It may seem ghoulish to the outsider. It will seem essential to the gamer. One of the most popular things to do in video games is to aim for the head with a gun and fire. Who thought of that? And why do people like doing it so much?
Why Headshots Make Some People Happy
Let's go with the pleasure part of it first, before we get to the history lesson.
The headshot is one of those grisly gaming thrills. Its popularity fits so well with the fact that the creators of Doom - gaming's greatest first-person shooter and a game without headshots - was made by a company called id. No one's superego aims for the skull.
Separated from the consequence of real-world death and pain, the video game headshot is, to so many millions of players, a joy. It's common in many major shooters for players to be rewarded for shooting to the head. Enemies crumble when impacted by that toughest of shots.
Ask a gamer, as we have, why they like headshots and some will talk about the sound and the splat, the feeling of total domination of their video game enemy.
Ask a video game designer why headshots are so satisfying and they may start with a joke: "I guess that's because it's what we'd all like to do in real life," Paul Wedgwood, creative director at Splash Damage and top-flight shooter gamer, said glibly when asked that question a year ago.
Wedgwood was kidding.
The men and women who make headshots possible in their games seem not at all monstrous. Far from it, they are explorers of technology and - as it says on the business card, more or less - designers of games. Their interest is play. Balance. Rules. Strategy. Challenge.
Matt Hooper, designer of an upcoming id game Rage, explained the satisfaction of scoring a headshot by imagining a common video game sniper scenario: "It can be this little story you're telling," he said, referring to the story-making abilities of the player, not the game creator. "It's this little micro-story: That guy doesn't know I'm there. I zoom in and he's looking around and doesn't know I'm there. And that's great visual feedback… a one-shot kill instead of just unloading a clip. Maybe there was a little opportunity for stealth, depending on the game. The fact that you got him at a distance and that it takes some coordination - that whole risk-reward thing - works out really nicely."
The headshot is the uncleared path, the harder road. Its termination is a peak from which the player can brag. In a multiplayer game, you, the headshotee will hear it from the headshotter. I shot you not in the torso nor the arm. I shot you in the head. Your character probably just died (Died for a second; you'll be back and get another chance).
"Headshots are used by the players to humiliate his or her adversaries," Matteo Bittanti, a video game researcher at Stanford University said in an email. "It's both a function (eliminating the enemies) and a spectacle (it's hard to accomplish), a demonstration of skill and an aesthetic style per se."
Bittanti appreciates the cranial kill. Last year, he created an exhibition of shots of headshots. One image from his "Headshotz" appears atop this story.
People can find these things beautiful.
People can get very into headshots. Perhaps you've seen, or are soon never to forget, this popular and profane 2006 YouTube clip. FPS Doug, filmed by website Pure Pwnage, shows better than anyone how the headshot is the ultimate win, a gamer high:
Here's why Wedgwood actually likes headshots: "What a player realises subconsciously and intuitively, even if they don't realise it on the surface, is that when you shoot at some[one]in a game there's actually a big rectangular box around them. Hitting them just about anywhere at all is clearly a hit. But to hit the head is [hard] . All good video games give you double damage for the head, which usually leads to a kill."
"For most of us, especially the old-school shooter players," Wedgwood continued, "that was our entire tactic: In early Quake or early Team Fortress you would grenade somebody first or rocket them first, so you could take them below 90 per cent damage. You were just going to pepper their head from that point forward. They would always wonder why you didn't carry on. They'd come up and would be launching rocket after rocket after rocket. You'd fire one rocket. You'd roll out a grenade for where they were about to land, and - on their way down - you'd be hitting them in the head with a shotgun, because you knew that if two or three of those bullets hit they'd be dead.
"I think for the hardcore players it's just super-satisfying. It's the demonstration of skill - if you do it twice."
Where Headshots Were Born (And Why They Missed Doom)
Before the late '90s, the closest gamers came to performing a headshot was jumping Mario on top of a Goomba's scalp in 1985's Super Mario Brothers or striking an enemy in 1994 PC shooter Heretic and watching the bad guy's head fall off.
Doom, released in 1993 to launch a new era of gamers expressing virtual aggression, didn't have headshots. Co-creator John Romero says he didn't even think of trying to put them in there. "We made this game in one year, from concept to ship," he said during a recent phone interview. "There just wasn't time to continue the game design evolution of what we were doing in the game. We made it into something that was really fun and we shipped it."
