Taking Cover: Shooting em Up from Space Invaders to Gears of War
The little houses that spawn level one of Space Invaders represent a shift in the dramatic pacing of its action. Sounds a little silly to say of something five pixels across. But the ability to hide from an enemy’s attack drastically changes how you react to that enemy. Instead of requiring only twitch-timing, a good play may require patience and strategy. Enemy patterns become important; observation becomes a necessity. Space Invaders is often considered the first shoot em up, but it’s more than that. It represents the fantasy that is the core of the gaming experience – it’s for good reason that The Times voted it the most influential game of all time, and was Shigeru Miyamoto’s choice for the greatest video game ever made.
So this topic may seem 8-bit, but it’s about every game in a sense. Every video game owes Space Invaders something.
That’s a big claim but consider the climate of the gaming market circa 1978. A video game was a different thing, with a different grasp of its relationship to reality. It’s hard to think of it now but the market was almost suffocated under the weight of excessive Pong clones, a game which defined what a video game was as a medium. The main draw for Pong was also what was crushing the industry: it was a facsimile of real life.
The early games, Tic-Tac-Toe and Pong chief among them, replicate specific reality. Pong is an interactive version of table tennis. In effect, it was not a video game, as an example of the self-sufficient interactive medium. It was just an experiment in translation. A clone of life.
And like fading Xerox copies of an image, copies of clones of life continued to degrade the quality of creativity in the early market. Space Invaders surfaced to save the industry as an example of what gaming means as a medium. It was the first time music met the rhythm of a player’s interactions. It was the first world created for a video game.
Space Invaders has no corollary in real life. It is an experience invented by a designer and designed explicitly for the medium. It is the first game that used pixels to create a universe, instead of copying five pixels of our own. Miyamoto acts beholden to it honestly: Super Mario Bros. feels like gaming’s first true adventure, but it’s really an elaboration of a concept pioneered by Space Invaders. Out of an industry built on imitations, here was a new art.
For me the real curiosity is the plunge into mainstream gaming around 2006. That era defined itself with extravagant sameness, which seemed to think without thinking that the quickest way into the wallets of the average gamer was with technological advancement in all areas except design, which rested plainly and repeatedly on Space Invaders more than anything else.
Consider the rise of the cover-based shooter, as promoted by games of such delirious appearances of quality as Mass Effect and Gears of War down to the guttural squeals on a disc the likes of Kane and Lynch 2. As a genre, what is its real purpose?
I mean, cover in a shooter isn’t new: it’s just new as a mechanic. Doom contained the possibility of taking cover, peeking out, shooting, and returning to cover. Most shooters contain concrete at least knee-high, the minimum environmental requirement to take cover. There doesn’t seem to be a reason to make it a literal button-press, beyond simplicity.
It’s effect on the games that contain it is swift and consistent. The cover mechanic will turn any ballsy free-form firefight down hallways and over rubble into a simple game of peek-a-boo that is the core Space Invaders experience. Turn the perspective axis at a slant, and can’t you see it in Gears of War? The enemies descending in predictable patterns, first down and then to the side and then down, you hiding behind your little house, taking shots until your clip’s empty before returning to cover?
This has become the essential premise of so many mainstream games that I couldn’t name them all. But if a game feels like Gears, Halo, or Call of Duty, with or without cover mechanics, it feels essentially like Space Invaders.
The AAA industry is experiencing a luxurious lack of initiative in crafting new experiences, one broken only occasionally by a From Software game (but now even these are becoming self-imitative). Space Invaders once represented a new horizon of the gaming concept, but now it comes back to my attention as a toxic norm replicated for consistency’s sake to an audience that doesn’t know any better.
More design is required to give players the free breadth to tackle situations in organic ways, which the new Doom understands, ironically as a tribute game, much more than your typical new release. But our grey-brown industrial hallway simulators only have cinematic trailers in mind. They care about making experiences to be so traditional that the least number of people will care enough to return them.
So I see E3 2017 and I see a lot of promise. I also look to Call of Duty: WWII and I see the ghost of Space Invaders creeping back in with its knee-high concrete and enemy waves. Awareness is key in an industry that will use its technology (its graphics, its cinematic textures, its trailers) to dupe people into buying a re-skinned old hat. You have to recognize it to recognize the new tailors, of which there are many. But if you got excited over the next Destiny game, you might already be unfortunately, woefully, in fashion.