Myths usually die slowly; their original form eroded by eras and changing cultural landscapes. The gun as a myth looked to fade in this way. Once attached to the Western, a genre that has lately taken on the qualities of a requiem, I thought the gun as a mythic icon might follow a similar trajectory. Instead, its death has been rapid and ignominious. Images of the gun are still prevalent, but the power once associated with them no longer exists. Nowhere is this more evident than in videogames. The gun has become an inert symbol: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
My fondest memories of guns are tied to movies. Usually it’s a still image of the protagonist striking some mannered posture, the gun at the center of the frame as the focal point of the character and his motivations. These poses are numerous and famous. Whether it is the robber shooting the audience in The Great Train Robbery or James Bond’s signature shot at the end of the opening credits, the gun is a potent visual image in our cultural cache.
Videogames aim for a similar goal, creating a mythos around and a connection with guns, but fail miserably. This is surprising, because it seems it would be an easier task for a videogame to achieve. The medium’s inherently vicarious nature, and the necessity of making the player an actor within the narrative, seem like fertile ground for cultivating a strong connection between player and gun. Yet the gun is generally relegated to a forgotten visual aid, little more than a muzzle obscuring part of the screen or your character’s body. Brightly colored flashes take center stage, the gun resembling an Independence Day sparkler more than anything else. And so players saunter through games collecting guns, as if in a firework store, wondering what their eventual effect might be, and then finally marveling not at the power of the gun but at the brightness of the sparks it emits.
Videogame developers view guns through a profoundly two-dimensional lens. The gun is still a power-up, too practical in its uses to be the object of much emotional tension. When games were confined to two dimensions and only a handful of pixels, it was difficult to portray a firearm in any convincing way other than a fantastic ray of light spewing from the barrel. Players went through games amassing guns like so many mushrooms and fire flowers. Little has changed in this regard, as players run through any first person shooter scooping up weapon after weapon, discarding one in favor of another.
For many, this is the purpose of games – to provide a concrete experience grounded in gameplay mechanics, as opposed to an exercise in symbolism and iconography. But in putting this goal before all else, videogames concede their ability to produce images of consequence. In a vain attempt to tack meaning onto an otherwise meaningless image, developers have placed an inordinate emphasis on technical details.
But this obsession with facts and figures only further dilutes the gun’s iconic status. This becomes apparent while playing Metal Gear Solid 4. A convincing substitute for the Guns and Ammo Holiday Gift Guide, MGS4 equates guns with baseball cards. Complicated statistics on each weapon overwhelm the player and customization options for each gun abound. Images attempt to encapsulate these numbers, but by the end of the game which of these guns do we remember? Which of these guns felt deadly?
A single gun can provide all the power and tragedy that an arsenal of dozens ostensibly brings. The movie Dirty Harry, a love letter to the .44 Magnum, shows the fruition of this idea. As much as the movie is about a vigilante cop, it’s also about the iconic tool that allows him to wreak his idea of justice upon San Francisco. Harry Callahan and the .44 Magnum become one in the same. An AK-47 might offer a higher body count, but to imagine Harry wielding it is blasphemous, an affront to the Magnum’s status as the modern-day descendant of the Peacemaker. As a film, Dirty Harry tempers its fetishistic obsession over the subtle details of firearms with the broader implication that extreme violence is both necessary and beautiful. It’s this balance that ultimately makes the .44 Magnum an icon.
Guns in videogames lack this focus. And if they have effectively acknowledged any larger cultural axioms, it is the dogma that bigger is better. The Doom favorite, the BFG, is the embodiment of this ideal. If this ethos was reserved for a few games each year, a Painkiller here and a Duke Nukem there, perhaps the gun could keep its integrity. However, this particular attitude towards firearms is deeply ingrained, such that the supposed apex of videogame progress, the Grand Theft Auto series, finds itself perennially stuck in this same mode, even in its recent turn from satirical pastiche. For all its implied claims of allowing players to recreate scenes from Scarface and other gangster epics, Grand Theft Auto‘s actual gameplay is benign. Players run aimlessly through the streets stopping only to toggle between the rocket launcher and an assault rifle before unloading their ammunition in what is little more than a virtual shooting gallery.
The targets of these virtual arsenals are the other side of the problem. Just as the the gun is no longer an object worthy of idolization, so too has the victim of gun violence been stripped of his emotional impact. The “shooting gallery” concept has proven appeal, but it comes at the expense of narrative depth; enemies become little more than static targets zipping to and fro on their runners. In Half-Life 2, adversaries pour out towards the player, a million automatons providing visual distraction but ultimately unable to coax from the player the emotional response an ant below the magnifying glass can summon in its final moments. By now the monster closets and enemy-induced claustrophobia, the techniques commonly used to stir the player to action, are familiar sights to veterans and visual white noise to the uninitiated.
The reliance on techniques that are fundamentally sight gags highlights videogames’ inability to portray the gruesome finality of the gun. Real death is something to be used sparingly, spread thin amongst enemies, levels and bosses. Without this economy of homicide, the showdown cannot exist. Some games have tried. Shadow of the Colossus presents the player with what are essentially a series of showdowns. But like all boss encounters, the bare mechanics of killing the adversary dulls any emotional tension the player might feel.
The constant repetition of the skills a game demands lie at odds with the gun’s mechanical simplicity, put on full display in the showdown. In this situation, the gun’s power to end life is absolute. Emotional tension ends the moment you pull the trigger. Guns can change everything with one bullet and videogames’ refusal to address this reality weighs heavy on their ability to provide the deeper examinations of violence the medium demands.
Guns kill people, and that’s why we love them. Because worlds are thrown into chaos when people die, and to imagine ourselves wielding such a powerful force indiscriminately is both compelling and unnerving, even sexy. Until videogames address this reality more effectively, showdowns will remain the province of cut scenes, and the Magnum’s barrel will be flaccid in the presence of the BFG’s candy-colored emanations. All our treasured moments of revenge and justice, sociopathic indifference and emotional havoc, violence made real and awful will remain unfulfilled as we stumble through games unable to properly brandish our death’s head: our gun.
Tom Endo is The Escapist’s Acquisitions Editor, and you will have to pry the videogame controller from his cold dead hands.