I spend a lot of time playing games in which the primary way of interacting with the world is shooting. When a new Call of Duty appears, I buy it on launch day, and I play the multiplayer until I can’t take it anymore. I play the ones that don’t quite lodge themselves in our collective year-by-year memory, too, and I reel from what we missed from them. In my experience, there isn’t much of a discussion about those. Advanced Warfare will get weeks of press coverage, and months later I still see an upswing in “Press X To Pay Respects” jokes and comments whenever it gets mentioned. The others like Fracture, Homefront, or Fugitive Hunter don’t get to be included in that long-form collective memory alongside Goldeneye 64 or Doom. At best, mentioning them on social media or a forum will result in getting the bullet points of their reviews recited to you; experience gets pushed out by commentary taken for fact.
Maybe there’s a good reason for some of these shooters to be excluded from memory. You could say that those games were punished for chasing then-current trends and arriving a little too late. You could say that the Invisible Hand of the Market decided which succeeded and which failed, and that history is an account written through the inevitable violence of victor’s justice.
I’m less concerned about the mechanism of suppression than I am with the act of willfully remembering. Most of the time I think about the act of criticism as an act of reframing. To think about a game that was considered a failure, or boring, or somehow not at the top of the field it competed in, and to purposefully attempt to reframe it away from its supposed failure is a laudable thing, and the act of criticism is nothing short of that. It might sound like I’m talking about “rescuing” a game here, but I don’t mean that at all. What I’m really talking about is taking a work of art and addressing it on its own terms outside of the wax and wane hype machine that is Videogames.
Shooter is a collection of essays about shooter videogames. When we think of shooters, we often are talking about first-person ones, but the collection takes the welcome broad history of the verb seriously, featuring contributions that center on games like Battle Garegga,Gears of War, and Fallout 3 alongside the ever-predictable games like the Modern Warfare series.
As I said before, I think the prime work of a critic is that of recontextualization, and the work that’s on display in Shooter is top-notch in that quarter. You can tell that the editors gave contributors a lot of control over their own contributions, and each essay left me with the impression that the editors had a firm hand with regard to quality but a loose hand with regard to style. That’s a hard balance to strike, and I really want to commend everyone involved on that alone.
The specific essays range from “my style” to “not my style” and I mean that sincerely. I have been reading, writing, and talking about game criticism on the internet for more than half a decade, which is functionally an eternity in this ever-shifting sphere. I can honestly say that none of the essays are bad. They all have arguments, and they all prove those arguments, and none of them were a chore to read — which is brilliant, shining praise in the wide world of writing about videogames. I have become jaded from these years in the salt pits.
Personal favorites were Ethan Gach’s “Paths of Contact,” which measures the Gears of War franchise through the apparent failure of noted game critic Tom Bissell’s attempt to “save” its narrative in Gears of War: Judgment. Frequent Paste style maven Gita Jackson’s “My Brother, Counter-Strike, and Me” stands last in the collection but near the top in my mind, being a personal, plainly written account of change, personal relationships, and patch implementation.
Those two are part of a good chunk of the essays I enjoyed in Shooter, but I want to avoid the common trap of reviews of collections where the author goes down through each contribution in order to highlight a specific phrase or concept from each piece that slides into a comment about how it all leads to a certain theme. I’ll just skip to that last part.
Shooter asks us to look at shooting games and say something more than “lol shooters” or the dreaded “ugh videogames.” It’s about looking the largest, most successful commercial products square in the face and trying to figure out what the hell they’re all about. It’s about looking at a format, or an expectation, and tracing its existence from massive blockbusters down to weird anomalies like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
I have two quibbles with the book, and I think it would be disingenuous of me to not at least mention them. The first is that I was shocked to find that there was nothing dedicated to the Halo series in the book. Those games operate on a number of interesting levels, and I think that a comprehensive volume on the act of shooting could have really been bolstered with an essay about aliens, genetic superheroes, and space shooting.
The other quibble is that Shooter tends to lean toward the single-player spaces and stories of games that often have strong multiplayer components to them. It is strangely absent despite multiple allusions to this multiplayer dominance in the world, and Steven Wright’s “The Joys of Projectiles” as well as Jackson’s piece above both hinge on the reality of multiplayer shooting; more than this, Clint Hocking’s foreword doesn’t even make sense if you don’t take multiplayer shooting seriously. The collection would feel much more comprehensive if that topic had been included.
As it stands, Shooter stands out from the crowd of books about games in its quality, its general accessibility, and its steadfast commitment to critique. It is a serious book that takes serious looks at some genres we don’t always take seriously, and it does a fine job at helping reconfigure some gamer memory that we take as fact. Anyone interested in seeing what critique of games should look like has a great model in the essays in Shooter.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.