‘Gunpoint’ review: This game takes brains, not bullets

July 01, 2013 | 7:00 a.m.

In the universe of “Gunpoint,” firearms are banned. It’s a creative choice that’s downright bold for any piece of pop culture in 2013, but especially the trigger-happy world of gaming. But “Gunpoint” shows that compelling action sequences can consist of little more than plotting, creeping and puzzle-solving.

Oh, guns play a role in “Gunpoint” — it is the name of the game, after all — but like the 1992 Robert Redford film “Sneakers,” the capers here are carried out via clever hacking and the rerouting of wires.

This tightly constructed game is centered on the player-puppeteered Richard Conway, a spy-for-hire who’s a stickler for grammar and has a penchant for sarcasm. Conway is drawn into a corporate rivalry between gun manufactures, companies that are lying and stealing from each other to create a weapon that can exploit a loophole in the nation’s gun ban. Lobbyists we never see do the dirty work of reversing the firearm prohibition behind closed doors (a.k.a., off screen).

Though “Gunpoint” doesn’t take a clear stance on the polarizing question of gun control, there’s no denying how it feels about guns in games: They’re overused and too often provide players an easy way out.

Should Conway acquire a gun — since banned, they are not cheap — the nifty, highly stylized thriller essentially becomes pointless. There’s little strategy when shooting is an option.

A scene from "Gunpoint."  (Gunpoint)

A scene from “Gunpoint.” (Gunpoint)

Gun control wasn’t the national debate it is now when designer Tom Francis, a former games critic, began work on the project three years ago. As he explained it, the plot device was used to show “the kind of desperation and deception you see in failing companies … and letting that get tangled up in the characters’ personal problems.”

But why failing gun companies and not, say, candy warehouses? Guns are so commonplace in games, they practically have to be banned just to persuade players not to use them.

“It turns out if you touch on almost any contentious issue, there’s a 50% chance it’ll be eerily topical by the time you release,” he said. “As you noticed, though, I didn’t touch on gun control to preach any particular point about it. My initial idea when starting out was to make a game where a gun going off would be a big deal.”

Intentions aside, it’s a dynamic that makes a statement — more guns do not make for a better game, and exploring a game world is often a more nuanced exercise when you take them away.

But the gun-control controversy does make for a compelling plot device.

When one gun company employee suddenly drops dead — or, more accurately, is driven by bullets out of a multi-story window — Conway finds himself trying to make sense of mess created by feuding execs, possibly corrupt cops and adultery-seeking grown-ups. Whether he’s hired to clean it all up or is simply being used as a pawn as part of someone else’s murderous conniving, is never quite clear.

Like any good whodunit, each of these 20 missions results in nearly half as many switches in allegiance and often between shady characters we want to know more about.

Conway turns out to be a rather strong film-noir protagonist and charms with borderline-annoying cynicism: When he accepts at least one low-paying gig he criticizes a client’s inability to capitalize a proper noun.

Femme fatales and lazy officers will cross Conway’s path, but from beginning to end this slender game — completed by this critic in about seven hours — is a showcase for what can be done when designers emphasize character-driven puzzles. Francis, a former games critic for PC Gamer, challenges the player to seek out multiple brain-teasing paths. A key to the game’s success is that it’s easily accessible, using keyboard controls and point-and-drag mouse mechanics as well as offering numerous restart points should a death occur.

A scene from "Gunpoint."  (Gunpoint)

A scene from “Gunpoint.” (Gunpoint)

Only in the final mission must Conway pack heat, as for much of the game “Gunpoint” celebrates its stance of “Guns, who needs ‘em?” Certainly not Conway, who sports high-tech “projectile trousers” that allow him to soar multiple stories and crash unharmed through windows.

Instead of blasting through levels, Conway weaponizes them, crisscrossing wires and circuits as if he’s part P.I., part electrician. The game presents locations as if the player is looking through the screen onto digital dioramas.

Jazzy soundscapes create a refined, spy-flick feel, and “Gunpoint” allows Conway to view the blood-and-guts of a building’s interior. A press of a button reveals the electrical map for each location that’s waiting to be manipulated. The soundtrack also switches — the sax and bass notes suddenly get a more digital makeover

Then the cat-and-mouse tinkering starts.

A vault door, for instance, can be programmed to slam shut and knock a guard unconscious simply by clicking and dragging neon-bright electrical wires. Or wires can be manipulated so that a flick of a light switch opens a trap in the floor. Or maybe the light switch will cause a guard’s gun to malfunction.

If you’re not the violent type, disable lights to lead guards down a hallway, only to lock them in a tiny room. If you are the violent type, Conway will start to wonder if he’s doing more harm than good in his quest for the truth.

A scene from "Gunpoint."  (Gunpoint)

A scene from “Gunpoint.” (Gunpoint)

The few moments when Conway holds a gun, it’s advised not to shoot. Do so and miss key conversations, but more important, the non-player-controlled characters in this little indie game act more realistically than most of those found in big-budget games.

The evidence: When a gun is pointed at a guard, he freezes in fright rather than take aim and inspire out-and-out office warfare.

“Most action games feature thousands of shots being fired, most of them with mild or reversible consequences. I wanted a game where a gun has the same dramatic power as it does in a noir thriller, where every gunshot is a shock,” Francis said.

The end is abrupt. Conway muses that he needs a drink after the final mission, one of two that can be chosen by the player. Conway, essentially, must decide who he trusts most, but no one in “Gunpoint” comes away unvarnished.

Well, except Francis. In a win for indie-game development, Francis says that sales of “Gunpoint” in one month have brought him a profit equal to 12 years of his day job. He quit it to make more games.

– Todd Martens

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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