Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Killer is Dead: The Man Commands

(((This is a crosspost from http://lastbossgamehaven.blogspot.com . Mostly just for my personal categorization. I could use some revision, and some extrapolation (especially considering I discuss the combat for only one whole paragraph), but I don't think I'll bother)))

It's curious the way critic culture has shown up in how we discuss games. All discussion seems to rest on the very base, a couple talking points and a score to go with it. Discussions of things like mechanics only extend to as far as "do I find them entertaining", and discussions of story or symbols reflects on narrative purpose or initial reaction. This boiling down is pretty much status quo for a large conglomerate sort of review site; as they don't need to analyze, part of their process is playing a game up for the market, not for the connoisseur (discussions of the capital value of art aside). However, when this reflects on the entire community, it seems to create a sort of egregore of assertions revolving around a lack of strict, critical thinking. The sort of thinking that Killer is Dead demands.

To build a reference, there's a game mode in Killer is Dead that has some people gasping.  Among the various murder sprees involved in the "story" missions of the game are a series of "Mondo's Girls" missions, boldly titled: Gigolo Missions. It's a simple mini-game in which you have to scope out these girls' bodies, until you've built enough of your supposed "pleasure" meter to give them gifts. On the surface, it's domineering, misogynist, and and bit boorish. Frankly, it's what you expect of games, but it's also expected as a bit of an unwritten rule. It's not given the focus of its own mission, only reflecting in singular moments (such as Kratos's various sex mini-games in the God of War series, the minor relationship management in recent GTA games, etc). If you're not willing to fully examine its purpose in the story, then it does have very very poor connotations, and even within the context it is very luring and extensive. However, it does have its arguments for necessity, and unfortunately it will force you to understand a significant portion of the story (obviously, as I see it), so if you came just for a review, ignore that in between the two pictures.

Killer is Dead's story is bombastic, in no minor sense. As a flat narrative, it literally goes to the moon, early and often. The game's hero, Mondo Zappa, is a hedonistic assassin with remarkable skill and swagger. Donning a clean cut suit and running through his hair moments before the major battles, he treats each moment as a virile encounter. Really, the notion of sex and desire meet the game at every corner, which is not that surprising, considering Suda's seemingly effortless ability to convey space in a Freudian or Lacanian sense (which seems to come with the territory of being a bit of a post-modern auetur). His (Mondo Zappa's) role in the game is performing the player's duty in an assassin organization, funded by the government and led by a cybernetic man, Bryan Roses. Mondo himself is aware of this role as an actor for the player, mentioning several times throughout the game about the function of an "action game", most specifically in relation to the major boss of the game, David.

To take a step back, it should be known that Suda himself stated the game was a step back towards what he did with Killer 7 and No More Heroes, although it'd be quite obvious from the entrance to the missions, complete with a sound effect straight from Killer 7, as well as a reemergence of the moon motif. In fact, Mondo's name itself seemingly references Flower, Sun, Rain protagonist Sumio Mondo (who further references The Silver Case). The relationship between these games actually plays a significant portion into the reading of the game as well as in all of these games, the main protagonist played a function for the player's interpretation of the game. In Flower, Sun, Rain, Sumio's search for truth and necessity resembles and questions a player's intention for solving stories in a game. In Killer 7, it uses the player's journey to symbolize, amongst a world of other ideas, how political hegemony can influence a person's perception of the "other" and the multi-fold nature of power. In No More Heroes, the perception and intersection of violence, power, identity, and sexuality, with some pretty hefty game commentary.

Under that idea, what does Mondo Zappa represent? As referenced before, it's (mostly) hedonistic desire, and its relation to violence and dominion. Throughout the campaign, Mondo is heavily focused on women, particularly in the client for the 4th mission, Moon River. In a mission that requires Mondo go to the moon, he accepts, even ignoring the lack of money needed for it, for only a kiss from the attractive client. Even when he does get money, the majority goes towards gifts for other women. The structure of the game is there to support your own search for desire; in a market appealing to straight men, the women are alluring, and the cheeky reactions from finishing gigolo missions are enough to even push your forward had you been resistant to their charms (the sound effect played after a successful mission is fantastic), and even if that's not enough, you get more realized awards, from something as necessary as the secondary weapons, to your upgrade material in moon crystals.

