The year is 2058. Planet Earth has been rendered almost completely uninhabitable by a devastating nuclear war. The few who survive are anything but lucky, forced to take refuge in deep underground bomb shelters. As our protagonist, a man of grizzly proportions despite rampant malnutrition, ventures out from his bunker to save his captured wife, child, and/or MacGuffin, he will brave unspeakable horrors across a scarcely populated wasteland…
Which, despite its inhospitable nature, just so happens to be populated with more angry armed militiamen than the average rural Oregon town.
You wake up in an abandoned mental asylum, with no memory of how you got there. The smell of death lingers all around you. Your sanity threatens to flee at any moment, as your mind struggles to comprehend the terrors that lie around the next corner. Amidst the confusion and panic, a cryptic slogan gives you guidance: “Through the darkness lies salvation.” You push forward through the claustrophobic crypt…
And discover that you’re sharing the asylum with enough crazed inmates to exceed the population of Parma, Idaho – that’d be 1,983 inmates, in case you’re interested.
An esteemed treasure hunter has discovered the find of a lifetime: a buried relic stowed away in the harshest region of the Antarctic pole. Few have ever dared set foot there, and even fewer survive the desolate cold. More a scholar than a fighter, our intrepid protagonist nonetheless readies her warmest clothes and sets off to find the treasure that will cement her legacy…
Oh, and two hundred of the meanest dudes on the planet beat her to it. Better get to shooting them all.
When compiling a list of the greatest action films of all time, one film in particular has a way of finding a spot firmly near the top: Die Hard, the hugely influential and spectacularly entertaining skyscraper heist thriller. Bolstered by the superb pairing of Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman as the cowboy hero John McClane and German terrorist Hans Gruber, Die Hard succeeds through its intimate blending of space and narrative to create a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse. It’s McClane against Gruber and eleven of his most fearsome men, with the action confined entirely to a single building. The increasingly bruised and bloodied McClane must rely on his wits to pick off Gruber’s men, each deadlier and more imposing than the last, one by one before finally making his way to the big, bad, questionably accented man himself for one final, epic showdown.
It is, in essence, the perfect scenario for an action video game.
And yet, action games rarely adopt such a taught and thrilling structure. Instead, they are far more likely to follow the formula laid out by shooters such as id Software’s Doom, a game whose thirty-second first level features more antagonists than Die Hard has in the entirety of its two hours. By and large, action games are all about quantity, whether it takes the form of Pandoran psychos in Borderlands or cyber-enhanced Nazi soldiers in Wolfenstein: The New Order. Even the kid friendly Super Mario Bros. has the player sending enough Goombas to an early grave that the Mushroom Kingdom undertaker’s grandchildren will never have to work a day in their lives.
This facet of action games is unquestionably a remnant of the arcade era of video games, where high score was the name of the game and enemies existed only to add points and subtract lives. In such a design, it makes sense to have an unending stream of enemies. After all, an arcade staple like Pac-Man or Galaga isn’t interested in being anything but a game, something to be played in rounds typically lasting no more than a few minutes, wherein the game throws increasingly insurmountable odds before the player. This mentality continues to live on in successful (and fun) incantations, such as Gears of War’s Horde mode or The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth’s Greed mode, where story falls by the wayside and gives way to a test of pure mechanical skill.
However, in narrative action games (i.e., most modern action games), massive enemy waves are a pitfall, not a strength. Whereas a wave-based or multiplayer mode of playing eschews story in favor of violence that is virtually devoid of narrative context, plot-driven games present their action through a specific lens, one that shapes the personality of their protagonists and the feel of their worlds. Unfortunately, this lens presents many frustrating limitations when attempting to tell an engaging and worthwhile story:
It makes the protagonist absurdly murderous. It is a longstanding joke in criticisms of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series that its protagonist, Nathan Drake, is a sociopathic murderer. Indeed, the fact that he kills hundreds, if not thousands, of rival treasure hunters in his quest to uncover the latest hidden artifact does seem to run counter to his canonical image as a wisecracking charmer who desperately wants to be Indiana Jones minus the embarrassing fourth chapter. While a few dead bodies can be chalked up to just about any action hero, it becomes harder to empathize with them once the body count starts to exceed the number of people who worked on the game.
It lessens the threat of individual enemies. Part of what makes Die Hard so brilliant is the fact that each of the twelve terrorists that McClane encounters is a credible threat: there is never a moment where McClane effortlessly overpowers his foe. Keeping each villain credible sustains tension; conversely, in an action game, stuffing environments with a myriad would-be game enders does little but inflate the player’s power fantasy whilst diminishing the memorability of the individual encounters.
