‘Bulletstorm’: Murder by the Numbers

If Bulletstorm is intended to be deliberately stupid, it really needs to get a whole lot stupider.

When I first saw some gameplay teasers of Bulletstorm coming out of E3, all I could really think was, “Man, that game is fast.” Images of wanton violence from a first person perspective is, of course, not anything all that unique, but the frenetic quality of the action, mixed with more than just bullets flying, but bodies being whipped, kicked, exploded, and sometimes all three at once with such fluidity and rapidity seemed fresh and kind of amazing to watch.

Alongside that imagery was rumors of a plot equally hyperfrenetic, over the top, and absurd. Seeing the visuals, that seemed to just make sense. It looked like a first person shooter cranked to 13, and the idea that a self aware irony might comfortably reside alongside this madness (a la films like Rodriguez’s Machete or games like Bayonetta) seemed a perfectly reasonable approach to overall presentation.

So, it’s probably unsurprising that Bulletstorm sweats testosterone in buckets. But can a game really be kitsch if it’s so close to the truth?

Now to camp purists, of course, the notion of self awareness in a media product that is achingly bad is problematic. The pleasure of camp in the most strident admirers of this “genre” is that a film or television show or game that is “campy” is really trying hard to be some sort of vaguely decent piece of entertainment. It just can’t help itself. It just really, really isn’t. Probably because its subject matter or execution or both are just too banal to really work.

In that regard, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball might be one of the more notable examples of “true” camp in video games. While the game is willing to goof on its own characters, it’s really supposed to be sexy. When it’s trying to be sexy, it really tends towards being beyond silly.

I tend to use the word camp a bit more broadly, though (as the word has evolved into its more common usage), to allow also for the deliberate creation of works that are deliberately ironic and deliberately just bad and designed to be enjoyed for just that reason (like the aforementioned Machete or the 1960s Batman television show).

Last year’s Bayonetta features an eight foot tall, sexy librarian who battles angels on the face of a clock tower hurtling thousands of miles per hour through the atmosphere. Oh, and she occasionally eats a giant baby with her hair. It’s hard to imagine that the development team was unaware of the rank absurdity of the hyperactive, hypersexual, hyperviolent insanity packed into the always grandiose presentation of Bayonetta. We are intended to enjoy the extreme stupidity of it all.

Which brings me back to my confusion over Bulletstorm, if its kitsch, its camp is supposed to be appreciated in a similar way, why is the game’s presentation so terribly familiar and terribly indicative of the presentation of masculinity and violent excess that I see in just about every game of its ilk on the market?

I know that games tend to hypersexualize female characters, and Bayonetta really, really, really knows this. It’s why it constantly winks at you by pushing the envelope well beyond any level of taste. It is a kind of transcendent trash (see ”Spectacular Voyeurism: Bayonetta and Hyperspectacle”, PopMatters, 13 January 2010).

However, Bulletstorm begins with a scene almost familiar to most FPS players. Like the infamous opening of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, we are launched quite directly behind the eyes of characters involved in what appears to be a brutal execution of a captive. The first iteration of Modern Warfare interestingly took advantage of the first person perspective to place the player behind the eyes of the victim, a far cry from the normally powerful position of the protagonist of a first person shooter, who is all arms and guns. Bulletstorm takes the opposite approach, wanting to acclimate the player immediately to the role of the killer (and kind of just making him feel icky, not a quality that is all that desirable if the game wants us to revel in outlandishness – violence needs to be stupid, not potentially troubling). The player will have to threaten the captive with a gun, beat him up a little, and then kick him out an airlock. While distasteful in context (victimizing an unarmed and helpless opponent), at the same time, I’m pretty sure that I’ve participated in all of these activities in action games before, which makes it less over the top, than kind of, well, normal.

I am also pretty sure that I have embodied protagonist Grayson Hunt before, maybe a hundred times before. Hmmm . . . a hulking, impossibly muscled man who only speaks in throaty growls . . . gee, yeah, I’ve played Gears of War and Darksiders and Duke Nukem, etc., etc. This is over the top masculinity? Hardly. This is a standard video game presentation of masculinity (see ”Mountains of Men: The Mythology of the Male Body in Video Games”, PopMatters, 17 August 2010).

Not only is our man, Grayson, a pretty typical specimen of video game masculinity, but his “boys” are as well. Any man who accompanies Grayson anywhere in this game (besides his cyborg bro, Ishi — more on that relationship in a moment, though) is the sort of guy who appreciates the humor of expressions like “dicktits” and apparently wants nothing more in life than to punch other guys in the shoulder and to manhandle his buddies – in a heterosexual kind of way. The game is just dripping with bromance, which is concept that has so moved beyond clichéd in media these days that it is just sigh inducingly dull.

Oh, and this “bros before hos” attitude extends heavily into Grayson’s relationship with former comrade, now schizophrenically killer cyborg, Ishi. Grayson is not a man motivated by “saving the princess.” Love is of a peculiarly martial quality in this game, in which battlefield bonds define loyalty, and by extension, true camaraderie and affection. Grayson is all about getting his boy right again. There isn’t time to be messing with anything resembling the feminine. That, after all, would be gay.

All of which might sound pretty over the top. Again, if it wasn’t just so typical of a 100 movies that I’ve seen in the last five years and every Call of Duty iteration and rip off that I have played in that same span of time.

As far as play itself goes, it is all murder by the numbers. Killing is fairly grotesquely accentuated, and, of course, the gimmick of the game is that killing in varied and exceptionally “brutal” ways is highly rewarded with points because . . . well, boys like numbers . . . and points . . . and points that allow you to buy better guns . . . to get more points. Again, I’ve played this game before when it was called Devil May Cry and really was excessively kitschy. Here, when I use my whip-hand thingie to impale an opponent on spikes, the game rewards me with points, “+100,” and a “clever” descriptor of what I have just done, “Voodoo Doll,” . . . it says . . . because a man impaled on spikes . . . vaguely . . . looks like a voodoo doll . . . I guess. Oh, and if I impale him on a cactus, it says, “Pricked,” which is funny . . . because the word “prick” is in there, which is a very funny word. Hah.

(Just to bring anyone that might be lagging up to speed: a “prick” is another word for a penis. If you are male, a penis is just about the funniest thing in the whole world. Again, to think otherwise would be gay, which is a scary thing.)

Maybe that last bit just sold you on the “over the top” humor of Bulletstorm. For me, the kitsch and irony is more yawn inducing than likely to provoke an “I can’t believe they just did that!” response. But that’s mostly because I can believe they just did that. Because “they” already did that in MadWorld and Dead Rising and even a bunch of games that take this crap seriously.

Which is the most damning quality of the presentation of the game because, on the one hand, MadWorld, despite not really being that good a game or very funny at all, at least succeeds in being grossly excessive. On the other hand, Dead Rising is a good game that is self aware enough of its own absurdity to serve some kind of satirical function. However, Bulletstorm is not aping those game’s exaggerations, it is merely aping those things in gaming that are expectations of the genre about violence and masculinity and never explodes them in any way. These are just the familiar and necessary quantities to assure yourself of the M rating that will assure players that your game is credibly “adult” enough and, thus, worth playing. Any “exaggeration” in Bulletstorm is so proportional to the conventional wisdom about what it means to be a heroic male anymore that it is more guilt inspiring (that we have grown so acclimated to these ideas as normative), than laughter inducing.

Bayonetta was fun because it knew that it was a cartoon and could still evoke the clearly absurd. It’s harder to caricature something that no one else took seriously to begin with.