The Disappointment Of Video Game Guns

The Disappointment Of Video Game Guns

Back in mid-2012, for four minutes and six seconds, I thought the coolest big-budget video game I’d seen in years didn’t have guns. I was wrong.

I don’t mind guns in games. I mean, I don’t want them in my Zeldas or my Donkey Kongs, but guns can be fun in plenty of others: from Borderlands and BioShock to Bastion and Bulletstorm.

I understand what guns can do in games. I believe that they are great at connecting one player to another player or one player to a computer-controlled character. I appreciate how they let me have an impact on another player — or a character in the digital world — in the simplest my-pixels-negating-your-pixels kind of way. For better or worse, shooting a gun in a game is still the purest — and easiest — way to feel that a video game is interactive. The people who make games know this. They have known this since before Space Invaders. It is one of the reasons why shooting in games works so well.


There’s something disappointing about guns in games. There’s something disappointing about how the presence of guns often brings in an entourage of tiresome, dreary tropes: the badass hero, the glory of obliteration, the expression of excellence and power through the shooting of someone else.

Think about it.

Think about what having a gun in a game usually means.

Having a gun in a game seldom means that one shot gets fired. It means that thousands do. It means that, when we play in these gun-filled game worlds, we live in places where our heroes are merciless, where we/they aim for the head, where everyone we see is defined, at first glance as 1) a person to shoot or 2) a person to spare. There’s a heat to these worlds and a hostility. These gun-filled game worlds feel cynical, angry and, worst, reduced. So little feels possible. When two people see each other in these worlds, most likely, one will shoot the other to death.

It’s not always a problem to have a video game world where shooting is pretty much all that you do. It’s often all that a game needs. It works for Halo. It works for the kind of adventures they make for Call of Duty. It works when the enemies are zombies or Nazis or other players with guns. It works for simple worlds where there is no complicated story to tell or anyone interesting to meet.

And in the more interesting game worlds? Maybe we can find an Ellie or an Alyx or an Elizabeth in one of these gun-filled game places. Maybe we can find a computer-controlled character who is there for us to talk to or hang out with, a character who is programmed to help generate feelings other than fear or anger or vengefulness or superiority or whatever it is you experience when you look back at a lawn you just mowed.

If we cock our head and think about how these gun-filled game worlds are made, we’ll recognise how much harder it always seems to be for game makers to make that one character we can sort of talk to or emote with than it is to make all those characters we can just fill with lead. Guns and shooting… they’re the easy path.

So, really, I get that games often need to have guns. Again: interactivity. But all that baggage they come with? All of that kill-or-be-killed hostility they bring to their gaming worlds? It feels so limiting.

Back on June 4, 2012, however, I experienced those four wonderful minutes. For four minutes I thought I was seeing a game world that would normally have guns in it but for some excellent reason didn’t. Or maybe it did but it wasn’t contaminated by them.

For four minutes I thought I was seeing a wonderful, gun-free expansion of ways to interact with people and things in a video game city. There were four minutes of so many possibilities. Maybe, just maybe, no guns were needed for this new game to seem appealing and for the game to be fun.

Let’s go back to those four minutes and what everyone who was watching Ubisoft’s E3 2012 press conference saw displayed on a massive screen.

At first, I didn’t know what this new game was:

This wasn’t a new Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry. What could it be? Some Tom Clancy thing?

It probably wasn’t a racing game. It didn’t seem like a first-person shooter.

I saw this guy. And I saw the first sign of interactivity. He didn’t pull a gun. Instead, we got a circle of options. Trains? Cars? Hacking? What could we do in this world?

What kind of people were we going to be meeting here? How would be interacting with them?

And why wasn’t there any shooting?

But four minutes in, we got a gun.

Of course we got a gun.

At least our hero didn’t shoot the gun right away. Instead, he hacked…

He disarmed the bad guys…

He shut off traffic lights using his phone!

I was loving this. It felt so fresh.

Seconds later…

And this…

It was a shooting game, after all. So much for that. The game still did look pretty cool.

