He Who Laughs Last

The waking dreams and political nightmares of Killer7

Sure, the game is grim, dark and violent. But it’s also the most self-indulgent piece of junk that’s come across our desks since Felicity: The Complete Series. RATING: 0 out of 10.”(Stuff)

It’s hard to say what it is concerned about: the story has all the coherence of a fever dream, whoever wrote the dialogue must have spent his or her formative years huffing rubber cement, and there’s more compelling art direction in the printed manual.” (GamePro)

Bizarre imagery and disorienting concepts are great in small doses: the 17-minute Luis Buñuel film Un Chien Andalou, for example, is as cool now as it was in 1929, but I wouldn’t want to see it expanded to several hours. It is likely to take at least 15 hours to finish Killer7, and the game uses every idea it has in the first hour.” (The New York Times)

Innovators are almost always rule-breakers, and in the milieu of video games, you break rules at your peril. Let the player have as much freedom of movement as the hardware capabilities of a console will allow. Give them a simple plot that won’t distract them from the game-play itself. Put up a fight; make players tax their minds and their reflexes just to get to the next level. Pack in a ton of extra crap — special weapons, hidden characters, secret levels, bonus cut scenes — to motivate the player to keep going. And above all, give the player an exact, precise rundown of what is going on at all times. People do not play video games to be alternately baffled and coddled, hand-held and thrown curves, stuck with a rudimentary way of doing things even as they’re left trying to figure out what just happened and something even more incomprehensible is strolling around the next corner. Video games reward reflex, not reflection; their impetus is fast-paced action, not complex narrative. Just get the buttons and the analog stick to make cool shit happen, and let the thumbs do all the work.

Killer7 fails to uphold each and every one of those rules in spectacular fashion. It’s limiting, it’s disorienting, it’s somewhat odd to the eye, it’s inaccessible, and it’s a bastard to figure out. It’s also the most memorable video game I think I’ve played in my whole life. It’s unexpected — and a bit startling — to find out, a few levels in to some gimmicky-looking action shooter, that you’re really dealing with David Lynchian surrealism, Eastern philosophy, political conspiracy Manchurian Candidate-style, a twist-filled exploration of multiple personality syndrome, deconstruction of a post-War on Terror world, examinations of tensions between the Western world and Japan, and a lucha libre wrestler who strolls around blowing shit up with a pair of grenade launchers.

The whole thing’s a little ... complicated.

Considering that the primary architect behind this game’s story, Grasshopper Manufacture’s Goichi Suda (better known as Suda 51), also wears lucha masks in public (albeit without carrying incendiary devices), it’s probably a good sign that you’re not dealing with one of those “are you a bad enough dude to rescue the President Ronnie” kinda games. The plot, in brief:

In an alternate-universe 1998, total world peace has been achieved, though it’s not really made clear how — maybe President Bob Dole helped facilitate it or something. (Certain details of the story are missing from the game, both out of the creators’ desire for an open-ended narrative and a pressing need to get the thing completed as soon as possible.) As an extreme measure against terrorism, all international flights are discontinued, private Internet usage is banned as a measure against cyber-terrorism, and all commerce and travel between continents and across oceans is done through a series of superhighways and pipelines. But in 2003, a new terrorist group arises, referred to as “Heaven Smile” — an army of grotesque, humanoid monstrosities with a tendency to erupt in bloodcurdling laughter as they blow you up (sounding not unlike the opening to the Surfaris’ “Wipeout”). In the face of this new threat, it is determined by the United States government that the only recourse against Heaven Smile are the Killer7, a team of elite assassins supposedly headed by a mysterious, wheelchair-bound Clint Eastwood analogue named Harman Smith.

The seven playable members of the team — all given the presumably pseudonymous surname “Smith,” therefore making them, yes, the Smiths (and don’t think there ain’t any references to “How Soon is Now” and “Meat is Murder” in this game) — each have unique powers, weapons and personae, per video game tradition.

