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The Anticapitalism Allegory of No More Heroes

August 26, 2011

by Joel Jordon

“Whatever happened to Leon Trotsky?
He got an ice pick
That made his ears burn.”

— The Stranglers, “No More Heroes”

No More Heroes is commonly interpreted as a parody and critique of video games, but I think the game has something to say on a whole other level: it also seems to be a critique of the capitalist system. The game’s anticapitalism allegory is apparent in all aspects of its design, including in its narrative, game mechanics, self-aware aesthetics, and the way it portrays its protagonist. I’ve broken this essay into four sections in order to discuss each of these aspects in turn and demonstrate how No More Heroes serves as a rare example of a game whose many parts all work together to express the same message. The cohesiveness of all of the game’s parts allows it to effectively communicate a message to the player that is both political and emotional.

Narrative

The narrative of No More Heroes is patently absurd, but it’s familiar video game fare. Travis Touchdown, the protagonist, takes a job from Sylvia Christel, an agent with the United Assassins Association (UAA). After Travis kills the eleventh-ranked assassin, he is entered into the rankings, and the rest of the game is about how he works his way through the top ten by killing each assassin ranked above him in order.

The story can be easily interpreted as an extrapolation and parody of video game logic, which allows for violence and murder to occur for no purpose other than to advance in some abstract way. But rising through the ranks in No More Heroes can also be interpreted as a representation of advancing within the capitalist system, especially as Travis earns prize money for each assassination. Travis obtains wealth and rises to the top of the allegorical society by murdering other people, effectively critiquing capitalism as a system in which social mobility is allowed only at the expense of others’ misfortunes.

The game portrays Sylvia, who orchestrates all of the fights between the assassins, as exceedingly wealthy and carefree. One of the game’s running gags is that every time Sylvia calls Travis to tell him where his next ranked fight will be, the player can see that she’s out enjoying some recreational activity, whether she’s shopping, lying at the beach, or getting an oil rub. Travis is made to do all of the dirty work while Sylvia gets to enjoy the luxuries her wealth makes her privy to. At the end of the game, the player finds out that everything was a scam, the UAA doesn’t exist, and Sylvia just pocketed all of the entrance fees Travis paid to her in order to enter each fight. All this can be viewed as an allegory for and critique of how, in a capitalist system, the rich can reap all of the benefits of the poor’s gruesome work.

But the game doesn’t stop at just critiquing how the rich steal from the poor—it also demonstrates how compelling the capitalist system’s promises of upward mobility and wealth are and how this makes people buy into it and then become trapped by it. The first ranked assassin Travis fights against is very wealthy—he’s a count who lives in a luxurious mansion on a tropical paradise—and during the fight, Travis gives a monologue, the beginning of which is all too revealing of his intentions:

This count… I feel as if I’m looking at my future self. Mega bucks, big-ass house, fast cars… Dining in style with a world-class chef and a trusty nutritionist counting every calorie. A team of hot yoga instructors to keep me in shape. Nurses to attend to my body… Maids and loyal servants at my beck and call. On the weekends, tanned babes knocking on my door every two hours. Every day full of excitement and luxury. That’d be the life. Everything in its right place. It’s the perfect life. It’s the life for winners. That’ll be my life!

Travis is only killing all of the assassins ranked above him in order to obtain wealth and the luxuries and sexual pleasures that come with it—Sylvia promises to sleep with him if he kills the first-ranked assassin. He buys in to the capitalist’s dream. But he also seems to be aware that he’s stuck in this capitalist system and that his pursuits within it will never actually satisfy him. Here’s the end of his monologue:

I realize there’s really nothing here for me. But what else can I do but keep going? Maybe I should have been a little more careful before I jumped in. Gotta find the exit. Gotta find that exit to Paradise. But, I can’t see it. Can’t see anything. There’s this sense of doom running down my spine, like it’s… like it’s trying to suck the life out of me. I need to get rid of it before I bail. Something deeper… deeper than my instincts is taunting me. Can’t find the exit. Can’t find the exit. Can’t find the exit. Can’t find the exit. Can’t find the exit.

