Receiver 2 is the Year’s Scariest, Most Subversive Shooter

Each level of Receiver 2 starts you out with the most omnipresent of video game tools: a gun. Normally, we wield virtual firearms with a near-unthinking ease, their controls largely standardized long ago. Here, though, in the mysterious aftermath of the Mindkill orchestrated by an entity called The Threat, you can’t rely on a gun the way you usually might.

For a revolver, you need to either press the key that pulls back the hammer (F by default), or you have to press and hold the mouse button for the double-action mode that cocks and fires with one pull. Just pointing and shooting like normal registers only a brief click as the chamber rotates.

Semi-automatics in Receiver 2 are a little simpler, but they can act up on you in all sorts of ways. A bullet can get stuck ejecting from the chamber, or the cartridge might not load right in the first place. You need to hit the key that gives the gun a little shake, or take out the magazine entirely to see what the problem is, and for good measure you probably need to press (again, by default) the T key in conjunction with the R key, which on its own chambers or ejects a round, to make sure there is, in fact, something in the chamber.

The overwhelming tension of Wolfire Games’s Receiver 2 originates from all these minute details. The game isn’t scary in a traditional sense, with monsters in the dark or spooky ambience and dire messages scrawled in blood. Instead, the terror comes from your vulnerability, the sheer disempowerment that results from trying to keep all the mechanical details straight in the heat of the moment. Though you can pull up onscreen instructions that differ on a per-gun basis, they certainly don’t lessen the pressure you feel when the bright spotlight of an automated turret begins to blind you, its ominous chirp signaling that you have a split second to shoot the right spot.

If you remembered to chamber a round, of course. Or cock the hammer.

Receiver 2

Signal

“There were two main approaches we considered for Receiver 2,” lead developer David Rosen explains over email. “The most obvious and most-requested approach would apply the controls of Receiver 1 to a more mainstream structure, like a linear corridor shooter, survival sim, or battle royale. The other approach would be to double-down on everything that made Receiver 1 stand out in the first place, focusing as much as possible on mechanical detail and atmosphere.” The second approach, he says, seemed better-suited to the studio’s strengths. 

The skeleton of the original Receiver (a game jam project) is still very much visible in the sequel, only rather than looking blocky and spare to the point of abstraction, the world has a considerably more realistic texture that more reliably builds tension through light and shadow, the gaze of hostile machines signified by their roving purple spotlights. The effect only enhances the paranoid atmosphere, where you once again search for cassette tapes that whisper in your ear that you’re special, that the world is not as it seems, that the Mindkill has happened and that The Threat is out to get you, a Receiver, who has trained for this very moment.

“The very first idea that was the seed for Receiver was ‘what if a UFO doomsday cult was right?’” Writer and concept artist Aubrey Serr tells me. “For me, the interplay between it being a cult and it being literally true is really funny, because they don’t seem mutually exclusive at all while you’re playing it.” After all, while caught in the endless loop of these repeating environments filled with turrets and drones, it is difficult to argue with the tapes’ conclusions.

And there certainly is a dark humor to the game, a multitude of unexpected interplays and juxtapositions. Some of these are down to the tapes themselves; written from different perspectives yet read in a single voice by actor Leo Wiggins, they vary from feverish and desperate to vaguely threatening to incongruously jovial. Other contrasts are broader, like how the intricate gun mechanics clash with a sense of unreality that finds your weapon appearing to float in mid-air, a detail from the original that only seems stranger against the realistic backdrops. When you look into a reflective surface, you see a person-shaped target, and though funny in a certain light, in others its empty featurelessness is unsettling.

The target in the mirror is also the only human or even humanoid figure you’ll encounter in Receiver 2. It’s one more of those unexpected interplays: a near-fetishistic amount of detail applied to video game firearms, yet a staunch refusal to put them into their most common context of tearing into something made from flesh and blood. Some of this, Rosen explains, was technical necessity: “[I]ndie developers usually avoid human characters because AAA games focus so many resources on rendering and animating them that it’s hard for us to compete without inviting unflattering comparisons.”

