The Canyon of the Shadow of Death: Sniper Elite V2’s Disturbingly Honest Sadism

sniper elite

*Author’s Note: I have not played Sniper Elite III. I will not play Sniper Elite III. From what I can tell from gameplay videos, it treats itself too much like a videogame to be of any interest. 

Justin Keever | Jul 16 2014

This weekend I was possessed by some illness – madness, more like – and found myself compelled to boot up Halo 3. I was told by my doctor that this illness, most likely brought on by my annual listening of “Never Forget”, is apparently called “nos-tal-gia” (I’m told my pronunciation with a hard “g” is incorrect), and its symptoms include a rosy tint over one’s vision, and a predilection for media intended for children. I only played Halo 3 for a very short period of time, as most of my fond memories of the game consist of playing custom matches with friends with whom I’ve not spoken in years. Simply put, I’m not fond enough of Halo 3’s single player, even in a nostalgia-addled state, to devote to it any serious amount of time. So I walked through the forest of the game’s beginning, shooting at grunts and brutes and what have you until I died for the first time, which provided a convenient, albeit abrupt, stopping point. I obviously wasn’t awash with positive feelings about Halo 3 after our little reunion, but I nor did I feel particularly negative towards it. In fact, I came away from the first fifteen minutes of the game’s campaign with exactly one thought lingering in my mind: “why was I walking through a canyon?”  Sure enough, the beginning of the Master Chief’s journey through the forest begins with a short jog between 2 short but sheer rock walls, which seemed somewhat out of place in a dense forest with no major river. But there they were, defiantly placed on either side of me, made meaningless by their own clear functionality: “this is the path” they told me, and I readily accepted their explanation for their own existence.

And I continue to be indifferent towards them, at least in terms of their value to game design: the canyon wall is functional, offers more aesthetic appeal and less diegesis-breaking frustration than an invisible wall, and is a generally inoffensive means of guiding the player through a linear path. But I did start to consider them and their reoccurring presence in action games, particularly shooters. I started thinking about their many forms – the canyon as we understand it as a natural formation, the urban canyons of large cities, the canyons created by the large trees on either side of American Highways – and how those forms had been integrated into shooter design. Take, for example the rooftop-to-rooftop shootout in Modern Warfare 3, the many natural and man-made canyons of Spec Ops: The Line, or the shootouts in natural canyons in Western games like Red Dead Redemption or Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. The question arises: are canyons merely a convenient formation that can be easily exploited for the sake of design, or do they hold some sort of additional significance that makes their use in these violent games thematically logical? Well, after some light googling, I found a site of questionable repute that confirmed something I had suspected: canyons are, apparently, associated with the cutting power of the river that formed them: they are scars in the land, and frequently the locations of violent scenes, particularly ambushes in Western films.

The last detail interests me especially: given the influence the western has had on the videogame shooter (valorized of duty, righteous violence, etc.), the shooter’s take on this recurrent scene is worth examining. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to argue that the shooter is built upon upending the canyon ambush. The goal of most (not all!) shooters is player empowerment, obviously, but where does that sense of power reside? I’d argue it’s not entirely in the act of firing the gun, nor in the resulting representation of violence (though that is certainly a factor, which has always made the shooter a somewhat frightening genre). The joy of the shooter mostly resides in upending the canyon ambush; that is, taking on impossible odds and winning through sheer determination and force. Take, for example, the Gulag shower shootout in Modern Warfare 2. The scene is a clear homage to the shower room massacre in The Rock, except the massacre is flipped: the side with fewer soldiers and inferior position wins, then pushes forward without so much as a breath of incredulity. Beating the odds has become normalized, and the rule of “you’re down there, we’re up here!” no longer applies. The empowerment of the shooter is surviving the unsurvivable; being able to shoot upward and win.