This is the first of many of the game’s suggestions that the capitalist system traps all those who participate in it. When Travis asks Sylvia what would happen if he refuses to continue killing and advancing in rank, she says that he has no choice because he’s become a target of lower-ranked assassins. Once he’s in it, he can’t get out.

Sylvia also frequently contradicts herself and acts unexpectedly, which could furthermore represent the confusing and ensnaring nature of capitalism. One second she might be overwhelmingly supportive of Travis and the next she’ll tell him how certain she is that he’s going to die in his next fight. Her inexplicable contradictions are especially clear in this piece of dialogue from when she calls Travis right before the final fight:

I never thought you’d make it this far. But I am sorry… I cannot see you anymore. I want to fly to your side, right now. I want to be in your arms. I want to be with you. I want to share my life with you… no matter the cost. Meeting you… I’ve felt truly alive for the first time. I mean that. But feelings and reality are two different things. Life is not that simple, yes? Now be honest. Did you really think I would let you do me if you hit number one? You really are an idiot, aren’t you, Travis? Come back to reality! I mean, look at yourself! You are a dopy, otaku assassin. The bottom of the barrel. No woman would be caught dead with you… unless she was a desperate bitch! Where in the world could you find a woman who could fall in love with someone like you? Well… one is right here. It was fun, Travis. I love you. Now… don’t forget to use the restroom. Trust your Force… And head for the Garden of Madness!

Her sudden shifts of emotion make her motives completely unclear, which allows her to really pull all of the strings and manipulate Travis. It adds to the allegory, showing how the people who wield power in a capitalist system can manipulate their victims.

Sylvia ends many of her conversations with Travis by telling him to go to the “Garden of Madness.” The “Garden of Madness” might be interpreted as the only goal anyone can hope to end up at when working his or her way upward in a capitalist system—it evokes the peaceful nature of a garden that’s been corrupted by all the madness that was required to pursue it. And as No More Heroes approaches its end, things do get more and more mad, as the narrative seems to search desperately for some meaning and purpose it can ascribe to Travis’s actions and their consequences.

Near the end of the game, an assassin with a Darth Vader–ish mask and voice parodies Star Wars by claiming to be Travis’s father; following this is a series of real plot twists in which Travis learns that one assassin he’s fighting is his sister and another his twin brother. Travis suddenly has a flashback and remembers that the reason he started rising through the ranks was because his sister, Jeane, killed their parents and he wanted to get to her and get revenge. She explains the reason she killed their parents, but the game fast-forwards over her dialogue, which is all anyone really needs to realize that it’s all quite obviously meant to be a joke and parody of dramatic climaxes and none of the details of it are important. All of these plot twists just come off as suddenly invented excuses for all of the violence that has been committed thus far. Consider the following exchange:

Travis: “I don’t have a father, at least not anymore. You killed him, didn’t you?”

Jeane: “Yes. And that’s why you became an assassin to kill me.”

Travis: “Now I get it. All those fights… It was for this!”

But it wasn’t, really. The player hasn’t been fighting for this reason—he or she has just now been made aware of this purpose for the first time—and Travis didn’t remember this reason and said, at the beginning of the game, that he was fighting for wealth and luxury and to sleep with Sylvia. These inexplicable pieces of plot don’t actually explain anyone’s initial motives because the game designers don’t reveal them until after all of the bloody deeds have been done. Allegorically, then, these plot twists represent the desperate excuses invented after the fact to justify terrible actions committed within the capitalist system.

The game ends with Travis and his twin brother, Henry, running along the street stupidly, their swords held against each other the whole time. They share the following dialogue:

Henry: “How do you plan to put an end to all of this?”

Travis: “Wait a sec. You want me to tie up all these loose ends? I don’t think so.”

Henry: “You’re the protagonist. I’m just a cool, handsome foil who happens to be your twin brother. Hate to say it, but it’s your job.”

Travis: “I want to bail, but where the hell’s the exit? There’s no way out, is there? No getting out… Right, bro?”

