After you’ve played enough games with a gun, the act of pointing, shooting, aiming, and reloading becomes mostly an afterthought. Left trigger, right trigger—pop, pop, pop. Games tend to boil down the act of using a gun to its most basic elements, forgoing inherent complexity for efficiency. In real-life, there’s no slick interface telling how many bullets are left in a clip—you need to look. And when it comes time to reload, it’s far from the slick, split-second animations featured in most games.
Receiver, an experimental game jam game from 2012, is one of the few games to try and take a gun—every part of a gun—seriously. Years later, it basically stands alone.
In Receiver, it's not tap R to reload. You holster your weapon to add more rounds, physically check the gun to make sure a bullet is in the chamber, and literally remove the magazine from the gun to begin loading more bullets. The game starts differently every time, too. You might drop in with a fully loaded gun, one with just a few bullets, or a gun that won’t seem to fire at all—because, oops, you have to flip the safety off.
“I [wanted] to give players a closer relationship to guns and how they work,” designer David Rosen told me recently, “so they could feel more connected and informed when they see them in the news or on a screen.”
Rosen’s fascination with the inner workings of firearms goes back to a childhood obsession with The X-Files. For Halloween, Rosen planned to dress up as Agent Mulder, and while the FBI badge and overcoat was easy to track down, it was a harder to find a toy aisle with Mulder’s accompanying gun and holster. He wanted to be precise.
“It turns out there are databases of which ones he used in every episode,” he said. “I found that in the latest one I watched—he used a Sig Sauer P226—so I ordered a toy replica. When it arrived, I was startled at how realistic it looked, and actually had a lot of fun just playing with the buttons and springs and moving parts!”
In 2012, Rosen was four years into the development of Overgrowth, an ambitious 3D action game focused on hand-to-hand combat. ( Overgrowth was eventually released in October 2017.) Rosen signed up for weeklong game jam themed around first-person shooters, and decided to channel his long hours with Mulder’s replica gun into a game.
“I [wanted] to give players a closer relationship to guns and how they work, so they could feel more connected and informed when they see them in the news or on a screen."
Rosen grew up in the progressive-leaning San Francisco, which he described as “a city in which guns only exist in fiction and in police reports, so I had no real experience with them.” This inform the foundation for Receiver; even though games has given him some understanding of how guns worked, their inner machinations remained mysterious.
“I always had a certain interest in them [guns] because they seemed somehow magical, like you can twitch your finger and shoot fire and make a distant soda can explode,” he said.
A few years before working on Receiver, Rosen fired a handgun as an experiment that, in retrospect, feels like the inspiration for Receiver itself. Rosen and several other members of Overgrowth’s development staff wanted to better understand what it felt like to fire a gun in real-life, and described the experience in a thorough blog post:
“In some respects, it was almost exactly the same as game shooting. The view while aiming a gun was quite similar to using iron sights in a first-person-shooter, and it was disturbingly simple to load a magazine and fire. The gunshot sound and muzzle flash was just as dramatic as depicted in movies and games. Finally, it was just as easy to aim in real life as in most computer games. Here is the target after I fired my first magazine (with ten bullets).”
(I had a similar reaction during my one and only time firing guns, as part of a goofy press event for Red Faction: Guerrilla on a Las Vegas shooting range more than a decade ago.)
Rosen didn’t have time to revisit the range during Receiver’s seven-day development, so he relied on product manuals, online videos, and online posts by gun owners. (After the game was released, they fixed inaccuracies, based on player feedback.)
The game that shipped a week later was simple but effective. Wrapped around the detailed gun mechanics was a loose framing, which had players running around a nondescript complex, trying to avoid drones and turrets, collecting VHS tapes. Firefights took on a Dark Souls-like brutality. If you missed a shot, for example, and suddenly need to reload, it’s not as simple as tapping R. While you fumble with the gun, trying to remember the step-by-step process for more bullets, death approached.
Players seemed to relish how Receiver asked them to treat guns with more respect.
“Buy this if you want the absoloute [sic] scariest horror game on steam,” wrote one player. “I have nightmares about turning a corner into a drone, forgetting to aim, and unloading my whole magazine into the ground out of fear.”
Since 2012, more than 100,000 people have bought Receiver. The game received a few updates, but largely, it remained an incomplete, if thrilling, experiment. Rosen would spend the next five years working to complete Overgrowth, which came out last year.
A lot’s happened since Receiver was released. Sandy Hook. San Bernardino. Orlando. Sutherland Springs. Las Vegas. Parkland. Those are just ones deemed “mass shootings.”
“It did give me pause while thinking about making a follow-up to Receiver,” he said. “There were definitely days when I didn't want to think about guns at all, let alone make a game about them. The question, ‘Do video games cause mass shootings?’ is not interesting to me, though, because the answer is obviously no: Japan is arguably the videogame capital of the world, and has almost zero shooting deaths. In other news, Zelda probably doesn't cause sword crime, and Assassin's Creed probably doesn't cause assassinations.”
“A more interesting question to me,” he continued, “is ‘Could video games teach gun owners how to use them safely?’ Every year, about 12,000 people are accidentally shot in the United States. I'm hoping that spreading knowledge about how firearms work could have some effect, at least a little bit. Anyone who has played Receiver will know that a gun might still be loaded even if it has no magazine, that a revolver can still fire even if the hammer is not cocked, and that it's easy to fire a gun by accident if you have your finger on the trigger.”
Rosen didn’t make any explicit promises, but indicated he’d be revisiting Receiver soon.
“If Receiver could help even one person avoid accidentally shooting someone with a gun that they thought was ‘safe,’” he said, “then that would be pretty cool!”
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