That was two years ago.

Like many other gamers, I’ve been eager for Watch Dogs to come out. I’ve been looking forward to it and am eager to finally play through it this May.

I’m excited to play an open-world game starring a hacker who can use his phone to raise drawbridges during a police chase and who can snoop through webcams to gather important information. Watch Dogs seems modern and unsettling, fertile and relevant — an interactive adventure tuned to the age of Edward Snowden, the NSA and urban terrorists who use phones to set off bombs.

I’ve seen a pre-release version of the game a couple of times and, each time, I’ve been excited about the Watch Dogs‘ potential to be a Grand Theft Auto of hacking. I’ve been disheartened whenever it devolves, before my eyes, into an open-world shooter, a Grand Theft Auto of guns. We already have that. I’ve already played and enjoyed that.

Each time I see Watch Dogs, I can’t help but think about what I briefly thought the game was going to be. I remember how broader my expectations were, how excited I was to interact with a gritty urban video game metropolis with something other than a gun as my primary tool to touch a virtual world.

Yesterday, the makers and marketers of Watch Dogs released a new trailer for the game. They also gave some interviews. The game’s producer told a colleague that the heart of the game is still hacking.

Hacking has always been our core focus. We always made sure that most of our missions could be done through hacking and stealth. Obviously you can always take a violent approach if that’s the way you want to do it. There are a lot of gamers who want to play with a very aggressive approach, who want to rush in guns-blazing. And when they did that hacking, became less useful. Especially if you were on the ground. If you weren’t in cars, for example, or travelling through the city. We had a lot of ideas for that. Some were there and sometimes we just needed little hooks to connect certain systems together. We did that in a couple of weeks and all of a sudden we saw the best players were now the ones who could mix combat with hacking.

But again the game teeters. It tips and tilts under the weight of those guns and their baggage. One gun leads to many guns. Shots fired everywhere in a city of nastiness and hostility.

Look at the scenes from the new trailer. What do they tell you? They tell you that you are a hacker, that your daughter was killed, that you are angry and that you are not necessarily a nice person in this game. You will defend yourself.

But why isn’t one shot enough?

Is it cooler to shoot twice? More exciting? More badass?

Isn’t a phone a more interesting weapon?

Isn’t a phone more interesting, for once in a game, than a gun?

This is the Watch Dogs that excites me…

This is the one that feels liberated from the same-old, same-old ways of video game gun violence…

The Watch Dogs trailer nearly ends with this…

I’d be thrilled if it really did end there. I can black out a skyscraper? I think I’m sold!

But the makers or the marketers behind Watch Dogs decided that that wasn’t exciting enough. You can do that in a video game? Sure, the trailer seems to say. The trailer won’t leave you with that. There’s a final image to show, a piece of punctuation.

The trailer ends with this…


  • Guns will continue to be a mainstay in videogames because people like firing gun. And also because its a hell of a lot easier to program simple projectiles than it is to design and program a good and interesting melee combat system.

    Seriously that shit is difficult.

    • its a hell of a lot easier to program simple projectiles
      This is the start and end of the problem.

      It is very easy to draw a vector from A->B and if it hits, B gets shot.

      Finding more subtle ways for people to interact (whether fighting or… shock horror, NOT fighting) is a much more challenging problem.

  • Interesting note about the latest Tomb Raider game is that when they took away the guns and had players use a bow for a couple of hours, they actually became excited when they did manage to pick up a gun. That excitement and usage of the bow probably wouldn’t exist if they had you starting off the game with a gun.

    • I stuck with the bow as my weapon of choice for easily 85% of my play-through, just felt more badass and in the way that Lara grows over the adventure to become who she is, it felt right to use a bow. As she developed as a survivor, she got better with a bow.

  • I like the sentiment of this article. I think the core concept of hacking the city itself is strong enough to carry a gun less action game. I’m thinking something like mirrors edge, but you can protect yourself using the city itself.

    Maybe someone on the Indie scene will make it happen.

