Steven Poole holds his breath and pulls the trigger on sniping snipes
Like a lot of people, I like to snipe. When teenaged American males were polled a few years ago as to what they wanted to do when they grew up, a significant proportion answered that they wanted to be snipers; not soldiers generally, but snipers. Clint Eastwood’s biggest-grossing movie as director is the sniping flick Porky Shooter – sorry, American Sniper. And I strongly suspect that Wesley Snipes is a stage name chosen to imply that Wesley likes sniping.
Oddly, though, I hadn’t played a dedicated sniping game since the classic Silent Scope. So you may imagine my glee at finding that
Sniper Elite III takes what I prefer to do in other action games when I have the option – creep around and headshot bad men from the shadows of a bush or the elevation of a handy mound – and makes it the only option, while lavishing pornographic detail upon it. Actually, it is not really pornographic, or at least I’m not aware of any sex films made exclusively with X-ray cameras, so that one just sees pelvis bones jiggling about, but then I do lead quite a sheltered Internet life. The sickening slo-mo crunch and scarlet goopshower of skulls being shattered every which way functions here as both existential timeout from the pressure of staying undetected, and aesthetically reinforcing reward for the skilled operation of your old-school boltaction rifle. ( None of that laser-assisted nonsense that the kids have these days.)
And skilled operation it is. Indeed, sniping as portrayed in films and videogames is an exacting artisanal craft, comparable to the patient artistry of woodworking ( and much more so than drawing leaves in the froth of a flat white) compared to the relative berserker savagery of more close-range combat. As Bradley Cooper demonstrates in Porky Shooter, moreoever, the sniper is not only a master craftsman but the Zen master of his own body, lying prone and breathing correctly, even while he shoulders an impossible moral burden when deciding, for example, whether to shoot a child.
I will not claim for Sniper Elite III any such moral dimension – it is more like the videogame equivalent of the movie Shooter, starring Mark ‘Marky Mark’ Wahlberg as a petulant sniper who uncovers a conspiracy in the US homeland and starts sniping everybody because of it. But I do admire the way Sniper Elite III uses touches of humour without totally undermining its pose of second-world-war seriousness. It is always pleasing to see one’s latest headshot described in a text badge as “premeditated”. Yes, I really did mean to shoot him in the head before I shot him in the head.
You like Sniper Elite III if you get particularly drunk on the power fantasy in videogames of information asymmetry. The idea of knowing more than your enemy is perfectly reflected in physical reality when you are on a high ridge, scoping and tagging unsuspecting Nazis through your binoculars, and then scampering from one position to another, creating fiery diversions, and shooting them all in the head, one by one.
Hitman: Sniper is a simpler game, yet makes a virtue of its limitations. The fact that you can’t change your position arguably makes you feel like even more of an untouchable, ice-cold god choosing to wreak destruction on the sinful mortals plotting martini-fuelled crime around their hideout. And it, too, is funny. “Very expedient, 47,” says your droll female controller, when you kill the target quickly, before forgetting that you were also charged, according to the client’s perverse wishes, to dispose of a body in the jacuzzi.
Mainstream commentators will often say that sniping in videogames is a ‘guilty pleasure’, that it is somehow disgusting but, secretly, fun. Why is it more disgusting than shooting a pretend terrorist in the chest with an AK-47 from a distance of three virtual metres? There must be some residual and unspoken sense of Medieval warrior honour, according to which it is ignoble to kill someone who doesn’t even know you’re there. But that’s what ninjas do, and no one is embarrassed to say they like being a ninja in videogames. Indeed, I find the idea of a “guilty pleasure” in general (when applied to other cultural products such as music) psychologically baffling – one is somehow assuming a position of superiority towards oneself. Whether it is sniping games or the music of A-Ha, let’s be proud of our pleasures: we have nothing to fear but the ridicule of people who are swayed by nothing more than fashion.
Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpoole.net
Sniping as portrayed in films and games is an exacting artisanal craft, comparable to the artistry of woodwork