Jan 21, 2013

Grass Roots - Strife (1996)

 In a blog dedicated to storytelling in games, it might seem odd to feature a first person shooter from 1996 - indeed, FPS games from this era could be seen as the opposite to the story rich adventure games of the era. While modern titles sometimes incorporate elements present in adventures - dialogue trees, non violence based gameplay, etc - the shooters of the mid 90s focused on speed, danger and the thrill of taking out fiendish enemies with a rocket launcher or chaingun. There were, however, some attempts at blending the two genres even back then, and Strife is a fine example of this.

Have no doubt, Strife is a shooter at heart (as my double grenade launcher demonstrates here)
1996 must have been a hard year to release a first person shooter as daring as Strife. While Ken Silverman's Build engine was already blowing the world away with the world famous Duke Nukem 3D and John Carmack was getting ready to change the entire world of games yet again with the release of Quake and id Tech 2 just around the corner, Rogue Entertainment released Strife, a game built with the already ancient id Tech 1 which had been kicking around since Doom and was definitely feeling a little dated. Indeed, even for a 1996 title Strife looks dated, and it's no surprise that it perhaps got a little lost in the excitement surrounding the two new engines on the scene.

What the game lacked in exciting new tech, though, it more than made up for in vision and boldness. Strife is not like its contemporaries - to my mind it's far advanced. Here you're given an actual plot, interactive conversations, memorable characters - heck, Strife has a town you can walk around and go shopping in. It's a little strange at first - after breaking your way out of confinement at the beginning of the game, you find yourself walking around a town, with no demons to kill, no aliens shooting at you, no ammunition lying around. In fact, if you attack the third person you meet, you'll probably be unable to finish the game.

Strife, unlike many shooters of the time, had interactive dialogue trees with many characters.
When you finally do get to shoot at people, there's more to it than simply finding the biggest gun and blasting away. Facilities are equipped with alarms, and firing your weapon near them will trigger, causing enemies to react in a hostile manner, and even seek you out. However, if you stick to your knife, or the poison bolts for your crossbow (the electric ones seem to trigger alarms, and are only effective against robot enemies anyway), then you can wander through many of the locations, walking past guards completely oblivious to your intent. In a lot of places you have to trigger an alarm eventually anyway, but it's very satisfying to silently, safely take out a large part of a facility's guards before setting the alarm off and cleaning up whatever guards remain.

It also presents your objectives in a more compelling manner than most games of the same time. Gone is the compulsion to find 3 different coloured keycards for each level, and in its place are actual characters who give you tasks in person, advancing the plot and fleshing out the story of the world as they do so. The game still has pickups for health, weapons, armor and other items, but you can also use the money you've earned to buy the items from shops.

Poison arrows like these make for quick, silent takedowns.
The game's writing itself, while not amazing, is still very pleasant. Your own backstory is briefly covered in the manual, although it's clear that what you will do is more important than anything you've done. You'll meet a cast of colourful characters - not a bad thing - on your journey, and many of them even feature voice acting for their dialogue. They'll lie to you, encourage you, confront you, assist you and sometimes you'll be given a choice of things to say and some of them will be wrong. This is fairly advanced stuff for the time, even if it's not always implemented perfectly. The story has some fantastic hooks, too - at one point you get to lay siege to a castle and it feels fantastic to charge in, surrounded by allies who are all fighting alongside with you and blast your way through the place. At one point I charged up to an enemy mech to attack it, only to see it take down 4 friendly soldiers with its flamethrower before I could get there. It's exactly how I want my battles to feel.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of Strife, though, is the world itself. A dystopian, post catastrophic world full of oppression, mystery and a glimmer of hope awaits your exploration here. The world is open - you can go back and visit locations at almost any time you wish, and are free to roam as you see fit once you've unlocked areas. The world also changes - after the aforementioned castle assault, the resistance you work for takes over the castle and uses it as their new base. Curious, I made my way over to their old base, expecting to find goodies left behind. Not only had they left this place, the lights were now off, the gear all moved out and the place was desolate save for some rats who followed me as I made my way around, amazed at this unnecessary but incredibly pleasant detail. It'd have been perfectly understandable if Rogue Entertainment had just moved the characters out and left everything else intact. But they didn't, and Strife is a far stronger experience with the addition of detail such as this.

