How ‘Singularity’ Time-Travelled from Early to Late 2000s Shooter Design in a Single Game
It was a rare oddity, preserving examples of where shooters had been, and the place in which they seemed destined to stay.
First-person shooters, despite being denigrated as the most bone-headed of video game genres, are usually more complex than they look. Massively popular and centered on interactions just about everybody can understand—point, shoot, don't get shot—the simplicity of the shooter allows for an enormous amount of creativity.
Changes between the design of one shooter and another can be subtle, but over time they accumulate and form distinct subgenres. Within the space of five years, the dominant paradigm can shift from Valve's Half-Life 2 (2004), a game of relatively sedate exploration and item management, to Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009), the equivalent of an interactive action movie climax.
Raven Software's Singularity was released in 2010. That makes it something of an outlier for its era. During a time when shooters were fascinated by the modern military and devoted to offering constant spectacle—this was the year Call of Duty released series favorite Black Ops and Medal of Honor moved from the Second World War to a contemporary setting—Singularity was attempting to keep a foot in both the past and present. It's an artifact now of shooters from both the years before and after its release.
Conventions of the early 2000s are mixed here with newer concepts from the latter half of the decade. As in, say, 2003, the player has to check the nooks and crannies of every level for health packs and ammo between solving physics-based puzzles. But, like a game from the end of the decade, they also follow a story told primarily through BioShock-style audio logs and notes, upgrade their character and arsenal with an in-game currency of the kind that Call of Duty was then ushering into multiplayer vogue, and spends the first hours of the game infiltrating a compound as a spec ops soldier, waiting for doors to be kicked open by a Nolan North-voiced sidekick who speaks only in military shorthand: "Stay frosty."
There's a huge line-up of gimmick weapons (a sniper rifle that fires time-slowing bullets; a grenade launcher whose projectiles can be manually guided along the ground before detonation), but, following nü-shooter convention, only two of these guns can be carried at once. Secrets are hidden within levels to reward the player willing to fully explore the setting, but instead of the rocket launchers and extra ammo of old, Singularity offers note pages that flesh out its plot.
The game's impossibly goofy premise is treated with enough seriousness that it becomes a long-form joke told without a single self-knowing wink.
It sounds like a haphazard mix, but the way Singularity blends old and new is a large part of its appeal. There's a real novelty to seeing older elements of design implemented in a game that, on its surface, looks so much like a typical, late '00s shooter. On a narrative level, too, Singularity succeeds by mixing past and present alike.
An impossibly goofy premise—what if the USSR discovered a time-bending super resource on Soviet soil and mining it allowed its armies to conquer the world?—is treated with enough seriousness that it becomes a long-form joke told without a single self-knowing wink. The pace at which the plot unfolds is unrelenting, background details and schlocky time travel story twists adding wonderful wrinkles to a fiction that initially seems content to wallow in an overly familiar stew of post-Soviet destruction porn.
Within the space of a few hours, the player travels between 2010 and 1955 several times, learning that her choice to save a scientist's life has resulted in a new timeline where the invention of a hyper-powerful time weapon has allowed the USSR to conquer the entire world. Giant statues replace the familiar faces of Lenin and Stalin with that of the nefarious Demichev, the new Russian ruler. Tattered red flags fly over crumbling streets where a mix of '50s-era Red Army, faux-future Soviet super soldiers, and feral monsters born from scientific experiments gone awry try to stop the player from fixing the timeline and restoring the familiar path of history.
Singularity is Cold War nostalgia mixed with sci-fi B-movie cliché. Like the perfunctory stories of the run-and-gun shooters it cribs aspects of design from, it's pulpy enough that it never really needs to be taken seriously. But, having kept its finger on the pulse of late-2000s paranoia political games, Singularity also manages to inflect its story of an alternate-era Cold War into something that feels like propaganda for a historical event that never happened.
The fear of Russian expansionism—of a West one misstep away from losing its prominence on the global stage—is both a 20 th and 21 st century fear, one which Singularity explores in its limited way by making a late night sci-fi movie out of an enduring cultural anxiety. This is probably an accident, but it doesn't diminish the overall effect of a game whose greatest achievements come from straddling the line between outmoded and contemporary styles of shooter design, action storytelling and political interest. It's this distillation of trends that earns the game its name—singularity of tone making it both unusual for its time and distinct when compared to its peers.
Many games of its era resemble Singularity, but none of them are much like it beyond surface similarities. It's a rare oddity in video games, preserving examples of where shooters had been and the place in which they seemed destined to stay at the time of its 2010 release. In the near decade that's passed since then, it's this unsuspecting willingness to treat both past and present as equally relevant that gives it continued significance. Rather than a bland also-ran, trying to catch up to the most popular military shooters, Singularity's creators were smart enough to know that just because a style of storytelling or play is passé doesn't mean it can't be used to good effect.