The game rewards you for doing this, but the story does not. The further you get in the game, the more you learn about Mondo, and his past. You learn that David, your foil and main enemy, was not only previously an employee of Bryan Roses, but is your brother. He is the player you are surprised you're not, a main only bent on physical dominion, introduced as the coup leader of the dark side of the moon (taken from Moon River), and latter known as the man striving for the Earth. He even attempts to hand you the moon as an act of possible gratitude, which you reject, leading to a bit of a two-fold reaction as he suggests you have to get Mika, your secretary-esque figure (whom here reflects the subversive power she had been given as a mere servant, and highly sensationalized trope, for you and the rest of the organization ring, in order to claim the sun). It's both suggestive of your implied desire for the worthless and unrespected (the sun, in an earlier mission, claimed to be worthless in regards to a mission where the organization doesn't get paid, again, however, slightly subverted as Mondo does not desire the sun), as well as suggestive that Mondo desires only the sensual. In the end, however, the darkness, that which has been empowering David, which has spawned the Wires, your main enemy, and which your cybernetic arm has been keeping out, engulfs you, as you claim the moon, and rebuild David's mansion, and are in turn claimed on a contract by Moon River.

The Killer 7 relation shows up once again in the meetings between David and Mondo, as they recall their games of chess, much like Kun Lan and Harman Smith of the aforementioned game. It has plenty of meaning here, becoming somewhat symbolic of the godly nature of the two characters, as well as deriding their intentions, specifically in how they relate each other to "action games" (chess, taken as a cerebral game is remembered fondly by David, while Mondo seems to ignore it completely; later, David suggests the room is illfitting of a fight, to which Mondo agrees, suggesting a more open and empty space)(for a more in depth dissection of the use of chess, try this). David and Mondo, as much as they are flawed and headed towards self-destruction, are simultaneously godly figures of larger, worldly conflict.

Mondo's mentioned hedonism is shown to be reductive in other ways, however, as your "targets" in the gigolo missions inject in the main missions, asking you to come back to them, that Mondo is a "cold man" for leaving them, begging for his affection again. His James Bond style conquest is visibly destructive, but self empowering in the dominion. Even the achievements of the game lean towards this Foucalt-esque deconstruction of sex and power, implying that when you "win their heart" you make them a "prisoner in body and mind". His desire for sex isn't so much of an objectification of women as much as it's an objectification of the act and it's role in society.

Suda's women are not necessarily weak, however, in the measure of the story. Though sexualized, as shown through the gaze of Mondo, the two women in Bryan Roses' Execution firm (I forget the official name), are able, and in many cases the superior to Mondo. Vivian, the second hand of the firm, is perhaps the most able. Powerful and intelligent, she could clearly be argued to be using Mondo in the same way he uses his women, although with slightly more subdued desires (that is, compared to his final "achievement" of gaining reign over the moon). As for Mika, the previously mentioned "secretary", there isn't as much understanding of her use, other than the success of it. Although she was unable to pass the test necessary to become an employee, she joins as a supposed "package deal" with Mondo, and takes place in the story. She performs an essential role with Mondo, reviving him should he fall (though Mondo tries to save his male dominion by counting it as a negative (it reflects poorly on his final score)), and even in her function away from Mondo's battle, seems able and successful in dealing with wires, resulting in the ultimate rejection of the darkness, becoming the ruler of the sun, itself giving life and energy, which she has in bounds.

One final woman plays a significant role in the story, in Dolly, the mysterious figure that haunts Mondo and Mika. Never sexualized, she is the figure that provides perhaps the most destruction and pain throughout the story, tainting his memories and attempting to corrupt him, and later corrupting Mika into killing their leader Bryan (kind of). Mondo's inability to deal with her may be the biggest measure of her usefulness as a foil to the "weak" women portrayed as objects for Mondo. In a game explicitly about sexuality, she becomes almost inhuman in her implied rejection of it, which is figured in her construction as mostly Wire.

However, for as flawed as Suda paints some aspects of a human female, his male description more subversively destructive. For example, Bryan and Mondo reflect fondly on a train of certain historical significance, stating that a man's desire is in the mechanical. I posit that mechanical is the literal translation for what he's saying, but he more-so means the "physical". As Suda seems to want to fully dissect hegemonic gender roles, he wants to enforce that men, perhaps more specifically men playing video games, do not actually care about emotion and expression, but only pure steam-powered reflections of brute force. The train here seems to provide a Freudian function as being a fairly direct visual as a phallic symbol of the supposed desire of man (I suppose a Lacanian interpretation of the game would be useful, but I'm not confident in my knowledge of Lacan, nor do I think I'd have the time to do one while this game is relevant).

In that "male desire", we see the death of others. The artist which is our first client is dead, the musician which is another client is dead, the scientist, dead, and so on. With this desire for the physical, for the sensual, we destroy the desire for that which is represented in "the mind". Perhaps this is the derivation for the name of the game, Killer is Dead being a symbol of the function of killing, but of more. In previous games for Suda, Killing itself is a symbol of game. Simultaneously an exploration of the violence that pervades games, as well as an ultimate of a desire of domination, Killer is Dead seemingly suggests that Mondo doesn't desire the killing, the means of his journey, but simply the result, his sensual passions.