Dan Smith is the roguish badass with a specially-charged revolver wielded in a behind-the-head stance like Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai. Kaede Smith is the token female and the sniper of the group; she has the unsettling ability to break barriers and solve various puzzles by slitting her wrist to provoke a rain of blood (don’t ask how it works). The South American thief Coyote Smith is a lock-picking expert who can jump to ridiculous heights when needed. Kevin Smith is a knife-throwing mute (not to be confused with that chubbier, though also often mute Kevin Smith) who skulks around shirtless in leather pants like he’s Iggy Pop and has the ability to turn himself invisible by taking off his sunglasses. Con Smith is a snotty teenager who doesn’t let a little thing like blindness get in the way of rocking John Woo style two-fisted semi-auto pistols and shouting “Fuck you!” a lot; being short allows him to get into places that the other assassins can’t sneak through. Mask de Smith is the aforementioned grenade-launching luchador, and one of the most lighthearted of the group (at his character-selection screen he sometimes quips “Yeah, I’ll just set them on fire. Piece of cake.”). He’s also the strongest, which means he gets to smash walls down (with head butts) and throws obstructions out of the way like your standard galoot. And then there’s Garcian Smith. While he figures prominently in the plot as the one persona we see the most of in cut scenes, and is the man who takes most of the Smiths’ missions, he’s also the one character most people don’t play unless you screw up and die as one of the other Smiths — his gun is weak and you can’t upgrade his skills. Garcian does have the power to look a fair bit like Wesley Snipes, as well as the more important ability to resurrect the assassins if they’re killed by carting off their severed heads in a paper bag (!) and bringing them back to a save point.

Along the way, the Smiths encounter various helpful ghosts (you heard me) who aid them in their missions with assorted hints, “speaking” in metallic, incomprehensible voices that sound like a low-powered Cylon muttering through a tin can. Core among them are Travis, ostensibly the Smiths’ first victim from 30 years in the past, whose sleeveless t-shirt always displays ever-changing one-liners almost as enigmatic as the backstory he unfurls with each encounter. There’s also Iwazaru, a bizarre dangling apparition in a red bondage suit whose manner of conversing somewhat resembles a cross between Batman’s butler Alfred and C3P0 as he warns of upcoming enemies or puzzles. Plus, you get special power rings from a talking severed head.

And the game gets weirder from there.

Something this bizarre can be a hard sell, naturally, but there was one easy lure in plain sight. The big catch that drew in most potential buyers of the game was the releasing company’s name emblazoned on the box, a blue and yellow typeface as iconic to video game enthusiasts as Spider-Man’s mask is to comic fans or the twin flags of the Corvette insignia are to gearheads. Formed in 1979, Capcom released their first arcade machine, Vulgus, in 1983 and, within a year, made a name for themselves with 1942, one of the first great top-down air-combat shoot-’em-ups (or “shmups,” to game enthusiasts). By 1987, they had not only introduced themselves to the home console market, but completed a holy trinity of sorts with Mega Man, which, alongside Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, reigned as one of the top three must-have game series throughout the prosperous life of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1991, they were responsible for the biggest arcade phenomenon since the original release of Space Invaders: Street Fighter II single-handedly revolutionized competitive gaming in an era of repetitive cooperative shooters and beat-’em-ups, kept arcades thriving despite increasing competition from consoles, and spawned a genre that would dominate the ’90s — the one-on-one fighting game. And by 1996, with the release of the pioneering cinematic “survival horror” game Resident Evil, Capcom wasn’t just dominating the arcades, they were helping the recently-launched PlayStation become the most sought-after console on the market.

Killer7 could easily be considered an heir of sorts to those iconic games — switching between the personalities of the game feels oddly like switching between Mega Man’s versatile weapons; the personas have that motley-international-crew feel of Street Fighter’s jet-setting ethnic cartoonery; and the gory, creepy-shit-stalking-you vibe has the zombie nightmare of Resident Evil directly in its lineage (RE’s creator, Shinji Mikami, served as Killer7’s executive producer). But that familiarity starts warping out of shape by the time you’ve sat down at the controls for ten minutes.

