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Revisiting Descent, the Most Literal Interpretation of "3D Shooter"

With Descent back on Kickstarter, we revisit the game that embraced the concept of 3D gaming when everyone else was merely faking it.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

This article was originally run in March 2014. With Descent having recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and a sequel seeking funding on Kickstarter, the time is ripe to revisit the game that embraced the concept of 3D gaming when everyone else was merely faking it.

You know how everyone always talks about how Quake was the first truly 3D first-person shooter (by which they mean "totally made out of polygons")? It's just video game trivia, so it's not worth getting into an argument about... but next time you hear someone mention that bit of information, smile to yourself and remember Descent.

Of course, I suppose it all boils down to how you choose to define "first-person shooter." Descent is a game in which you play from a first-person perspective and shoot things... but despite being based entirely in narrow corridors and allowing unconvention side-to-side movement, it does have more in common with a flight combat game (e.g. Lawrence Holland's X-Wing series) than with Doom. That is to say, your avatar isn't anchored by gravity, mainly. But on the other hand, the action revolves around small skirmishes in tight passageways and larger self-contained spaces, like your classic FPS. So which is it?

A rare example of everyone treating the same direction as "up."

The answer, obviously, is "Who cares?" Descent stood astride two young genres, harnessing their concepts to create a unique mix. And when I say unique, I mean it – though Descent saw a number of sequels, after a while it mutated into the FreeSpace series, which featured 3D flight but abandoned the intricate tunnels that kept Descent from being a pure flight and combat simulator. Two decades later, you really won't find anything else quite like Descent out there.

The secret ingredient behind Descent's distinct style? It took the term "3D shooter" very literally. Not only did it present players with entirely polygonal environments in an age when everyone else was faking it by extruding chunks of flat surfaces into a facsimile of three-dimensionality, it went the extra step by completely abandoning all sense of up and down. Do you love the horizon? A sense of knowing the difference between up and down? The ability to orientate yourself with ease? Descent wants nothing to do with your terrestrial limitations.

Set in a series of extraplanetary mining tunnels, Descent dispensed with gravity to send players into labyrinthine tunnels that sprawled in every direction. Every direction. Not just the eight points of the compass, but in 360 degrees on every axis. Passageways would wind from one junction to another by twisting in any direction, sometimes doubling back on themselves. No matter how determined you may have been to set a given direction as "up," the complex level designs would quickly force you to abandon your intentions. Like a space flight sim, every direction was a valid axis of movement; unlike those other games, however, getting from point A to B frequently required navigating some of the most twisted virtual spaces ever devised.

Fan mods and engine recreations have kept Descent alive. Plucky little cult classics tend to inspire loyalty like that.

In truth, Descent's movement wasn't truly free-form. Your actions were restricted to six axes – but given that this was four more than other shooters of the time allowed (remember, Doom didn't even let you manually aim up or down), that was more than enough to feel utterly dizzying. Thankfully, Descent was a much slower and more deliberate game than, say, Doom. The designers accounted for the fact that moving through the game world would probably leave you disoriented and possibly even dizzy, so most of the hazards that populated Descent's passages were fairly passive, giving you sufficient time to get your bearings and draw a bead on them. Descent was the sort of game that flight sticks were invented for. The multiplayer mode, however, offered no such grace – if you happened to go up against an opponent who took naturally to the game's discombobulating style, well, good luck.

You can certainly understand why Descent eventually faded and FreeSpace rose to take its place; its unconventional mechanics place a lot of demands on players. Running around on a 3D world consisting of flat surfaces can be taxing enough for many people; playing an even greater burden of virtual navigation and visual orienteering on them is asking quite a lot. Thankfully, Descent has remained in publication these many years and can easily be played on modern systems thanks to its ready availability through services like Steam and Desura. There are even more ambitious fanworks available as well, such as DXX-Rebirth. So check it out and consider yourself in the know next time someone opines about the history of 3D shooters. Just try not to look too smug about it.

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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #1 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    Wasn't expecting to see Descent show up. Very happy it did! Still one of my favorites. I was lucky enough to get exposed to it via its sequel, which was packaged in demo form with my first PC (yes, I didn't get a PC until college). It pretty much convinced me I had to have the game.

    It was also given away through quite a few channels. I got my original copy of this through the 1999 PC Games Top 100 Games of All Time issue. That disc also happened to include the first three Zorks, Betrayal at Krondor, and Star Control 2. Happy days, indeed.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @SargeSmash I never finished this game. I would play and just fly around and marvel at it all, becoming horribly disoriented in the process. Gave me an excuse to buy a flight stick, which then gave me an excuse to buy X-Wing...
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #3 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    Whenever someone tries to tell me that Titanfall isn't exactly like CoD, and that all modern shooters aren't the same, I think of games like this. Here's something truly different. Of course you would never see a game like Descent today because it wouldn't fit into the homogenization that everyone loves.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #4 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish : Ha, nothing wrong with that! I heard this game literally gave some people motion sickness from playing. I can see where that might happen.

    For anyone interested in something similar, there's a game called Retrovirus that is inspired by Descent. My rig doesn't run it very well, but it seems pretty interesting nonetheless.
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  • Avatar for jmroo #5 jmroo 4 years ago
    Yay! I was feeling bad for having never played games like Doom, Quake or other popular pc fps of that day. But I have played Decent!
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  • Avatar for Mega_Matt #6 Mega_Matt 4 years ago
    I spent a lot of time getting lost in this game. Still had fun though, and at the time the game amazed me.
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  • Avatar for Kadrom #7 Kadrom 3 years ago
    There is usually a speedrun of Descent at AGDQ/SGDQ... the enjoyment of watching it played so well coupled with the nausea it induces reminds me of a rollercoaster.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #8 hal9k 3 years ago
    @nimzy I just checked the Kickstarter, and it looks like they plan to support VR. Package that with some Dramamine and those airline motion sickness bags, and it sounds like a good time. I never finished this game either, but it was a fun and unique experience.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    God the 90s was a wonderful time to game.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #10 JohnnyBarnstorm 3 years ago
    The box art, though. Holy crow. It looks like every 3D0 box of the era, full of default Photoshop plugins, and doesn't exactly scream "Hey! This is an awesome 3D space shooter!"

    It also ran like garbage on my family's Compaq Presario with S3 ViRGE graphics card, but then again everything did.
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  • Avatar for Bander #11 Bander 3 years ago
    The "the first truly 3D first-person shooter (by which they mean "totally made out of polygons")" that I played is Driller, a game for home computers from 1987. It did allow for full movement and rotation along x, y and z, (more apparent once you found the flying vehicle) and used filled polygons.

    However, Driller ran sluggishly on the hardware at the time. It was more of an adventure game than an action one, although it did still include shooting.
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