From Doom to Call of Duty, first-person shooters have been immensely popular for decades. But what if the thrill for video game fans was never really about the guns?
Immortals of Aveum, arriving on Tuesday for Windows computers and the latest PlayStation and Xbox consoles, will test this theory. The game, set in a fantasy world with several kingdoms at war over the control of magic, abandons the tried-and-true formula of arming players with an arsenal of guns and bazookas. Instead, they will battle with bracelets. Or more precisely, sigils that cast spells.
In the single-player game, a battlemage named Jak joins an elite militarylike force, collecting spells to make his sigils more potent. Players rotate between three colored sigils that correspond to the familiar weapon classes in games like Counter-Strike and Halo: the blue sigil shoots long-distance energy beams akin to a sniper rifle; the green sigil acts as a rapid-fire blaster; and the red sigil’s short-distance bursts are like a shotgun.
Immortals of Aveum is the first release from Ascendant Studios, a large five-year-old company mostly composed of employees caught in a sizable layoff at Telltale Games, the studio behind hits like The Walking Dead and Tales From the Borderlands. It is being published by Electronic Arts as part of its indie label focusing on new intellectual property.
Ascendant’s founder, Bret Robbins, an industry veteran whose tenure includes Call of Duty, Lord of the Rings and James Bond titles, acknowledged that by swapping out guns for sigils his team was taking a risk, as is always the case when creative professionals try to break ground. But the decision simply came down to making a game he wanted to play.
“I just didn’t see anyone making a fantasy version of a shooter — a big, epic, really fast-paced, awesome fantasy game in the spirit of something like Call of Duty,” he said.
Guns have charmed gamers as far back as Duck Hunt, which was packaged with the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, but as a storytelling device, they tend to box video games into narratives that justify their presence. Early Call of Duty titles, known for their extensive weaponry inspired by real-life rifles, machine guns and pistols, centered on soldiers in World War II. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six has followed a counterterrorist organization formed by the government. Shooter games that took creative liberties often conformed to a similar mold — Doom, a progenitor of the genre, follows a marine fighting monsters in outer space.
Replacing guns with magic could let Immortals of Aveum, which promises about 25 hours of gameplay, tell a more unconventional story. The protagonist, Jak, is an “unforeseen,” someone who preternaturally gains magic powers later in life; he fights alongside the Immortals, a group of battlemages.
Incorporating magical elements in first-person shooters is not a new phenomenon, although most games still focus on cold, hard metal. BioShock featured “plasmids” that set objects ablaze, hypnotized enemies and fired bolts of lightning. Each character in Destiny possesses distinct supernatural abilities.
Jose Zagal, a professor who teaches courses on video game design at the University of Utah, said first-person shooters have evolved to add more complexity, challenge and speed to their gameplay. Modern gamers are so sophisticated that the basic concept of running around and firing a gun is not enough.
In Immortals of Aveum, certain spell colors work better against particular types of enemies. Reflexes and timing will be tested with defense-shattering attacks, an energy shield and a magic whip to draw enemies in closer.
“It’s a different kind of design for an audience that’s more savvy and more demanding,” Zagal said.
When first-person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were arriving in the early 1990s, guns may have acted as a metaphor to make it simpler to grasp a new concept — that gamers could dash around a 3-D environment and fire projectiles at enemies. But those weapons might not have been the true draw.
In a 2013 article examining the success of first-person shooters, The New Yorker concluded that the genre became popular because it maximized a mental state that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow” — “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
Similar to the mindfulness and satisfaction that people experience during activities that require intense focus, like rock climbing, playing chess or composing a song, fans of first-person shooters may have been hooked by the complicated split-second decision-making — which, yes, involves shooting weapons at fast-moving objects.
For a company as young as Ascendant Studios, all that matters is how many people buy the game and spread the word to their friends. Zagal said that fresh game concepts usually just have to do well enough to raise funding for a sequel — and that the second game is where they peak.
“I think what they’re doing is exciting,” Zagal said. “Will the game stick? Who knows?”