Virtually all violent games have the same dynamic, whereby murder is rewarded either with progression (you killed the bad guys, so now you go to the next level) or some kind of currency (eliminate X amount of enemies, and you will receive experience points/in-game money/a new weapon). It’s a paradigm where killing, or at least, some euphemistic appropriation of killing, is winning – even in Mario, progression through the game can only be guaranteed by jumping on and “killing” Goombas. Killing in games is rarely dramatic, important or meaningful in the way it is in novels or movies. A lot of the time, it’s merely an input which is then computed into an output: you killed the boss and thirty of its minions and now you have unlocked the next section of game.
Receiver doesn’t expressly challenge videogaming’s rubric on killing – you still have to defeat enemies in order to progress – but it undermines the idea that violence in games can be exacted blithely, and without thought. Chiefly, the game is about operating a handgun, down to the finest details. Where most videogames will map the action of reloading a firearm to a single button press, in Receiver, players have to use different keys to unload the spent magazine, holster the empty gun, refill the magazine with loose bullets, re-insert it, then pull back the handgun’s slide to chamber a round. The player can also activate and deactivate a handgun’s safety catch and pull back the hammer on a revolver. Especially when you first play the game, this is a long and difficult task, which invariably results in you dropping magazine on the ground or accidentally pulling back the slide and ejecting live rounds. Later, when you’ve mastered operating your gun, each muscle-memory reload feels like a huge achievement, like you’ve conquered this complex piece of machinery and learned how to use it, almost like playing an instrument.
It’s almost fetishistic, and I think you could argue that Receiver has an unhealthy interest in guns, a kind of fascination that makes them seem cool and complex, and like something you want to learn how to use. But on the flip-side, a lot of videogames treat guns like a natural extension of the player’s hand. It’s actually rare for a game that involves shooting to feature a button that lets the player holster his gun – typically, it’s there at all times, and treated like a part of the avatar’s body. Guns are normalised in this way. The violence committed with them comes naturally. When your character’s hands are used for nothing except holding and shooting a gun, the choice to shoot, the choice to kill, doesn’t feel like a choice at all – it’s the only way you can interact with your avatar and the world around him. In Receiver, the handgun is made to feel very much like an external object, like a tool that you must consciously decide to equip and then learn how to operate. Its various components, as much as they form the basis of gameplay, diminish the gun’s allure, and make it seem like an object: fallible, and external to the player’s body. Just as the handgun in Receiver doesn’t come naturally to the player mechanically, its usage feels significant, like something which has been built up to and “earned” by learning the weapon’s various systems. Shooting in Receiver is not merely a flick of the wrist, or a single button press, as in most violent games. It’s the result of a lot of practise and dedication, a lot of conscious effort and practical thinking. That lends weight to the act of shooting. It doesn’t merely “happen”. It’s something the player has to decide and learn how to do.
Receiver is a rumination on what it means to be human. If you remember the ending of The Last of Us, Joel lies to Ellie in order to preserve their friendship, or at least, the illusion of a father/daughter relationship that he’s invented. It’s sour and wrong, but also human – rather than objective morality, he’s acting out of raw emotion. Receiver is similarly about personhood. The enemies are automated turrets guns and flying drones – effective, deadly robots. The player on the other hand is fumbling and inaccurate. The complex gun mechanics encourage a style of play that inevitably involves lots of mistakes, and compared to the enemies, which can act perfectly without thinking, the player must always be conscious of what she’s doing. But that behaviour is much more interesting than automated, unfailing efficiency. The reason you play Receiver is to learn, through error, how to use a handgun – to fail, try, then fail again to collect all eleven of the cassette tapes hidden around the game world. It subtly infers that although human personalities are flawed, they have the ability to learn from mistakes. Also, there is value – complexity – in the way people behave, even when those behaviours have negative effects. Part of being human, and what separates the player from the enemy robots in Receiver, is failure. The old adage “nobody’s perfect” isn’t defeatist, as far as Receiver is concerned. We fumble, miss and get ourselves hurt, but ultimately we get there, and that’s a much more valuable achievement than simply being programmed to succeed. The juxtaposition of complex mechanical objects (guns) with simplistic electrical ones (robots) is emblematic of the difference between individuality and uniformity. Acting of your own volition – your personal virtues – might produce mixed results, but it’s a more noble and human endeavour than behaving exclusively as you’ve been told.