Here at Pixel Grater we do a lot of silly satire. It’s fun, it reminds us the world isn’t so bleak, but it also keeps us out of the loop of actual gaming commentary. So the new years resolution this year is to every so often weigh in on an issue with a sense of genuine analysis, but also a sense of fun. Welcome to The Grater Good.
A swaggering, arrogant, childish shooter produced by Epic came out in 2011, but it wasn’t Bulletstorm. Gears of War 3 certainly fulfilled that quota, yet it was People Can Fly’s first title under the Epic banner that truly caught my imagination. This stunningly original FPS was filled to the brim with characterisation, crass but clever humour and even a healthy dose of subtle philosophical undertones. Yes, like No More Heroes before it, Bulletstorm was what I like to call an “intellectual trap”, a game marketed and aimed at a collection of gamers who weren’t expecting something smart to appear, but got a boatload of clever allegorical scenarios and a genuinely enlightening plot. Bulletstorm is as clever as No More Heroes, only this time nobody else seemed to spot it.
Let’s get something sorted out right now: Bulletstorm is not stupid. Childish perhaps, crass certainly, but the writing and plot are both absolute works of genius, and I can easily shoot down any thought to the contrary. Firstly, Greyson is an idiot. He’s a beer chugging, authority loathing foul mouthed outlaw with as much education as the rifle he wields. He’s the archetypical idea of what we view the gears of War crew as, but exaggerated to the point of humour. We’re laughing at his terrible jokes, not with him, and the sooner the player stands back and realises that Greyson is exactly the kind of person you should hate rather than be they soon come to love the character. A great example of how the developers use Greyson’s juvenile humour to remind the player that he is an idiotic egotist is when he first meets Trishka. After proving herself a bad-ass by dispatching a few enemies she loudly declares “You shitpiles pursue me I will kill your dicks!” Greyson response to this line summarises him entirely. At first he doesn’t understand the insult, it makes no sense. Then he realises his ego has been attacked, and so in a childish attempt to save face he declares “Oh yeah, I’ll kill your dick how about that!” It’s a futile, useless response, and shows his complete inability to deal with people.
But Bulletstorm does something utterly unheard of for a game of it’s genre and style: it tells a redemption story whereby the main character is not redeemed, and is in fact made considerably worse by his journey. At the start of the game Greyson has a ship, a crew, a fine selection of beer and a bounty on his head that gives him the perfect reason to never settle down. He’s living the ideal life for a man of his personality. Yet when confronted by his only unsettled debt he decides to risk it all to get one final chance at revenge. Instead of succeeding however he ends up killing all of his crew bar one, his loyal but hate filled partner Ishi. By the end of the game Greyson has even lost Ishi, and ends up drifting into space trapped in an escape pod with a woman he can’t bring himself to look at and no chance of rescue. Even worse than that, he failed to succeed in the one thing he set out to do, and as a result has bet it all and lost. This is a game whereby if you finish it, the main character loses.
Aside from the overall message of how selfish revenge can destroy a man, there is also a strong undercurrent of morality and humanism lying beneath the surface. Greyson is accompanied by Ishi throughout the game, a partially mechanised friend of his who now despise him for allowing him to become part robot. As the game goes on Ishi loses more and more of himself to the robot side of his personality, and as a result becomes more and more ruthless and uncaring. This worries Greyson, partly because he wants to save Ishi, but also because it starts to show a side of Greyson he tries to ignore. Ishi ends up being heartlessly violent, killing without care and threatening and harming those in his way to get what he wants, and Greyson comes to realise over the course of the game the only thing separating him and Ishi’s robot side is a few dick jokes. Previously used as an assassin who unquestioningly took orders he starts to realise his pursuit of General Sarrano is equally uncaring and dangerous. This comes to a head during the final scenes of the game, when Sarrano is teasing Greyson about all the people he has killed on his quest to assassinate him. Greyson’s response is a blunt and angry “shut up”, which shows that Sarrano has clearly got to him. By the end of the game Greyson knows that everything he has done was wrong, and now he can’t change a damn thing.
To finish up I want to discuss a rather tenuous idea, one which I think may be me over stretching a little but I’ll type it out all the same. I think the planet that Greyson crashes on represents a society, and as Greyson charges through it, killing everyone uncaringly this displays his own anarchic views. Most of the wildlife was certainly happier without Greyson, and the green mutants seem to be perfectly content before Greyson turned up. It’s also not a coincidence the ship that Greyson takes down is called the Ulysses, the name of a Unionist general in the American Civil War. Greyson is, without a doubt, a Confederate kind of guy, and his opposition to society is fairly evident from his lifestyle choice.
Bulletstorm is exactly the kind of game I’ve come to adore. It covers itself in a sheen of juvenile humour to hide away it’s clever and involving storyline, one which I feel may have been overlooked and misunderstood. Far from “another shooter” Bulletstorm displayed that most sincerely adult quality that you rarely see, something childish for the purpose of something intellectual. People Can Fly is picking up the style moulded by Grasshopper Manufacture, here’s hoping they can deliver more.