The headshot went unexplored for Doom for a pretty good reason: "It didn't occur to me [to have headshots]because we never used crosshairs in our game."
In Doom the player couldn't aim up or down. They couldn't shoot for the head any more than they could shoot for the feet. All characters in the game may have looked to be only as tall as a man or a monster, but in programming terms they were infinitely high. Whether the enemy stood on the same floor as the player or high on a staircase, if a gamer aimed toward them on the horizontal axis and fired, their shot would find its home in the centre mass of their enemy. "We wanted the player to feel like, 'Hey, there's a guy up there' and I shoot and - boom! - he's getting hit," Romero remembered.
Romero never tried to design for headshots, so he wound up discovering them the way other gamers in the late '90s did. He played GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64. Game designers and historians agree: that's the game that started this headshot thing.
In 1997 Nintendo published a James Bond first-person shooter made by a team of designers at British development studio Rare. The small 10-person team was led by Martin Hollis, a man whose possible role as the creator of video game's most enduring act of violence isn't betrayed by his pleasant, quiet demeanour nor his most recently released game, a 2009 title about giving vegetables haircuts.
(On second thought, perhaps aiming a gun towards the head of a person and aiming shears towards the leaves of a carrot are not that far from each other.)
But Bonsai Barber is Martin Hollis now. GoldenEye and its headshots were Martin Hollis in the late '90s.
"From our point of view headshots was just one idea of thousands," Hollis recalled in a recent email interview. "Yes, we wanted to do the best possible work, but we never thought we were creating industry standards." They were.
The GoldenEye headshot was invented because of technology. Before that Nintendo 64 game, players of shooters aimed at their enemies and usually either hit them or not, with no distinction made about where the enemy took the bullet. A rare exception got the GoldenEye team, particularly Hollis and programmer Mark Edmonds, thinking. "Our inspiration was Virtua Cop," Hollis said, referring to a Sega-made shooting gallery game controlled with a gun-controller, a la Nintendo classic Duck Hunt. "It did not have headshots but did respond differently if you shot an enemy's weapon or weapon arm. You would get points, a huge points multiplier and, importantly, a specialised enemy animation."
The GoldenEye guys could use this idea of targeting body parts - a breakthrough in the depiction of human-to-human interaction in video games - in their James Bond adventure.
"We wanted the reactive animation, and taking it as inspiration, we used movie reality and dreamt up tens of different animations for each hit location on the body," Hollis said. "For the gameplay side, we deduct different damage from the enemy depending on hit location. Thus, was invented the headshot. There is some logic to it, because destroying the medulla oblongata will instantly paralyse an opponent, but in the real world the normal advice is to incapacitate with trunk shots, at least initially."
Headshots weren't automatically fatal in GoldenEye. Hollis said they cost an enemy four health points, compared to two for a hit on the body and one for the limb. Tougher enemies could handle losing four health points. They could handle groin shots as well. But it was the headshots gamers - like Hollis's crew - came to love.
"The neat idea that we instantly loved," said Hollis, "was the broader idea: reactive animations per hit location with damage. You shoot a guy in the hand and he reacts grasping that hand. Or you shoot him in the crotch and he clutches and writhes. In contrast, headshots grew on us over time because they were deeply satisfying."
The team liked the challenge and that feeling of supreme success that headshots provided, that risk-reward that designers like Wedgwood and Hooper would later articulate. "In GoldenEye, the auto-aim moves to the centre of mass of the character," Hollis said. "If you score a headshot, that means you are likely using manual aim, which is harder. Secondly, the head is a smaller and more mobile target than the body." The headshot was skill.
The headshot wasn't, however, the kind of thing you might expect to see in, say, a GoldenEye movie. On the big screen James Bond had a licence to kill but seldom exercised it so viciously. "The headshot isn't very Bondian because it is needlessly brutal," Hollis said. "You imagine it is a very messy and hideous way to kill someone. We went through one bloody iteration but switched our final damage special effects to be carefully understated, meaning no explosions of blood or gore, making the headshot fairly clinical and underplaying the shock value." Players who scores a lot of headshots in multiplayer received the accolade of being "most professional".
If GoldenEye was the first game to have headshots it may have also been the last to minimise the visuals of their violence. In the years that followed, headshots would become not just more common, but more brutal.
