Been a while since I’ve talked about a game mechanic, hasn’t it? Ah, well. Game Chef kept me busy. Let’s try to get back on the horse with some gentle over-excitement.
Gunpoint! Gunpoint! Game of the year for every year ever, or, if you are less-inclined to believe hyperbole, a really freaking good 2D action/espionage/cyber-noir/hacking game.
You are a small pixellated freelance spy named Conway, who is investigating a murder through a series of missions, most of which involve charging up your bullfrog hypertrousers and jumping several stories at a go, and using the crosslink device to rewire switches and sensors throughout the buildings you’re moving through. And also, punching guards.
Oh, punching guards. Strictly optional, and to be awarded the badge for being a Gentleman at the end of a level you mustn’t do any guard any harm whatsoever (it’s okay though, because there’s a Psychopath badge as well, if not-harmful isn’t your legerdemain). Leap on a guard to knock him over and…
…is what the game informs you. You click, you punch, and the guard is unconscious but the phrase hasn’t gone away. You can click again. And again. You can click ten times, at which point a pool of blood appears an the guard will not be getting up again. You can keep going. You can punch a corpse a thousand times or more, because you can click forever.
That needn’t be. There are any number of options… you could bowl someone over and they’re instantly asleep, of you could click to knock out and hold to knock out Lethally (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s takedown moves) or you could just stop punching when the dude is dead, or, or, or…
Lots of options. But may of them take away a little bit of player agency, and I don’t want to undersell this but clicking to punch is a very tiny bit of player agency–it’s a very minor thing. But Gunpoint, as a game, lives in tiny decisions and little freedoms it offers its players, even in a genre and medium not known for offering lots of freedom!
Tom Francis, the designer, clever bug that he is, realized that people want to punch, however. The player is given control over his character, not just to be lethal or not, but to be as lethal as they want to be. Me, I tend to punch four or five times, to make sure those guards stay down. After all, trying to sneak around in a game where one shot kills me and I have effectively no weapon is tense, so when I get an opportunity to release that tension in the form of violence, I tend to take it. This is, mechanically, idiotic… one punch does the deed, and all I do is waste time better spent jumping around the rooftops like a lunatic. But punching guards is satisfying… there’s a little animation, a purcussive noise, and a sense that, yes, Conway is acting as an extension of ME, whether I’m hitting once for good measure, in a brief flurry because I’m tense, or nine times exactly so as to not murder the operative who’s been shooting at me but make sure he’s never happy again. Or, a thousand times because this dead guy has pissed me off right hard.
And that’s great. It’s not complex, but it doesn’t need to be… it pulls me into the game and makes a little part of my brain smile based only on a very simple action with a very direct control, which is really all the Gunpoint IS. I could say the same thing about jumping and hacking: both very simple, direct, and controllable by the player. But while those are essential for the action and puzzling aspects of this action-puzzler, punching a dude out is completely unnecessary, from a mechanical level. And yet, there is is, allowing Conway to seem all the more real, and the world to be all the more exciting and worth experiencing.
Gunpoint is out now and is totally great, and even has a developer commentary which is basically worth whatever portion of the price of admission isn’t being paid by punching dudes on the snout and then leaping away to hide in a corner and rewire a motion detector to open a trapdoor to open under a guy when a third guy runs after you. YES. Get it, and punch a guy.