Henry: “That’s right. All we can do is keep running.”

Travis: “Then let’s find that exit they call Paradise.”

They then jump away from each other for a moment, exclaim “let’s go!” in unison, and clash again in mid-air; the game freezes on that image and the credits roll.

Travis and Henry both seem to recognize the absurdity of the situation they’re in—they go so far as to note that they’re a part of an arbitrary fictional narrative that will have no proper conclusion—and yet they don’t try to fight it. Instead, they just keep running and doing what they’ve been doing. Travis ends with saying that they have to find the “exit to Paradise,” which was something he mentioned he couldn’t find all the way back in his first fight with a ranked assassin. It was in committing to that first fight that he submitted to the capitalist system and sealed his fate—that of the Garden of Madness, not Paradise.

After the credits roll, the game pans out and reveals that the frozen frame of Travis and Henry clashing in mid-air is a painting in a museum. Travis’s struggle within the capitalist system is forever.

Game Mechanics

All of the above deals only with the plot of No More Heroes. In this section, I will discuss how the game mechanics enhance the anticapitalist allegory by adding on additional layers of meaning.

Money plays a very fundamental role in the game’s structure. Each time Travis kills an enemy, not just blood but also coins spray exaggeratedly out of his or her corpse; each time he kills a ranked assassin, he earns prize money. Travis must use the money he earns to pay entrance fees to Sylvia in order to participate in ranked fights. Money makes the game’s world go round—Travis is constantly earning money and then putting it back into the system in higher and higher amounts (as the entrance fees grow), and Sylvia is profiting more and more throughout the game. This could be viewed as a representation of a capitalist system in which someone rich profits off of someone else’s hard work.

The player can choose to purchase some things with money, too. There’s a clothing store where the player can buy purely cosmetic items for Travis to wear, and there’s a video store from which he or she can rent videos. The former is a representation of engaging in consumerism for the sake of luxury and increasing one’s attractiveness, and the latter is a representation of media consumption. It’s certainly no coincidence that the game is saved by having Travis defecate—he’s literally relieving himself of everything that he’s consumed.

The anticapitalist allegory is even more explicit in other ways, though. Between ranked fights, the player has the option of earning money by doing some killing missions on the side and also by participating in “side jobs.” These side jobs are not glamorous—in fact, a lot of them, like lawn-mowing, garbage collection, and working at a gas station, resemble low-paying jobs in real life. The gameplay of these side jobs consists of often tedious minigames. For the gas station side job, for example, the player just has to correctly time pressing the B button to fill up cars over and over again. These boring minigames allude to the tedium experienced by someone who’s barely scraping by with a minimum-wage job.

Tedium is expressed in other aspects of the gameplay. There are also, for example, balls strewn throughout the game world that the player can find and bring to someone in order to learn wrestling moves. The balls have no apparent practical use to the man the player gives them to and can thus be interpreted as parodies of collectibles in video games, but the experience of finding them also evokes the same tedium of repetitious and unenjoyable work as the side jobs.

Moving through Santa Destroy—the setting of No More Heroes—and looking for those balls, the player might be struck by the emptiness of the game world. It’s a parody of sandbox settings like in the Grand Theft Auto games, which put the player in a city and give him or her a lot of choices—the whole name of the game is freedom. But the parody sandbox setting of No More Heroes gives the player only the illusion of freedom, as there isn’t actually much to do in it and its lack of technical polish is distracting and inhibiting. In this world, you can look for the balls, take on a few side missions and jobs, and visit a few different shops, but that’s about it—much of the world is just streets and buildings that serve no gameplay purpose. As far as its technical qualities go, there’s some bad collision detection—you can collide with invisible walls when driving Travis’s motorcycle—and there’s a limited draw distance that results in a lot of objects not appearing until you get close to them. Moving cars have thick windows you can’t see through, as if no one’s actually driving them, and in the rare instances that you see anyone walking along the street, you have no way of truly interacting with them. You can actually walk into them and push them around without their protesting, which totally breaks any illusion that they might be real and clearly delineates their identities as video game objects.

