Rules are a funny thing. For all our dependencies on rules, they are often shirked for the better. Laws are overlooked when they impede progress, regulations are broken when they’re frivolous, and cheating can be pretty fun. Fire trucks run red lights when there are some flames that need quelling, permits for yard sales are largely pointless, and you just got away with taking two cards off the top of the deck instead of just one. Rules are made to be grabbed, smashed, and thrown out the window.
Which is pretty much exactly what Richard Conway does, the protagonist of Gunpoint. Gunpoint is a 2D stealth action game from Pentadact, aka Tom Francis of PC Gamer, and a team of artists and musicians. In it, Richard dons a pair of superpowered pants that enable him to jump really fucking high and fall without any physical consequences. This means he can launch up three stories into a room and tackle a guard all the way down to the ground before getting up and dusting himself off just to do it again.
Oh yeah, there are guards. Richard is a freelance spy who, after a botched job, finds himself embroiled in an ever maddening web of deceit and general trouble. He has to infiltrate offices, bases, and labs as he attempts to suss out where things went wrong.
The most notable thing about Richard, though, is that he has this thing called a Crosslink, a device that enables him to see all of the electronics in a level and, well, link them across each other. So light switches, motion sensors, automatic doors, cameras, and so many other things are at the mercy of Richard and his desires.
Or rather, your desires. Gunpoint is a game all about testing the rules and then systematically breaking them. You play from a broad view where the entire level (or most of it) is within frame, so you can see where everyone and everything is at any given moment. This affords you the most information possible to help you decide when and where to do what and to what end. You can hook up a light switch to a door so it opens instead of a light coming on, but what if the door was on the bottom floor and the switch was at the top? The wide, holistic perspective informs you of why you might want to do this.
Instead of seeing how two dominoes react (i.e. one falls into the other), now you can see how the entire scheme is put together. You can orchestrate elaborate plans of never subduing or encountering a guard while they simply incapacitate or distract each other. Or you can put them all down at once and then saunter through the building like a Rockefeller. Pulling out from a localized view to a global one is key to Gunpoint‘s allure; you can see all the gears turning, but now you get to find out why they turn.
That appeals to our inner rule breaker. This shouldn’t be confused with a sense of rebellion and breaking things because we can (though that is some of the appeal, too). No, it’s because we’re curious. More than any other feeling, curiosity fuels our every action and subsequent emotion. Your desire to poke at things and find out what happens when you poke them drives our love, our anger, and our everything. Being content is dangerous, so Gunpoint made sure to surface everything you would need to never be content.
For instance, some games have similar systemic ties that open the door to testing the boundaries of interaction and possibility. Most stealth games, in fact, fall under this umbrella. But they can be punishing and lack checkpoints or force you to commit to decisions that you wish you could take back. Gunpoint, on the other hand, has an autosave feature that kicks in every few seconds. When you die, you go back no further than two or three seconds, or you can opt to go a few steps further back and really find out where your tree branches. There is absolutely no punishment for dying or for experimenting. Feel free to try every variable and run every trial. This is an open lab for your testing pleasure.
There is some funneling that takes place, though, directing you to understanding that this is the purpose of the game. Richard’s deaths, which are numerous and rapid, are unceremonious. His death receives about as much fanfare as someone sitting down in a chair. It’s quick and nigh imperceptible, much like a trademark Family Guy pratfall. It gets and deserves so little recognition because that’s not the point of the game; the point is for you to move moment to moment between setting up the trap and springing it.
The simplicity of which you can cause mayhem and tragedy is also important. Complexity is what appeals to us because it gives us more folds to uncover and more details for us to discover on our own, but complication befuddles us and makes us want to quit, to walk away and never look back. Gunpoint is complex in that it has many very simple systems all interacting with one another, but the interactions you take with it and the rules that it abides by are binary. Either a guard sees you or he does; either the light is on or it is off; the door is open or it’s closed. Instead of turning dials and moving sliders, you flip a switch between stop and go, something so simple that we made a game out of it for kids to play on a playground.
This exposes the bare elements of the endeavor. For the kids running around on the field, it then becomes about reaction time and physical speed, two things that even five-year-olds can keep in mind. For Richard running around in Gunpoint, knowing simply whether something is active or inactive, on or off, is quick and easy to discern and makes watching the system run after you seed and manipulate the input all the more fascinating.
That’s what makes breaking the rules of Gunpoint fun. You operate within a framework that supersedes the rules established for doors, lights, guards, and whatnot and allows you explore what it means to cheat a system. Get two guards caught in an infinite loop of turning on lights, get allies to electrocute each other, and get to breaking those rules. That is, after all, what we were made to do.