Evolution of the Bullet

Join us for a quick look at the evolution of the bullet, as well as a look at its steps forward and back, how it's changed and been taken for granted, and why it's sometimes been as crucial to games as glory-hogging main characters...and then some.

By Carrie Gouskos
Design by Collin Oguro

In computer and video games, the bullet has gone from being just a few simple pixels to an entity with its own rules, directions, occasionally an adorable scowling face, and sometimes even its own camera. Whether it's the one thing you must avoid at all costs or your very best friend, the bullet has played a role in games of all genres, from the appropriately named shooters, to platformers, to adventure games, to that one game with the really annoying hunting dog that you could never actually shoot, to everything in between. Join us for a quick look at the evolution of the bullet, as well as a look at its steps forward and back, how it's changed and been taken for granted, and why it's sometimes been as crucial to games as those glory-hogging main characters...and then some.

B Is for Bullet

As one of the earliest games, Pong set a precedent for the budding video game industry. The game, a simulated version of table tennis, two-dimensionalized a popular sport by connecting a tangible experience with a virtual one. Although Pong was a pioneer in its own right, it took variations on Pong to give video games a much-needed edge. We didn't want to sit around with digital board games eating peanut butter sandwiches with the crusts cut off! We wanted to shoot stuff! One of the first such games was Gunfight (later released on the Atari 2600 as Outlaw), a game imported from the Japanese company Taito by the newly founded Midway Games. It was the first game to use a microprocessor instead of being hardwired. The bullet that appeared in Gunfight comprised only a few pixels, which was not much different from Pong's ball in either appearance or behavior. But it was already making leaps and bounds in terms of progress by inverting the video game experience. Instead of aiming to make contact with the projectile, players were now tasked with avoiding it. The traditional gameplay of Pong was flipped inside out, and mass hysteria ensued. Well...maybe not. But gamers began to experience the fantastical through video games instead of merely simulations of the real. Of course, as bullets have evolved, games have tried more and more to approximate their realism. And they've failed. So, like all video game entities, bullets have succumbed to abstraction, hyperrealism, and stereotypes of every kind.

Dodging the Bullet

Bullets bullets everywhere...
Bullets bullets everywhere...

Who are we kidding? It seems like the closer games get to representing bullets authentically, the less realistic they are in some other aspect. Early game bullets were certainly not anything close to real. Almost all the earliest bullets in gaming were larger-than-life, literally, since they certainly couldn't have fit into any of the guns they were being fired from. These "pill bullets" weren't meant to mimic actual bullets as much as they were meant to provide a worthy gameplay experience. Game protagonists jumped over, dodged, and even outran bullets to avoid being struck by them. This initial treatment pushed the fantasy of video games to its limits, since the bullets were symbolic instead of realistic. Games like Contra, Mega Man, and Ikari Warriors displayed the bullet as a circular (typically white) object that moved in a straight direction through anything onscreen, unless that thing onscreen was a living creature, in which case it disappeared, often knocking back the player or enemy until he or she blinked away into oblivion. The fact they were bullets was often incidental, because they could just as easily have been called "dangerous circles," or, as they often were, missiles, rockets, and grenades.

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

The mandatory initial response in the game industry is to turn around and do the exact opposite of everything that's been done before. So the next step for the bullet was to go from being a slow, bulky visible object to disappearing completely. The introduction of light-gun games brought about the term "scanhit," which is industry-speak for, "Where the hell did the bullet go?" While this might have more closely approximated the experience of shooting and getting shot, gamers weren't fooled. The bullet was gone! (Poor bullet.) The advent of "real shooters," like Wolfenstein and Doom, introduced similar gameplay, which meant the minute you clicked your gun, the enemy was getting hit. So while the original Quake might have felt more authentic than the pill-bullet games of the past, you could easily play through that game firing the shotgun as if it were no bigger of a deal than curling your finger and saying, "Bang, bang." In the most authentic portrayal of gunfire to date, the bullet had been completely removed from the equation.

Of course, these games did reacquaint the bullet with the concept of limited ammunition. No longer could you hold down or jam on the shoot button from the title screen to the credits. You had to conserve your bullets, something that's been a gameplay dynamic in almost every game since. This added bit of realism also meant you had to go out and get additional ammo yourself. Thankfully, we've learned that ammunition is most likely to be found floating a few feet above ground, hidden in wooden crates, or in unused bathroom stalls.

