I was briefly very curious about GUN, the Neversoft game.

The original announcement of the game only revealed the title and an ominous tagline on a black background: "Pull the Trigger. GUN." And, to someone immersed in the video game dialogue, how provocative is that?

Popular games, following the sea change caused by Wolfenstein and Doom, have been about the power and allure of the firearm. Firing guns at living targets encapsulates the two biggest psychological draws of video games: being able to do something you otherwise can't in the real world, and a sense of power and control over a chaotic situation. I expect most people who play shooter games haven't actually fired a gun in the real world, much less killed, or even badly injured, another person. It's unthinkable on some level, but on the other hand it has the appeal of the taboo-- I can't actually shoot someone... but what is it like? It's an experience that is familiar to the audience via film and television, but even then still only secondhand; games deliver the visceral sensation of actually doing. Games play out the audience's illicit love affair with the firearm. And not just America's, but Japan's and Europe's. A fascination with instant death.

I've fired real guns. Admittedly, my motivation was game-related-- I'd virtually shot so many guns in my life that I felt a need to have the real-world experience to back it up. After a trial shot or two, I was actually rather good; games had taught me to line up the sights and adjust for recoil. I've only gone shooting once, in a quarry with some friends and some beer cans. And midway through our session there, I pictured actually having another person in front of the gun when I pulled the trigger. And it's just terrifying to even imagine, once you know what the shooting itself is actually like. Once you've gained first-hand knowledge of how it feels to fire a real gun, it's easy to construct the rest of the scene.

It's horrific. It's not like in a video game where a blood decal appears on the bad guy's shirt and he peacefully ragdolls into a floppy pile. In games, if anything, shooting someone is simply about neutralizing them, not actually hurting them; enemies shot non-fatally don't express pain, and fatal wounds silence the target instantaneously. It's the sterilized version of the act. The ideal killing. And it happens a hundred times more in any given shooter game than in all the action movies of a year combined. Never has so little screentime been devoted to so much gun violence.

So the teaser for GUN held an enormous amount of promise. The title alone--GUN-- begs a game about the gun itself: about our relationship to it as entertainment consumers and game players; about the presence of the firearm in our society, about the implications and effects of gun violence, the power of the gun itself and the lives it affects. A deconstruction, an analysis, maybe even a meditation. A game that acknowledges all the things that shooters normally take for granted, and asks the player to consider them anew, through their own actions and decisions.

Then the tagline-- "Pull the Trigger"-- adds another layer of reflexivity to the prospect. In most shooter games, pulling the trigger is a foregone conclusion. The game begins with a gun in your hands, and never asks if you're going to fire it, but where and how often. Could GUN be a game wherein the gun itself is an element of the world that isn't grafted to the player's hand? Where the decision to even pick up a gun, much less fire it, is an actual decision, with gravity and import? In the vast majority of films, aside from such as Predator and Rambo 2, the simple act of picking up a gun is meaningful, foreboding, and dangerous. The entire dynamic of the film changes at that moment. This character might kill another person now. And an actual shooting-- again, in a film with humanity-- has impact and sobriety to it.

Consider the following scene from Taxi Driver: the climactic gun battle in the flophouse, immediately before the ending of the film.

In some ways, the setup is much like that of an urban shooter game: the heavily-armed lone hero storms a nest of criminal activity and cleanses it through the barrel of a gun. But unlike in a game, it's not "cool" or clean or fun. It's harrowing and bleak, filthy and gory and frightening. Only three people are killed, but the scene has more impact than all the combined hours of gun violence I've played out in video games this year. Why is that? Why do games only glorify the gun, without addressing the ugliness and the aftermath, or the compulsion to kill? Could this mysterious "GUN" game actually question our assumptions about the gun's role in the modern video game?

No, as it turned out, GUN was just a cheap GTA-alike set in the old west. It could hardly be less high-minded if it tried. Neversoft continued its financial success by carrying the torch of the Tony Hawk and now Guitar Hero series, and GUN faded into obscurity.

Hopefully, somewhere, the spirit of the game that GUN could have been is still alive, waiting. It's just too bad that the perfect title is already taken.

*note: images used are from Larry Clark's photo series Tulsa.


Anonymous said...

I really, really enjoyed this one. You have significant insight on the nature of gaming. The article is a bit ironic considering your recent project, though ;)

-- brkl

Duncan said...

I think the type of gameplay you describe is highly unlikely to occur in a commercial game, but, conversely, EXTREMELY likely to occur in a student project.

Shooting has become such a casual game mechanic that I think it would be really hard to redefine its role in gaming, especially in an action game, without coming off as patronizing.

I suppose you could set a game in one of the first conflicts to use guns, then you get to "legitimately" reeducate the player: the gun is genuinely new and dangerous, and the player comes to respect and fear it. It's a tough balance, though: do you have this game that is all about what a gun is really like, and what is that, a simulation? Or do you have a normal action game where guns are treated realistically and so it's this arbitrary academic exercise that's fun for no one. Fortunately I am not Mr. Game Designer. I guess I am Mr. Tear Mr. Game Designer Apart.

Steve gaynor said...

Yeah, and it'll probably remain ironic for a while, considering my next project. But, maybe someday.