Much of the story is told in cutscenes with stylishly drawn scenes reminiscent of graphic novels.
Throughout the game you're led along by Blackbird - a female who talks to you over the intercom and seems to be the only female in the game - as the introduction explains, oppression forces people to hide females deep underground for their protection. She acts as a sort of narrator, and to her character's credit makes for a surprisingly diverse and likable character. There are moments when she's a bit too cynical for my tastes, or when her wit ever so slightly misses the mark, but other than that it makes you realize how lonely other FPS games can be when they give you a gun and a dungeon and set you free with nobody to talk to. She's a fine addition to the game, and just as you get lost down another corridor she comes over the intercom saying "I swear these hallways all look the same".

Speaking of lonely, one thing Strife does something very right left me feeling very pleased - it doesn't separate neutral and hostile areas too distinctly. Modern shooters such as Far Cry 2 and Rage instantly break the immersion when you enter a neutral zone and suddenly can't shoot anybody, or enter a hostile zone and instantly there's nobody to talk to. The barrier here only enhances the artificiality of the experience, and Strife thankfully avoids this, with guards and alarms in the neutral areas and characters to talk to in enemy facilities. One of my favourite moments in the game was shooting on a guard in the town's tavern, only for the alarm to go off and a security shutter to close around the bar. Another was going up to a guard who was attacking me and being surprised by the fact that the game actually let me talk to him - even if his only words were "We're going to kill you!".

Strife has a decent selection of enemies - these guys might not be barons of hell, but they still pack a punch.
When people discuss the blending of FPS, RPG and Adventure that first gained major popularity with Deus Ex, the reference of inspiration is always to the System Shock series, and understandably so. Strife, however, seems to have been forgotten over the years. It may have been lost among a pair of genre-shaping giants, but Strife absolutely holds its own against them. When I look at the design innovation in Strife,  I feel it more impressive than the technological innovation that took the world by storm at the time. Here is a game that was and is bold, daring, unique and creative, a refreshing change in a time of forgettable samey clones. It may have been technologically inferior, but it was absolutely ahead of its time in terms of design. Playing Quake and Duke3D is still fun today, and the games hold up well. Playing Strife, however, not only feels fun but also feels innovative, relevant and, in many ways, far more current than the superstar shooters of 1996. This is a game that deserves to be remembered.


  1. I remember being impressed with the storytelling in Strife - especially the way place is used. The way the locations transform when the base moves was a technique I hadn't seen before, and brilliantly effective. Still a sure way for a game to impress me.

  2. Absolutely! That Strife had this all the way back in 1996 speaks volumes about the magnitude of the vision of the people who designed it.

  3. There were quite a few interesting hybrids of RPG and/or adventure and FPS made back in those days. The two Ultima Underworlds (by the Looking Glass people), Pathways into Darkness and the Marathon series (Bungie), Realms of the Haunting, and my beloved Azrael's Tear that's mostly a first person 3D adventure, but involves some FPS-like action scenes too.

  4. Hello,

    sorry to contact you out of the blue like this, especially in a blog post that has nothing to do with what I want to ask you, but I couldn't find any info anywhere so in the end I figured that asking the developer would be the best solution.

    Some time ago I bought the Summerbatch bundle, and I recently beat PISS. It was a good game and I enjoyed it, but the ending felt a lot like a cliffhanger. So I was wondering, are you planning on making a sequel? We know that Moira is going to try and fix her mistake, it would be a good plot for an adventure game. As it is, we don't know if she is ever going to succeeed, nor how.

    And speaking of the game, I was surprised that I couldn't find it in any online store, not even the indie-friendly Desura.

  5. Igor - yes, but how many of those feel like an actual FPS? Strife had the same shooting mechanics as a pure FPS, and thus it felt like a pure FPS. It's hard to feel that Looking Glass stuff is anymore of an FPS than, say, Daggerfall, in my opinion.

    Anon - Not sure yet. We'll see. I have many games to make and not enough time to make them in.