Serotonin: Handling the destructive power of guns

February 27, 2015


Despite my insatiable urges to slaughter digital monsters, I don’t consider myself a violent person. I’ve never been in a real physical fight, nor do I plan or want to. But I’m no saint; I don’t totally remove myself from any kind of physical conflict. I probably say “hit him!” while watching a hockey game more than recommend my team shoot or score. I’ve watched UFC, professional wrestling and even some boxing matches. The preparation, technical skill and thrill of competition sweeps over me when watching the combatants, but that isn’t anything special or unique. I still don’t want to be in their position, nor do I lack empathy when I discover the short and long-term injuries these athletes suffer in the name of entertainment.

When it comes to weapons, I have even less experience. Other than using whatever everyday household item as a sword, fending off imaginary foes or learning archery at summer camp, my cupboard of experience is bare. That changed in the early months of 2012, when my girlfriend Kyla and I were invited to a gun range with a veteran firearm owner. I was thrilled and terrified; I’d never even held a real gun before, let alone shoot one.


They were heavier than expected, it was harder to hit targets than expected and, the greatest surprise, they were louder than expected. Kyla and I had earplugs and headphones and my ears were still ringing. Working on my breathing, feeling the gun kick back into my shoulder and adjusting for distance was as foreign to me as a new language. I enjoyed the experience, one of the most unforgettable of my life. With equal measure, I want to go back and never go back again.

The visit was escorted back into my memory while I was playing Far Cry 3 for the first time. The early months of each year are not the time for big hits, so it’s a good time to catch up. I didn’t find myself enjoying it as much as some people did, but it certainly landed in the right zone. The exploration was a blast, the game looked fantastic on my new PC and there was just enough incentive to keep playing the story, as well as go hunting for side missions. Aside from the hokey dialogue, it worked for me.

Maybe it was because I hadn’t played a first-person shooter in a long time, but the guns felt fantastic. Each one, after customization, let me approach enemy bases in totally different ways. The bow, the assault rifle and the sniper rifle were by far my favorites, with each headshot and silent assassination feeling more satisfying than the last.


The weight, which didn’t change physically in my hand since they’re all controlled by the same mouse, felt good. I liked how the guns aimed, how each shot felt. I somehow remember a kickback to each gun, even if there wasn’t one (and I certainly couldn’t feel one through my mouse). I was in control in Far Cry 3, I had mastery over my movements and felt comfortable rattling off shots.

I can’t help but feel a bit of cognitive dissonance when praising how good a gun feels in a particular game, how fun they are to shoot or how I get a sense of power and achievement when gunning down bad guys. Sometimes, games like Battlefield 4 and Spec Ops: The Line made me feel the exact opposite. Is it a function of design? My mood at the time? The animations of the fallen enemies? The tone of the game? Or is it the guns themselves? My fondest memories of weapons in first-person shooters are often outrageous,  guns I couldn’t possibly find on any range.

The Cerebral Bore from Turok 2 has no connection to reality. Its look isn’t unique; I couldn’t remember it without looking it up. The weapon’s effect, however, will never need referencing. It fires a single, homing projectile at a single enemy, preferably one with relative brainwave activity. It then latches onto that enemy’s skull, burrows into their brain and explodes. Mounds of gore and blood follow and the screech of the drill is both unique and horrifyingly pleasant. After the explosion, silence.


Revolting? Yes, unquestionably. But oh so much fun and perfectly fitting with the insane, over-the-top world of Turok 2. Science-fiction elements, dinosaurs and alien weaponry are all thrown into a blender and without weapons like the Cerebral Bore (what a great name!), the game wouldn’t have resonated nearly as much.

Another classic comes from my N64 days and I mention it due to its versatility. The Laptop Gun from Perfect Dark was another fantastic example of a gun feeling great and fitting in with its game. The regular story mode on regular difficulty was challenging enough, but the higher difficulties were downright brutal and some of the extra challenges, particularly against the fast alien characters, were as psychologically tormenting as any level I’ve played.

The genius of the Laptop Gun (and many other guns in Perfect Dark) was that it had two functions: the basic attack, sure, but also if thrown against any surface, it would act as an automated turret. This added a new layer of strategy: do I use the Laptop Gun as my main weapon, or do I sacrifice it to add a secondary source of fire and use a weaker gun in tandem? The aim on the Laptop Gun’s secondary feature was always better than my own, so I trusted it with the task of being a turret. I can’t even imagine beating Challenge 18 without it. I think I’d have better luck playing it blindfolded.


Guns really do make first-person shooters. They’re equally, or more, important than the characters, story and levels. GoldenEye 007 had a slew of classics, like the RC-P90 or the laughably weak Klobb. The original Halo’s pistol is still rated as one of the most popular in the series. Unreal Tournament was home to legendary weapons, including what I consider to be the ultimate skillshot gun, the Shock Rifle. All have the same goal, they’re all tools built for the same purpose, but the visual design and how they shoot go beyond simple tools.

I didn’t give much thought to these guns before I went to the range, and I doubt my two-hour trip up island really changed how I feel about a science fiction projectile burrowing into the head of a hybrid alien-dinosaur. But it wasn’t until I fired a weapon in real life that I understood and fully respected the gun. Using digital versions of them certainly gives me the illusion of power, with all the destructive force that comes with it, but without any of the negative consequences.

I prefer it that way. I’ll continue to play first-person shooters, and enjoy some weapons more than others. Especially the guns that make me feel powerful, and let me customize them to my liking, but continue to learn about how I feel about using them in games. The uneasiness I felt playing Spec Ops: The Line hasn’t faded, but I don’t know what it says about me that I felt bad killing enemies there but not Far Cry 3.