In Grand Theft Auto, the medium-redefining series of video games that has sold hundreds of millions of copies around the world, your character enjoys complete and total freedom. Specifically, the freedom to shoot, maim, rob, injure, wound, run over and murder pretty much anybody you encounter. An entire world of violent possibilities is at your fingertips.
Like so many others, Cole Kushner – who goes by Cole Kush online – played and enjoyed the GTA games. But the Edmonton-based animator noticed they left him feeling a little desensitized to what he was doing onscreen – “like a shell,” Kushner says. “No emotions whatsoever.” Which is when an idea came to mind: What if there was a game that simulated what actually happens when you kill somebody?
“It was never a thing where I thought, ‘I’m going to teach the world a lesson,'” Kushner says of his new, aptly titled web game, First Person Shooter. He imagined it instead as a darkly humorous, slightly surreal thought experiment. But it’s one that caught the eye of late-night cable outlet Adult Swim, which developed FPS with Kushner for its website. It went live late last year.
The game itself is simple. After a lavish introduction scene promising a GTA-like world of alcohol, fast cars, and all-around hedonism, your character (complete with gross stubble and exposed chest hair, the dictionary definition of “dirtbag”) wanders into a house and finds a man sitting on his couch watching TV. You’ve got a gun, and there’s not much else to do besides shoot him – except, once you do, everything changes. The man’s wife and child rush into the room, horrified. You hear sirens in the distance. And your character looks straight into the camera, as the horror of what he’s done finally dawns on him.
From there, the remainder of the game takes place inside a cramped jail cell, where the only thing your character can do is click on his little grey cot to go to sleep, and repeat the same thing all over again. The game ends when you close the tab in frustration.
Kushner’s background is a world away from absurdist video games. Born and raised in Grande Prairie, he studied clinical prosthetics and worked at rehab centres across the country. In grad school, he used 3D printers to make prosthetic sockets, and from there became fascinated with 3D technology, incorporating it into the music videos and short comedic films he was making on the side, with the help of local musician friends like Alex Calder and Mac DeMarco.
One of his most successful videos, 2014’s “Backer,” features the scruffy DeMarco – an internationally beloved singer-songwriter who now lives in upstate New York – as a professional car backer who wants to tell you about this dream he had. It’s easily the best slice of surrealism ever shot at the corner of Whyte Avenue and 100th Street. That video caught the eye of many in the American alt-comedy scene, which is how Adult Swim, among others, first caught wind of Kushner’s work.
Most people, Kushner says, get the joke in First Person Shooter, especially those who are already familiar with the FPS genre. But given how straight the satire is played, he has gotten some more unsettling responses. “When people immediately laugh really hard when you shoot the dad, that makes me a little uncomfortable,” Kushner says. “But then [other] people feel almost horrified – a very visceral, negative response. That’s the ideal. I think you need to feel bad, seeing this. That was the point. It’s not going to make you feel good.”
From here, Kushner has his eyes set on television. Fresh off the success of First Person Shooter, he’s currently developing a project with Abso Lutely Productions, the company behind shows like Comedy Bang! Bang!, Nathan for You and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!