‘Hrot’: Embrace your Boomer Shooter

the Horse from Horsin’ Around.

Labels in videogames are curious. I have often seen discussions in the film world about whether it is correct to refer to a film as a western when its spatio-temporal location does not correspond to the Conquest of the West and, instead, refers to the archetypes of the classic western by displacing them to other times and other latitudes. For example, Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter, 1976) is an undisguised remake of Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) but set in 1970s Los Angeles. These kinds of discussions about what we call genres in fiction happen often, but nowhere as chaotically as in video games.

Take a descriptive term like First Person Shooters (FPS). Shortly after DooM (1993) they were called doom-clones, and not without some reason. The popularity of Id Software’s game was an unparalleled event, and the games that followed immediately after sought wanted to capitalise on this, sometimes playing the same keys with slight variations of interaction or less abstract maps. They were also called corridor-shooters before adopting the name we now know. However, FPSs cover too wide a range. Is Battlezone (1980) an FPS? Well, technically it’s first-person, you move around in a pseudo-3D environment and the main verb is ‘shoot’. What about immersive sims? They’re first-person games with a high degree of interaction and freedom, including shooting mechanics. Isn’t Metroid Prime (2002) a metroidvania, Portal (2007) a puzzle game and Alien: Isolation (2017) a survival horror? Wait, what are Duck Hunt (1984), Virtua Cop (1994) or The Typing of the Dead (1999)?

What I’m getting at is: what exactly is a boomer shooter?

Obviously, the simplest definition is that they are those FPSs that aim for a retro style, invoking a certain nostalgia. But this has several implications. For a start, it doesn’t seem to be so much a question of nostalgia in terms of simply imitating the past as a particular style. There is a direct difference with, say, modern FPSs. I would point to two main elements:

  1. Difficulty: Current FPS games are often considered to be overly easy, especially as they need to be accessible to a mainstream audience on consoles, where aiming is not as natural as it is with a computer mouse. Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) is mistakenly credited with implementing health regeneration systems (in the case of Bungie’s game, only shields were actually regenerated) that make the gameplay experience a matter of taking cover and waiting to catch your breath before continuing. For me, this system has many positive elements, but it’s understandable that other games have abused it to exaggerated limits, interfering with the rhythm of combat, which brings us to…

These two traits could indicate that DOOM (2016) and Doom Eternal (2020) are boomer shooters and, you know what, I think it’s fitting. Based on this alone, they don’t need to be indie games or go back to the graphics of the mid-90s.

Means of production.

Hrot (2021) is the newest boomer shooter. It was recently released in Early Access on Steam and has a free demo. The game only contains its first episode (8 levels) but that’s enough to make you fall in love with it. It has had a big promotional push from New Blood Interactive, who represent with Dusk (2018), Amid Evil (2019) and Ultrakill (2020) the epitome of the sub-genre. Hrot places us in an alternative, mutant version of Czechoslovakia in 1986. A dream of broken socialist futurism. A decadent past. A boomer shooter through and through.

The main influence is Quake (1996), with its brown tones and the way enemies behave, but many interactions — flushing a toilet, playing pool — hark back to the humour of Duke Nukem 3D (1996). Helicopter encounters bring memories of Half-Life (1998) while the use of incendiary grenades can’t help but remind me of Blood (1997). Other comparisons I’ve heard are Kingpin (1999) and Chasm: The Rift (1997), two games I haven’t played but which are now high on my watchlist.

Narrow corridors, walls that open up behind you to be ambushed by enemies… What’s scarier? Not being clear what it’s an enemy and what it’s part of the scenery, for example. Hrot uses this trick surprisingly well on several occasions. Another interesting detail is the use of foes: sometimes there are plenty of enemies of one type and then they don’t appear in the next two levels, taking you by surprise when you meet them in the most unexpected place and forcing you to quickly change your strategy. The name of the game is “don’t get too comfortable”.

Bolshebike.

All levels are built in a recursive fashion: we see a door that requires a type of key and it is up to us to find the path that will lead us to that key, heavily guarded by enemies that will emerge from anywhere. One tactic that Hrot abuses too much is that of leaving a “bait” for the player. Games like Serious Sam: The First Encounter (2001) — a boomer shooter released at the end of the age of boomer shooters — reused the idea of these “baits” where a health item would trigger an event of enemies teleporting around you or locking you in a specific space until you defeated the last of the monsters. It’s a tactic straight out of the DooM mod community and troll levels, but one that has evolved into an attribute of the genre, a convention that makes the player feel responsible for falling into the trap rather than blaming the designer for being unfair.

