Why I Keep Playing “Receiver”

Don't worry, I got this.

In-game screenshot from Wolfire’s Receiver

There is a game on my PC I can’t avoid playing.  It’s one of those things I know I shouldn’t keep wasting time on, but I do anyway.  I’ll never beat it, and playing it usually leaves me frustrated rather than content.  I asked myself why I keep playing Wolfire’s Receiver, and this is what I discovered.

Imagine waking in an endless building complex filled to the brim with deadly robots.  Sure, you have a gun, but do you know how to use it?  Do you have ammunition?  Is the safety still on?  Normally a gun in a video game is simple; you press one button to reload, and another to make things in front of you stop living.  I’ve played many first-person shooters where players can sprint while reloading a light machine gun, then score multiple head shots after leaping off of a cliff.  Receiver does a very good job of showing how ridiculous that would be in real life.  The game was created as part of a 7-day challenge, and has a lot of rough edges compared to other shooters.  Because of this I’m hesitant to even call it a game.  It’s more of a gun simulator that’s been wrapped into a game prototype.  Every part on the game’s three firearms is simulated, and must be manipulated by individual keyboard keys.  In order to prepare the M1911 for firing you have to eject the magazine, holster the weapon, slide bullets in one at a time, unholster the weapon, slide the magazine back into the gun, take the safety off, slide the top slide back, and aim the weapon.  Was there a bullet already in the chamber?  Well, now it’s on the floor.  Learning how to reload is a chore, ammunition is sparse, navigating the rooms is uncomfortably suspenseful, and the enemies’ attacks are always lethal.  Why would anyone willingly submit to such a difficult time sink?  Because it’s awesome!

My first few attempts at playing Receiver were almost comically bad.  There were many times when I would step in front of a turret, blindly fire off a few rounds, then eject a perfectly good round by pulling the slide back (“r” is usually reload in most first-person shooters, but it controls the slide in Receiver).  Each of the firearms’ parts moved in a way that felt realistic, and could, either accidentally or purposefully, be operated in humorous ways.  Russian roulette against three robot turrets?  Bring it on.  Amidst my failings, a burning ember of determination began to glow.  I wanted to get better because there was something satisfying about whatever it was I was doing.  When I did fail, it was obvious exactly what it was that I was doing wrong, and I could picture the path I would need to take in order to correct it.  The sensation was almost tactile; I could feel myself in the game’s environment, and how awesome I could become.  Eventually I became so practiced in each weapon’s functions that the fear and frustration I had felt when I started was gone.  I was brimming with elation, satisfaction, and, most dangerous of all, over confidence.  That’s when a flying taser drone came out of nowhere to rob me of such feelings.

I liken my fascination with Receiver to that of the fans of From Software’s Dark Souls.  Controlling your character in Dark Souls feels clunky and awkward at first.  Other third-person fantasy games have fast and snappy movements that, while unrealistic, feel satisfying and responsive.  Dark Souls, however, asks more from its players, pushing the player to improve their timing, and sculpt a character that will suit their play style.  Recently, I watched Fraser Agar play the mercilessly punishing game live on his show Video Games Awesome.  His first delve into the series was, much to the chagrin of the show’s chatroom, light-hearted and humorous.  It was easy to laugh at the game’s ridiculous difficultly and unapproachability.  The next episode, however, had a different tone.  Fraser, having beaten the game off-camera, was able to make his newly-created character gracefully dance about the levels, dispatching enemies and bosses with apparent ease.  He made an infamously difficult game look easy.  The change proved that practice and experience were more important tools than shiny equipment or high levels.  Both games present challenges that feel easy to overcome, and give you only just what you need to see it through.  Sure these games are frustrating, but not to the point of feeling impossible.

It’s satisfying to do something challenging that would otherwise be simple in another game, because it takes real skill to pull off.  Loading individual bullets into a magazine wouldn’t be appropriate in most first-person shooters because it would jar players, causing them to miss the important aspects of the story or gameplay.  However, in hyper-difficult games like Receiver and Dark Souls, the challenge pulls you into the game.  You feel invested in the character, curious about their story, and terrified about what’s around the corner.  There’s nothing at stake in role-playing games where your character can become a one-person killing machine in just a few levels.  In a video game, players want to feel strong, but sometimes the way to do that is to deny their characters power in the first place.  In doing so, the wall that stands between disappointing and amazing is not a special item, but rather the player’s ability to learn and adapt.

Should you play Receiver?  Probably not.  As I’ve said, it’s not really a game.  It’s more of an experience, and one that I expect most people probably aren’t looking for.  That said, I think die-hard fans of first-person shooters should give it a shot.  One thing’s for sure, I can’t stop myself from playing it.


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