Leaning in first-person shooters

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Why I Love

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In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Tom adopts a 45 degree angle and thinks about tactical shooters.

There are two types of first-person: one where you look down and see arms and legs beneath you, and the sort where you realise you're just a floating bundle of movement inputs with a gun attached. Even games that don't give you a body use head bob and arm animations try to convince you that you're a person rather than a legless, armless murder ghost. When you pick up a new weapon your character might lift it up and fondle it a bit. In Mirror's Edge Faith's limbs fly out in front of her to make the world feel as though it's within touching distance.

This is mostly superficial, and no amount of arm flailing gives me the sense of embodiment of a simple lean key. With a keyboard press the lean key tilts you and your gun left or right, letting you peer around corners and minimise exposure to enemy fire. It's so simple, but it forces you to consider where your virtual body is at all times. This small amount of extra control brings your posture into the rules of the game and makes your virtual body mass matter.

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Arma 3 is the king of posture control. The military sim lets you tweak the precise position of your head as you cycle through various squatting, sitting and prone poses. You can lean, of course, and even roll.

This suite of military yoga positions is an interesting attempt to give you more detailed body control, but it feels unnatural. Leaning works because it's simple enough to quickly become an instinctive part of the control setup. After a bit of practice you don't even need to think about leaning in the middle of a firefight, in the same way that you don't have to think “now I'm going to walk my legs left and bend my spine a bit this way”. When body control in a game becomes almost as instinctive as actual body movement, you're bonded to your avatar, and those bullets cutting through the air near your head feel suddenly more dangerous.

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I was thinking about this while playing Rainbow Six: Siege, which does player movement very well. Rappelling feels great, and you can flip upside down while hanging off a building to minimise your exposure during window fights. You apply door charges by holding down the middle mouse button to prepare the charge, and then releasing it to plant. Everything feels satisfying to do. And, of course, you can toggle a lean right or left with the E and Q keys.

In a game where headshots kill instantly, there's an exciting element of risk to popping your head around a corner. Plus, it's a more civilised alternative to the silly strafing dance you'd have to perform without a lean key. Leaning gives you options, and that's why it's one of the defining features of tactical shooters. It should be an integral part of any FPS that wants to reward thoughtful movement and action over mindless aggression.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.