We’re a fickle bunch in the gaming press when it comes to controversy. As much as we love to point and laugh whenever the rest of the media takes a poke at something about our beloved hobby it doesn’t fully understand, we’re just as eager – perhaps more so! – to jump on the next big talking point and ride it ragged. Checkerboarded Studio’s Half-Life 2 modification School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 is this week’s big thing – commie propaganda, alien sideboob, whatever gets your blood up.
I’m not trying to defend myself, or BeefJack, or the gaming press at large – but that’s just the way things are. We see easy prey, we go for it. That said… something about School Shooter and the way it’s been received isn’t telling us the full story. In a bid to get under the skin of the project, I contacted Chackerboarded Studios, and though I fully expected them to be drowning under a tidal wave of hatemail and other sites clamoring for attention, they set some time aside to talk to me. The project lead, Pawnstick, was the first member of the team I spoke to:
BeefJack: Has ModDB pulling its support of School Shooter really affected you as a studio? You’ve been pretty resilient to the backlash thus far.
Pawnstick: Right now we’re working really hard on getting a new School Shooter website that will provide everything the ModDB page had, such as screenshots, blog posts – anything we really feel like adding. Overall, it hasn’t really affected us.
BeefJack: Moving on to the mod itself, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of gamers lashing out at you haven’t really been ‘getting’ the message. Stripping away the controversy for a moment, what really makes School Shooter worth playing?
Pawnstick: The thing that makes School Shooter worth playing is being able to have the perfect school shooting experience, without actually doing it. We’re going to painstaking levels to try and be as realistic as possible. In fact, a mapper from various projects within the Half-Life 2 mod community – after seeing ModDB pull our mod – has offered to tidy up some of our maps.
BeefJack: Do you think many people miss the potential for games to be a cathartic release?
Pawnstick: I think people miss that fact just because of the name, which is what even I would consider to be a little bit gratuitous.
BeefJack: Gratuitous would be a start. Clearly, you’re not afraid of giving the online community a poke with a sharp stick. Was the choice to draw from real school shootings a conscious one, or was it something organic from the design process?
Pawnstick: Drawing from past school shootings has always been there from the start, but I decided to make the only thing drawn be the weapons used so I wouldn’t be lumped as “yet another Columbine/Virgina Tech/murder simulator.” You can see how well that went.
BeefJack: In comparison to other games that have mirrored real-world violence – a certain Columbine-em-up springs to mind – School Shooter kind of pales in terms of mirroring real events. You seem to have been trapped between two camps, here. On one side, gamers are offended because, in their eyes, you’re setting back the ‘games are art’ discussion, which is pretty debatable to begin with. And on the other, media reactionaries want to rip into you for being the new flavour of controversy this week. Do you think other games are getting away with worse?
Pawnstick: I’ll be honest, the only game I’ve played in the past couple of months besides working on School Shooter has been Bulletstorm. I’m probably not the authority on things like that. Though let me say that Bulletstorm has the most perfect implementation of a point system ever.
BeefJack: If anything, that’s something that School Shooter and Bulletstorm both share – they boil down the FPS to its essence. Kills equal points. Get the most points.
Pawnstick: Isn’t that what most games boil down to, even if they don’t have a points system?
[The man had a point. At this point, Pawnstick introduced me to the team's anonymous modeller, who fielded some more specific questions.]
BeefJack: From what I’ve heard, production of School Shooter has been pretty intensive from the get-go. Were you in from the outset, or did you come in later? What drew you towards it?
Anon: I was basically in from the get-go. I’ve known Pawnstick for a few years from having done some modding projects together, and I know he could make an excellent game.
BeefJack: So the potential for it to stir up a shitstorm didn’t faze you? As a modeller, being the man behind reskinning NPCs to police, etc., I’d assume you’d be in the closest position to gauge just how controversial it could be.
Anon: I honestly thought people would see it for the legitimate attempt to make a game depicting a tragedy it is. It isn’t an attempt to anger any family members – it’s a tasteful representation of events, intended to frighten the audience.
There won’t be any simple reskinning in this game. Creation of new models for important details like humans is essential – Pawnstick requires an incredible amount of realism. He is very dedicated to the mod.
