How Gunpoint Tries To Make Excessive Violence Feel Bad But Fails


Gunpoint is a marvellous action-puzzle game, as Colin quite aptly summed up in his impressions. I concur with him on every point. But I also have an additional point to make as it’s probably my favorite aspect of the game for a variety of reasons, and one that I believe he never actually encountered, or at least it’s something he’s never mentioned. Being that it’s such an odd and small part of the game, I want to clarify that I don’t think is the ‘best’ aspect by any stretch of the imagination; the level design quite clearly takes that throne. What I’m referring to interests me just because it caught me off-guard and could potentially have a few things to tell us about video game violence and player behaviour, none of which, I would add, is particularly new information.

Presuming that you’ve played Gunpoint by now, you have most definitely lunged on to one of the unsuspecting guards from a distance and pinned him to the floor. At this point, you have a few options available to you:

1. Leap back off the guard and allow them to stay alive and conscious
2. Punch the guard once to knock them out
3. Punch the guard a few more times until blood pours out of their skull, indicating that they’re dead


Ground and pound

Being that your mission in Gunpoint is to infiltrate a building to then pick up an item or hack into a computer, and these guards are your main obstruction in carrying that out, I can guarantee that barely anyone even thinks about jumping off the guard without punching them at all. Plus, when you first come to confront a guard within the game, you’re told to deal with them by leaping onto them and giving them a smack in the mouth. These are your instructions, and so you’re going to carry them out.

“the idea of punching a guy in the face repeatedly and up to over a hundred times may be violent, but how it’s depicted in the game itself certainly isn’t.”

However, while a player probably won’t rebel against these instructions by not following their guidance, they will probably find pleasure in punching the guard underneath them a number of times, rather than sticking to the recommended single punch. That seems almost like a natural reaction when you first pin a guard down because the sound of the punch is satisfying and the position offers the player a seat of power from which they can ‘punish’ one of the obstacles in the game that would have otherwise given them trouble. It’s a form of payback that the player acts out on the guard, despite their being a programmed figment and that they probably haven’t even done anything to the player, except for existing and being in their way.

The reason for this feeling of justifiable vengeance and violence upon the guard is easy to understand. The player has flipped the tables and literally leapt from the position of underdog to one of supreme power. The guard would have previously shot the player, instantly killing them without as much of a second thought as soon as they had sighted them. That’s the rules of the game.


Taking all of this into account, it’s not too surprising that the player may then engage in a little bit of the Ultra Violence. Well, I use that term, but really, it’s hardly applicable in this case. Tom Francis, the developer of Gunpoint, calls this constant punching of the guard a violent act, and an excessive one too, in his developer commentary that you can find inside the game.

Sure, the idea of punching a guy in the face repeatedly and up to over a hundred times may be violent, but how it’s depicted in the game itself certainly isn’t. In fact, it’s practically slapstick, and this is a situation, which was bordering on physical comedy by itself, being given a big shove by what Tom put into the game for the players who did get a little too punch-happy.

Punching the guard a few times causes a message to pop up, reminding you that you only need to punch them once to knock them out. It’s hesitant and seems slightly concerned with your actions. It’s a slightly more human voice than the mostly cold commands and tips throughout the rest of the game. A few more punches on and another message pops up, saying that what you’re doing (excessive skull bashing) is probably fine too. This message could be viewed as reverse psychology, and perhaps it is, but it also characterizes this voice as an onlooker that doesn’t really want to get involved with what you’re doing. It’s a reminder that you, the player, are an active force in this world, but physically exist outside of any consequence that could be reprimanded.

But you’ve noticed a pattern now.

You like that, don’t ya?


You punch, and more messages pop up. It’s a reward system of its own as you’re surprised by this element of the game that could be so easily missed. And what’s more is that you’re able to keep surprising it back (or so it reads) by continuing to punch. In his commentary, Tom notes that the intention behind these messages was to put the player off of continuing the violence, but then follows this up by saying it became one of the most revered aspects of the game by those who got to try out early builds. He then concludes by saying that, in the end, it actually had the opposite effect of what he was going for. I don’t think he counted on players to be such maniacs.

“I’d stop at nothing to scare and shock this society-bound onlooker with what I can get away with inside this game.”

Due to the virtual state of games, it’s so easy to perform actions that we wouldn’t ever go anywhere near to doing in our physical bodies. There are games out there that depict the most grim and violent acts in great detail. You can really hack people up in some games and have them screaming at you for mercy. These scenes are considered sick and too violent by some people, whom various media like to quote, especially as the player has to actually commit to these actions through the interface of the game and somewhat rationalize doing them in their head.

I’ve seen a fair amount of writing that mentions games and their violence as turning players into psychotic killers, yet it’s not often suggested along with these readings that the player is able to distance themselves and ever actually thinks too much about what they were doing. Some writing takes that as another point, that the player becomes a mindless drone whose sole purpose becomes to follow the instructions of the game and shoot and otherwise kill enemies.


I’m pretty sure that if there were consequences in our physical reality that transpire due to these in-game actions, then players probably would contemplate what they’re doing a lot more. But in a game like Gunpoint, in which the punching is satisfying and is almost tactile in how your finger-presses match the punching arm of the on-screen avatar, it’s more of a naughty pleasure drawn out of what would seem to be a necessity. Tom mentions that he wasn’t fond of including the messages in the game for a while, partly because of it having the inverse effect of what it was intended for, but also because he thought it introduced this awkward position in which the player feels watched as they commit what would normally be considered a horrendously violent act.

But, personally, I didn’t find it awkward at all, nor did it feel as if I were being judged and that I should think about what I was doing. Perhaps I’m a psycho, but having the shocked reactions depicted in the messages just turned me into a bit of a sadist. I enjoyed having a ‘presence’ look at what I was doing and being horrified by it; it made me want to do it more so that I thought I was some incredible force. I suppose these messages represent society’s rules and bring them into a game that has another set of rules, and, therefore, it’s difficult to equate the same action with the same consequence. In Gunpoint, punching people to death does nothing other than mark your violence meter up a little more at the end of the level. In society, you can be locked away behind bars, and even killed for it in certain areas of the world.

I was playing Gunpoint in this case, so I’d stop at nothing to scare and shock this society-bound onlooker with what I can get away with inside this game.

Ultimately, these messages serve to increase the sensation the punching offers, and actually rewards the the player for further enacting out this power fantasy granted to them inside the game. Being that games allow us to take on another physicality inside a world with its own rules, I think you’d have to build a whole game designed to punish the player for these violent actions in a manner similar to society’s rule system, in which case we’d have a simulator, and there’s probably not that much fun to be had in something that so accurately recreates the reality we already exist in.


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