"Headshots are ruining games" – Jeff Gerstmann

August 16, 2010 § 2 Comments

Headshots are ruining games. Think about the arsenal they give you in Splinter Cell. Think about the remote camera, the sticky mines, the grenades and EMPs and all this other stuff and shotguns and assault rifles and you went through the entire game using the default pistol and then the upgraded version of the default pistol cause it’s silenced and you can shoot guys in the head with it really well…all of the spots where you are not being seen by anyone the right answer every single time is shoot that guy in the head…it is ruining games.” – Jeff Gerstmann

There’s nothing quite like the a game’s first perfectly executed headshot. That well timed squeeze of the trigger catching the crosshairs just as they light up an enemies dome creates an unmistakable feeling of mastery, bringing an end to your introductory hours, and relaxing you into the rest of the game. You may not have noticed it consciously, but that shot certainly mattered. “You’re a big boy now,” the game’s saying, “time to enjoy yourself.”

Headshots have been a part of shooters ever since Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64, (according to Wikipedia that is, so take that with a grain of salt) giving the player the ability to instantly kill an enemy with a single shot, or – in the case of multiplayer – score extra damage. Headshots add another layer of strategy to a shooter, punishing inaccurate sprays of gunfire in lieu of precise bursts. On the face of it, the removal of a feature no modern shooter goes without would immeasurably dumb down many games.
So what’s the problem then? The way a headshot will instantly kill a target is certainly realistic even if real marksmen avoid them due to the relative size of the targets. It’s also, as previously discussed, a very satisfying way of getting an enemy out of your way. It even keeps the bloodthirsty happy with the incredible amount of work that’s gone into the animation of a guys head getting blown off over the years. 

Like many things, it’s only once the feature’s gone that you begin to realise just how it was affecting your play style. Resident Evil 4 would not have been as good a game if you had the ability to dispatch foes with one shot to the head from your handgun. Some of the best moments in the game come as you’re being advanced upon by hoards of infected villagers. You have to think fast, take out the legs from under one of them to buy you enough time to slug a couple into the head of another. With the ability to kill with headshots added to the equation you’d shoot the first villager in the head, then shoot the second, then the third. It doesn’t have the same thrill to it does it?
Though Fallout 3 would be a bit of an easy target since the gunplay clearly isn’t its focus, it’s still a very good example of the headshot detracting from intricate systems put in place by the developer. Fallout 3’s VATS system allows the player to pause the game and select an enemy’s bodypart to shoot. Aside from a cursory glance you’ll never choose to shoot an enemy in the arm or leg. You’ll shoot them in the torso when the head presents too small a target, but other than that you’ll target the head every time and ignore the wealth of other options. 
We have here a design decision with no clear winner. Making the headshot less effective eliminates much of the satisfaction of shooting, whilst leaving it as it is removes much of the need to experiment with a game’s more obscure features. The familiarity of knowing a headshot is you’re most effective means of attack is certainly comforting when you’re starting a completely new game, but is it a good thing that so many titles are so similar in this regard?
Unusually I’m not even sure where I stand on this issue, so it’ll be very interesting to hear your responses to the topic. Do you like it when an enemy crumples under the weight of a single bullet to the skull, or do you find yourself ignoring a game’s expansive list of features because this one tactic   is too effective. 
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§ 2 Responses to "Headshots are ruining games" – Jeff Gerstmann

  • Michelle says:

    What an incredible idea. I hadn't considered this at all, and it's remarkable how many games take this as a given now – an expect we seldom consider.And as such I'm not sure it's an aspect we can easily move away from sadly.

  • ardisfoxx says:

    Now that you mention it, it would have been nice in Fallout 3 if shooting a melee equipped enemy in the leg meant their surrender (and you got xp) and likewise disarming them with a shot to the arm meant the same. You could go through the whole game being a man who doesn’t like killing, yet you can still advance through it and get xp like the bloodthirsty headshotters would.

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