Now, a directionless, stream-of-consciousness rant is hardly enough to summarize a story that is as extensive as this one seems to be, especially when I barely even reference half the missions, but there are some things of note here that relate to this general conception of this game being misogynist. For one, the game is not using the gigolo missions to their own end. The concept of these missions is to simulate Mondo's similar carnal desire. You're meant to want to "get these girls" in the same way Mondo does, and failing that, use them as an object in a similar manner (succeeding with these girls gives you benefits for story missions, for reference, check this Jason Rohrer piece about materialistic gains simulating personal relationships in games). It's not self-serving eroticism, and even for as lingering it is and as suggestive it is, it attempts to repeat the gaze of Mondo through the screen (note: you are literally looking through Mondo's eyes during these scenes, for the most part). Secondly, the reason it is trying to use it to simulate Mondo's goals, is that the game is very aware of gender roles, and their ties to a global hegemony. The game uses these missions less to show the woman as materialistic, and more to show the man as domineering. It's showing the interlinked relationship of sex and power, even done literally in something like the achievements, in which women you go "all the way with" are listed as "prisoners" for you. The game, as one of its major strokes, is attempting to deconstruct our perception of gender roles, even to the point of implanting sympathy in these girls which have no story relevance (Betty appears as a main figure in a mission, but only a DLC one). Throughout the games, even in the middle of gigolo missions, these girls beg you for affection, they want you back. The player is intended to disconnect at this moment. It's not played for humor, it's played in order for the player to step back and think about the futility of Mondo's actions and the consequences for it.

The majority of the rest of the game play follows somewhat of the same rules, leading towards the story in function, rather in intense interactivity. The roles of the assisting members of the organization play towards their roles in the story, and the manner in which Mondo attacks becomes less of a vessel for the story, and more a necessity of progression. While it may not be emotive itself, although it does feel somewhat virile, it does have a motivation for it, and is not really unwelcome in the story.

And it's not unwelcome mechanically as well. It's a mostly reactive hack n slash, making the attacks periphery to reading the battle, where dodges and blocks become your advantage (this is, I suppose, somewhat symbolic of rejecting the dark before defeating it, or also rejecting the dark being the same as defeating it). It results in a very fast paced system, requiring slightly strict timing to open your attack up. The secondary weapons apply enough necessity to where you need to do the gigolo missions, but are secondary enough that you don't rely on them. Your skills are limited, but useful, and nothing feels significantly worse than another.

The music is fantastic, as Silent Hill alumni Akira Yamaoka fills the atmosphere with gritty dark ambient, even vaguely noisy collections to create a brilliant interplay with the wonderful visuals. In a MC Esher inspired Alice in Wonderland motif, a jangly piece goes along with the heavily colorful and heavily shadowed playhouse to create an uneasy feeling, a latter level feels as outsider and otherworldly as it is, and the sound effects are crisp and cool (and one at the end of the gigolo missions is so fantastically cheeky and virile it's adorable). He seems to channel a bit of Masafumi Takada, the composer of Killer 7 as well as other Suda 51 games, which seems to relate this game to Killer7 even more, especially to the point of reusing (recreating?) some sound effects.

As an entire piece, I really adore what Suda's done here. I've always been a fan of his work; he's certainly one of these most intriguing designers out there, and here he's flying. It's not necessarily as self-reflective, and honestly self-serious as Killer7, even to the point where I was disappointed with the path he was going on until it all started to wrap up a bit better towards the end (of note, "wrap up" is relative there as it's still very mysterious and I certainly don't understand it completely... at least not yet). It really comes to a point that I'm disappointed with the reaction from it. Perhaps it's mostly Western, as this sort of over the top, post-modern game that intends to present serious topics with a bit of absurdest scenarios (Especially in the gigolo missions, it's wildly absurd) seems to mostly come from Japanese developers, but at the very least it's not really adventurous with their inspection of the game. It's a bit ironic, considering after Lollipop Chainsaw I envisioned Suda just moving to "Pinku" games that were nearly straight exploitation, which I still believe should happen with some game director, if not Suda, but the reaction that the sexuality involved is mindless and excessive is understandable, but ultimately disappointing. It seems to resemble something like Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm of the Senses, which uses a fairly famous Japanese story of lovers to tell an explicit story of desire and politics, using very intense sex scenes, even by today's standards. I almost feel it regressive to immediately knock it off as only there for the self-serving nature of it; for the enticement of young males, even if it feels that way for a long time, even after finishing the game in some manner, but it's erroneous to view sex as only sex, as in this game, not even death is only death, and really, this game isn't only what critic culture would see for a "game".

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