In just a few keystrokes and five scenes, the most striking game about guns

A shot rings out in the dark, lighting up one of dozens of faceless windows in front of you. This game is about the feelings that follow.

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.

Notable Replies

  1. I am relieved in these rare moments where someone actually brings up how "gross" it is that we're expected to think it's perfectly normal to have a game give you a gun, have you shoot a bunch of people and then feel like it was the coolest, most fun thing ever (even if they're "Bad Guys").

    It is gross, and not in the "ew yucky, blood" sort of way, but in the same way it's gross when someone says something racist or sexist. It shows the same sort of lack of awareness on the part of a developer when they make a game that glorifies violence, which put simply, is NOT something that should be glorified, even when it's necessary.

    Thanks for writing this, Leigh!

  2. tekk says:

    That and I'm not sure that the author has ever actually heard a gunshot. It loses a lot of the weight by having a gunshot sound that could've been reproduced on an atari 2600, I think.

  3. OK. That wasn't a game. I mean, let's call a spade a spade.

    Interactive art? Ok.

    A game? Absolutely not.

  4. You can easily figure out if a loud sound happened close or afar. The high frequencies get attenuated faster with distance. Up close, a semiauto or auto weapon has that telltale metal-on-metal clicky component which may even almost dominate. The farther you get, the more dull it sounds. From yet more afar, there are echoes and reverbrations from the buildings and other structures around that smear the sound further.

    Same with a lightning. Up close one is a loud CRACK. The further away it gets, the more it is a deep rumbling.

    Also, an alternative response to being stressed out by loud sounds and wondering is to shrug it off and file away for optional correlation if it'd repeat too often. As someone prone to anxieties, I can first-hand appreciate the wisdom of not worrying at the slightest provocation. Takes some self-training, though, but it is generally worth it. "Need more data" beats squarely having a panic attack, even the mild ones suck.

    Tried to think about guns in games. Went through some somewhat-drunk free associating, and ended up sketching a knockoff of a commercial simulator which uses pneumatic piston to simulate recoil. Saw it on a military tech fair here, was neat, they always have a fairly long queue. (Todo: ask the guys from the Factory if they don't have a spare jig actuator and a solenoid valve). Could be handy for Oculus Rift... Tried some 3d printing with elastomeric polypropylene, just today, and the results are encouraging and it seems it works and could be potentially used for gaskets and maybe even pneumatic/hydraulic piston seals so maybe the actuators could be even made just from a length of pipe and a 3d-printed piston/seal...Who knows yet if such seals actually seal, tests have to be done.

    Don't drink and design :smiley:

  5. If you are really far away from the source, you will be more likely to hear the crack from the sonic boom of the bullet, vs the rifle being fired. Surprised you didn't mention this.

    I have a similar attitude. Everything can be art. It may not be particularly good art in one's opinion, but it is art and someone else may come to enjoy it.

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