PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Subverting the Power Fantasy in 'Bulletstorm'

Bulletstorm offers a surprisingly cynical critique of the typical heroic figure.

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.