Bulletstorm: Drop-Kicking Parody Into A Cactus

I think any art form officially comes of age when it adds parody and satire to its intellectual arsenal, but gaming’s brief forays into satire, however, have been minimal at best. The Metal Gear Solid franchise has often toyed playfully with dissecting videogame conventions, and the esteemed, masterful Ayn-Rand-‘em-up Bioshock turned round and smacked you in the face with it’s measured and thoughtful dissection of linearity in the first person shooter. Now we have Bulletstorm, a game that could be the single greatest act of videogame parody ever, or just plain stupid.

Guess which.

To the credit of Epic Games, they must have had some idea about what they were doing. I mean, here’s the publisher of Gears of War – the franchise that pretty much invented the grizzled space marine tropes that now pervade modern shooters – bringing out a game that ostensibly lampoons the genre. The only thing more meta than that would be Epic releasing a game where you play Cliffy B developing a game about himself playing Gears of War 3.

The right analogue stick controls his golden locks.

So believe me, I was excited when I heard that Bulletstorm was going to be a knowing pastiche. Never has a genre been so in need of gentle ribbing, especially given how these kind of games can take themselves way too seriously, and some of them are so melodramatically self-important they forget they’re about cutting aliens in half with chainsaws attached to machine-guns. Or fighting evil space Nazis.

A bold statement about the futility of war. With jetpacks.

But Bulletstorm isn’t a witty or incisive satire of the over-populated genre of gritty future soldier silliness, it’s just obnoxiously dumb. The problem, I think, is one of form – satire is hard to do, and even harder to sustain, because it simultaneously subverts generic conventions and embodies them, picking something apart whilst also reinscribing its assumptions. This becomes complicated when applied to a videogame experience, because a parody of the crude machismo and sensationalised violence of the space marine shooter starts to become crude machismo and sensationalised violence after five hours of gameplay. I guess this is why Metal Gear’s brief satirical forays have been little more than occasional winks to the camera.

This was the nagging problem I had with Bulletstorm – I could see how the incessant profanity, infantile masculine posturing and absurdly gratuitous violence was supposed to be played for laughs, but after a while the joke wore a bit thin. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in the dialogue. When you’re subjected to such writing gold as:

If she recognises us, it will be difficult to convince her to aid our evacuation.”

“If she gives us trouble, she’ll recognise my boot up her ass.

and,

Here comes Butterdick Jones and his heavenly asshole machine

or the biologically suspect,

“You shitpiles give chase, I will kill your dicks”

you start to think the game is maybe trying a little bit too hard to be foul-mouthed. I’d like to say that those lines are even more ridiculous when taken out of context, but I’d be lying. They’re about the same.

Bulletstorm gets from Gears of War its look, feel, and sensitive portrayal of female characters.

To be honest, I don’t think the joke was all that funny in the first place. Maybe it was a problem of expectation on my part, and I shouldn’t have been asking for biting and learned deconstructions of genre from a game that awards you points for shooting dudes in the balls. But Bulletstorm’s satirical jabs are so superficial, and painted in such broad strokes, that they become really tiresome really quickly. Videogames as an interactive medium can’t support parody if it’s this simple.

That’s not to say that Bulletstorm isn’t a fun game to play; it’s an enjoyable, over-the-top romp, with beautiful graphics and some genuinely gleeful mechanics. The thing that makes it stand out for me is the way you can use every part of the environment to senselessly maim enemies. This is where the game’s points system really adds to the experience – the way you’re rewarded for using different aspects of your surroundings during kills leads to some genuinely creative experimentations. There are few pleasures as intensely satisfying as kicking a dude in the face and launching him into a cactus, or dragging someone into a grating with your leash and delighting in the squelch as it slices them up. If that sounds psychotic, it’s probably because it is.

Warning, Fox News, that was sarcasm.

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