So without wanting to get too introspective and navel gazing and ‘why do we do what we do,’ there is this kind of regular internal conflict I guess I have with regards to writing about games driven primarily by the act of shooting, and also the weapons in those games. With everything you see going on, it’s queasy, this whole ‘man, I love the guns in this game.’ Although I’ve wanted to, I’ve never really done the ‘why the shotgun in F.E.A.R. is a great videogame gun’ or ‘what I love about the guns in Battlefield’ or any of those kinds of articles, because even when they’re made up and heightened and kind of sanitised for entertainment, guns, and having any kind of love of guns, feels—in this year of our Lord—wrong.
Not to mention, most of the time guns are pretty basal, anodyne in games, placed there automatically without consideration—or even the consideration that there ought to be some consideration—for what they represent thematically or dramatically or aesthetically. In the majority of cases, guns in games are created, presented, and largely only suitable for judgement based on their propensity for, and likelihood of creating, enjoyment. The game gun is a kind of cable between the player and the game, whereby we make an input by aiming and pressing fire, and the game responds via the output of resultant gore, chaos, death, and so on. The more ways that we can initially interact with the gun—upgrades, customisations, alternate fire modes—and the more vibrant the effects of that interaction—body physics, blood effects, environmental destruction—the stronger the assumed connection between us and videogames. The more present the gun is, as something we can operate, and whose operation we can see impacting on the game world, the ‘better’ that gun as a videogame mechanic and pseudo character.
Or but sometimes it’s the other way around, and games make their thematic and meaningful presence known by a profound, respective absence of guns. ‘You don’t have a gun’ or ‘there are other ways to complete missions than shooting everyone’ become central to a game’s mechanical identity and dramatic oeuvre. And yet still, in these cases, like say Deus Ex (which powerfully encourages and incentivises you not to use guns) the latter stages of Half-Life 2, a variety of stealth and horror games (like primarily Frictional’s Amnesia series, otherwise from The Bunker) the game remains defined by the gun. It’s that semiotic thing of being so accustomed to something’s presence, its not being there becomes potentially more dramatically powerful—a game without a gun becomes like a film with no edits or dialogue, an experimental cinematography, distinctive largely for the subversion of form. And so, even in its literal absence, the gun remains, a resonant artifact and concept by which a videogame might be judged: ‘10 Action Games Without Guns’ appears on The Gamer, 'Open-World Games That Have No Combat' on GameRant, and '7 Videogames For People Who Don’t Like Guns' on Mashable. Videogame guns are the phantom limb, still there when they’re not there.
The original Amnesia felt like a proposal or a method for awakening videogames from the nightmare of guns—a demonstration of how an adult, explicit, ‘action’ game might still exist conceptually, mechanically, and as an entertaining prospect for a player without the presence of guns. I think it was a complete failure. The absence of guns, intended to increase our fear and vulnerability, has a profoundly comforting psychological effect, as in, we intrinsically know that a game without guns—or weaponry of any kind—is not going to make us fight, since mechanically these two things, means of performing combat and combat, are mutually exclusive. Just like when your character gets captured and stripped of their inventory, and the next level is a convenient stealth section with a much reduced number of enemies that spend a lot of time with their backs to you and walking in predictable grid shapes, we know that if there is no gun, there is no possibility of simulated combat and its attendant emotional experiences. Amnesia: The Dark Descent expects you to be intimidated that it does not provide you a gun. The effect is the reverse, whereby we’re so inured to videogame conventions that, once the gun is absent, we understand that there is no chance that we actually have to directly confront an enemy or a monster. Our obligation is to run, hide, and reload a saved game if we’re killed.
Though the narrative and our obliging journey through it might resolve in our eventual confrontation with and destruction of the monster (at the end of Amnesia, the actions that we have performed in order to progress each level are also actions conducive to preventing the plans of the arch villain Alexander, and such, with our final, prescribed in-game action, his plans are prevented) it is the game, its structure, and its fixed dramatic construction that creates this confrontation. There is no occasion where, organically or of our own volition, we will be obliged to ‘step up'; where we will have to judge the likely outcome of, and perform for ourselves, combat. Not having a gun liberates us from this potentially charged or redolent input/output experience. Something that we might normally do in an adult, first-person game, i.e. engage in combat, the success of which is dependent on our decisions and skill, becomes, thanks to a lack of a gun, something that we know for certain will not happen to us. This challenging, dramatic, and evocative moment of in-game performance will assuredly never arrive, and we are liberated from a certain kind of mechanic and narrative responsibility—if we see the monster, though it may, in the plot, be up to our character to do something about it, it is not up to us, as players, to do anything about it apart from run away and so our role and concomitant kind of onus as mechanical, input/output protagonist is lightened, or at least mitigated.