  • Great article. These games will have to evolve into something more than point and shoot and I really hope it happens soon like you. I don’t want to watch any more trailers of Watchdogs so I didn’t see the latest trailer, the screenshot of the protagonist killing someone point blank with a shotgun was a little disappointing to see.

  • As long as there’s the *choice* to use the gun or not, that’s fine by me. If you can go hand to hand rather than resorting to firearms all the time, that’d be cool but if it forces you into gunbattles all the time, it’ll seem a little counter intuitive.

  • Good article. Yeah I’m sick of guns in games too. I WAS looking forward to Watchdogs but the more I see of it, the less I like it. I won’t be getting it. I’m predicting yet another flop the likes of Thief and Homefront. Massive hype with no substance. Another rail game.
    I’m looking forward to The Division.

  • Makes me recall the Bioshock Infinite cover fiasco “we gotta put a gun on the cover or it won’t sell”…. pew pew pays, I guess.

    • Boohoo, a right wing prick likes to play with weapons of war and genocide. Cause you know, “hunting” and “sport” and all that require 30+ bullet mags and all of the modern world to revolve around guns.

      Why can’t we have games without guns? If you only ever ate beef hamburgers for you whole life you’d be pretty sick of beef. Since “Doom” guns have been a staple of games, heck even before then.

  • ARMA 3 has the best guns, the 6.5mm are the best. Such memorable experiences more than any other game, some battle scenarios are unforgettable.

  • Good pointed article. I can’t stand the industry’s over-reliance on shooting to be a “token” gameplay mechanic. I was absolutely in love with Bioshock Infinite until I was forced to start shooting people down indiscriminately. In the Uncharted games I would always opt to knock someone out in hand-to-hand combat as opposed to shooting them dead. (That was made easier in Uncharted 3, but still wasn’t always made possible)

    As Weresmurf said, it would be good if it became more common to give people a CHOICE about how they want to do stuff. I’d be 100% more interested in Watch Dogs if I knew there was the possibility of going through the whole game without firing a single gun. But the developers have already said that’s not possible. (sigh)

    • So you were enjoying Bioshock, a first person shooter. Until you had to shoot a bunch of people… That’s like me buying a racing game then complaining that I had to race people.

      • But Bioshock ISN’T a shooter for the first hour or so of the game. It’s an amazing immersive story. Then the story stops so you can kill some people. Then the story resumes and I delve deeper into this incredible world… Then the story halts again and the killing resumes. It felt like a MASSIVE disconnect to me. The story themes were original and intelligent, but the battles weren’t. Yeah, it’s a shooting game, but it didn’t HAVE to be. It could have been something fresher.

  • I don’t understand why all you guys dislike guns in video games so much? Maybe you should all go buy Wii U’s then you won’t have to worry about it 😛

    • A few of us on here are gamers from way back, before Wolfenstein, when games required massive thumb muscles, quick reflexes and an unshakable will to succeed. Games these days are way too easy. All they require is money and the time to play it. Very little skill is involved. Call of Duty is one of the easiest games series ever made. They’re making them easier all the time.

      It’s been done to death. I don’t play most shooters anymore. No interest. Boring genre.

  • Unless Aiden had a very specific story/personal reason why he didn’t use guns the game would feel frustrating and unrealistic if you couldn’t shoot people. Would you really expect someone going after what seems to be some sort of criminal organisation to not carry a gun?

  • I love me some pew pew on occasion but I am definitely feeling the vibe of this article. Last week I set myself the challenge of completing Tomb Raider (2013) on Hard without using guns (of course you have to shoot through walls ect). Was much more fun just running up to people and stabbing them in the face with an arrow head! 😛 Seriously though was much more fun thinking through those scenarios tactically and finding the weak points rather than the usual run and gun style.

  • “Isn’t a phone more interesting, for once in a game, than a gun?” No, it’s not. How many times can you “press X to hack” before you get bored and just wanna blow shit up? For me? Not long. And yes I do play games that involve zero shooting, and enjoy them. But Watch Dogs to me, sits guns just fine.

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