Trig­ger Happy

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.steven­

Snip­ing as por­trayed in films and games is an ex­act­ing ar­ti­sanal craft, com­pa­ra­ble to the artistry of wood­work

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