In 2007, the developers at People Can Fly, in association with the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN), began a project that attempted to create a stable gaming experience involving a previously unreached number of simultaneously evoked clichés.
People Can Fly’s reach outstripped its grasp when they ran an early build of their game through CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The code quickly developed into a digital singularity, consuming all clichés within its rapidly expanding event horizon. CERN and People Can Fly were able to contain the singularity before it began absorbing clichés from other dimensions, but the damage was already considerable.
Four years later, People Can Fly decided to cut their losses and shipped the post-singularity game to retail. After considerable effort, I have managed to create a summary of this game that can be read by a majority of the population with minimal risk of it ripping the clichés from the readers’ very lives:
“A foul-mouthed space marine, gone rogue after the discovery of his commanding officer’s treachery, takes a suicidal shot at his general-turned-nemesis, which goes awry, stranding both him and his target on a quasi-apocalyptic world filled with mutated humans and various deadly native species.
“With the help of his last surviving brother-in-arms, a formerly antagonistic femme fatale, a piece of gimmicky hypertech stolen from a futuristic supersoldier, an armload of ordnance, and enough creative vulgarity to short out your TV’s V-chip, our hero sets off across the wasteland to finish his quest for vengeance. But he might not like what he finds!”
Sound familiar? If it does, you’ve either played People Can Fly’s first-person shooter Bulletstorm or one of the hundreds of sources from which it unambiguously and unabashedly cribs.
Halo. Gears of War. The Half-Life series. F.E.A.R. Borderlands. Duke Nukem. Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. Bionic Commando. Even lesser-known games like Madworld and classics like Smash TV. All of these and more have uncredited, totally transparent cameos in Bulletstorm, along with a similarly boggling array of tropes stolen from film, television, and literature.
That’s it, really. No boundaries are pushed; no new ground is broken. Discussing Bulletstorm any other way is an exercise in futility. Any honest description of the game will inevitably become a gaming Mad Lib with one sentence: “It does (that thing) from (previous game),” repeated infinitely. If Bulletstorm was a gaming cliché drinking game, the entire planet’s supply of alcohol would be depleted by next Tuesday.
You can’t really call it a clone; it doesn’t quite draw enough from any one source to merit it. Bulletstorm instead tears the still-beating hearts from its victims like Mola Ram having lunch at the Temple of Doom’s buffet line. It then stitches them together too haphazardly to invoke any sense of originality, but the result is played too straight to call it a parody or pastiche. Not even a collage or a montage fits; no, Bulletstorm simply is, a living defiance of the previously sacred tradition of limiting one’s plagiarism to two or three predecessors.
Surprisingly, that isn’t always bad. Despite being a mockery of God’s law, Bulletstorm is a Frankensteinian abomination that doesn’t always shamble and isn’t always afraid of fire. At its best, it calls to mind a simpler era of shooter, one before the widespread adoption of newfangled elements like “plot cohesion” and “story arcs.” Its cut scenes and character interactions, while occasionally entertaining for what they are, are often vestigial; indeed, Bulletstorm communicates to the player best through intimation.
Bulletstorm had the potential to hearken back to a time when an FPS would tell you that you were the last surviving inmate on a crashed prison ship by putting you in an orange jumpsuit and kicking you out an exploding airlock into the mandibles of some three-eyed scaly horror. Action games once told their story through their action; somewhere deep down inside, Bulletstorm aspires to this ideal. (It has to, what with it already aspiring to everything else.)
People Can Fly would have been well advised to go this route entirely (as they once did with the DOOM-like Painkiller). When Bulletstorm actually speaks, it’s just another one of those post-’90s gaming equivalents of a bad rap-rock band; but if it had shut up and let players play it unfettered by its own pretensions, Bulletstorm could well have been an illegitimate Unreal sequel.