How the greatest shooter in years failed to find an audience
Commercial video games are a hit-driven industry. The big publishers rely on a few games selling at least five million copies in order to offset numerous other games that fail to chart. And this imbalance extends to the media coverage. Game journalists concentrate almost exclusively on the most-awaited sequels, from annualized releases like Call of Duty to long-in-the-making titles like Diablo III. Thus, it’s inevitable that most other games will be released, ignored, and quickly forgotten.
In 2011, one such game was Bulletstorm, a brilliant gem of bright colors and wondrous violence that did more to push the first-person shooter forward than any game since 2007’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.
It’s not immediately apparent what makes Bulletstorm special. Most innovative shooters have either implemented significant new designs or offered a plethora of smaller changes. Bulletstorm did neither. The only substantive addition was its heavily marketed Skillshots, a scoring system which encouraged the player to kill foes in increasingly difficult and outlandish ways. Skillshots did add an additional layer of strategy and, well, skill to the affair; getting out of the fight alive was no longer the sole concern. But this, in and of itself, was merely an extension of the experiments with rewards that had formed the basis for the rise of unlocks — just another scoring system that encouraged the player to attempt greater feats in exchange for points that could be spent on additional ammo and upgraded weaponry.
No, what made Bulletstorm so radical was the way it attached contemporary shooter design to a framework that went back to the origins of the modern FPS almost twenty years ago. And it did so at a time when the competition was increasingly distancing itself from the gratuitous violence and endemic sociopathy that has always characterized the genre – traits that were standardized in 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D.
From Robot Hitler to Thomas Jefferson
Together with its equally exaggerated successor, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D provided the blueprint for all shooters to follow. Most of them didn’t stray far from that blueprint, and the few that did (like 1994’s System Shock) still featured fantastical settings and scenarios.
But in 1998, the “tactical shooter” was born with Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. Developed alongside the popular Tom Clancy novel, Rainbow Six lets the player guide an elite hostage rescue team using contemporary military equipment and tactics. The player drew up pre-mission attack plans based on available intel, assigning orders and equipment to the team before commencing the rescue operation. Once the mission started, the player could switch active control between the different operatives. The missions would often last only minutes, but since a single bullet could take down a team member, coming out unharmed was exceedingly difficult. The “realistic” shooter had been born.
Rainbow Six was a moderate success, but its high difficulty curve and significant divergence from existing shooters meant it was always going to be a niche game. But the idea of fighting weighty, real-world battles had broad appeal, and the next few years would see an explosion in the number of World War II shooters, led by the Medal of Honor franchise and, later, Call of Duty. With the explosive popularity of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, contemporary Middle Eastern warfare became the default setting for these sorts of dramatic war shooters. But while they became more visually and mechanically sophisticated with each incarnation, their fundamental aesthetic remained more or less unchanged in the twelve years since Medal of Honor’s release.
The problem is that these games are, at best, pseudo-realistic. Upon death in one of the Call of Duty games, a historical quote on the horrors of war will appear, seemingly emphasizing that this is serious business not to be taken lightly, that the stakes matter; yet any pretense of realism falls down in comparison to the protagonist’s regenerating health and the inevitable body count in the thousands. In an attempt to appeal to all audiences, the modern shooter tries to contain every permutation of the genre in a single body; and while many of the components can be appealing, the whole is a bastard creation with an identity crisis.
This wouldn’t have been so bad if there had been a lot of other choices, but Call of Duty’s record-breaking sales combined with game publishers’ “follow the leader” mentality resulted in a gamut of pseudo-realistic titles and a dearth of games on either end of the spectrum. In realistic shooters, the ArmA series was more or less the only game in town. For traditionalists, there were just a few retro shooters, most notably the Serious Sam series – and while these preserved the genre’s original spirit, they intentionally refused to break new ground. It was into this vacuum that Bulletstorm was released.
“Shooting down swarms of gyrocopters while in freefall”
Bulletstorm directly positioned itself against the immense popularity of Call of Duty and Halo. In an age in which almost every major shooter had adopted at least the veneer of realism, Bulletstorm recognized the inherent ridiculousness of the genre. After all, these were games that universally revolved around an individual killing thousands of other people. This isn’t just wildly implausible, it’s outright sociopathic. Instead of pretending otherwise, Bulletstorm took that ball and ran with it. The game’s protagonist, Grayson Hunt, is a belligerent alcoholic who lives only for revenge, and for the immense amounts of destruction he can cause in pursuit of that revenge. The opening hours see Grayson stranded on a world gone mad, with legions of gun-toting maniacs shooting anything that moves (in short, what the player would be like if she acted in the real world the way she acts in the game). Over the course of the game, our protagonist will murder thousands of murderers’ in order to murder a particularly murderous murderer. Bulletstorm was the first mainstream shooter in years that had a set-up that actually matched the gameplay.
