L2 to aim. R2 to fire. Square to reload. If you've been into video games at all over the past decade, those commands will have become hard-wired. Shooting is to today's games what jumping was in the 1980s. It's the default input, the thing we expect, what games are more or less "about."
You might think Call of Duty is responsible—every year since 2007, the series has leaked shooting mechanics into the mainstream like lead into the Romans' water. But this fashion extends beyond a single franchise. Pulp like CoD and its lesser cousins aside, the ostensible high-art mainstream—from The Last of Us to BioShock Infinite—is mired in shooting. There's plucky resistance from the independent scene, and even a few mid-tier games that undermine, at least by omission, gaming's propinquity to shooting. But still, the controllers for our consoles have buttons referred to as "triggers." Shooting remains everywhere, and in everything.
Still, the problem I have is not that shooting exists in, or even pervades video games. It's that despite years of claiming by marketers, designers, and reviewers that shooting in games is "realistic," it's still a blithe action, performed over and over without any sense of mechanical or emotional complication. I feel the same way about firing a gun in a game as I do about sitting here, pressing the keys on my laptop—it's just an input I give to a machine in order to make it work. And I think that's partly the reason people are either dismissive, or growing bored, of shooting games.
There's no weight, gravity, or consequence to shooting in games, no effort on the behalf of game-makers to appropriate what it takes, both physically and mentally, to fire a gun at a person. All you get are three lousy buttons. After that, you can inflict violence—or at least, fire your weapon—with no fuss or cognition. If we're talking morality, or even good writing, gaming's simplified version of shooting does nothing to represent the complexity or horror of real-world violence. If we're talking what's fun to play, doing the same thing over and over, without having to think about it, soon grow old. I think games would improve, both in terms of narrative and raw enjoyment, if they obeyed how guns work in reality.
2012's Receiver for PC and Mac is a first-person shooter where, instead of tapping a single button to reload your pistol, you must use a sequence of key presses. First you press a button to unholster your gun, then you need to remove the magazine, refill it with loose cartridges and press another button to reinsert it. Once the gun's loaded, you have to manually pull back the slide to chamber a round and then remove the safety catch—it's only after completing this 30-seconds-or-so process than you can think about aiming and firing. David Rosen, Receiver's creator at Wolfire Games, thinks mechanics like these lend shooting games more gravitas.
Receiver's gameplay mechanics trailer
"I think most video games, including a lot of my own work, have a very unsophisticated approach to violence," he told me. "Simulated violence has always been a big component of play—you can look at your pet dog or cat and see that. But video games tap into the drive without attempting to analyze the subject.
"My first thought with Receiver was that, surprisingly, nobody had ever made an FPS game that was actually about guns. So, I went and read a lot of the user manuals from various manufacturers, and watched videos uploaded by gun owners showing how they cleaned, operated, and fired different weapons.
"[ Receiver] is very awkward at first, because the player is trying to figure out two things at once: what actions are required to make their gun work, and what keys correspond to which actions. But I think that feeling is a big draw for the game. Attaching realistic complexity makes each encounter more dramatic, since you're never certain if you configured the weapon correctly to fire."
This is how shooting mechanics, if changed, could mean something more to gaming. You take a gun in real life, and—like in Receiver—you first have to learn its workings. You have to lift it, aim it, be careful with it. You're implicitly aware that rather than a magical, simplistically operated wand, a gun is a fallible object, one that could easily backfire or be turned against you by another person. Guns never feel safe or simplistic. I've been shooting shotguns since I was a child, and still feel faintly nervous whenever I go to the range. It's just the noise, the weight, the power—the things that, owing to their insistent "fun" and "accessibility," games have never attempted to recreate.
And that's a shame, and it's short sighted, because these are things that could make shootouts in games interesting again. I want to play a gunfight where, rather than ploughing down enemies with a gun operated using three buttons I'm having to aim, fire, and reload carefully. Like reality, I want every shot to resonate. I want every pull of the trigger to feel significant. I'm contradicting myself, because the last article I wrote here implored video games to move away from copying films, but I want the experiential equivalent of the shootout from Heat—loud, slow, dangerous and, above all, frightening. That's what shooting should be in video games—scary. It shouldn't be something you want to do. And it definitely shouldn't be what the game is designed around, as if getting into a gunfight is both an achievement and a reward.
Shooting in games should be horrible. It ought to be difficult, and something you want to stay away from. And I think that if you make shooting painful on a mechanical level, like Receiver, you make it emotionally painful as well – you make it something players fear, dread or at least think about beyond, "this is awesome".
Follow Ed Smith on Twitter.