Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
“Gun Game” is a staple of a particular Call of Duty experience. Present in a a number of games in the franchise since the original Black Ops, the mode is about working your way up a ladder of weapons. Despite the fact that it has been reduced to a limited-time event in Black Ops 4, I’ve spent every night this week throwing an hour of my time into the grist mill that is the gun game.
I’ve been doing that because it is, without a doubt, the most crystalline distillation of what Call of Duty does as a game franchise. It embodies the feelings of risk and reward that these games hammer into your veins 24/7. It delivers the heart of the game with minimal time commitment.
The gun game plays out this way: a match of multiplayer begins, and everyone has a pistol. They hunt each other down through the labyrinth of a level, and some of them kill the others. Getting a kill “upgrades” a player’s gun to the next one in a sequence of twenty. Whoever makes their way through the entire ladder of guns wins the game, and everyone else is ranked behind them based on how many kills they were able to accrue during the game.
The level of general understanding of Black Ops 4 that a player needs to excel at the gun game is fairly high. Most first-person shooter games allow a player to create a loadout and get comfortable with it as they learn the intricacies of different weapons, skills, and equipment. The classic “no scope” gameplay that Call of Duty memed into the universe is the product of players realizing that powerful, one-shot weapons could be used in close quarters if you have good enough reflexes. That’s the product of time and practice, of melting yourself into a certain arrangement of guns and their associated ideas.
This is the place for performance. This is the place for the player-as-talent, as pure skill, to shine. In working through the broad cycle of weapons, a player cannot pick the “best” gun or cheese the system through the choice of particular perks or wildcards. Having to use a wide variety of weapons means that there are few external factors that influence the gameplay; there is a player and their skill with the cavalcade of weapons sequencing in front of them, no more, no less.
There’s a temptation here to evoke the gun game as the logical inheritor of Quake multiplayer matches, weapon pickups, and the absolute gladiatorial combat of selves, weapons, and competition. The player, with their bare skill, pushing up against other players equipped with the same things, all locked in a fight for that number one spot. The meritocracy of gameplay.
The gun game enables all of these things. It is the surface on which we can build a fantasy of the “best player,” the one who grasps a system better than anyone else, the one who rightly dominates the game space. This is the micro version of the macro system of Call of Duty itself, this hyper-competitive leisure activity that has sat in my living room in some form for the past decade.
But that’s not the only way it distills Call of Duty down into a pure form. It is not just a reduction, but it is also an elaboration of the promise of the Black Ops multiplayer experience. By turning the player into an agent that always needs to adapt to new weapons and new combat contexts, it delivers endless novelty. The next moment in time will be different from the last moment in time.
The promise of all competitive first-person shooters is about delivering novelty. They’re designed to be gone over again and again, continually replayed. They take place in these big cages of experience that we call “maps,” all of which are composed and laned in such a way that they generate very particular kinds of friction. Heat maps dictate good design, or put another way, the reliable places where players smash into each other become the most valuable locations.
The paradox, then, is that these multiplayer games want us to feel like the experience is fresh and new each time while also keeping that freshness in a very particular container. First-person shooters are the Subway sandwich of the game design world, reliable and standardized, and yet infinitely augmentable in microscopic ways. Sometimes you run into a player who is just going to melee all of their enemies; sometimes you get extra mayonnaise.
And I say this as someone who enjoys the mode and finds some meaning in it. The reason that I’ve been playing some sort of multiplayer first-person shooter on the regular since the release of Modern Warfare is that it is always placing new challenges and variations in front of me. I enjoy playing gun game because it doubles down on those elemental parts of Call of Duty. Players versus players, using all the skills in their bag of tricks, trying to come out on top.
The work of the gun game as a mode is to create a box in which the constant novel interactions of Call of Duty multiplayer can hit you in the face, constantly, for extended amounts of time.
Like a hot tub, it pulls you down into it, changing your expectations in the same way that the water heightens your body temperature. The gun game changes the game on you, turning you into a specific kind of player, one who craves the basic interactions of Call of Duty without mediation or augmentation. The player the gun game turns you into wants the novelty, the constant change, and when the gun game goes away as a limited mode and recedes back into the development morass, we’ll be left here desiring that kernel of Call of Duty crystallization.
What’s left, there in the hangover, is a different kind of player.
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