The most important thing to keep in mind about Killer7 is that it runs completely counter to the go- anywhere/do-anything style of game-play that series like Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid have made par for the course in most current console titles. The mechanics are split between a third-person perspective for the running-around, clue-hunting parts, and first-person perspective, which the player initiates when a telltale cackle warns them of encroaching Heaven Smile goons. A switch to the character’s-eye-view perspective is done with a single button press, with another necessary to scan the area for enemies (who, as bad luck would have it, are invisible) so the player can commence gunning them down. The shooting is simple enough after a brief few minutes of game-play, but the navigation is what throws people off: every motion the character makes is already set by the game itself. Navigating the numerous corridors and rooms of the assorted buildings and spaces in the game isn’t something the player has much control over; you hold a button to propel your character ahead, press another button when you come to a door or junction to dictate which path to continue down, and press a third if you want to turn around and head back from whence you came. You do not have full freedom of movement, even in a fully three-dimensional area — you’re “on the rails,” so to speak, and the only direction your character can truly move is forward. You can’t go side-to-side or backwards, or even move from the center of the hallway to hug the wall, much less explore every nook and cranny of a building. It’s like your character already knows where exactly to go, and in a more efficient and precise manner than you do, which is subtly unsettling. It takes some getting used to, but the feeling of tedium and futility that a lot of other free-roaming games offer — searching endlessly and aimlessly for whatever power-up you need to progress, backtracking endlessly through every possible room — is a welcome casualty.

The big coup of Killer7’s limited movement scheme, though, is that it dares to take advantage of the idea of a three-dimensional video game world — not as a catalyst for freedom of exploration, but as catalyst for freedom of presentation. Since the first free-roaming 3D console games came out nearly a decade ago — think Tomb Raider (because someone has to nowadays) — the idea of where the “camera” should be had been restricted mostly to a utilitarian, often-static view of the area, usually behind and slightly above the character you’re playing. The player’s control of the view can sometimes be tweaked with an analog stick so that you can pan, sweep and zoom around; but in any case, the eye is almost always ahead, and any diversion from that is strictly in the hands of the player. And for first-person shooters, being riveted to the character’s-eye view means you can look anywhere: straight ahead, up into the heavens, staring at the floor, whipping around in a flash to look behind you, all while being able to move your position at will. It’s all there to give the player the idea that they have complete awareness of their surroundings, without any distracting camera angles or restrictions to make things difficult.

But since the combat in Killer7 is all done using a completely different perspective than the navigation, the majority of the game’s on-rails traveling sequences are played out in front of a camera that cuts, swoops, and pans of its own volition, often at unusual angles. The end result is something that many developers have tried for and only a few have succeeded at: you’re not so much controlling a game as you are determining the pace of a movie. (You half-expect to hear someone shout “cut” if your character winds up dying.) There’s even a button you can hit to switch the camera angle to a different one, usually a reverse angle — which, while of zero value when it comes to spotting enemies or revealing clues, can theoretically give your travels through the various stages can a different look to them entirely the second time you play through.

Switching into the first-person shooter phase reveals another weird aspect that, while somewhat annoying as a game-play hitch, solidifies a different level of the game’s personality. Once you have the crosshairs pulled up, you’re focused specifically on a straight-ahead shot of the space you’re in — you can’t move another inch forward unless you switch out of first-person, and turning around is a very, very slow process. It seems like a device slipped in to make aiming smoother and less twitchy, but turning and moving in this view is so deliberate and pained that it seems a bit too inconvenient to just be an oversight on the developers’ part. Coupled with the third-person view’s sensation of constantly moving without real freedom, the whole design of motion feels, accidentally or otherwise, like a subtle but vivid attempt at recreating the sensation of a lucid dream. Running constantly towards who knows what, not always being able to escape through the nearest door, being frozen in your tracks when confronting a grotesque, laughing monstrosity who hurts you by grabbing you and exploding — not only could I easily imagine having a dream that felt like Killer7, I’m starting to think I might have already had a couple long before the game came out.

