So I was browsing the UK video game charts the other day when something dawned on me: there are only 15 games in the top 40 this week that are about firing guns.
This felt like progress, and I welcomed it. In the future it will be nice to arrive at parties where I am the sole games journalist present and, having dispensed with the usual pleasantries about whether all I do is play games all day ("Yes, in the same way that plumbers just sit around taking endless dumps"), not immediately have to go on the defensive about the universally violent nature of the medium I spend my life contemplating. To be able to point to more games like Fez, Journey and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter without feeling like I'm clutching at straws. And if content and buying habits really are starting to change their complexion, then there is a small chance that I will one day be able to live this dream.
Then I looked more closely and realised that most of the games not about firing guns were about hitting things instead, or were Minecraft or Minecraft clones, or were Skylanders or Skylanders clones, or were racing games. Then I noticed that Borderlands and Command & Conquer collections were both present. So technically if you widened my definition to 'combat' and counted properly, there were actually 67 violent games in the top 40 instead.
So I guess we still love guns after all. But I don't think this is the end of the world. I just finished playing Shadow Warrior, which is about very little besides guns. I spend most of my free time playing Destiny, which - once you get towards level 30 - eventually becomes a game about the veneration of increasingly exotic weaponry. I don't think either is an unhealthy pursuit (although as my friends and family with attest about the latter, it is possible to pursue them unhealthily). In both cases your enemies are almost exclusively monsters and aliens, which even fairly unhinged players are capable of distinguishing from reality, and neither game is overflowing with unconscionably direct parallels to real-life wars and atrocities.
Neither game has much to say, either, but that's no crime, although games featuring combat can still tell interesting stories and offer thought-provoking context while also providing entertainment, just as movies, TV shows and comics have done for decades. Are the messages about power and loss in BioShock or The Last of Us any less interesting or poignant because you also smack people with electric wrenches and stab zombies with shivs? Not if you're used to suspending your disbelief.
One thing that playing Shadow Warrior and Destiny has reminded me, though, is that while I do love fetishising me a good gun, the games I find really difficult to accept are the games that fetishise boring guns. On reflection, I think this may be the source of my long-standing disinterest in the Battlefield and Call of Duty games. Oh sure, I've had some good times with them, but once you get past the good looks and capture a few control points, what are you left with besides all the disconnection notices and jingoism? Oh look, an AK-47. Oh look, a red-dot sight. Oh look, a pistol grip. Try the veal.
Shadow Warrior, despite not being the four hundred and sixty seventh instalment in the world's biggest gaming franchise, knows what's up. It has a double-barrel shotgun that looks like a catfish, which is excellent on its own: it has almost no recoil and turns weaker enemies into a fine red mist. Getting hold of it after trying to chew people to bits with an unbranded Uzi for half an hour is like realising the big pills in Pac-Man let you eat ghosts. But then you go to the weapon menu and the first upgrade you notice is "Add two more barrels." First of all: brilliant. Second of all: this is how you sell players on an upgrade. Technically you're just spending 4000 coins on more power, but the upgrade text and updated animation both respect the fiction of the gun, and this inevitably rubs off on the player.
Destiny is even better. There's a group of us who play it in the office and whenever one of us bags a new gun now, the first question is: what else does it do? So we pore over the stat pages and note that the exotic hand cannon Thorn can fire rounds that stick in the target and deal residual damage, while victims of the exotic sniper rifle Ice Breaker can spontaneously combust, dealing damage to adjacent allies. Looks are important too. Thorn looks like a gothic cutlass and Ice Breaker resembles a swordfish. The way Destiny dispenses its fiction is infamously laboured, but Bungie was in its element with the one-liners that accompany each distinctive armament. "Please replace these components if use causes fatal damage," suggests Ice Breaker: "HEAT SINK. MAGAZINE. OPERATOR."
Games are still pretty much all about guns, then, or at least all about weapons, but we don't have to be ashamed of this. Perhaps it's still difficult to explain to people at parties why I ran the Summoning Pits strike 25 times in one day as part of the exotic bounty for the Bad Juju pulse rifle, but that says more about me than the game I'm describing. (And hey, let's face it, I am not at a party.)
But when I look back at that top 40 list of games and contemplate all the ones with weapons in, I know most of them will slip away and be forgotten quite quickly. Memorable weapons, though? They not only make the game, but they also keep it alive in people's hearts. I still remember the shark gun in Armed & Dangerous. My colleague Chris Donlan won't shut up about Waggleton P. Tallylicker, the remote-controlled dinosaur in Bulletstorm, who was essentially a giant weapon. And one of the reasons people won't give up on Half-Life 3 is that Half-Life 2 had a gravity gun. So game developers? By all means keep fetishising guns. Just make sure you're fetishising the right ones.
P.S. Please stop fetishising guns.