Sniping in F.E.A.R.['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example. This time - a look at strategic character progression in F.E.A.R.]

In most video games, the strength of the player character follows a well-established arc. At first, the PC has limited abilities. She only has one or two weapons, the most basic of skills, or the lowest of statistics. Over the course of the game, the PC accrues experience points, training, and equipment that makes her more powerful and versatile. This pattern appears in all kinds of games, from Borderlands to the God of War series.

In this typical progression, the late-game abilities and equipment are clearly superior to the early-game options. Weapons shoot more projectiles, and those projectiles are more damaging. If weapons are upgraded, the upgrades should always be taken. If not, the player need only use his starting weapon if he runs out of ammunition for the better ones, and the high-level ammunition is plentiful enough to make that rare.

With this structure, advancement can be more about the game than the player. Better weapons are met with stronger opposition, and the final experience ends up flat and simplistic.

Monolith Productions's 2005 game F.E.A.R. avoids this problem. While the PC's health and slow-motion energy gradually, this advancement is minimal (and, indeed, optional). The player can only carry three weapons, the weapons available to the player change little, and the few weapons that are exclusive to later parts are only better than others in certain situations.

This approach means that the player's skill is the primary tool for dealing with the increased challenge over the course of the game. The player can only depend on better weapons and abilities to a limited extent, and must instead rely on his own experience with the game. This produces a difficult but rewarding difficulty escalation that provides a more varied feel.

A F.E.A.R. weapon rackSpecial Weapons and Tactics

F.E.A.R.'s weapons all have significant advantages and disadvantages instead of falling into a strictly-ordered progression of power. There is a certain hierarchy to them, however, based on their relative specialization and rarity. One could group the weapons into three tiers: basic, advanced, and rare weapons.

The basic weapons in F.E.A.R. are the pistol, the submachine gun, the shotgun, and the assault rifle. Each of these is relatively common and tends to be broadly useful. The pistol is strong and accurate, but slow to fire unless dual-wielded; the submachine gun has a very high rate of fire, but sacrifices accuracy; the shotgun is very damaging, but slow and close-range; and the assault rifle provides a good balance of speed and accuracy.

The advanced weapons consist of the Penetrator and the ASP Rifle. They are available for most of the game but in smaller numbers, and they apply to more specific situations. The Penetrator is an accurate, rapid-fire weapon that is effective against armored humans but not machines, while the ASP Rifle has a long-range scope but only fires in short bursts.

The rare weapons are the rocket launcher, the particle weapon, and the repeating cannon. They are quite damaging, but tend to slow down the PC when equipped and appear so infrequently that their ammunition is usually exhausted before finding a refill. The rocket launcher and cannon damage groups but risk injury to the wielder, while the particle weapon has a long-range scope and can kill most enemies with a single shot.

The complexity of weapon properties in F.E.A.R. means that going for the most damaging weapon is not a “dominant strategy;” in other words, it’s not the best approach for every situation. With only three weapon slots, collecting the most damaging weapons would likely lead to the player possessing three guns without a single round of ammunition: the only way to acquire more ammunition is to collect weapons dropped by enemies or lying around the game's environment. The rare weapons also work best at longer ranges, while many of the battles take place in twisting corridors.

The game forces the player to balance the reliability and availability of the basic weapons against the power and scarcity of the advanced and rare weapons. At any one time, a successful player is likely to have one or two basic weapons, an advanced weapon, and no more than one rare weapon. The temptation to hoard rare weapons is balanced by the necessity of having a versatile and well-stocked arsenal.

F.E.A.R.'s PenetratorAdvancement Through the Ranks

In the archetypical first-person shooting game, the weapon selection strategy is very straightforward: use the best weapon available until it runs out of ammunition, then switch to the next-best. There may be a special-use weapon such as a rocket launcher, but nothing needs to be sacrificed to carry it in reserve. The player may save a high-powered weapon's ammunition for a difficult battle, but she is just choosing when to expend resources, which is a simpler problem than choosing between comparable weapons.

In Half-Life 2, the Pulse Rifle is the most directly-damaging weapon in the game. Given available ammunition and a sufficiently difficult fight, it is always the best weapon to use against typical enemies. In Doom, the weapons generally increase in power based on their numerical assignments: the Plasma Rifle or BFG is always the most effective weapon, followed by the chaingun or rocket launcher. In each game, the player character becomes stronger over time thanks to powerful weapons that don’t require giving up backup weapons.

F.E.A.R.'s approach makes weapon choice more interesting by avoiding this easy strategy. Choosing a rare-but-powerful weapon means giving up a weapon slot with more plentiful ammunition, which means that the player must weigh the strengths and weaknesses of her weapons when she is given the option to change her selections. The player character's strength comes not from increased resources, but from the player's strategy and skill with the game's systems.

This can be applied to other games. In the case of Half-Life 2, limited weapon space would make the choice of weapons more important, especially if combined with more complex weapon balancing. Making the Pulse Rifle less accurate, for example, would make it more effective at closer ranges and less effective against small, fast-moving enemies.

This technique is not only applicable to first-person shooting games. Any game that has various tools with limited ammunition, fuel, or durability can design those tools so that they present this sort of interesting dilemma. For example, if Minecraft's player inventory was smaller and the tool durabilities adjusted, players might need to decide between a pick and a shovel when setting out to dig. Rarer materials like diamond might not be better in all situations.

Adding this sort of complexity to secondary game systems gives a game a feeling of depth. It requires skill from the player; he decide whether to pick up a weapon instead of automatically grabbing the ammunition.

This technique also encourages experimentation, since a player without ammunition will grab any weapon he finds, even if it's not one he's comfortable with. Because of this complexity and experimentation, a player is more likely to feel as if he himself is gaining skill, and not just his character.

A straightforward weapon assortment and power progression isn’t always bad. It can give a feeling of supreme power and progression, especially if the player is provided with a good perspective of how far she has come. However, a more strategic structure can add complexity to an aspect of games that is often just resource collection and provide the player with the experience of gaining skill in the face of worsening odds. A game that feels flat and dull can be made tense and challenging by making late-game character options different instead of better.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer (The Majesty Of Colors), and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]