This was originally posted on tumblr on 9th September, 2014.
There are two perspectives of play in René Rother’s Shot Aground. In the first, the camera hangs high in the sky, looking down on the player as they navigate the planet – or perhaps moon, it is never explicitly stated – on which their ship has crash landed. From here the game feels Diablo-esque, inasmuch as it gives a sense of the immediate dangers surrounding the player but also denies context; the player sees themself and a small area around them but nothing more.
The game shifts to the second perspective whenever the player takes aim with their revolver. The camera swings down to perch just above the player’s right shoulder, arm extending outwards, a small blue line reaching just beyond the barrel of the gun to guide the player’s aim. In this perspective, the player can do two crucial things. The first is combat, which I will talk about a little later. The second is that the player can now look beyond the borders of the first perspective. They can take a longview of the dangers that face them on the way to the game’s end goal – a ship that can take them away from their current location.
Combat, however, is the primary function of this second perspective. Since the player cannot move while aiming, there’s an element of risk in the very act of entering this stance. The player has to be confident that they’re far away enough from the enemy to not provoke them into drawing their own weapon, whilst also being close enough to be able to aim with confidence, to terminate with prejudice. Not only that, but both the enemies and the player can only take one bullet, which means that if the enemy does notice you, you are thrust into a confrontation that could be your last. This isn’t like, say, Gears of War, where you can duck back behind cover to regain your strength and have another try, or even a game like Doom where the health is plentiful and the fighting is a sustained affair. When the player and the enemy stand in front of each other in Shot Aground they are utterly vulnerable, naked for lack of protection, and the game takes on the air of a gentleman’s duel*. Any millisecond spent shifting aim is a millisecond of grace for the other combatant, which they may use to fire their deadly shot. The AI rarely misses a stock-still opponent, so the player must have faith in their aim, must pull the trigger with confidence even as they bite their lip. All tension is condensed into that split-second of decision-making, like a shot of whiskey – it’s over in a blink, but afterwards it sends a shiver down your spine.
The combat experience in Shot Aground works so differently to other games precisely because every fight works as its own microcosm of action; rather than thrusting the player into a firefight against a dozen enemies at once, each opponent is faced one-on-one. It is a surprisingly intimate game in this sense – staring down another person and sharing an acute outburst of the destructive impulse.
* – Or, in fitting with the Space Cowboy Jam theme, a Wild West shootout.