Bulletstorm, remorse and the meaning of shooting games

First-person shooters are often labelled as shallow thrill rides, but do a slew of recent releases hint at something more?

Bulletstorm is a really stupid game, isn’t it? A ‘guilty pleasure’. Something proper gamers shouldn’t admit to enjoying. In it, the meat-headed mercenary Grayson Hunt spends ten hours blasting his way through a planet of mutants, kicking people into the gaping maws of man-eating plants, while wise-cracking about the smell of sun-baked arseholes. This is a game that glorifies demented slaughter; an orgy of mindless, sadistic pleasure. We can all agree on this, right?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. What if, beneath the symphony of hyper-kinetic gunplay, Bulletstorm is actually a game about guilt and grief? What if it were an immense Jacobean tragedy disguised as a dim-witted hack-‘em-up? And what if it were not alone in using the FPS genre to explore mental torment?

Okay, you might have to bear with me on this one.Hunt, you see, is wracked with remorse. He has just spent the last few years of his career killing innocent people under the orders of General Sarrano, commander of the sinister Dead Echo galactic army. Except Hunt didn’t know they were innocent people, he was told they were war criminals. Destroyed by the truth, Hunt seeks a terrible revenge, attacking Serrano’s gigantic spacecraft, forcing it to crash land on the devastated pleasure planet where the rest of the game takes place. But this brings Hunt no peace – instead, his friends are killed early on in the escapade, and he’s left with their deaths on his conscience too.

Throughout each cutscene, amid the colourful insults, he constantly ruminates on loss. He obsesses over it. His suicidal mission to track down and murder Serrano, who has naturally survived the crash, is a search for redemption; a redemption that can only ever be realised in his own annihilation. Remorse is the emotion that hovers over the entire game. It is there, if you squint hard enough, in the very structure: seven chapters – the seven stages of grief.

And interestingly, Sarrano plays up on this. Toward the end of the game, the twisted Dead Echo chief constantly reminds Hunt about his crimes, about the thousands he’s killed. When you enter the stricken spacecraft and start slaughtering its guards, the general mocks Hunt over the ship’s PA system –’those are honest men you’re killing, they have wives and children.’ Did the developer, People Can Fly, just shove that in for a laugh? Or were they querying the disposability of life in the shoot-‘em-up universe? It reminds me of the classic scene in Clerks, where Randal dissects the ending of Return of the Jedi, denigrating the rebels for destroying the second Death Star while it is still being built by thousands of innocent construction workers.

And Bulletstorm is not alone as an FPS carrying subtexts of loss and anguish. Dead Space 2 is about post-traumatic stress disorder: Isaac Clarke has become catastrophically unhinged by the horrors he witnessed in the original game – his life is one long hallucination of monstrous threat; the Marker is madness. Call of Duty: Black Ops revolves around paranoid schizophrenia – did Alex Mason kill Kennedy or not? He imagined a Russian ally for much of the game so anything is possible. But the question hangs and is purposely not resolved. There is ambiguity surrounding everything that happens in the game, because the game is a patchwork of cloudy, unstable memories.

In a recent post on the blog The Gwumps, the author talks about Fallout: New Vegas and about how the character Boone, a vengeful sniper looking to wipe out members of The Legion, is as much a victim of endless, pointless violence as he is a perpetrator. He symbolises what’s happened to humanity in the wake of the apocalypse – deadened, scarred and unraveled. It looks like Deus Ex: Human Revolution will also explore the loss of humanity, this time through genetic and cybernetic enhancement. And Monolith’s first-person horror shooter, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, provides perhaps the most nihilistic commentary on moral death and mental decline, its hero transmogrified from an FBI agent into a violent homeless alcoholic.

Sure, first-person shooters are the death metal of video gaming; they revel in darkness, and the cheap hyperbole of loss and slaughter. But Bulletstorm is interesting in that it comments on and questions the killing while simultaneously encouraging players to revel in it. It exploits the fundamental strength of the genre – the lack of an onscreen lead character (at least during the action). There is a unique hotwire connection between game and player; the psychological gap is narrowed. Without an avatar to blame, we’re more complicit, and the motivations become more hazy. Consequently, digital artists have regularly appropriated the FPS format to ask questions about war and consent, from Wafaa Bilal’s hugely controversial Virtual Jihadi to Federico Solmi’s Douche Bag City.

Bulletstorm actually having meaning is a difficult sell, I know that. But then, of course, intent is only a fraction of meaning. All those silly fifties sci-fi movies about giant irradiated insects spoke volumes about nuclear dread, possibly without intending it. Did Texas Chainsaw Massacre really seek to critique post-Vietnam America or was it an accident? “Everything means something, I guess,” one character famously drawls at the start of the movie.

In games, where narrative is usually pushed to the sidelines, players create their own ‘reality’ – itself an extremely malleable concept in the virtual world. After playing Half-Life for the second or third time, I began to wonder – did the events of the game actually happen? Or did Gordon Freeman die after the resonance cascade? Maybe the whole story was conjured by the character’s misfiring synapses, a last wash of complex brain chemicals to help assuage the guilt. The best shooters, like the best horror movies, are about the ambiguity that exists at the extremes of behaviour and motivation. Bulletstorm might want us to ask, “are we doing the right thing here?”

Perhaps I’ve been playing too long. Or perhaps those who think Bulletstorm is just a shallow production line of gut-splattered set-pieces are not asking the right questions about first-person shooters, or why they enjoy them.




Game culture

Keith Stuart

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