UPDATE: I’ve now posted a review of Gunpoint.
I’ve followed Tom Francis’ Gunpoint since the humble beginning. I’ve played it from its earliest build up until the latest test version and, quite frankly, I think there’s something magical about it. It’s indie, incredible indie, but it’s a subtle statement to the ‘mainstream’ of video-gamekind. In fact, more precisely, it makes a statement about video-game violence as a whole. Gunpoint, from its very title, appears as a shooting game. An action game. Shooty shooty bang bang. Except that couldn’t be any further from the truth, Kotaku (wow I’m quoting Kotaku?!) themselves sum it up perfectly: “Deus Ex meets Canabalt.”
It’s definitely a game about process, not about product. The product of any level in any video-game is ‘completing it’. When you’ve fulfilled all Victory criteria in Civilisation V, got to the end of the train in Uncharted 2 or killed every Lambent/creepy crawler/kitten in Gears of War 3. Gunpoint is instead about getting there, the journey itself, and that journey is not pre-determined in any way whatsoever. There’s upgrade trees, items of interest and you can’t pass levels without collecting ‘data’ or fulfilling the right objectives. But, still, this is a game about process and not product.
Consider the mechanic of the ‘Crosslink’, basically turns you into an electrician, and the ability to manipulate the environment suddenly throws up all kinds of emergent consequences. This is the lifeblood of emergent gameplay, when your interaction has a unique impact on the game world. Stumbling into a cavern in Minecraft after a TNT explosion, crashing into an airplane in San Andreas and hitting a guard in the face with a goddamn door in Gunpoint. Hilarity ensues. Gunpoint is a game about consequences, and it’s not found any stronger than in the eponymous ‘Gunpoint’.
Whenever you hold out your gun at a guard, you both freeze. It’s a Wild West showdown with both of you itching the trigger but, if either of you pull the trigger, events will set in place that will transform the player’s world. If the player shoots, he both alerts all nearby guards, triggers an ‘alarm state’ in which the police will arrive after a countdown and… kill a man. If the player releases his gun then the man kills the player the player has to restart from an earlier point. Consequences. It’s clever just how tense all of these ‘Gunpoint’ instances are, yet they’re all going to be stalemates (unless you’re the one to shoot).
There’s a strong discouragement to violence, I feel, but the game obviously isn’t pacifistic. There are bonus objectives for ‘harm nobody’, the guards don’t pepper-shoot you like Call of Duty (you’re either caught off guard or you put your gun down). The whole game is built towards more of a ‘thinking’ approach. The Deus Ex half. The verticality of the levels combined with the jumping mechanic blends into the Canabalt half too. Gunpoint finds this sweet spot and exploits it to its full potential. It’s a game where shooting people has consequences.
That hasn’t really… happened in a long time has it? When was the last time you cared when you shot someone? I remember man, hell, I wrote about it. Except that was a long, long time ago. Guns in video-games, ironically, destroy all meaning when (in fact) video-games are entirely built around gunplay. That’s not to generalize; we have our Meat Boys and our Motorstorms and our Portals but video-games still revolved around this repeated thematic hit of ‘violence’. It’s all epitomised by the gun, and Gunpoint is one of few games to give it meaning.
I enjoy Call of Duty, I enjoy Uncharted 3 but I don’t enjoy them like I enjoy Gunpoint. Gunpoint has tension in its feel, an almost ‘state of dis-empowerment’. For once in my gaming career I finally feel outnumbered and literally outgunned. Those rare instances in which I get to point the gun are filled with this panicky fiddling of movement with Crosslink now out of reach and me start to edge away. I am retreating. I have never, ever retreated in a game about shooting people before. I’ve run away but to say ‘retreat’ would be hyperbolic, except here, it fits. I retreat into the dark and plan out by steps again.
Gunpoint is a fine, fine wine that really exercises all elements of your tuition and imagination. The combinations in Crosslink allow for, probably, some of the finest emergent gameplay to arise. The consequences carried by all facets of all the mechanics just builds towards a steady revelation that this is a video-game that delivers interactivity in some of its purest of forms. It’s linear in its mission structure, it has dialogue choices and it has a named player character but… still… this has to be probably the most exciting piece of game design in a long, long time.