A Knife to a Gun Fight

Brett Staebell | 7 Sep 2010 08:02
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There is a reason the "S" in FPS doesn't stand for stabber, slasher, or slapper - it's all about the guns. Curious, then, that where once getting punched to death was a laughable demise, now just moving into spitting range invites the same mortal danger as waltzing into a sniper's crosshairs. Many gamers believe that the increased potency of melee somehow detracts from the genre, but the truth is carved out by chainsaws, crowbars and fists in the messy history of first-person shooters. Close range combat, from humiliation kills to stealth assassinations, is as vital as the ballistic weapons it complements, and modern iterations embody an important trend: developers now sharpen your knife so you can stick to your guns.


The first sprite-age close quarters FPS weapons were invented to give the desperate/indulgent player a means of survival. Blasting hellspawn in Doom with an enormous arsenal is all well and good, but with great firepower comes great responsibility: BYOB. Bring your own bullets. Aside from lending an air of realism to the other-worldly gameplay, the acquisition, conservation, and selection of ammunition was an important metagame. Fail that game, and your favorite toys are put in timeout. This leaves the player with two choices: dust off your knuckleduster or rev up your chainsaw.

"For a designer, [a melee weapon] gives him the ability to get the player around the issue of a game which has limited ammo. No one likes the feeling of coming to a gunfight without even a knife," says Grant Collier, a designer on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and its sequel. "In an action FPS, the designer always wants the player to have options."

Though its then-nascent deathmatch revolutionized the way shooters were made and played, Doom is still a single-player affair with multiplayer trimmings. The conventions used in PvP matches are originally tailored for campaign mode, and some nuance is lost in translation when making the transition. In Doom's multiplayer, punches are every bit as worthless as they look.

But players, ever-resourceful, used melee in multiplayer for a different reason: humiliation. Besting your bazooka-wielding opponent with a glorified pimp slap is invigorating, though for more reasons than you would think. The sheer difference in power and functionality of your weapons is the first key. In and outside the game world, fisticuffs trumping gun is like scissors beating rock. The second is the implied deliberateness of your handicap. With early melee weapons safely sequestered behind the "1" key, close-range kills were the FPS equivalent of winning with your gun-toting hand tied behind your back. The third reason is at once the most powerful and least-acknowledged: the knife's existence outside of a shooter's gameplay narrative. You have literally brought a knife to a gun fight.

FPS games operate under the assumption that you will be fighting at a distance. Level design, weapon availability and game mode objectives all work to varying degrees within this construct. Combat solutions are presented in easily utilized and understood weapons - even non-gamers can recognize that you use a sniper rifle for distant enemies and a shotgun for close ones. But when confronted with an unexpected face-to-face battle in early FPS games, players almost always opt to blast in a frenzied, inaccurate panic between awkward reloadings rather than switch to a weapon tailored for that situation. Why? Because such a tool did not exist.

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