The art direction only makes that dreamlike feeling even more pervasive. Killer7 came out at roughly the same time a lot of the early PlayStation 3 and Xbox-360 screenshots began leaking, and the difference couldn’t be more stark. While the character movement and animation are fairly true-to-life in a simple, lightly caricaturized way, the main visual trick of Killer7 underscores its unreality. “Cel-shading” is a process that allows 3D computer graphics to look flat and cartoonish yet still move in three dimensions, by using as few colors and textures as possible for the models. Oftentimes, the effect is heightened by using bold, thick divisions between colors and shades instead of gradients, and the end result is a game that looks remarkably close to a comic book or anime; the most memorable examples of cel-shaded video games include the comic-book/superhero genre riff Viewtiful Joe (another Capcom franchise) and the graffiti-inspired Jet Set Radio series. But while most cel-shaded games use this technique in the service of blatant cartoonishness, the characters in Killer7 all have realistically-cast faces and forms, owing little to cartoon or anime tropes. In fact, when an anime-style boss shows up early in the game and gives her dewy, oversized eyes a one-frame blink, the cognitive dissonance is palpable.

And no matter how familiar and sometimes mundane the surroundings are — a handful of office buildings, an empty theme park, a lavish but disquietingly furniture-deficient early ’60s-style mansion — they’re filled with dread thanks to the tones and shading being turned up a couple of notches too high, and perhaps a bit too far to one end of the color spectrum, like a poorly-adjusted ’70s Zenith TV set. Sometimes it looks like the walls bleed into the floor, fixtures hang onto nothing, and shadows clash with purported light sources that should, by any logic, be casting them completely differently. It all comes swinging towards you like a slap to the face when you reach the third stage, set in a small Texas town that’s been developed into a cultish, corporate gated community: the trees, half the buildings, and much of the surrounded scenery is tinted an unhealthy pinkish-grey, while the blue that blankets the city is tinted less like an early afternoon sky and more like a pair of just-bought Levis, too dark to be the reason for all the sun-baked brightness everywhere. By the standards of pretty much anyone that’s grown accustomed to the compromise in modern games between lifelike realism and subtly alluring fantasy environs, the blatant spatial and visual dissonance of your surroundings in Killer7 seems designed to cause a specific kind of unease — one that most people usually are able to shake by waking up in the middle of the night.

The enemies are just as uneasy on the eyes as are the environs. Most of the Heaven Smile encountered in the game have a blocky, obviously polygonal structure, textured to look like visceral, human-shaped cadaver-things with psychedelic spattered skin and a dropped-jaw rictus of malevolent glee. A few variations start to crop up after a short while, and they’re even more disturbing: a “Bombhead Smile” with globe-shaped shutters around its head; a spherical “Spiral Smile” with faces emblazoned on its surface; the Gigeresque egg-laying “Duplicators” that can span entire rooms like grotesque tapestries of bluish-red flesh. Most enemies have a weak spot that you need to target to get instant kills, though most of them can still be brought down with a series of shots. And when you bring them down, the blood flows freely.

Blood is one of Killer7’s most strikingly-handled phenomenae. Gore is prevalent, and one of the reasons the game’s earned its R-equivalent “Mature” rating (the others being a panoply of f-bombs and a fully-clothed but noisy sex scene). There are sections in the first level or so where it seems a bit too copious and disturbing, particularly in a couple of in-game cut-scenes where we find out what happens to ordinary people when a Heaven Smile blows up in close proximity. But eventually, the gore becomes as abstract as the rest of the game’s graphics. Gun down an enemy in the conventional manner, and blood streams out more like ribbons than movie squibs. Hit their weak spot, and they blink out of existence, replaced with a red silhouette — which then disperses into dozens of small, perfectly round red dots, which stream towards the player and collect as the game’s power-up currency. Oddly enough, switching between characters produces the same effect, the blood-dots of the previous character floating off into the air only to reconvene and form the new one. Once you make the connection, it becomes a bit more apparent that there’s something more to the Smiths than meets the eye.