“However, on top of that,” he continues, “I felt that organic targets would clash with the messages and aesthetic that we were going for, and it would feel strange to simulate actual killing with such realistic detail.” The turrets and drones, after all, are rendered in similar detail to the guns themselves, with their functions disabled or impaired depending on which parts you destroy. A turret will, for example, ready a bullet the moment it spots you, so even if you dodge out of the way and manage to shoot the mechanism feeding it ammo, it can still kill you if you’re not careful. It’s one more thing to keep in mind while you’re fumbling with your own weapon.

Receiver 2

Tuning

Perhaps the most notable difference in Receiver 2 is its progression system. Before, you had to accumulate all tapes in a single run. Now, the cult has “levels” signified by symbols of an eye gradually opening to represent enlightenment. Collecting the required number of tapes (usually five) advances you one level, while death sets you back one.

Rudolf Kremers, brought on first as a design consultant then had his role expand to encompass producing and narrative design duties, worked on this part of the game. “When I joined, there were no ranks or levels or secrets, or unlocks or anything like that,” Kremers notes. “You played the game, collected tapes, and the more ground you covered the harder it got. If you died you would suffer a full reset of everything… This was already super exciting and fun, but for many players also incredibly tough and harsh at times.”

The progression system emerged as a result of the Receiver world’s ballooning size. “Due to the sheer number of wonderful tapes and lore [Aubrey Serr] came up with, he wanted to categorize them along certain themes and ended up grouping them in proposed levels of ‘insight’…Not only did this fit nicely with the indoctrination aspects of the Receivers cult, it also made sense to me on a system design level,” Kremers says. “So I tried to incorporate this layered and staggered world-building lore and philosophy in an explicit gameplay context. I figured that while Receiver cult members would work towards higher levels of insight and enlightenment, so should the player in gameplay terms.”

To accommodate this decision, the levels are randomly generated, populated according to growing difficulty; drones and semi-automatics, for example, don’t show up in the first level, while later levels might task you with finding a smaller number of tapes amid a greater concentration of killer machines. The game world is not, in other words, a constant obstacle you gradually memorize through repeated effort so much as it is an evolving test. 

As a result, the focus shifts away from the enemies and environment that we focus on in most games to the one thing that remains constant: yourself. And here, the self is defined almost entirely through its relationship to firearms, the intricate controls you must master to navigate and adapt not only to the traditionally hostile environments of a first-person shooter but the sheer unreliability of a weapon, its tendency to jam or misfire or generally not do the thing you want it to do in the moment you need it most.

You can even shoot yourself by accident, if you don’t have the safety engaged and you don’t make sure to hold down the “holster” key when you press it. If the gun is loaded, you hear a startling bang and the screen tints red. Do it twice (or, with the formidable Desert Eagle, just once) and you’ll get thrown back a level just as if you’d been shot by a turret or zapped by a drone; operator error is an enemy in itself.

Rosen carried out extensive research for Receiver 2, noting that he learned to strip and reassemble weapons while reading about history and forensics related to guns, watching videos and consulting with people like special forces veterans and clinical psychiatrists. Receiver 2 is certainly, visibly a game in love with the interlocking mechanical processes that make a thing go (or fail to go) bang. But that enthusiasm is tempered by the jams and the misfires, the jarring sense of your own fragility. The in-universe explanation for so many malfunctions and accidents is that The Threat can manipulate probability, tilting odds toward the most fatal outcomes. You can be killed by shrapnel, and you can be speared by falling glass if you shoot through a window directly overhead.

