS RPGs, and the pure shooter doesn’t see as much allowances for explorative freedom. Shadow Warrior (2013) was a great game for trying to stay true to the play elements of old FPS games while bringing in modern refinements and attitudes (especially ditching the absurdly offensive racial shit of the original game) but it’s a rare one in the midst of a more current standard approach. I don’t think that we need to really lose either type of play in the genre, but as the market stands games are still driven by adhering to popular trends and since the FPS has, from Doom, been synonymous with advancing graphics tech the indie space has a harder chance to break in.
There are downsides to explorative freedom. All Metroidvania titles hits the point where you aren’t quite sure where to go to continue and that can easily lead to player frustration. A frustrated player is one that quits and that’s a very real danger I acknowledge, but what we gain in freedom is often worth it. Take the titles in the Zelda franchise for instance, the main quest is usually guided very directly and obviously, which is great, but the most satisfying moments of play tend to come from what we discover ourselves. Finding the side quests, noticing somewhere that might lead to a heart piece, they’re treasures to hunt and it’s that moment of freedom that creates the sense of triumph.
It’s not an easy equation and I don’t fault designers for following the trends that have proved popular, but I do cherish the moments where I can play an FPS that gives me freedom, allows me to play within the space they’ve designed.