Now it might be argued that the anxiety and emotional and cerebral demand of running and hiding from the monster more than replaces, and is a more than adequate substitute for, the stress, anxiety. and thematic, dramatic, emotional etc. catalyst that is combat—that although we lose the effect of simulated combat, and are offered a kind of unspoken safety by the gun’s absence, the simulation of stealth and evasion provide for different and perhaps more potent experiences. This can absolutely be true. But the contention is not that somehow having a gun in a game will always create a more vibrant and charged emotional experience, and any game that makes a point about the absence of guns is somehow dramatically inferior. The contention is that making known an absence of guns automatically creates a charge, an emotional powder keg, an opportunity for X and Y and Z that would not be possible if a gun were present. The contention is with the idea that, so long as a game has a gun in it, there are some things, emotionally and dramatically and experientially, that become impossible, whereas a game without a gun presents all possibilities, and is thus a superior platform for expression.
The erroneousness of this idea, that no guns in an adult or a first-person or an action-type game by virtue allows for new and different and perhaps higher creative possibilities, is reinforced by Amnesia: The Bunker, a game centered around guns, but which uses guns and their presentation and mechanical behaviour as stimulants for narrative, theme, characterisation, aesthetic, drama, and so on. The gun has a very small number of bullets. The gun requires several button inputs to complete the act of reloading. The gun cannot harm the monster directly, per se, but is nevertheless vital for your self defence, insofar as allowing you to navigate and overcome the eponymous bunker, and deter or deflect the monster laterally. The gun however is only one method of touching and interacting with this game—it is not the sole nor predominant cable by which we input and receive an output, a function which is served in Amnesia: The Bunker more by the player character’s implied hands which can pick up and variously manipulate every object in the game, and through which we are encouraged to explore The Bunker’s smaller details, and execute its mechanics.
The role of the gun is reduced here, inasmuch as it cannot kill and is one of many, rather than the predominant, mechanical function and device. On the contrary, the role of the gun is comparatively greater in Amnesia: The Bunker than similar, contemporary games. Its operation requires a greater number of button presses. Its deployment, owing to a pronounced scarcity of ammunition, the monster’s potentially lethal response to gunfire and the implied preciousness of usage (the gun is designed for certain tasks and undertakings, rather than a first and universally effective first resort) prepare or accouter the gun with a much larger number of both player-mechanical choices and dramatic potentials. The gun is still present—arguably more present than in other games, given the amount of attention one must give to its ammunition count and its procedures of use. It is also still powerful, not as a killing tool, but as a device essential to the completion of the game, to which the player will likely have an attachment. As we build a relationship with our increasingly customised guns in Fallout or Call of Duty, we have a relationship to Amnesia’s factory revolver, as it becomes not only an essential tool for navigating and escaping the bunker, but also a powerful placebo, something that provides to us an illusion of power and protection and thus lessens our fear and heightens our resolve as we tread through the environment.
Thus the gun becomes a character, in a truer sense than perhaps guns in other games, no matter how iconic or aesthetically or auditorily pleasing, might be called characters. The gun has moments of heroism, when it allows us to successfully remove one of the many obstacles preventing our escape. The gun likewise has weaknesses and flaws, things that it cannot do. Chief among them is the gun’s inability to kill, which complicates and inflects the gun’s role beyond that of videogame guns generally—it is not a trivial or machine weakness, like reduced accuracy over range or overheating after sustained fire, but a weakness that reflects the vulnerability of our character literally when confronting the monster, and psychologically and emotionally with regards to his circumstances. It becomes a similar metaphor for our experience as players, and in fact literalises and makes tangible Amnesia: The Bunker’s emotional and experiential kind of codex, serving as an instantly intelligible Rosetta Stone by which we can access The Bunker’s more abstract qualities—a game that offers moments of relief and empowerment, but also maintains a simulation of vulnerability, and simmers themes such as mortality and death. Contradictory, fraught, complex but still potent, essential, and relishable, the gun is expected and created to serve a varied dramatic and aesthetic purpose as well as a mechanical—and occasionally subversively mechanical—one.
Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.