The astute reader will have read the title, and thus ascertained that Sniper Elite V2 is somehow relevant to this line of thought. Well, Sniper Elite V2 hides all of its secrets in a canyon. If you’ve so much as played the game’s demo, or watched one of those insufferable killcam montages, it’s a canyon you’ve seen: it’s an urban canyon, a gorge built upward through the stacking of stone on either side of a street. The walls are weakened, bombed out, but still impassable, guiding the player straight towards a large crowd of Nazi soldiers. In fact, the canyon is the home of Sniper Elite V2’s first real enemy encounter: it is the first time the player faces a large crowd of enemy soldiers at a distance outside of the game’s awful tutorial. In the future, when I think back about videogame canyons, I know this one will stick out in my mind. This canyon is Sniper Elite V2’s hook, its thesis statement, the point where the game is truest to itself. And its honesty is frightening.

Sniper Elite is about, if anything, celebrating the power of the bullet: about the potential of a small metal slug to completely rend a man’s insides, mocking the fragility of the human form. The long, slow-motion shots of the bullet exiting the rifle, traveling through the air and bending the atmosphere around it, and finally penetrating its victim in extreme detail exist on the a bizarre middle ground between worship and pornography: we should be in awe, the game seems to say, and we should be excited. We should want this, the game seems to say. We should be taking joy in being able to pull a trigger and cause this: the bullet and the player are inseparable, the same entity, capable of invading and shredding another body in dramatic ways.  V2 takes the implied sexuality of gun violence (the phallic imagery of the rifle and whatnot) and pushes it to its extreme: gone is the focus of most shooters on the reflexes and quick thinking needed to survive a firefight, and in its place is an intense concentration on penetration, which is designed to be gratifying in and of itself. Sniper Elite V2’s point system just reaffirms the positivity of murder: “you shot a man in the heart! 200 points for you!” V2’s take on violence is highly intimate; a close examination of what your bullet did to that digital body, with absolutely no thought to just how fucked it all is. It takes something disgusting and makes it joyous (again, by mixing a sense of awe with a sense of gratification) finding utterly non-ironic glee in its own extremity.

But, somehow, the hyper-violence is not the center of Sniper Elite V2’s considerable depravity. The core lies deeper, not in the “what” of the violence itself, but the “how”; the method in which that violence is carried out, and the implication of that method. V2 is not about empowerment, it is about power. It is about the detached domination, taking the ethos of the god game and applying it to the shooter. Click on a person in the distance and they die, with little to no power to do anything about the fate you’ve assigned them. Your avatar in Sniper Elite watches soldiers like we watch the Sims: smirking to himself, watching the world through a little frame at a safe distance, perfectly free to be as cruel as his heart desires. You’re not a soldier, you’re a serial killer: killing the weak for the sheer pleasure of the violence itself, never struggling for your own life, not meaningfully anyway. Even when the Nazis or the Russians attack en masse, you’ve got either got the best position, or the best gun. You’ve got the gun that breaks bones and rips flesh; in fact, the relative simplicity in your avatar’s death is perhaps the most meaningful way his power manifests itself. Take Max Payne 3, a game with similar slow motion depictions of horrific bloody death: Max’s bullets tear people apart in the almost the same way that V2’s sniper’s does. And yet, Max Payne 3 is a game I would defend to the death. Why, you ask?  2 simple reasons: Max Payne 3 is, in point of fact, considerably less graphic, and more importantly, the extreme violence is turned on Max. When Max Payne dies we get a startling death screen that shows, in an uncomfortable close up, the shot that kills him: he is often shown in pain or a state of shock as blood bursts dramatically from his wound, which is normally a graphically depicted bullet to the head. Representing the death of the player character like this equalizes the battlefield, depicting Max as just another man who lacks the privilege of a clean death. But the violence V2’s sniper enacts on his fellow man is never, in turn, enacted on him. He is immune from his own destructive power, granted mercy by way of the privilege of being the player character. He almost seems aware of it, sometimes, when I see that goofy smirk on his face as he pulls the trigger on another victim. Like he’s taunting me, the person he’s just killed, and the world that he inhabits.  V2 takes the canyon ambush and subverts it in a totally different way than most games: instead of flipping the outcome, letting the “ambushees” win, Sniper Elite changes the roles, assigning the attackers at the top of the canyon the part of the protagonist, and the outcome stays the same. The high ground wins, and those who own it are immortal.