The Evolution Of A Bloody Mess
Where GoldenEye held back, 2000's Soldier of Fortune splattered virtual blood. The first-person shooter from Raven Software also allowed players to target different body parts of an enemy, including the head. The results of shots fired to those parts was graphic. Ultra-violence became a literal bullet point used to sell the series.
Your video game headshots were victories. The 1999 Unreal Tournament had featured an announcer who proclaimed "Headshot!" as each was scored. That was the invention of designers Cliff Bleszinski and Brandon Reinhart, according to Bleszinski. The "headshot" announcement was a gamer favourite.
If any of this seemed too celebratory for such a macabre act, games couldn't get the blame for starting it. At least in games, headshots had a strategic purpose. They were a skilful means to an efficient end. The same couldn't be said about any cinematic antecedents.
Historian Bittanti believes gaming headshots drew inspiration from film, specifically from this scene in George Romero's 1978 zombie movie Dawn of the Dead:
That clip, pulled by a website called Great Movie Deaths (They also have the headshot from Saving Private Ryan) doesn't look that dissimilar from a headshot clip pulled from a Soldier of Fortune video game sequel:
Bittanti believes the prevalence of headshots in games is now influencing movies. What video games have taken, they are passing back around. He cited the Call of Duty-style scene from this summer's Inception, as well as the sniper-centric movie-within-a-movie in last year's Inglourious Basterds.
Games still probably have more headshots than movies, even if movies are beginning to catch up.
The 2007 Fallout 3 gave players a slow-motion look at the nastiest of headshots. This wasn't a twitch game, though. Headshots were the result of mathematical targeting. In most firefights, a player would pause the game, pick a body part at which to shoot, decide whether the percentage likelihood of firing was worth the payoff, pre-load as many shots as they could and then un-pause and see what happened. What happened was, if successful, a bloody mess.
Of course, someone on YouTube made a montage of Fallout 3's most brutal shots to the head:
Most games with headshots - most shooter games - came from the West. But it was a Japanese game that took advantage of gamer's lust for headshots and tricked them. As the Resident Evil horror series progressed from PlayStation to GameCube, it began to allow players to target the heads of zombies. Against the worst of the shambling hordes, a shotgun to the head could be a stopper. But in 2005's Resident Evil 4, gamers who were used to targeting the cranium in any shooter they played got a surprise. Headshots caused some enemies to mutate into tougher foes.
The Headshot Legacy, With Grumbling
The popularity of headshots doesn't seem to be diminishing, though there is a new argument about how they might be distorting the way we play our games (see sidebar).
If you're wondering if all this violence raises any other questions in terms of influence, it doesn't seem to. On occasion of shootings in the real world in which games are given some degree of blame, shooting towards the head sometimes gets passing mention, but there's no evidence that the headshots gamers commit in games make them more interested nor more capable of shooting toward the head of people in real life.
Headshots are more of a game thing, the way killing a king with a horse is more of a chess thing. It is a means of play that has a logic to it and it is an expected element for new shooter games, as far as gamers and game creators are concerned. Headshots are featured in next year's Bulletstorm and probably most other upcoming shooters.
"The headshot in video games is a triumph of film physics over actual military reality," says Hollis, that likely co-inventor of this video game staple. In the context of a video game, he said, "It feels so right... There is something deeply satisfying about taking that shot successfully. It is about killing, but doing it instantly and completely, without your opponent even having time to realise they are dead. That's an absolute triumph and a cerebral ego boost because you have reduced them to the standing of a squashed bug."
Watch the clips in this article in one sitting and the video game headshot may seem odd, some ghoulish fixation that a little more sunlight in a gamer's life might remedy. But the headshot's history was one of technological advancement. It came to be because of progress. To use an intentionally distinct metaphor, the invention of the video game headshot was as if only hugging was possible until one day a man invented kissing, that more precise and potent way of interacting.
Headshots are another step, believe it or not, towards interaction with nuance. They are, of course, a release, a mark of skill and, yes, a celebration for some people of a dominating, victimising act. They invigorate the gamer and remain today as equally captivating and macabre as any act of virtual violence ever designed during the continued evolution of video game creation.
Headshots are one of gaming's most misunderstood elements. Hopefully they now make a little more sense.