David Szymanski always wanted to make a retro first-person shooter, but actually starting the development process almost happened by accident. A solo indie developer with roots in first-person narrative horror, Szymanski woke up one day and decided that he wanted to make a shotgun.
“I put that [gun] on a camera and made it move and made it fire and stuff,” Szymanski says. “After that, it’s like, ‘Okay, that’ll be accompanied by low-res textures, so let’s just find some stock images online, down-res them, and there are my retro low-res textures.’” None of it was very good, he freely admits, but it made him happy. “I was like, ‘Maybe it’s time to make that retro FPS I always wanted to make.’”
A little over three years later, and Szymanski launched DUSK, a Quake-inspired FPS that also happened to be the best FPS released in 2018. With incredible level design, relentless action, and enough gibs to make John Romero’s head explode, DUSK was an enormous success. “The response to this game has been completely insane, and I don’t feel like it or me deserves it,” says Szymanski.
DUSK isn’t the first retro FPS to be launched in recent years, and it most certainly won’t be the last. But like a certain other shooter released in 1993, it’s a game that has blasted the idea of retro shooters into the popular consciousness, like the first cracks appearing moments before a massive pressure explosion.
Across the world from California to New Zealand, an army of retro shooters are preparing for battle. Some, like DUSK, are by new designers who grew up turning Imps and Pig Cops into piles of sticky red goo. Others are new projects by the same people who breathed life into those original, genre-defining classics.
“I think the resurgence of these games is because in many ways they take us back to the roots of FPS gaming,” says 3D Realms founder Scott Miller, whose studio developed and published such nineties shooters as Shadow Warrior and Duke Nukem 3D. “It’s a total nostalgia trip for those of us who played shooters in the nineties, and for younger players, it’s like going back to the original Star Wars trilogy and seeing how it all started.”
LOCK AND LOAD
More recently, 3D Realms published two new shooters: Ion Fury, developed by Voidpoint, and WRATH, co-developed by 3D Realms and KillPixel Games. Both games are partly inspired by specific nineties shooters; WRATH, for example, is inspired by Quake.
But how do you approach creating a shooter that looks and feels like a nineties FPS? Each developer has its own approach. With Ion Fury and WRATH, both games were created using genuine, era-appropriate engines. Ion Fury was made on the Build engine, while the technological basis for WRATH is the original Quake engine, id Tech.
MORE THAN RETRO
“The idea was to be authentic to the era we are trying to replicate,” Miller explains. “It makes total sense to us, at least, to use the actual famous engines from the nineties. That said, both engines have been modded and improved in many ways over the years, with better lighting and so on, but they still retain the basic look and especially the feel of the original shooters [that] kicked off the FPS era. It’s the feel-factor that really is super important.”
This is a very different method from Szymanski, who built DUSK in Unity 5 and reverse-engineered an aesthetic that resembles a Quake-era engine. The process required considerable research and experimentation. For example, Szymanski adopted the same limited colour palette as Quake, and hand-painted many of the game’s textures to give them an appropriately rough-edged look. “That was how the texture workflow came about,” he says. “I got the workflow ironed out just by doing it over and over.”
Not every retro FPS in development is quite so interested in authenticity, however. One particularly celebrated – and inauthentic – project is Amid Evil, a Hexen-style fantasy shooter created by New Zealand-based Indefatigable. “We actually came up with the name of Amid Evil back when we were kids – about 8–9 years old,” says Indefatigable director, Leon Zawada. “It was originally used in a DOOM WAD that never surfaced.”
Like Szymanski, Zawada and his co-developer Simon Rance have been long-time FPS fans. But their development backgrounds were in more modern-style games, in this case using Unreal Engine 4. It was this combination of passion and experience that almost literally led to Amid Evil. “[In] late 2016, we were messing around inside UE4 and found that adding normal maps to unfiltered tex-tures looked really cool,” Zawada says. “We wondered if it would work on a first-person weapon sprite akin to DOOM. Simon created a test model and made it into a sprite – it looked amazing! From there, we started to wonder what it would be like to mix up old and new graphics tech-niques.”
The result is an FPS that looks like no other, a hybrid of mid-nineties 3D modelling with modern lighting and shader effects. “Amid Evil uses all the latest UE4 abilities such as PBR, nice lighting, Vol-umetric Fog, and so on,” Zawada says. “The only way we limited ourselves aesthetically was the texture resolution and mesh detail, otherwise, we aren’t afraid to use all the power UE4 has to offer.”
Amid Evil’s stylistic approach may not be authentically retro, but the game wears on its sleeve an idea that underpins all of these projects. Although nostalgia may have played a role in the genesis of all these shooters, none of them are simply looking to replicate the past. Instead, they take the basic structure and rule set of those classic games, and use them to build something new and excit-ing.
A perfect example of this is DUSK’s level design, which takes the concepts pioneered by John Romero in DOOM and Quake and elevates them to new heights: they play with perspective and 3D geometry in a way that even the classics never did. Highlights include Escher Labs, a mind-bending 3D maze inspired by Thief: The Dark Project mission The Sword, and The Infernal Machine, a gigantic underground meat-grinder that’s as spatially ambitious as it is gut-churning.
METAL TEMPLE LAB THING
Indeed, when DUSK’s second episode launched into Steam Early Access (DUSK and Amid Evil both mimic the shareware-style releases of early-nineties shooters like DOOM), it was so well received that Szymanski became concerned about the remainder of the development.
“I’m like, ‘What the heck am I gonna do after this? I already did the non-Euclidian geometry level, I did the giant machine that grinds things up, I did a freakin’ metal temple lab thing in the sky, so what is episode three gonna have?’” The answer turned out to be a massive medieval cityscape inspired by Hexen and Dark Souls, as well as levels which call back to the earlier stages, but twisted and warped to deliberately mess with the player’s head. “I guess somehow we pulled it off,” Szymanski says.
As for 3D Realms, despite using nineties-era engine tech, the sheer power of modern PCs means that games like WRATH can set their ambitions higher than repeating past glories. “Given the speed of modern computers, it allows for much more detail in the levels, larger levels, and definitely more enemies per level,” says Miller.
“We’re emphasising non-linear levels with lots of freedom to explore, and we want players to use their own approach to solving them.” It’s that move to less linearity that makes games like WRATH really stand out as more than just a re-run of a nineties classic.
Ultimately, though, what all these shooters represent is less of a throwback to a different time, and more a continuation of work that was left unfinished. Each of these projects essentially explores a different timeline in the evolution of the FPS genre, asking questions like ‘What would shooters look like if Call of Duty had never existed?’ or ‘What if graphics cards had never evolved past the Voodoo 2?’.
It’s a fascinating period in the evolution of the FPS, since it’s simultaneously looking backwards and forwards to the genre’s future possibilities. How much of an impact these games will have on the industry in the long term is hard to quantify, but one thing is certain: this is the most exciting FPSs have been in a long, long time.
After the interviews for this feature were conducted, developer Voidpoint sparked controversy when it emerged that its game, Ion Fury, contained a number of homophobic slurs. These were rightly condemned by the majority of the playing public – as well as by 3D Realms’ Scott Miller. We considered removing all mention of Ion Fury from this feature, but in the interest of retaining the flow and feel as it was intended by the author, we’ve kept a brief mention of it in here. It absolutely goes without saying, however, that Wireframe does not condone homophobia in video games or anywhere else.