The Name Is Bill. Bullet Bill.

Bullet Bill has gone through many variations, but he's always been angry.
Bullet Bill has gone through many variations, but he's always been angry.

Of course, not all bullet innovations have moved toward realism. In fact, some haven't even made that much sense. The Super Mario games were the first to give bullets real personality. Although as a platformer, gunfire plays no traditional role in Mario, Bullet Bill was the manifestation of the bullet as a real enemy. Bullet Bill was even given a face and arms, although that's only due to the platformer's naive assumption that a bullet needs such things. A bullet needs nothing but its piercing shape and the trajectory from which it's launched. Then again, bullets aplenty were launched in classic arcade shooters as well. Consider top-down shooters like 1942 and the Raiden series, or classic side-scrollers like R-Type and Gradius. Games like these pitted you against over-the-top mechanical monstrosities armed with preposterous amounts of firepower, including bullets and their more-sophisticated stepbrothers, lasers and rockets. You weren't just dodging an oversized, frowning projectile from the Mushroom Kingdom...in some cases, you were dodging and weaving through enough munitions to supply a small army.

The Max Payne games extend their naturally conceived melodrama to bullets as well, giving them their own space and time. Though if you sit and think about it, "bullet time" is a rather silly notion. However, it caught on like wildfire, though it's more commonly called "Matrix-style" gameplay now. The lesson taught by Max Payne is that if you don't want to slow down bullets and you don't want to make them irrelevant, the best thing to do is slow down the rest of the universe (which still gives bullets some emphasis).

For some games these days, the plain old bullet just isn't enough. Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath's bounty hunter circumvents using bullets because he's got little fuzzy creatures instead. Although these guys can attack enemies in ways that normal bullets can't, we're still pretty certain that in a head-to-head match against them, the bullets would win. You can give the bullet a rest from time to time, but you'll never be able to do away with it completely.

Biting the Bullet

Counter-Strike reinvented the importance of the bullet.
Counter-Strike reinvented the importance of the bullet.

After being treated poorly for so long, bullets got their big comeback when games really got into accuracy, or rather inaccuracy, like the effects of spray and recoil. Counter-Strike, the user-made mod for Half-Life, was the quintessential game for 14-year-old potty mouths, but it also popularized semiauthentic gun mechanics. Players prided themselves on knowing exactly where to aim the AK-47--and for how many bursts--so as to properly pull off a headshot using the fewest number of bullets as possible. Since you had to purchase your ammo at the beginning of each game, every shot was like little dollars spewing forth from you gun. It's for this reason everyone downloaded an aimbot--not because everyone was a filthy, rotten, cheating scumbag, but because they wanted to conserve every bullet! (And also because, in fact, everyone was a filthy, rotten, cheating scumbag.)

Since Counter-Strike was free and gamers are cheap, the game was popular for years and years, which meant we had all spent far too much time running around the same maps over and over again. We found other uses for the bullets besides the conventional "shooting someone that you can see" nonsense that every other game was famous for. We used our bullets to great effect, knowing from practice (not from wallhacks) exactly which part of the wall to shoot through in the tunnel on de_dust or how to peek across the bridge on de_aztec from between the two boxes without being seen. Counter-Strike, aka the Bullet's Renaissance, had taken its role to the next level. You couldn't hide behind no stinkin' box to get away from the almighty power of the AWP. No, sir!

Future Bullet Man

Movies have been doing this for years.
Movies have been doing this for years.

The future of bullets is a bright one. There have been some dire times during its history, such as games that required players to purchase the exact ammo necessary for their guns (don't pretend like you know which guns take 5mm ammo) and any games that let the player be killed by one hit. (Except Contra. We love you, Contra.) However, bullets are definitely going to be enjoying even more of the limelight with games such as Sniper Elite, the upcoming sniper simulator that lets you enjoy the perspective of the bullet in "bullet-cam" view.

Though the bullet has embarked on a number of journeys in the short history of video games, we still envision a future where the bullet gets all the limelight. Perhaps a game where a bullet is the main character? Revolver Ocelot is one step in that direction. What about a game where the bullets are everywhere so that you can't move? Ikaruga is practically such a game. Next time you get that deadly headshot or dispatch a zombie or two, don't forget to thank your trusty bullet. It never complains, it's almost always ready, and it will help you get through your video games for many years to come.

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