It harms the pacing of the narrative. A single encounter, or even a few small ones, can enhance the pacing of a great action story. It allows for the player to experience a thrilling sequence while maintaining a sense of progression and purpose. Being pinned down in a single area for tens of minutes while dispatching enemies, however, tosses pacing out the window in favor of a purposeless grind.
It makes certain environments less believable. Why are the post-apocalyptic tunnels of Metro 2033, where doomed Russians cling for survival, populated by dozens of burly men with a never-ending surplus of bullets? How is it that BioShock’s Rapture is decayed and leaking, yet never disappoints in sending hordes of mutated aristocrats out of its fixtures in an attempt to do the player in? Video games might inherently require several degrees of suspension of disbelief, but certain environments struggle to hold up to scrutiny, which diminishes their narrative strength.
Failings such as these promote the idea that video games are more about being timewasters than being serious attempts at narratives. That’s certainly true of many popular action games, action titles like BioShock and The Last of Us are clearly attempting to communicate powerful narratives, and in both instances, the horde-based nature of many enemy encounters dulls their emotional potential.
So, what does a successful narrative action game look like?
Thankfully, despite the numerous narrative games that fall victim to the trappings of wave-based game design, there have been several successful innovations in action and shooter games that not only improve the narrative quality of their respective titles, but also stand out as revolutionary in their genres:
Shadow of the Colossus is not only a terrific action game; it is one of gaming’s most shining examples of innovation. A relatively standard story, that of a lone hero seeking to bring his lost love back from death, utilizes the Die Hard model of enemy allocation to create memorable moments. Throughout the game, the player is tasked with killing sixteen colossi, towering hybrids of flesh and stone, each with a unique Achilles heel that brings about their downfall. Discovering that weakness is an intimate act of acrobatic strength, wherein the player scales each beast in the most murderous Cirque du Soleil show the world has ever seen. Players become one with their adversary, learning its history by scouring its body, and when the killing blow is finally dealt, players are left with an understanding of the weight of their actions and a feeling that walks a delicate line between accomplishment and shame.
Alien: Isolation, much like the films on which it is based, uses its gameplay to masterfully interweave action and terror. The game unfolds as a life-or-death game of hide and seek, wherein the player must outwit and outmaneuver the impervious alien foe. It is this dynamic that informs the game’s shooter elements: though the player is equipped with several guns and must do battle with humans and androids in addition to the Xenomorph, the ever-present threat of the titular creature encourages players to think smart with their weapons, shooting only when absolutely necessary so as not to give away their position. When the game begins to embrace James Cameron’s contributions to the series more than Ridley Scott’s – by arming the player with a high-octane flamethrower – Isolation instills a sense of uneasy power in the player that creates an endorphin rush without fostering a god complex.
Mirror’s Edge overcomes the problem of enemy hordes not by doing away with them, but by integrating them into a world that discourages combat and promotes evasion. The game, which places players in the role of a parkour-performing dissident in an Orwellian police state, follows a model of action akin to The Fugitive, where flight trumps flight and, in doing so, maintains a series of fast-paced thrills without shattering narrative believability. The player character is not an unstoppable psychotic killer and, though the adversaries are many, their role as government agents lends credence to their high numbers and powerful arsenal of weapons.
Games such as these find ways to maintain a sense of tense action without dampening their narrative flow. By avoiding the repetitive trappings of many mainstream action games, these titles exemplify how narrative can be fused with action to create a more engaging and memorable interactive experience.
That’s not to say that narrative games should never fall back on the occasion massive horde. When used sparingly, such encounters can be incredibly effective, as in Resident Evil 4’s village-gone-mad cold open or in the futile last stand of Halo: Reach’s protagonists. However, a good action game will not rely too heavily on these moments and thus preserve their narrative poignancy. For those other moments, action game developers would do well to avoid quantity over quality and make worlds where the protagonists can be more like John McClane and less like Nathan Drake.
 Also the greatest Christmas movie ever made (sorry, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians).
 Although, to Doom’s credit, it definitely has a better soundtrack than Die Hard.
 This is to say nothing of multiplayer modes, which are of course their own never-ending enemy onslaught.
 This just in: Uncharted 4 to feature a nuclear-resistant refrigerator as downloadable content.