On the surface, Bulletstorm looks like your typical male power fantasy. Our avatar Grayson speaks with a low, gruff voice. He’s got big muscles, big guns, and a devil-may-care attitude. But beneath the surface, Bulletstorm is entirely different, offering a surprisingly cynical critique of this typical heroic figure.
Grayson is an impetuous screw up. Sometimes this trait can be turned into a charming quirk, as with Uncharted’s Nathan Drake who always acts before he thinks. But Drake’s mistakes never really blow up in his face, he always finds an escape or a solution, he always saves his friends, and no one holds his impulsiveness against him. Grayson comes off as a similar kind of character in the prologue. He and his squad break into an office and kill a man that they think is a terrorist. After a quick search of the victim’s computer they learn that he was a journalist and that all of their assassination jobs up to this point were orchestrated by a conniving General to get rid of annoying political opponents. When they call the General to confront him with this truth, he happily admits to it, and Grayson suddenly shouts, “I am going to kill you”, while shooting the hologram. A teammate grabs his gun and shouts back: “Hey man, what the fuck! That was a giant group decision you just made for us!” The scene is played for laughs. No one really seems to care that Grayson has just made them all outlaws, so the lack of serious consequences makes his impetuousness funny.
Then the game jumps ahead several years. Grayson’s little pirate ship has a surprise encounter with the General’s battleship and a drunken Grayson decides to attack. The little pirate ship is destroyed (though it actually manages to take down the battleship) and crashes on a nearby planet. Grayson’s crew is wounded, then are attacked by the locals, and within twenty minutes most of them are dead. Ishi only survives thanks to emergency surgery that makes him more cyborg than human. Now we see the sad truth about such brash behavior. Choices have consequences, sometimes very violent consequences that can’t be forgotten with a funny quip. Seeing these consequences puts his earlier impulsiveness in a new context. We see that in both cases Grayson’s rash choices set him and his friends down a path of destruction that could have been avoided. Rather than glorifying the hero’s brashness, Bulletstorm shows us the darker side of such an archetypical rouge character.
His brashness also leads to mass murder. The destruction of the General’s battleship is just the first big explosion in a game filled with big explosions. It’s a cool moment meant to make players smile and marvel at all the pretty fire, but unlike most action games that contain such grandiose acts of violence, Bulletstorm actually considers the consequences of such action scenes. When Grayson finally meets the General, the latter constantly berates the former, mocking the space pirate’s righteous indignation at being used as an assassin when he just destroyed a ship populated with thousands to kill one man. And it’s true. Grayson killed thousands of innocent people by taking down the battleship in order to get revenge on the General. His anger is so clearly hypocritical, and he’s all the less heroic for it.
Of course, other video game heroes have killed innocent people. Kratos from the God of War series unleashes hell on earth, literally, but he shows no remorse for his actions. In fact, very few game heroes show remorse for their actions because their actions lead to action packed gameplay and to express regret would then force the character to stop fighting, resulting in a boring game. Yet Grayson does express regret, quite frequently actually. Expressing guilt is one of his major character traits. (And because of how the rest of the story is set up—with most enemies being merely mutant monsters—this allows Grayson to maintain a moral high ground during the moment-to-moment combat, since he’s fighting in self-defense while still seeking repentance for past actions that killed “real” humans.). He knows that he messed up big time, and he wants to make it better. He spends half the game apologizing to Ishi and Trishka over and over again after wronging them, and his apologies aren’t empty platitudes. His desire for forgiveness is bigger than his desire for revenge. Even after finding the General that he’s sworn to kill, he puts his revenge on hold because Ishi wants the General alive. His companionship with Ishi is more important than any personal desire and that willingness to serve another is also an atypical trait of your average video game hero.
Most “bro-heavy” male relationships in action games put the player in the shoes of the dominant partner. For example, in Gears of War Marcus is our avatar, and he’s also the leader of his squad. His best friend Dom is the clear sidekick, always taking orders from Marcus, always siding with Marcus’s decisions, always being the follower. However, in Bulletstorm, Grayson is subservient to Ishi in every way. Ishi is physically stronger—being part cyborg—and mentally stronger, as he has a clear idea of what he wants and how to get it, and Grayson is more than happy to jump at every command given him by Ishi if it will earn him the forgiveness that he seeks.
Bulletstorm presents itself as an over-the-top action game with over-the-top characters, but it’s actually much smarter than that. It’s both a parody and a deconstruction of the genre, pointing out some clichés for laughs while also exposing the depressing consequences of other clichés. Despite what its marketing would have you believe, Bulletstorm is not your typical power fantasy.