The story of one former games journalist going from merely critiquing games for a living to making one of the bigger success stories of the indie scene in 2013 is one that can truly inspire one to make their own. Tom Francis had long been suggesting in ways that games could improve over their flaws, but has been quoted in the past to say that he considered himself to be too harsh writing such criticism. After learning about the development process for that other indie darling Spelunky, he bought a copy of Game Maker and began developing in his spare time what would eventually turn out to be Gunpoint; which as it turns out is a genre-defining effort that certainly puts his money where his mouth is.
Not since Discworld Noir has a crime drama in a videogame combined with witty humour of such high calibre. Branching paths not only help a little with the game’s longevity, but you are also presented with many different dialogue options. You’re essentially free to be either an honourable gumshoe or a big jerk – spouting reassurance one minute and being flat-out insulting the next. Naturally with these sorts of games, there is a dead victim with the plot centred on uncovering conspiracies one after the other. What provides the interesting hook is that the Freelance Spy protagonist, Richard Conway, is the last person to talk to the victim alive and the first to encounter her dead. Rooke – the CEO of the corporation of which the victim was associated with, contacts him shortly afterwards, believing that he is not the murderer, and willing to work with him to uncover the truth.
It’s only fair to put all of what might be seen as shortcomings under one roof. Gunpoint does follow a rather linear progression, with each mission opening with an interactive briefing before getting into the gameplay, concluding with a debriefing and a chance to buy equipment/upgrade skills. It isn’t very long either, taking around six hours to get around to seeing everything the game has to offer. Some might get a kick out of the in-built level editor, which features a WYSIWYG interface that is easy to use (if temperamental at times), but again it doesn’t change that the game is rather short. Having said all that though, for the low price of admission, the length is appropriate; and you most certainly get your money’s worth if you invest heavily into the game with your time.
As lo-fi as it might initially seem, there is plenty of character behind the tiny pixelated levels. Stalking guards around gigantic corporate complexes until just the right moment has hugely gratifying payoff. Animations are slick, with the music really selling the theme of sleuthing around multi-storey complexes filled to the brim with gadgets and armed guards. Text briefings sandwiched either side of the core gameplay are also brimming with personality, with each pixel character taking on the same quality in terms of pure retro-like charm and impressive dialogue.
At its core, Gunpoint is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, but it primarily focuses on stealth and puzzle aspects. Your objective in each mission is to break into a guarded institution, steal some valuable data, then escape. Your contract for each mission will grade you depending on your style of gameplay, as well as how well you performed the bonus objectives. It’s a very addictive proposition, with generous auto-saves to allow for quickly resuming progress when you die.
Each one will utilise the “Bullfrog” trousers, which can make Conway leap high in the sky without injury. You will see various gadgets being used along the way, but perhaps the most useful is the Crosslink that allows you to tamper with machine circuitry remotely. The choice is pretty much yours as to how you proceed, whether you decide to merely tamper with the security so that they never know you are there, or link a button to a guard’s gun to make him accidentally shoot another guard. You might find that battery fuel might be hard to come by, but there are a lot of satisfying ways to complete a mission. Strolling out of a highly guarded complex without even being seen is hugely rewarding.
It’s downright flummoxing how such a simple looking stealth/puzzle indie effort can outfox the best of its compatriots before they’ve even had a chance to register what’s happened. Gunpoint really is a magnum opus – not only for Tom Francis, but also just how a simple concept can blossom into something profoundly enthralling. We’ve seen its general themes before, but they’re merely window dressing to a brilliant concept, entertaining script, and a game that stays sharp throughout. After all that is said and done, the browser-based customisable vague epilogue is the mere icing on this delicious morsel.