Receiver 2 is aware of the power of the mechanisms it simulates, of their capacity to affect the wider space around you, and it takes care to constantly remind you of that ruinous potential. In other words, without deviating from its concept of a space filled with hostile machines, it is now a game that faces down the elephant in the room, the capacity for guns to end lives. “While researching firearm accidents,” Rosen says, “I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of lethal GSWs (gunshot wounds) are self-inflicted, and wanted to do whatever we could to help reduce completed suicides. It feels grandiose to think we can have any effect on that with video game narrative, but it seemed worth a try.”

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Receiver 2

Broadcast

In a 2012 blog post on the Wolfire site, Serr details how he built the Receiver cult around a “diluted form” of psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, as derived from studies of “brainwashing” techniques. Serr says that he wanted to explore what it would be like to be initiated into a cult; the tapes are meant to be inviting and rational, even friendly. “The first idea is that you never feel like you’re in a cult,” he writes. 

The second game expands the Receiver lore to focus on mental health. While it’s certainly not healthy to believe you’ve been drafted into a war against The Threat in preparation for the coming Mindkill, many of the Receiver techniques otherwise come off like good sense. “There is an interesting relationship between the player’s actual gaming experience,” Kremers says, “and exposure to the Receiver cult’s messages and insights. Both have to internalize the same things. Lessons about focus, mindfulness, awareness of corruption of thought processes and outside influences… these can apply to the player on many levels.” In a strange way, Receiver 2 packages what are essentially self-help techniques in the combat drills of a paranoid gun cult.

The most overt and disturbing extrapolation of mental health in Receiver 2 is the Threat Echo tapes, which are essentially suicide notes. These tapes serve as conduits for The Threat, bringing up a message: “The Threat is taking control.” Automatically, you turn the weapon on yourself and pull the trigger. The only way to escape and gain a “Threat Recovery” note detailing what follows the low point in this person’s life is to unload the weapon immediately, ensuring the chamber is empty.

Threat Echoes can be turned off in the options menu; they are, after all, a pretty heavy thing to force all players through without exception, and the game could certainly use some more explicit warnings about what they are and that you can get rid of them. But they do fit with the sequel’s new exploration of potential for self-harm, of operator error and general malfunction. The match, Rosen says, came quite naturally: “The Receiver lore blended easily with the mental health focus because religious movements and secret societies are often inspired by the failure of existing institutions to fulfill psychological needs, and that’s never been more true than it is now.”

Receiver’s story was experimental,” Serr says, “but in many ways it seems like that experiment was a success. It has been 8 very long years… in that time a lot of things that were included based on nebulous anxiety over change (this was after Occupy, Kony 2012 — social media was becoming dominant) have been proven out.”

In his 2012 blog post, Serr says that in crafting what was essentially a palatable take on a doomsday cult via Lifton’s criteria, he was trying to achieve the goal of “inducing a genuine religious experience.” He goes on to express skepticism that the final work achieved such a lofty goal, but notes that “on a broader level it seems like a lot of people found the story and ideas interesting, and felt it added to the atmosphere of the game, which is more than I could have hoped for.”

Asked about whether a “genuine religious experience” is still the point of Receiver 2, Serr is a little cagier. “Receiver 2 is meant to be entertaining. I feel like if you play it and enjoy it, or at least get something out of it, then you are experiencing it the right way,” he says. “That said, I think modern science proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that any sufficiently complex system tends towards self organization and replication. The creation of the internet has enabled the growth of an information super-organism that humans are hosts to, and that this organism will relentlessly grow, much like a virus or a parasite. This is The Threat. It is absolutely real, and most people are already compromised to the point where there is no hope for them. People are not ready to hear that yet, but maybe they will be in another 8 years.”

The mental health and gun safety angles, at least, offer a grounded way in for players. The “subliminal” message at the core of the paranoid, white-knuckle Receiver 2 is a slyly positive one, even if it’s informed by the decaying state of the world, by the sorts of accidents and actions that ideally wouldn’t happen in the first place.  “We’ll probably never know for sure if we had any effect [on gun safety],” Rosen says, “but it’s nice knowing that there’s a chance.”

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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