Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole’s struggle to find the trigger in the enigmatic Resogun
One advantage of being someone who mostly writes about subjects other than videogames is that I am happily interested in the moments when it seems that I am a particularly stupid, or at least irredeemably non-‘core’, player. And so I here confess: I did not understand Housemarque’s Resogun. My friends were raving about it on Twitter, so I bought it on its PS4 release, and spent half an hour marvelling at the pretty visuals – remember the time when voxels were the future of 3D exploration games, instead of the future of retro shooters? – and wondering what the hell I was supposed to be doing.
It seemed to be a bit like Defender (one of my all-time favourite videogames), but why were the little green humans in boxes? And why were they sometimes out of the boxes? And why did they sometimes turn red inside their boxes? I did some cursory googling, but to no avail. So I assumed I was just not getting it, whatever it was, and abandoned the game. Resogun, I decided, was superboutique and niche: something for the ultraclued-up, wired-in crowd. Not for me.
Then Resogun came out on Vita in December, and thanks to Cross-Buy it was free, so I downloaded it again. And this time I did some more googling, and there was a lot more to read about it. Even the developers had at last put out a manual for the game. So I tried playing it again, and of course it is a glorious neo-retro twitch shooter with lovingly engineered risk-reward mechanics, bosses that are somehow both forbidding and hilarious, and a beautiful electronic soundtrack. It is the most retina-titillating, rush-inducing kind of interactive fireworks display, and was my second-best Christmas present after a gift membership of the Wine Society (a writer has to have his priorities straight, after all). It is now my favourite game on Vita, bar none. Resogun, I very belatedly saw, is just amazing.
But maybe, actually, I hadn’t been stupid in the first place. Maybe I was just one of who-knows-how-many players of Resogun on its first release who were flat-out discouraged, rather than epistemologically seduced, by the apparent lack of information supplied with the game about how to play it. That decision evidently pleased a lot of people, but I wonder how many more it simply puzzled and frustrated.
Some kind of brief instructions are, of course, the norm. Ever since “Avoid missing ball for high score,” the vast majority of videogames have come with directions — more or less laconic, and often leaving important aspects to be discovered by the player, but still generally describing the game’s main aim. No doubt, however, different people have different levels of tolerance for mystery. Evidently the early
Resogun adopters who wrote the excited forum threads detailing all their latest discoveries in reverse-engineering the mysterious gameplay and its nuances were having fun. And this is not a sort of fun to be despised, but it’s a sort of metagame that doesn’t appeal to me. Let me just play the game and see whether I like it, rather than having to figure out what the hell the game is in the first place.
Try an analogy with a much older game. Imagine not knowing how to play chess, and not being able to find out (by, say, reading chess books or Internet tutorials), and yet being expected to enjoy a chess videogame in which nothing was explained, and you (or your fan community) had to work out all the rules by yourself by trial and error. As a social exercise, this could also be quite a thrilling invitation to group detective work. But my point would be that the game of chess itself is much more interesting than just getting to the starting line in terms of comprehension could ever be. And so refusing to explain it retards the superior enjoyment that a player will experience once the rules are understood.
Similarly, I find it much more fun to play Resogun with some understanding of what I am doing than I did when I was wondering what the hell Resogun was about. Different strokes, perhaps. But sometimes withholding crucial information threatens to look too much like an artificial attempt to create social-media buzz. And
Resogun is too good a game to be marketed in such a gimmicky way. Give me my weapon — my Resogun, ah, my resonant gun, my resolute gun, my resourceful gun — but please also explain how I am supposed to shoot the bloody thing.
Let me just play the game and see whether I like it, rather than having to figure out what the hell it is in the first place