Shooter’s foreward, written by Far Cry 2 designer Clint Hocking, ends with a bold promise. Hocking writes, “As someone who has benefitted–both materially and emotionally–from the rising tide of game criticism over the past decade, I can assure you that the words on these pages are as important to the future of the medium as the games themselves.” As a setup for a book about the video game shooter genre, the types of games that sell in the millions each year, are played by just as much, and have been the subject of analysis and ridicule from reviewers and fans alike, it sounds exaggerated. Is there really much more to write about the shooter? We’ve been pulling virtual triggers for decades, from Doom to Call of Duty. Can a group of critics really shape a broader understanding of the medium with their essays?
Shooter gives a partial answer, but the answer that matters: hopefully.
In these 15 collected essays that seek to explore a genre that’s both celebrated and criticized for its violent core, you learn that, yes, there’s much more to shooters than pulling a trigger. And despite the book’s diverse and potent mix of critics, it can’t cover every angle or every game, nor do I think it wants to. In many ways, this is only proof that we could dig deeper, an argument that games are uglier and more beautiful than most reviews uncover. Shooter is a compilation of perspectives that demonstrates the fascinating capacity of games at large. You’ll finish it wanting more.
Of course, there is more. Critics like these exist all over the internet, in between the big media outlets, beside the YouTube let’s plays. This kind of critical discourse happens every day, on blogs and in tweets. It’s just hard to find. Shooter offers a taste of what’s available by combining a variety of these disparate voices into one strong examination. Like any good critical writing, you not only learn about the game through a lense you might not have considered, but you also learn about the critic and what he or she values. The book is as much an example of the complexity of games as it is the complexity of those that play them.
David S. Heineman traces the history of public, coin-operated arcade shooters as they shifted to more private, in-home iterations at the start of the book. It’s a reminder that the shooter was once an abstracted 2D method to boast about your skill, not the realistic and contained 3D experiences we have today. The next essay contextualizes Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the first-person shooter that kickstarted the massively successful franchise, in a post-9/11 America. Reid McCarter explains how a country afraid of and uneased by terrorism and war naturally glommed onto a jingoistic game that gave you the power to combat virtual-but-symbolic versions of the real thing. McCarter argues that the game was cathartic in the most essential time, despite the problems with its depiction of war and foreign countries that we can see today. History, he shows, has shaped the shooter. And following that is Patrick Lindsey’s observation of Far Cry 2’s reflective violence. The main character of the 2008 game has Malaria from the start and must deal with it randomly throughout the game, sometimes in the middle of firefights. His weapons will break at a similar pace. This puts friction between the player and his or her input, Lindsey explains. We expect games to obey our commands, for the guns to shoot when we want them to. But Far Cry 2 isn’t interested in the expected. Through a lack of commentary on your actions and a constant battle against the game itself, Far Cry 2 forces you to question your role as a relentless hostile force in its world. Lindsey demonstrates that shooters can be subversive about their own violence through careful narrative and detailed systems.
These three essays set up the book’s foundations. That shooters are violent depictions influenced by their own history, real world history, and narrative techniques via gameplay and written story. The rest of Shooter’s writers branch off of these concepts, illustrating a genre that, purely through satisfying and unsatisfying mechanics, can turn that into inherent or authored narrative that has the ability and inability to tackle deeply personal topics. Or that a shooter’s mechanics can transcend any kind of narrative and ultimately have more to say. And more: including gender, identity, othering, disempowerment, empowerment, fear, jealousy, and tactility.
That they derive these criticisms from popular games, like Fallout 3, Haze, Spec Ops: The Line, Gears of War and Counter-Strike, is fascinating, especially when you’ve played the games yourself. You realize that campaign you ploughed through in six hours likely had days worth of contemplation. If anything, reading through Shooter is a compelling coercion to pay more attention to what games do and why.
Taken together, the essays in Shooter ultimately humanize the shooter genre. They strike at the rawest parts of what makes each game and connects them to both the people who play them and the people who make them. They find vulnerabilities, biases, and assumptions that, problematic or not, show that the genre has a wide spectrum of possible meaning. It can’t be complete in its approach, because that’s the point. Shooter is a launch pad for critical discourse and literacy for games. It’s a suggestion through example. A group of writers and their essays that could–nay, should–shape a broader understanding of games.