BeefJack: That’s what people may not have taken on board, judging by the screenshots currently available and the general feedback. Pawnstick has made it clear that School Shooter isn’t glorifying real-world violence, but people are still failing to recognise that. Breaking out the soapbox for a moment – without fear of reprisal, would you like to speak plainly about what you feel you’re aiming to achieve?
Anon: It’s not glorifying at all. It’s attempting to illustrate how horrible it is. I feel we’re releasing a game that anyone can enjoy, and might stop a child from committing a school shooting.
BeefJack: Do you think this could apply to other games, or is School Shooter more unique in that respect?
Anon: I think that aspect could be found in other games, such as those in the Grand Theft Auto series, where the wholesale slaughter of passers-by on the street is commonplace.
BeefJack: What would you say differentiates School Shooter from those projects? Do you feel that School Shooter is more honest in its approach to violence?
Anon: School Shooter and those projects are differentiated by scale. They have the resources to produce a fully actionable world and we could produce a high school campus. School Shooter can be said to be more honest in its violence as it puts you in a position to commit violence in a situation you’ve been in before: high school.
BeefJack: It’s accepted that high school is a very intense period of anyone’s life. The stories of violence that get so widely publicised make that clear enough. Do you think that by skipping to the explosive outcome, you may have sidelined some of the things that lead to this kind of conclusion?
Anon: No, I generally think the opposite of that.
BeefJack: How come?
Anon: The player should already be, or have at one point in time been very familiar with the life that lead up to the shooting.
By this point, I was rather surprised at how these guys were coming across. A lot of accusations had been thrown around about Checkerboarded Studios being insensitive, trolling agents provocateurs. As it happened, the more I talked with the team, the more School Shooter was coming across as a project that was inevitably going to ruffle some feathers, but with good cause. Bloody and controversial as it was, it had far finer intentions than games like Postal or Carmageddon, which revelled in their own hyper-political incorrectness.
Back with Pawnstick, the tone shifted. I noticed that Pawnstick himself was very direct in his terms – something that may have struck a nerve with some people. The general tone of the site, the messages put out and the way that Checkerboarded Studios have handled their criticism shows an incredibly forthright attitude. Whether or not that’s helping them is debatable.
BeefJack: [The Modeller] was just explaining how players should be able to relate, at least in part, to the point the game begins – at the end of what would apparently be a highly stressful and emotionally distressing period in someone’s life.
Pawnstick: I guess shooting at people makes me feel that. I’m trying to make the main character as likable as possible.
BeefJack: Is that relying more on the player to make those connections, or are you planning to factor some kind of ‘This guy could be you’ message into the game?
Pawnstick: If the person who is playing the game can think to themselves, “This guy was right in doing this,” then I have done my job right.
BeefJack: On the technical side, with Moddb pulling support, how are you planning on hosting and dispersing School Shooter on release?
Pawnstick: We’ll host the mod files on Amazon S3, which is a content delivery network that can essentially be used by anyone.
BeefJack: In terms of gameplay, are you considering any kind of multiplayer support, or will this remain a single-player experience?
Pawnstick: Two player co-op is something I would absolutely love to have, but that’s if we can find someone who wants to implement it for us.
BeefJack: One last thing – overall, as a project, as a message-in-a-game, who would you encourage to play this game?
Pawnstick: Anyone who wants to be a school shooter, but is too big of a pussy to actually do anything.
And that, as they say, was that. Far from being defensive, or evasive, I’d been met with honest opinions and facts. Perhaps surprisingly, I actually believe the devs’ claims that School Shooter isn’t mocking the dead, and isn’t glorifying those who came to the end of their emotional journey with a gun. This is a game the devs hope will pre-empt those things, to show the horror and senselessness of these events and, if possible, give someone a way out from the path of destruction that they may be considering. Whether that’s realistic is another matter, but the team’s intentions do not strike me as poor.
It’s difficult to assert that they definitely are not, but I’d say try the mod out when it’s released. I know I will. Make your decision when you have all the facts to hand.
And for further reading, I encourage you to read Jim Sterling’s piece on the furore surrounding School Shooter. The smartest man in the room, for my money.