A Sum Of Parts: Just One More Drink
Brendan Keogh writes about how alcohol is used throughout Bulletstorm to make the player do things you know you shouldn’t do, but do anyway.
There’s something weird with how alcohol works in videogames. These giant, manly, bulging-at-the-seams-with-testosterone characters have one drink, get absolutely plastered for about sixty seconds, and then feel perfectly fine. Bulletstorm’s Grayson Hunt is no different. A single bottle of beer will have him swaying back and forward, unable to hold his gun steady. Give him a second drink and he will start seeing double and running into walls. Give him three and he might do something as careless as ram his spaceship right through someone else’s, killing half of his friends.
Getting drunk is usually something of a side attraction to most videogames. It creates a temporary spectacle where we simply can’t make the avatar’s body do what we want to do. In Grand Theft Auto IV, when Niko got drunk after hanging out in a bar with a friend, he could no longer automatically turn. If you turned the camera so that his body was facing the camera,, and then tried to walk ‘forward’, instead of turning around Niko would just stumbled backwards and fall over his arse. In Yoshi’s Island, when Yoshi gets intoxicated on a fuzzy, the entire world is physically distorted into ever-changing hills and dips; it’s not just our control of Yoshi that jars but our relationship to that world through Yoshi.
We drink in videogames like one might drink as a teenager: not to ‘have a drink’ but to be really drunk. Just to see what happens. Just to experience that impossible disconnect of mind and body.
In Bulletstorm, drinking alcohol sits somewhere between being a side attraction and the main show. Bottles of beer are one of the games optional collectibles, hidden throughout the game, but they are also what got Hunt and Dead Echo into this mess in the first place. During the game’s ‘tutorial’, when we are introduced to how we aim and shoot, we are already looking through the eyes of a drunk Hunt. We learn to control Hunt’s body at a time that, really, neither Hunt nor ourselves are in control of his body.
The collectible bottles of alcohol around the game make Hunt instantly and momentarily drunk. Commonly, whenever you find one beer bottle, you will find two, making Hunt especially drunk. Two versions of the world circle around each other, rendering the entire world visually incomprehensible for a time. As the world slooowly comes back into focus (at least just enough to see what you are failing to do), Hunt’s gun and the crosshair still flails all over the screen. Just try to walk forward, and the crosshair will eventually tilt too far to the left or the right and you will find Hunt’s body suddenly adjacent to the corridor, walking into a wall or facing the direction you just came from.
These bottles of beer are always located just before a skirmish, meaning that if I actually collect them all, I will then have to murder waves of mutants and bandits while completely drunk. These battles are rough and inelegant, completely lacking the deliberate and ‘artful’ murders of my sober encounters. I just shoot my shotgun at the vaguest blurs and kick over and over again. By the time my vision comes back, there are probably more enemies impaled on the surrounding environment than have died from my spent ammo.
But it is not like I have to drink every bottle of alcohol I come across in Bulletstorm. They are collectibles, rewarding me with nothing but some achievement points (“Straight Edge”, the achievement is sardonically called) on the off chance find all of them. Yet I continue to drink them whenever I find them. Why? It doesn’t make Hunt’s life any easier, and it certainly doesn’t make playing Bulletstorm any easier. As a player, I actually feel physically ill in my own body from the swaying and tipping and blurring of Hunt’s body, but I still drink every beer bottle I find.
It’s almost like Bulletstorm wants me to realise not just how vapid and silly collectibles for collectibles’ sake are, but how pathetic I look trying to collect them all. Collectibles are like a drug themselves. They tap into something compulsive inside some of us. I want to collect them to get the achievement and the short term gratification of watching a number go up, even though I know I’m not going to feel more accomplished or better in the long run.
But you don’t simply ‘collect’ Bulletstorm’s collectibles. The alcohol bottles have to be drunk, making combat far more difficult. The robots have to be destroyed, either wasting ammo or hurting yourself when you kick them. The goddamn glowing butterflies have to be shot out of the air, one by one, which is excruciatingly difficult with a 360 controller. All three kinds of collectibles, not just beer, work to make me say to myself: “Why do you put yourself through this?” Same words I have murmured on a hungover Sunday morning many a time.
I almost sigh now when I find a new beer bottle, not wanting to drink it but knowing I will anyway. Sometimes, I simply can’t beat the subsequent battle while drunk. But instead of not drinking the bottle, I’ll still drink it, and then just sit in a dark corner, quietly nursing my virtual head until the effects wear off before I stumble into battle. Why do I put myself through this?
But that’s not what the game wants. It wants Hunt and I to run headlong into a fight while our vision is still blurry. In the chapter that the player is introduced to alcohol as a collectible (a chapter called “Too Drunk To Kill”, a play on The Dead Kennedys’s “Too Drunk To Fuck”), the moment after Hunt drinks the two bottles of beer, I am forced to face a gatling gun-wielding boss in the middle of a dance club. And, of course, there are the bonus skillshot points the game hands out—an extra 100 points and the skillshot “INTOXICATED” for every enemy I am able to kill on my drunker rampage. Bulletstorm’s own design and systems work in a way to entice me into doing foolish things. It wants me to be irresponsible and to be fully aware of my own irresponsibility.
Ultimately, what Bulletstorm does with its alcohol is closely related to what real-world alcohol does: it creates a disjuncture between what my mind knows it should do and what my body actually does do. It does it on the micro level where simply making Hunt’s body do what I want it to do becomes a challenge, as he stumbles around like a Yoshi on fuzzies. It does it on a narrative level where it is in one of Hunt’s drunken rages that he rams Dead Echo’s ship through Sarrano’s battlecruiser in the first place, ultimately killing hundreds of people are stranding everyone on the nearby planet. But most importantly, it does it in my relation to the game. I know that drinking beer is not going to do any good for me in the long term, not even in the mid term, but in the short term I will see a number go up and maybe get some bonus points. I know nothing good will come of me drinking the alcohol, but I press X anyway. Hunt swigs it down and I either rage half-blind into the next battle or cower in the corner with my real-world eyes shut, not so much out of my mind as out of my body.