It’s not Sniper Elite that’s the problem. It’s what I think I know about it.
I mean, the series is called Sniper Elite, for Chrissakes. Am I crazy for thinking it’s a game made just for those camping Oswald wannabes? The ones who ruin every multiplayer shooter because looking at the world through a set of crosshairs gives them a raging hard-on?
The bullet-porn doesn’t help, of course. When I make an appointment to see Rebellion’s Sniper Elite 3, I’ve yet to play a single minute of a Sniper Elite game. But I know exactly what it looks like when you put a round through a man’s testicles in this game. The slow-motion physical destruction of a human being, often with a helpful x-ray view to show bones splintering, has pretty much assured me that this is not My Kind of Game.
I know all this when I go to take a look at Sniper Elite 3. I know it even though I’ve never played so much as a minute of it.
Rebellion's PR man, Robbie Cooke, is showing me Sniper Elite 3 at PAX East. I’m there as a courtesy. This is not my kind of game, and I’m shell-shocked by a month of GDC, PAX, and a brief side-trip into medical crisis. Besides, I already know what I think of Sniper Elite.
Cooke is my favorite kind of PR person. There’s no forced bonhomie here, and he doesn’t pretend that Sniper Elite 3 is unencumbered by baggage. When I hold up my hands saying, “No, why don’t you play and I’ll watch,” he knows the score. I’m another member of the games media who thinks he’s Too Good / Too Old for This Shit.
He just nods and launches into the level. “So have you played these games before, Rob?” he asks.
“No,” I say. He nods; he expected this. “A friend has been playing the hell out of Nazi Zombie Sniper, though. He just gifted me a couple copies, trying to get me into them.”
Cooke nods again, then gets back to steering his sniper through a rocky pass in North Africa. He stealth-kills a couple Germans, then pushes deeper into their base.
“You know, those [Nazi Zombie Army] games basically started out as a mod,” he says. “Now they’ve taken on this life of their own. I think more people know about them than the the core games. Which we have... mixed feelings about.”
From an overwatch position, Cooke is marking targets so that their positions will always be visible. It reminds me a bit of the binoculars in Far Cry 2, but the skullduggery and gritty Dirty Dozen vibe reminds me more of the old Commandos series. Cooke has yet to explode anyone’s brains. Nor has he just been put on a hill somewhere and told to murder a bunch of hapless victims from 300 yards away. This is not what I was expecting.
“All I really know about these games,” I admit, “is the bullet cam. I’ve seen a bunch of those videos where someone just gets destroyed in slow motion by a sniper shot.”
This gets a short sigh from my guide. “I think that’s all a lot of people know about our games,” he says. “Which is too bad. I actually think they’re really good stealth games... but nobody seems to know that. We’re having a bit of trouble getting the word out.”
This is a bitter truth of games marketing. Every game needs a hook, something that sets it apart from the crowd. That’s never more true than in shooters. It’s a genre that, from the outside, often looks like a hundred different flavors of vanilla. So you get dumber and dumber buzzwords and “features”. EA showed a guy opening a door in a Battlefield 4 trailer and called it Levolution.
Word of mouth only gets you so far and a lot of times, the distance is dispiritingly short. Marketers can't trust it, even when the product is great. Too often, 2000 words on "You should know about this game, it's a hidden gem!" ends up drawing fewer readers than a story about a new shooter patch.
So I get it. Sniper Elite is a slightly brainy stealth shooter than needed an easy hook. So here, fuckers, watch this dude get his dick blown off in slow-motion. Are you not entertained?
At the same time, though, there’s a bit of, “What did you think was going to happen?” You fetishize what a high-velocity slug does to the human body, people are you going to treat you like a pornographer.
There’s this tension around representations of gun violence. On the one hand I love games with good “weapon feel”. I want the act of firing a simulated weapon at a simulated human being to feel authentic. I will launch into long-winded anecdotes about a particularly impressive feat of marksmanship I pulled off in Red Orchestra 2.
But then there’s this: I am an American living in an era of routinized mass-shootings. Sniper Elite’s near-sexualized depiction of bullet-wounds can be wildly off-putting. There is a macabre fascination there, yes. But is there not also sadism?
That’s the thing: you try to harness shock, but nothing closes a mind faster than revulsion.
Quiet of the Grave
Flash back to late-winter. One of my closest friends, J.P. Grant, starts popping up on my steam list playing Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army 2.
Nazi. Zombie. Army. 2.
They made two of these games.
JP’s wife once remarked over dinner that she married an English teacher who read Great Literature. Now he’s the head of a Warhammer 40K book club. It has only one other member: me. Yet somehow, I’m still surprised to see him spending his free time with Nazi Zombie Army. 2.
The thing about JP is that he’s a guy who can get a bit stuck in his own head. I think that’s why he's become a connoisseur of crap. There is a craftsmanship, too easily underestimated, to making ridiculous fun escapism. Increasingly, JP is devoted to those things that succeed in killing that background noise of worry and anxiety that keeps most of us company.
That’s Nazi Zombie Army. JP gifts me a couple copies so I get what he’s talking about. They show up late one night with the admonishment, “Dawg, don’t even try to pretend you’re above this shit.”
I try to pretend that I am.