I downloaded the demo for Bulletstorm whenever it came out. I honestly can’t tell you when that was; I got it on the 360, leashed and kicked some dudes (all of the enemies are men for some reason), and then deleted the demo. I did all of that in roughly one hour. I saw people playing the game on my friends list. I read whispers of the game on Twitter. I didn’t want to play it. The game treads well-worn video game ground. Some burly space assassins crash land on a planet of tribals and mutants after a hubris-induced suicide run at the flagship of the space navy. I didn’t make a single bit of that up.
Anyway, the game was up for $5 during the Steam holiday sale, so I picked it up. And I liked it.
Maybe it was playing it on the PC this time, or maybe it was just some purely psychic thing, but I thought the gameplay was fun. I ignored most of what was said by the characters; the lines that weren’t meme references on 1980s action movie puns were just pandering to 13 year old humor, which isn’t really my style. There is a brilliant kind of satire at work in the game. It takes all of those things I just mentioned and makes a gross, explosive exquisite corpse out of it. This early promo for the game illustrates that pretty well. The trailer in that link opens with hot dogs that are virtually indistinguishable from spend minigun shells in a pile–it tells us that the humor and the action are coming part-and-parcel in Bulletstorm.
There are two real points I want to make about the game, both of which will be spoilers. Just so you know.
1. The game questions the player/protagonist’s complicity in mass murder.
When I said that the game opened with a suicide run at a spaceship, what I mean is that the protagonist, Grayson Hunt (right?), has a personal vendetta against a general from the Confederation of Planets, Serrano. You see, Grayson’s black ops wet work team, Dead Echo (I know), was being used to assassinate citizens instead of military targets. Grayson felt pretty betrayed by that–he thought he was doing good work! Instead, he was forced to kill innocent people, journalists, political rivals of Serrano’s, etc. Sound similar to something else? The initial impetus of Bulletstorm is a controlled being rebelling against his controller and taking revenge on him. Serrano and the player share a role–they both control Hunt, make moves for him, help guide him toward white-and-black goals that are ideologically biased toward a particular attitude.
A second piece to this is when Hunt obtains an item called “the leash.” Watch a little of this video to see what the leash is–it should be apparent. When Hunt gets the leash, a new HUD appears in the game. From that moment on, each action performed in combat is scored. A simple kill with a rifle is ten points. Firing a mine into an enemy and then kicking him into a larger group? Maybe 1500 points. Hunt refers to this system as a kind of “video game,” and later in the game we are given a complete backstory of the development of the leash: soldiers who received high scores were resupplied in battle, while those who did not, were not. The soldiers who were better at the “game” of murdering were rewarded, and the ones who were not died.
So we are presented with two in-game representations of things taken for granted in first person shooter video games: controlling the protagonist and a scoring system for murder. Yet another layer is added during the latter third. Hunt, in order to get off-planet before a catastrophe strikes, has to ally with Serrano. Serrano, a foul-mouthed rip off of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket if Ermey had been on meth, berates Hunt for assault on the flagship that took place in the opening of the game.
This series of screen caps is from the last two hours of the game or so. Almost all of these phrases are followed by the protagonist telling Serrano that he is a psychopath, a maniac, etc. But all of these things are true. Every time a giant spaceship is destroyed in a game, hundreds of civilians, workers, and support crew are implicitly killed. In Bulletstorm, that is made explicit–the bodies are there. They exist. They are rendered visible. That’s important for two reasons–the first being that it invites a debate, and a justification, for the murders that the player commits in the game. The second is that Serrano, who was the player to Hunt before we began the game, is essentially us. He is a player who take a perverse amount of joy in murder–just like we are doing when we play a game that celebrates kicking people in cactuses after shooting them in the butt. Serrano is the logical conclusion of the first person shooter player–a maniac who loves the comedic potential for murder.
2. The game puts the player in the role of an NPC
This isn’t as big as the one above, but it’s equally important. I don’t have any clips of this segment, so if you haven’t played the game, this might not be worth reading. During the finale of the game, Serrano does all of the things to Hunt that Hunt has done to enemies over the course of the game–he uses the leash to whip him around and he kicks him. We experience this all in first person, and it’s incredibly disorienting, and more than that it feels unfair. As it happened, I kept thinking that it was such bullshit. Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I move and control my character?
It dawned on me afterward that I had to experience, for less than one minute, what every single enemy in my path had to feel for their entire existence. They spawned, were leashed, thrown from buildings, kicked in rebar, shot in the head, and then stopped existing. Poof.
In any case, that’s what I thought about the game. It was fun, and it offers some great moments for reflection about the genre, even if it ends in a really normal, standard way. Revenge is declared, girls are gotten, and badassness is declared a way of life. At least it was worth playing along the way.