Getting used to the graphics and controls are surmountable obstacles, but the storyline is what fazes the unwary the most. In all the plot-summarizing above, explaining the personae of the Smith, I sort of failed to mention that they’re all under the control of one person. The game’s manual claims that every member of the Smith syndicate is under the control of the wheelchair-bound Harman, which is accurate to an extent — though the claims that they’re all split personalities of Harman seems a little difficult to grasp, especially as you get further into the game. As a plot device, the split-personality twist seems superficial on its surface, as startling and compelling as Adaptation’s hackneyed Donald Kaufman script concept The Three (“The killer, the girl, and the cop all have split-personalities. They’re all the same person. Isn’t that fucked up?”). But the aforementioned death-and-resurrection method hinted at during the blood-dot explosions of character changes is but one of numerous question marks thrown into this theory. Certain scenes in the game strongly hint that not only are (or were) the Smith assassins real people with real lives, but that they coexisted as separate entities and even interacted with each other, though they don’t actually do so in the course of the game. And there’s other hints that the Smiths — like the foes defeated by Mega Man — may have been killed previously, their powers and personae being absorbed for later use. The way this issue’s resolved around the final stage is, needless to say, a pretty big stunner, and worth the price of admission alone.

(While we’re at it, the game itself has a split personality. The soundtrack, crammed as it is with some of the best compositions to accompany digital gunfire of the last several years, veers rapidly from traditional Japanese koto and Mini-Mooged horror-flick ambience, all memorably suitable for their respective stages. And while many of the cut-scenes are handled with the same graphics that power the gameplay itself, two levels sport animated interludes of highly disparate style: one is filled with ghostly, Gorillazy white-pupil desolation, while the other is classic anime style that earns comparisons to Cowboy Bebop.)

Now dig this: while half of your brain’s being taxed trying to sort out how the Smith personae fit together, the other half’s going to have its ganglia full unraveling a dense political-conspiracy plot. It becomes clear within a couple hours of game-play that the terrorism the Heaven Smile enact is at least loosely tied in to a struggle between the western world and Japan, with the group merely pawns in a power struggle that revolves around a potential Third World War between the two superpowers. The main agitators on Japan’s side are looking for control of the Yakumo, a document named in part after the first words of Japan’s first recorded poem. (“Ya kumo,” roughly translated, is “eight clouds” — the eight islands of Japan in the nation’s earliest years.) The Yakumo is said to be a catalyst for political control, a source of power that will allow a nation to become powerful enough to dictate the direction of the world, and naturally there’s a great deal of effort expended in getting it. The United Nations Party — named such not because of any affiliation with the UN, but out of their goal to unite all nations under the flag of Japan — are intent on securing global power in an attempt to reassert traditionalist, imperialist, Bushido-derived rule. The issue is only exacerbated when a passel of missiles are mysteriously fired, with Japan as their target.

In the meantime, the cultural clashes between East and West unfurl across the game in myriad detail. Kaede Smith, the only member of the Killer7 that has a Japanese heritage, wears a perpetually-bloodstained dress, a sign said to denote a traitor — and the Killer7 are essentially working for the United States. Representatives of the United States and Japan, holed up in the basement of a government building playing mahjongg, attempt to negotiate whether or not to intercept the Japan-bound missiles, but eventually break down into arguments peppered with references to the Shinto zodiac; the Japanese bemoan the stubbornness of American “dogs” while the Americans sneer at the addle-brained “monkeys.” One American (a Texan, at that) who manages to make off with part of the Yakumo manages to construct an elaborate false front corporation, and stocks his town with cultists and unusually passive Heaven Smiles that don’t attack unless they’re fired upon. Assassinations begin to occur under the watch of “The Punishing Rangers,” the heroes of a massively popular comic book, TV series and restriction-ducking underground online video game who bear a distinct resemblance to Japanese costumed-hero icons Kyoryu Sentai Juurenja — who were later appropriated for American television as the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The gaijin who writes these assassination scenarios, which are then carried out in real life, is named Trevor Pearlharbor. The game spends the majority of its length attempting to come to grips with the struggle between the United States and Japan, and it’s a struggle that can be ended whichever way the player chooses when the game reaches its conclusion.