The crux of the matter is this. DooM was also a revolution because of its editor, facilitating the birth of the mod community that is still going strong today. By making the tools of level design so accessible, it generated more than just a cult of the game: it generated an awareness of the grammar of game design. Space in a videogame, and specifically in a “classic” FPS, becomes its primary language. E1M1, the first phase of DooM, is a perfect example of an introduction to level design because it’s all here: strong hubs, guiding the gaze, advancing objectives, verticality (even when the original game didn’t really allow it), combination of various elements, subversion of expectations.

Even more: DooM is known for the important differences between the design “style” of each level depending on its original designer. The authorship of each level and what makes it specific to that designer is not only seen, it is felt in the fluidity of play. You can design levels in the style of John Romero or Sandy Petersen as much as you can argue about the characteristics of those designed by American McGee. Which ones have a greater focus on action, which ones on puzzles, which ones on surprising you? They are works of authorship.

Let’s make a comparison between Hrot and another recent boomer shooter, Prodeus (2020). Prodeus has a huge emphasis on speed. In fact, it is VERY fast, something that even affects the “camera” or point of view with a more wide angle perspective. The level construction is maze-like but I feel it is very non-stop oriented and not easy to get lost: if the path seems to stop, there is some bright, sizable switch to press to open up a new path. There’s no reason to stop and you build up momentum. It also has a greater proliferation of enemies than others of the same class. So the gameplay focuses on dealing a lot of damage to large numbers of enemies at high speed.

Among Us.

Hrot does not play the same way. Yes, Hrot asks you to dodge and move fast while shooting, but it also demands that, once you’ve defeated all the enemies in an area, you pay attention to the environment trying to figure out how to continue. Not only that: ammunition is relatively scarce, which not only calls for marksmanship and some strategy in choosing the order in which to dispose of enemies, but also requires you to look around corners carefully. It’s also littered with secrets, some obvious to get, some not easy to see, some obvious but unclear how to activate them, tempting you to scour every nook and cranny.

A particular tactic in Hrot is the use of proximity mines. Why engage an enemy directly or resort to grenades with their very unreliable trajectory? Let the enemy spot you, retreat into a corridor and drop a proximity mine. Although the level design does not emphasise this and it seems more like a desperation tactic than a well-developed mechanic, its functionality is unique and makes it stand out even within the limited parameters of its (sub)genre.

Because, the mistake we make when we talk about genres, is that we always try to approach it as a promotional tool: “This game looks like this one and this one” is a sales pitch, not an analysis, although it is a useful intellectual shortcut. Genres have nothing to do with the perspective taken by the camera. The most logical position is that genres in video games correspond to verbs: shoot, jump, infiltrate, drive, play a role. But let’s go a bit further: genres correspond to EMOTIONS. That’s why we talk about comedy and tragedy, that’s why we talk about “romantic” or “adventure” films or novels. It’s a question of how they make us FEEL.

A boomer shooter is an FPS that seeks to make you relentless. Speed and difficulty are factors, of course, but they are so to the extent that they serve that feeling. In contrast to more modern FPSs, where the power fantasy is a certain tacticism of cover and health recovery, here it’s about implementing a frenetic, unhinged pace, a rampage almost closer to a shoot’em up bullet hell (Does the importance of Asteroids make more sense now?) where you beat all odds and expectations to come out on top, god knows how. It’s an imbalance: we’re very exposed and the game isn’t fair, but our stubbornness and fury allows us to engage in a dance with all those enemies and projectiles.

This goes a bit against more current ideas about game design, where there is an emphasis on balancing the player’s possibilities. And while I’m all for accessibility in videogames (an “easy” mode is nothing to be ashamed of: playing is fun and challenges should be somewhat self-imposed so they don’t become chores) it also seems to me that as a medium grows and evolves, as it gets more attention and analysis, it also ends up a bit limiting what it “should” do, what it “should” be. If genres are labels for easy understanding, the goals should be to subvert those labels, and appeal more to the feeling that the game wants to produce in us. It is still a conumdrum to be solved, but one that is worth thinking about often.

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Henrique Lage

Writing essays. Writing games. Writing essays about games. Narrative Design Teacher.