Sniper Elite V2 lays its duality bare in that first canyon. Curiously, it’s stepping backward almost immediately from the lie of its tutorial: one could not be faulted for thinking that V2 is a relatively complex stealth game, if one should only read up on the gameplay, and perhaps play through the tutorial and nothing else. The player is taught how to throw rocks to distract guards, set traps in such a manner as to protect one’s escape route, how to booby trap dead bodies, and how to adjust your aim for wind and gravity. More significant are the game devices it doesn’t tutorialize, which include a “last known location” indicator and the ability to time one’s shots with certain loud noises so your rifle fire goes unheard. These pieces hold the potential to come together into a halfway interesting stealth game, but alas, most of these devices become wholly irrelevant as the game goes on. What’s particularly remarkable, though, is not that most of these abilities will go unused; it’s how little the game itself seems to care about any of them. There is no learning process within the game proper, no guiding hand that lets the player parse out how to use their numerous abilities effectively. The only action before the canyon is some brief, easy, close quarters combat that the player can freely bungle their way through with no consequence, communicating close to nothing. When the urban canyon sequence begins, the player is outside of it entirely, in one of the bombed out buildings to the side. A soldier is clearly visible in the bottom of the gorge, leaning against a wall. He will not move, he will not look up and see you. He is close enough where you don’t even need to adjust your aim to compensate for wind and gravity: put him in the crosshairs, and he will die. You don’t adjust your aim to hit him. You adjust your aim to decide how you hit him. “Do you want to shoot him in the head?” asks the game, “or do you want to shoot him in the lung, and watch it deflate as he collapses to the ground?” These are the questions Sniper Elite V2 prioritizes: not can you kill this enemy, but how will you kill them. It’s the same question Bulletstorm asked the previous year, but now it’s being asked without the veneer of science fiction and irony. Now, it is straightforward: how do you want to watch this human die? You give your answer and move on. The men 50 feet away from the first victim of your ambush don’t hear your shot, nor do they see the man die. No consequences. You don’t need to time your shot, you don’t need to look for an escape route. Point at your least favorite vital organ and watch the fireworks.

The canyon assault continues with the player character dropping down a floor and going up to a first-floor window. You’re almost at ground level now, but not quite. You’re still probably a good 3-5 feet higher up than the group of soldiers you can now see in the distance. There are a few paths out of the house that seem like viable paths for circumventing this hostile group. They’re not. I’ve checked. So you’re left with no choice but to wait as long as you want before shooting from this window. There’s no way to time your shot, no way to sneak by the enemy, no way to set traps and trick your way through the scenario. I wondered, for a time, what this segment is supposed to teach me. With the exception of a single sniper at the far end of the gorge, there’s no real difference in the distance of each individual soldier. The formula for a successful shot is the same each and every time: aim one notch high and a little to the left. Get a killcam reward every time. There’s no tactics, no skill, nothing to be learned or exercised in that canyon. The kill is all there is. You’re required to enter what would be a no-win scenario in a fair fight and win. And you do, easily, because it’s not a fair fight. You’ve got your rifle, and you’ve got distance. The dead men didn’t stand a chance. And all V2 has to say for itself when the fighting stops is “Wasn’t that cool, brah?”

Maybe that’s what offends me most. That Sniper Elite V2 is able to be so unironically pleased with itself while having quite literally nothing to say about its violence. As has been pointed out before, the violence does more to humanize the Nazis than anything else; we’re all just sacks of meat and bone, the game seems to say. Better games have put the player in the same position V2 does in a canyon ambush to call attention to and deconstruct that sense of power. To make you question not the power of the bullet, per se, but its righteousness. That feeling this good about being punching down is a bad thing. But no, says Sniper Elite V2. It says you should enjoy this. You should get to savor the intimacy of tearing a man’s body apart while still being safe, detached from the reality of what you’re doing. It’s like playing a man playing a violent videogame. And I’m sick of writing about it.

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