Freed from the constraints of “realism” and good taste, Bulletstorm’s developers were able to implement any and every ridiculous scenario and weapon they could imagine, leading Shacknews writer Alice O’Connell to characterize it as “[developer] People Can Fly’s stab at making Video Games: The Video Game.” Bulletstorm’s seven weapons – including a sniper-rifle with remote-control bullets and a gun that fired a bouncing explosive cannonball – offered more variety than the 80-odd guns of Battlefield 3, which were all variants on just a few“real-world” weapon types (assault rifle, shotgun, etc.) And while its competitors’ idea of a set piece was riding in the back of a jeep or watching a big building blow up, Bulletstorm allowed you to guide a robotic, laser-spewing Tyrannosaurus, or shoot down swarms of gyrocopters while in freefall after being flung over the edge of a waterfall.
As the complexity of these scenarios should show, this wasn’t just another retro shooter. Bulletstorm was a wholly modern affair that gave its protagonist almost unprecedented mobility (Grayson can slide and mantle all over the place) and featured elaborate level design to accompany its show-stopping scripted events. This had everything a Call of Duty did, and then some. And whereas the former is as po-faced as videogames get, Bulletstorm was explicitly self-aware. This included not just its tacit acknowledgement of its characters’ poor mental health, but the addition of a particularly unusual component: humor.
There hadn’t been an outright comedic shooter since the No One Lives Forever series saw its second and last installment in 2003, and while Bulletstorm never becomes an overt parody like those games, it features a never-ending string of witticisms banter between Grayson and his traveling companions. The fact that a significant percentage of this banter consists of dick jokes that are actually funny (at least to this surprised writer) makes it all the more accomplished. Bulletstorm’s developers realized that, if the player couldn’t laugh at the game, they would be tacitly asked to take it seriously; and then you’d end up with a murderous tragedy on par with Manhunt rather than the rip-roaring adventure it is.
“It ends up that people don’t play shooters purely out of a morbid fascination with bodily fluids.”
So why did such an accomplished shooter, co-developed with a beloved studio (Epic Games) and backed by a powerful publisher (EA) fail to find an audience? While impossible to answer with certainty, I suspect that the main problem was that EA didn’t seem to have a clear idea about who would actually want to play the game, and the subsequent schizophrenic marketing managed to turn off all comers (including me). Initially revealed with a launch trailer that portrayed it as yet generic sci-fi action game about One Man’s Quest for Revenge, EA’s marketing radically shifted course in the lead-up to the game’s release. Subsequent advertising included a trailer parodying Halo 3, whose punchline is Grayson throwing up a bunch (under this mistaken belief that seeing the protagonist spew puke will somehow attract players) and hyperkinetic clips that seemed to try and cram as much violence into as few seconds as possible.
If they couldn’t attract buyers with barf, the thinking seemed to be, they could draw them with blood. It was the rare instance of a big game publisher underestimating the maturity of its audience; it ends up that people don’t play shooters purely out of a morbid fascination with bodily fluids. The fact that the developers chose to release a short and sloppy Call of Duty parody named Duty Calls in place of an actual demo meant that no one could get a sense of how the game actually played, and it could only be evaluated based on what was being portrayed in ads: an infantile gorefest whose only apparent distinction was featuring more swearing than the completion.
A New Hope
Bulletstorm didn’t tank – Epic’s Mike Capps described its sales as “good, but not amazing” – but it wasn’t enough for a AAA title hoping to establish a franchise, and the planned sequel was cancelled early in pre-production. Yet I don’t think this was much of a loss; Bulletstorm’s charm was that it presented a vivid, fresh take on the a genre increasingly dominated by derivative sequels, and the inclusion of an artificial cliffhanger at the game’s end was the only thing that stopped it from being a fully satisfying, self-contained experience. Ultimately, the gaming world doesn’t need another Bulletstorm. What it needs are games just as willing to take risks, to challenge conventions, and to experiment with the sort of varied settings that made not only Bulletstorm but the Far Cry games stand out from the pack. And if these games chose to have a laugh along the way, an impish grin or a knowing wink…well, it wouldn’t exactly be a tragedy.
Sources: Alice O’Connell, Shacknews, “Staff Favorites 2011: Alice’s Picks“