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An ode to the stake gun and the macabre glory of sticking dudes to walls

Painkiller
(Image credit: People Can Fly)

I fell in love with the archetypical stake gun in Crackdown. The extremely mid-2000s GTA-lite adventure remains one of the greatest B games of all time, to the point that Microsoft was happy to bundle access to the Halo 3 beta in the box. Like many 16-year olds who talked their parents into a trip to Target, I figured the disc itself was pure collateral. I wanted nothing to do with Crackdown; I simply wanted to fly Banshees, toss plasma grenades, and participate in an extremely elongated hype cycle targeted at my exact age and demographic. (I was also buying a lot of Halo-branded Mountain Dew Code Red at the time.)

At least that's how I felt until I used Crackdown's HRX Harpoon, a weapon released in the game's DLC that could shoot a nasty razor-tipped lance all the way across the map.

Lock on to one of the many gangsters milling about in the open world, pull the trigger, and pin them to the wall in a single fatal blow. Their arms and legs would ragdoll limply from the puncture point and you could get up close and examine the precise degree of your marksmanship in a way you never could with the paper bullets that filled out the rest of the armory. It was obscene, and I was infatuated.

I'd learn later that there was already a rich tapestry of stake guns within the PC gaming realm that Crackdown was cribbing notes from. Clearly I was not alone in my addiction to sticking dudes to walls.

Stake 'em high

Painkiller might be the most famous of the bunch. People Can Fly's marquee theological shooter famously equipped you with a downright primeval crossbow thing that would send sharp wooden barbs flying through the plains of purgatory. To this day, I believe that most lifelong PC gamers consider that contraption to be the Socratic ideal of stake guns—boy oh boy, do those demons take a tumble when you connect. 

F.E.A.R. upped the ante with its nail gun, which was semi-automatic and evoked a much different sensation than its Painkiller forbearer. You'd plunge into those concrete creases and lay waste to entire paramilitary units until they were hanging from the walls like Halloween decorations. (It was called the "HV Penetrator," a rare bit of humor in the otherwise bleak-as-hell F.E.A.R. fiction.) 

Those are the two weapons cited by Zak McClendon, the design director of BioShock 2, when he graciously agreed to speak to me for this story about the "spear gun" you can use while stalking through fallen Rapture. According to McClendon, the quintessential stake gun aspires to more than goofy, ultraviolent pastiche. Unlike so many of other munitions in video games, there is something about splaying a corpse against a colonnade with an oversized bolt that makes it clear to the player that they have left a mark. 

"Some of the most basic enjoyment in games, especially action games, is just having a direct effect on the world and the things that are simulated in it—being able to affect things directly in the moment and leave the world transformed by your actions," says McClendon. "This is a huge part of why physics is so ubiquitous in games, it's satisfying to mess things up and leave your mark on the world in a way that maps to your knowledge of how things actually behave, even if it's in an exaggerated way."

McClendon says that when we blast off our assault rifles in Call of Duty or Destiny, the only visceral kickback we receive are the tracer marks on screen. The damage is purely intellectual; you don't feel the bullets. (Well, unless you're playing a hardcore military sim like ArmA.) A stake gun, on the other hand, is the total opposite. You do not have to rely on hit markers, or the kill timeline, or the sparks of yellow experience points that come flying out a newly split skull. No, instead you know the job is done because there is now an iron pole protruding from the adversary's center mass.

There is no abstraction or obfuscation; the stake gun shows its work.

"Abilities or effects that are 'analog' rather than digital and allow for a little arc of anticipation, correction, and resolution can be much more satisfying to use or manipulate," he says. "This is why weapons that shoot physical, moving projectiles, rather than instant hits can be much more satisfying to use or have used against you," says McClendon.

"Every shot is a little dramatic arc as you watch the spear travel toward its target. In the case of the spear gun, the resolution of this little story on a successful hit is extremely dramatic—the chump goes flying back, gets pinned to the wall, and hangs there like a wet sleeping bag.  The retrieval of the ammo is another little mini-dramatic arc, as you go back and get your spear and the enemy slumps down on the floor."

Of course, none of this would be possible without the advent, and subsequent ubiquity, of ragdoll. It's funny to think that young gamers growing up now never knew a time where characters were saddled with static death animations—keeling over, clutching their hearts, like a 9th grade production of Romeo & Juliet in a Sheridan ballroom.

That changed at the turn of the millennium as game studios rushed to match the burgeoning sadism of their customers by pioneering technology that allowed our targets to crumple to the floor in more realistic ways. McClendon told me the mid-2000s represented the first time developers could process more than a few enemies ragdolling at once. So a rudimentary stake gun, which takes a long time to fire and reload, was a purposeful design choice. There are no framerate swoons when we're perforating one bad guy at a time.

Even still, McClendon remembers stake guns being deceptively difficult to code.

"It's still a lot of extra work and a bunch of bugs to introduce the ability to pin down ragdolls," he says. That's why McClendon believes that "despite being a real crowd pleaser," stake guns don't make it into games too often. There's a lot of upkeep and risk potential that is never introduced with conventional weaponry. So next time you kabob an alien with a rusty javelin, give it up to the testers who made it possible.

When 2K Marin was developing BioShock 2, they considered a few ways to juice the stake gun to higher levels of indecency. In particular they toyed with what he calls a "self-propelling spear." Once attached to the enemy, it'd take off like a rocket and fly around the atmosphere like a "deflating balloon" before exploding. That didn't make the final cut, but if any developers out there are reading this, please write that down.

That kind of brilliant, sicko thinking is emblematic of what McClendon sees as one of the major issues flagging modern gaming; we're simply running out of interesting ways to shoot a gun.

"I do think there's a lot more uncharted territory to explore in giving players other verbs [than shoot] to use in these amazing worlds we're building," he says.

Still, I think that the horizon for the stake gun is still wide open. It feels like it's been way too long since I've had an awesome time sticking dudes to walls. I want to see what chaos can be rendered with modern processors. I want to see waves of invaders bearing down on my position before leaving them all plastered around the map in hilarious, compromising positions. We deserve it after a year like 2020.

Put a stake gun in everything; Elden Ring, Back 4 Blood, Mario Golf. I don't care. The revolution cannot come soon enough.