Atmosphere and aesthetic can say a lot about a game. A dark, dusty wasteland stretching endlessly in all directions speaks to just how vibrant a personality someone has when they can greet a player cheerfully every time they meet. By contrast, any somber face in a high-color, boisterously enthusiastic cast in a cel-shaded and cartoonish landscape will seem all the more stark for the foil they represent.
Gunpoint is dark, quiet, and promises handfuls of intrigue and twisting in the wind throughout its narrative.
The world exists exclusively at night, seeing the protagonist hired in the first minute of game to resolve a troubling problem for a client. From that point onward, surprises never stop until the player has run through the story, picking sides and infiltrating building after building. Although conflict is never lacking, the tone of the missions is never particularly long-winded or enduring. Most missions last under ten minutes, and the tone of the game never feels terribly grave despite dealing with very dark subject material. Actual interactions in-game, both mechanically during missions or the dialog and storylines between, are fast and instinctive, rarely taking too much time to dally on the dark or dreary.
Mechanically, despite being a stealth game, this speed suits the mission structure. The two primary mechanics for the game involve pouncing and rewiring. Both of these have to be done on the fly, without pause or time dilation. Guards react quickly to changes or noises, and will not hesitate to draw and fire without preamble. Every interaction with a guard comes to a quick close, leading to fleeting attempts at stealth or practical brutality. Although missions can be ponderous, even slow, with the right evasion tactics and planning, the actual execution rarely takes longer than a few seconds per room. Most decisions cascade quickly to a close, and the simplicity of problem-solving tends to translate to speed as the player settles into the mechanics.
The wiring mechanic suits that, giving players the option to directly manipulate the environment or line up long and complicated cascades of events that drastically alter the mission environment. The variety of these options, along with the speed of the mechanics, encourage experimentation and abstract mechanic application when problem-solving. Even if an idea fails, or fails spectacularly, the player is never really long from trying it again. Or trying it a different way. Or restarting the mission fresh and trying a brand new tack. All options are equally approachable, and often equally effective.
Which, unfortunately, is also one of the game's largest weaknesses. With the guard's reactions and the puzzles themselves remaining very static, experimentation with strategy and design is perfectly suited for in-mission repetition.
Once outside of the mission though, there's little incentive to jump back in and try again. Without dynamic guard behaviors, or patience-encouraging gameplay, the missions themselves have very little payoff for trying something wild and new with old missions because the missions themselves start to feel repetitive. While the game's brief playtime never even comes close to overstaying its welcome, it still makes it hard to go back and try it again because there isn't a lot to encourage repeated successes. For most missions, doing it once is doing it enough.
Coupled with the brief playtime, it translates to a game that feels a little too brief. A hair shy of something a little bigger, a little grander, a little more ambitious. True to its aesthetic, mechanically, the game concludes at the end of the day feeling like some good work was done, but it could have or should have gone a little better. Perhaps the player was meant to feel like a PI returning to a mute, dark office with just enough money to stave off the bills long enough for the next job to walk through the door.
It's in that way that the game's aesthetic triumphs. The gentle whispers of a saxophone, the quiet conversation between quick, punchy, tense missions, and the unconcerned busyness of a city at night all contribute to an excellent atmosphere. The unyielding brutality of the guards, the frequent occasions of bleak circumstances, and the empty feeling of a disinterested city all speak to the success of the game's atmosphere. Emptiness reigns for the complete absence of anything other than toil, work, and not enough pay for the work put in.
The Lesson; Dear Reader: Gunpoint is a game that knows exactly what it is, and delivers on its aesthetic and mechanics excellently. Although it can be simple, and doesn't stick around long, it does everything it needs to, and a little more for flavor. All without failing its source material, and the gentle jazz that accompanies it.