Where the political meets the psychological, the spiritual is sure to follow. I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the true antagonist of the game, a sinister, powerful figure known as Kun Lan. In the struggle between East and West, he’s the counterpoint to the stoic, priestly Harman; his pointy features and sharp suit are those of a man who’d like to be allowed to introduce himself, what with being a man of wealth and taste and so forth. In fact, he’s the one primarily responsible for the Heaven Smile’s existence, converting people with an invisible “Hand of God” to his ends. He also shows up in an early level to take a United Nations Party official under his wing; the official, Kenjiro Matsuoka, sets the wheels in motion to enact the return of the Japanese empire. And for a godlike being whose interests are strictly bound towards the Eastern world, his rapport with Harman is unusually convivial — a rivalry borne out in chess games and snappy patter. Harman does attempt to shoot off Kun’s “Hand of God” early in the game, but it’s a futile gesture, one met with a caught bullet and cocky laughter.

Navigation through the missions also requires what seems like a trip through the underworld. Most levels have a “Vinculum Gate,” one presided over by a gatekeeper who only allows admission if you have the correct number of Soul Shells — bullets used to kill people, presumably by the Smiths, in the past. Each trip through the Vinculum Gate brings the player through a battered, abandoned warehouse, one with a door that leads directly to a boss fight in a different area of the mission — an otherworldly obstruction, of sorts, placed there by Kun Lan in an attempt to thwart the Killer7. As a nexus, it’s a location that seems arbitrary until the very last time it shows up in the game — and the revelation of where it truly is and where that last door leads is the game’s crowning what-the-hell moment. The questions it leaves you with are confoundingly challenging to answer.

All in all, Killer7 plays like it was made to be watched. Even the “boss fights” — level-ending confrontations that, by longstanding video game law, should be some of the most challenging parts of the game — are almost uniformly simple, meant to be an interesting diversion, but nothing even remotely frustrating enough to discourage less competent players. A few bosses only take one shot to kill; some require more patience and perseverance than skill; one is strictly timing-based (and, once you find the timing, absurdly easy); and one even scotches a potential epic showdown with a predetermined outcome. Puzzles are on the easy side (at one point, Travis even out-and-out tells you the answers to a few of them), and some of the character-based ones are helpfully denoted on the in-game map when you play at the normal difficulty setting. It’s all an odd Catch-22, gameplay-wise: the puzzles and enemies are designed so as not to frustrate casual gamers, but the rest of the game — graphics, storyline and controls — seem dead-bent on baffling the holy bejesus out of them.

At a time when motion pictures supposedly aimed at grown-ups focus on increasingly banal rehashes of old ideas, and TV convinces us that ordinary people acting like douchebags in competitive environs is stimulating drama, having a video game provide so much brain-addling food for thought seems a bit perverse. Some people choose to take up the challenge up with open arms and found themselves rewarded, but video games being video games, most lose patience once they realize the action sequences aren’t constant and flashy. Upon its release, Killer7 was bombarded with mixed reviews: while GameSpot recommended it (with a “love or hate proposition” caveat) and The Onion’s AV Club was thick with superlatives, it was widely panned by a variety of publications. Hardcore gamer website GameSpy, the lad-mag mooks at Maxim, the alt-weekly Detroit Free Press, the techie bible Wired and even the old grey lady New York Times all dismissed it as too gameplay-deficient to hold their interest. A month after its July 2005 release, it had sold merely 6,200 copies for PS2 and a bit over 16,000 for the GameCube; by comparison, the movie tie-in Fantastic Four game sold over 137,000 copies for those two platforms combined. Capcom opted to dump its advertising dollars into Darkwatch, a conventional first-person shooter light on headfuck heavy on glossy graphics and hackneyed Western/horror clichés; the reviews were significantly more favorable.

Every one of the numerous negative reviews Killer7 was saddled with complains about the game’s ’style over substance’ approach. It’s an obvious mistake to anyone who has finished the game and is easily answered by a second run-through to work out the story’s kinks and gawp at the bizarre mise en scéne. All the supposed problems of Killer7 exist as red herrings to the true nature of the game: flashy graphics, diverse game-play and free-roaming controls just aren’t necessary here. (Hell, limited movement, repetition and simple controls did us fine back in the ’80s, and games didn’t even have plots back then beyond “save the princess and/or world, probably from aliens or something.”) As the controller’s presence in your hands becomes less prominent, subsumed by the images onscreen, and the nature of the game becomes more comfortable, every bit of potential that the game’s world hints at unfurls as elaborately and cleverly as one could possibly hope.

The load times do kind of suck, though.