And here’s your short for the month! YouTube Link. Script below the cut!
Call of Juarez Gunslinger sits in that tier of mid-budget FPS games with retro shooter play sensibilities – along side stuff like Hard Reset and Painkiller and Shadow Warrior and Rise of the Triad. While its focus on hitscan weapons and regenerating health puts Gunslinger closer to Call of Duty than Quake, its comedic nature and ridiculous enemy count take after Serious Sam. And for most games in this subgenre that’d be enough – Call of Duty meets Serious Sam in the old west. Package that up and ship it, the kids’ll love it! But the game’s got two core conciets that make it stick out above its peers.
The first is the game’s showdown system. I know with Entwined we talked about what it means to establish a connection between two systems you’re controlling concurrently, but this nicely does the opposite – it creates a tension between three separate systems. You need to keep your hand centered over the gun so you can draw it out as fast as possible, but you also need to focus your aim on the target. And while juggling those two priorities, you also need to look for any sudden movements by your opponent that indicate they’re going to shoot you, because technically if you draw first it’s murder but if he draws first it’s an honorable kill. It’s separate from the main game systems and as a result does feel a little minigame-y? But it’s a systemization of a western film trope that works surprisingly well in giving you that sense of suspense of who is going to shoot first when. And as far as boss fights go it certainly beats a quick time event. Ultimately this mechanic is put to great use replicating the standoff from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – only in this case it’s the player, and Butch Cassidy, and The Sundance kid (like I said, the game has a bit of a sense of humor about itself). And it’s probably the best Mexican Standoff ever put in a video game, if only because it understands that it’s not so much the shooting that makes those work but the tension. The gunfire is the climax, the release. What sells the moment is the furtive back and forth glances, the three characters unsure who should or will draw first, the paradox of self defense being an inherently offensive move to get your gun.
The other thing that makes Gunslinger rise above being a generic mid-tier shooter is its core thematic conceit. The game being played is really a story being told by the protagonist, Silas Greaves, to a captive audience at a bar. Like the Rucks in Bastion, Silas narrates events as they unfold. And occasionally Gunslinger gets really playful with the game-as-folktale idea: As Silas remembers or invents the next part of the story objects will pop into existence or disappear to open a path. There’s a Rashomon level where a bank heist gets retold three times in three different ways. Silas takes a bathroom break in the middle of a level and the story briefly stops. And there are plot holes that suddenly result in changes to the level’s layout or enemies.
But all this playing with the narrative structure isn’t just a cutesy gimmick. I mean, it definitely is that, but it’s also used to point out the subjectivity of narrative in the context of a game, which is sort of interesting. As formal systems calculated by computers we tend believe the stories told by games as arguably more objective. We have to actively fake things like NFL referees getting calls wrong in Madden, for example. By drawing attention to who is telling the story, however, Gunslingers reminds us that rhetoric is at play in the stories games tell. It’s not a commentary on games and narrative; it’s more that it applies a modernist questioning of narrative authority in a game which we haven’t seen much of before, and that novelty is itself engaging and memorable.
The big-fish story nature of Silas’ tale is also used to examine the distance between legends and truth. Silas ends up meeting just about every major figure from the wild west. Billy the Kid, Butch and Sundance, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickock… all those guys. And the shoot-outs detailed in the game are for more flashy and ostentatious than anything that could have possibly happened in reality. Yet the game counters these ludicrous adventures with collectible secrets that are short fact sheets on the characters, battles, and places being referenced. And the contrast between the larger than life legends Silas presents and the actual historical figures of record serves to reinforce the idea, however trite, that legends are made, not born. We know about Jesse James and Billy the Kid and the rest not because their exploits are anywhere near as grand as the gunfights in this game, but because people think they were, or at least wish they were. They’re legends because we talk about them, we see a spark of interest in the truth and we turn it into a raging fire in fiction.
I don’t want to oversell it – Gunslinger isn’t an in-depth analysis of the process of mythmaking or a dissection of the ambiguity of truth. But it’s aware of its own ludicrousness enough to turn it into a thematic point rather than a weakness. And it’s also comfortable messing with the way it’s telling its story. And it’s cool to finally starting to feel comfortable playing not just with subject matter of games (although we still need as much of that as we can get) but with narrative structure itself. Thirty Flights of Loving uses conventional cinematic editing techniques to tell its story despite its interactive nature, The Stanley Parable treats its entire possibility space as a singular canon, and Gunslinger questions the authority of the game state by questioning the authority of its narrator. It feels like we’re trying to move away from gameplay chunk->cutscene->gameplay chunk->cutscene style of delivering a story, that oil and water approach. And while we’re not there yet, when even a mid-tier budget shooter can start playing with this stuff I feel we’re making at least some headway.