Why Do Silencers In Video Games Make Guns Worse?


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I’ve been playing a rather unhealthy amount of the new Cyberpunk 2077 video game this week, much to the delight of my wife, who has been using this time to catch up on all her awful shmaltzy Christmas movies without me sitting there, complaining MST3K style.

But once again, the Cyberpunk 2077 designers have made the same choices that countless others have made in trying to balance the gameplay, and I gotta say one thing in particular irks me: the silencers in the game make the guns terrible when they really should make them better.

I’ve held, shot, tested, and broken a good number of silencers (or suppressors if you prefer) in my time here at TTAG. Some of them are great, some of them are goofy, and some of them have catapulted downrange during testing as if trying to escape further torture.

But there is a pretty common set of attributes that these cans all display.

First, while they don’t completely eliminate the sound of the gun firing, they usually do a pretty good job of reducing it significantly. As John Hollister always reminds people, YouTube is a terrible medium for trying to understand just how loud a silencer is, but I think this video still illustrates my point. There’s definitely still something going on that’s audible, but in a loud or noisy environment it’s easy to lose that sound in the mix.

In addition to the noise reduction, you’ll typically see an increase in accuracy with a suppressor, too. This isn’t because of some magical voodoo that the can itself is imparting on the bullet, but instead is a result of the impact the can has on the shooter. Without that extremely loud, jarring report coming as soon as you pull the trigger, most shooters are much calmer, more focused with a can on their gun, and won’t anticipate the recoil as much. The result is better accuracy and more consistent shot placement.

Last but not least, there’s muzzle velocity and bullet energy. All a bullet is really doing is imparting force on an object some distance away, and it does that by using a combination of mass and velocity. The mass is fixed — the bullet doesn’t change weight magically just because you have a can on the gun — and the muzzle velocity stays the same either way. In fact, in some tests with some cans, the muzzle velocity actually increases.

Which brings us to how video games handle silencers.

When a game is going through development, good developers will test the ever-loving heck out of it. Not just for bugs, but also for gameplay, enjoyment, and something they call “balance.” That’s making sure that there’s enough challenge for the player, that the enemies are sufficiently strong without being unbeatable, and that there aren’t perks that make the player an unstoppable super being.

Here in the real world, silencers have a more natural balance. They improve the abilities of the shooter, but what you gain in accuracy and stealth you lose in weight and concealability. Unfortunately for game designers, those two factors aren’t things that model well in video games. So, in order to balance out the beneficial impact of silencers, they need to turn to other factors to make the gun’s performance worse. Specifically, the most common impact is decreased accuracy, decreased range, and decreased damage.

None of those factors actually happen in real life. Well, they don’t anymore. But I think what you are seeing is not only game designers trying to balance the massive benefit of silencers, but also a continued reliance on outdated silencer performance information.

The entire point of a silencer is to temporarily trap the expanding gasses that are produced by the burning gunpowder propelling a projectile down a barrel. If released all at once those gasses are supersonic and make a hell of a racket, but if you let them expand in a controlled environment first and cool them down a touch the sound they make can be greatly reduced or eliminated.

Modern silencers do this through the use of different baffle geometry, the most popular version being “K baffles” which usually look like a stack of cones placed one on top of another, but increasingly companies are turning to 3D printed designs to improve efficiency. In all of these designs, at no point does the silencer actually come into contact with the bullet while in flight. Once the round leaves the barrel there’s no additional impact on its flight.

Back in the day, when silencers were still relatively young and poorly designed, a number of manufacturers relied on a design called a “bullet wipe.” This called for one or more thin rubber gaskets to be installed somewhere in the can, usually concentrated near the far end, that had a hole in it smaller than the diameter of the bullet.

The idea was that the bullet in flight would “wipe” past these gaskets and as it did, the gasses would be sealed and trapped momentarily behind that bullet. This would slow the gasses down significantly, but it also had a massive negative impact on the bullet. Not only does the gasket touching the bullet impact the flight path (usually negatively), but the friction also reduces the velocity of the projectile.

These early silencer designs absolutely had all of the impacts you see in video games now. They reduced accuracy by touching the bullet in flight once it left the barrel. And they reduced damage to the can by reducing the velocity of the round, thereby dialing down the energy imparted on a target.

The problem is that none of those things are true now with modern silencers, and would be less true with futuristic technology as seen in Cyberpunk 2077. But those old attributes are still attractive to game designers when balancing their game. So, even though their game sports “smart guns” with bullets that can home in on a target, they are still relying on 1960’s and 1970’s era silencer tech. Duh.

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