This discussion contains spoilers for Hardcore Henry.
It may sound like quibbling, but describing the film Hardcore Henry as being like a First person shooter seems less accurate to me then describing it as a first person on rails shooter. The first person shooter is obviously the major influence on the style of the film. However, because of the nature of cinema, it ends up resembling an experience more akin to playing an on rails shooter. This distinction seems useful to me because I think that the latter observation about the film speaks to its thematic concerns more clearly than the former observation.
It is true that shooting a film from a first person perspective creates a kind of intimacy (and, perhaps sense of complicity) with the world and characters of a film that is similar to the intimacy and sense of complicity that seems similar to playing an FPS.
When Jonathan Demme places us behind the eyes of Buffalo Bill as he stalks Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, it is disquieting to feel like we are lurking underneath the skin of a killer. Likewise, when we find ourselves behind the eyes of a young girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt listening to her uncle, who is a notorious serial murderer of women, launch into a misogynistic rant and then turn to look directly at her (and us) when she insists, “But they’re alive. They’re human”, to ask her (and us), “Are they?”, we feel chilled by the intensity of his gaze as if we sit at the same table with him and are being challenged by him.
However, in both instances, we also feel helpless. Demme and Hitchcock, through the use of the medium of film, imprison us at these moments. We see behind the eyes of these two characters, but we can do nothing to change what is happening around them. We view the world from their perspective, but we lack the agency to act, an agency that is provided in the interactive nature of a video game.
The first person shooter allows us both to see through other eyes, but also to react to and engage with the world that we are viewing. This kind of game does not chain us the way that cinema does to a world observed as the director desires and that will remain untouchable as well.
Now, the on rails shooter is certainly an interactive and not merely cinematic experience, but when I watched Hardcore Henry, the experience of the film reminded me more of playing Blue Estate than it did playing Call of Duty. An on rails shooter, like Blue Estate, offers the player agency, but it limits that agency. It reminds us of our chains.
We are on rails. We are driven forward by the momentum of the game and by the will of its director. Usually we have some ability to control our perspective to a limited degree, but only as we move ever forward in the world, because we have no control of our own mobility. Indeed, again, we are on rails in terms of lack of control of our physical direction, but possibly, we are also “on rails” in relation to our psychic motivation. After all, we are being pushed towards our goals. We do not choose them.
This additional sense of being chained, of having my autonomy as a viewer placed in a perspective that gives the illusion of being directly part of a world, but has no power to control my direction in it, is a closer description to me of watching Hardcore Henry than any other gaming experience that I can think of on both counts.
Additionally, though, this sense of being driven in a prescribed direction seems to have a lot to do with the film itself and with the character of Henry. The film interrogates what motivates Henry (the very implication that a woman that he loves is in danger propels him aggressively forward into the universe) and what motivates the player of video games (often that same simple implication of a woman in danger). I have recently written more about the way that Hardcore Henry challenges the way that video game players are blindly driven to action through the motivating power of “saving the princess”, since the film deconstructions this trope through its conclusion (“Hardcore Henry Tells Gamers, Sorry There is no Princess”, PopMatters, 15 April 2015). In essence, the film suggests, as the original Bioshock does, that agency in interactive mediums is often more illusory than players realize, as thin motives have the power to create an immediate sense of purpose in games and a seemingly unstoppable momentum.
This is why I suggest that paralleling the film with the on rails shooter may be more useful than merely paralleling it with the FPS, as within the on rails shooter is a constant reminder that the game that you are playing will take you where it wants to go and show you what it wants you to see. The on rails shooter is, perhaps, more honest about agency within virtual spaces than other games by reminding you that some chains exist—even in video games. After all, they are constantly driving you towards a goal, rather than pretending that you have chosen that goal by evaluating and then internalizing it of your own accord. You have mission, nothing more.
And this is a major part of Hardcore Henry‘s forward moving ferocity and inability to really allow its viewer or Henry the time to stop and think about what is going on in its world and why its action and violence might or might not be justifiable. Henry must stick to the rails, to a half understood motive for action just as gamers are so often “asked” to do likewise. Hardcore Henry makes the argument that we are all on rails.