Using just five scenes and three keystrokes, renowned minimalist game designer Pippin Barr has released a dark, thoughtful piece on gun violence, made with his wife Rilla Khaled. A Series of Gunshots comes in part from the revelation that he was starting to find shooting things in video games "really gross"—and the wish to explore the horrible space around the sound of a shot.
The game is very simple. Confronted with a color-starved scene of a street, an apartment front, or some other mundane place, the player must press any key, and the punctuation of a gunshot rings out. You might see a muzzle flash in one of the windows right before your eyes, or you might not, the sound coming from outside of your field of view. Pressing any key up to three more times may or may not trigger another shot, and then the scene changes. The set of scenes you see, and the hidden violence that may be occurring in each, is different each time you play.
There is a remarkable thought space around such a deceptively simple design. You as the player notice the urge to 'advance' the scene; you find yourself wishing the shot will occur where you can 'see' it. The game's challenge, in a sense, is being able to sit in the pause after that first sound and to notice how you feel about it—and about your own lack of agency. There is a cold, frightening inevitability about the fact you cannot really observe, control or predict any aspect of the distant violence. You never get to know why the shot was fired, if anyone was hurt or killed, what any of it meant. There may be another round of gunfire coming, and there may not, but all you can do is press a key and see.
Any key will do; letting the player use the mouse, Barr said, would have added too great an illusion of control, the player "pointing" hopefully (?) at dark windows. Mapping to a specific key, too, would accord the player too close of a relationship with the idea of a single "trigger." With careful decisions like these, A Series of Gunshots elegantly decouples the report of a gun from the thoughtless, self-relieving behavior that "shooting" usually is in video games, and redraws the weapon as it exists in reality—a deliverer of unknowable darkness.
You can play A Series of Gunshots for free in your browser here. Offworld has previously covered some of Barr's projects here and here.