In Grand Theft Auto, the whole point is that you’re able to interact with people, choosing to beat them to a pulp or steal their cars if you want to, and the world is polished technically so that you’ll never run into problems with bad collision detection or short draw distances. Grand Theft Auto’s microcosm of an American city is all yours and you can live out your fantasies in it. No More Heroes strips away all of that freedom and emphasizes the artificiality and lack of technical polish of its world, as if to reveal that our ability to make choices and truly fulfill our desires can only be an illusion when working within the capitalist system. You have no choice when it comes to having to kill others in order to advance in rank. All you really ever get to decide is which tedious missions you choose to take on to earn money and which clothing you choose to buy and which videos you choose to rent with that money—all of your choices are restricted by how much money you have and what options are available to you as a consumer. And making these small, meaningless choices will never distract from the truth: this is an empty, artificial world, and no one on the streets ever notices you.

Self-aware Aesthetics

Aesthetics and gameplay are intertwined in No More Heroes, building off of one another to create meaning. It’s in the thick of gameplay—during fights—that the game’s self-aware aesthetics are most prominent.

During gameplay, No More Heroes frequently reappropriates recognizable video game aesthetics and, through exaggeration, turns them into parody. Every time the player kills an enemy, numerous things happen in a pattern that repeats itself throughout the game, each step of the pattern loudly proclaiming “this is a video game.” Just before the player kills an enemy, the game indicates, with big arrows in the center of the screen, the direction that the player needs to move his or her Wii remote in to finish off the enemy. After performing this movement and killing the enemy, an exaggerated amount of blood and coins spray from his or her sliced-up body. And after this, a slot machine automatically runs; if the slots happen to land on three-in-a-row of anything, the player gets a “dark side” ability. Among these abilities is one that puts a targeting reticule on the screen and allows the player to aim and shoot at other enemies, turning the game, briefly, into a parody of another video game genre. The graphics for the quick-time event arrows and the slot machine are made up of big square dots, calling to mind pixelation, an aesthetic very common to old video games.  If the player finishes off an enemy with a wrestling move, there will even be icons representing the Wii remote and nunchuk next to the arrows, breaking down the fourth wall still more by blatantly acknowledging that the player has to control this scene with a video game controller.  Basically, the pattern of events that occur as the player kills an enemy uses big, unrealistic, gamey, self-referential graphics that preclude any possibility of suspending one’s disbelief and remind the player over and over again that he or she is playing a video game.

Patterns that proclaim No More Heroes’s status as a video game occur elsewhere. The structure of the game as a whole, for one, is perfectly formulaic: there are individual stages, each with a ranked assassin who acts as a boss. Beyond that, every time the player beats one of these bosses and advances in rank, a series of events happen without fail: Travis moves up on a high score list—which has graphics and sound that could have been ripped straight from a classic arcade game—and then he returns to his room and listens to a message left by the video store about a video he hasn’t returned. Old games tend to follow formulas like this, with things broken into stages with bosses and high score lists, but as games have become technically capable of being more realistic, these unrealistic formulas have largely become relics. No More Heroes could only be bringing them back for the sake of deliberately parodying video game aesthetics.

So what do these self-aware video game aesthetics have to do with the game’s anticapitalist allegory? Well, in ensuring you’re always made aware that you’re playing a video game, the game might also be hoping that you’ll recognize that this No More Heroes you’re consuming is a piece of media and a product. On a meta level, the game may be acknowledging that you most likely had to engage with the capitalist system in order to play this game—whether you purchased it or rented it—and that the act of playing it is an act of consumption. The game has in this way associated you with Travis Touchdown, the protagonist trapped in the capitalist system whose consumption of products and media often distance him from real life.

Media is layered on top of media throughout the game. One ranked assassin whom Travis fights, Shinobu, is a samurai, and the fight takes place in a Japanese-style room. They have the following exchange:

Shinobu: “You will pay with your life! At last, I have my chance. I will now avenge my father!”

Travis: “Something tells me you watch too many samurai movies, little girl!”

The setting, Shinobu herself, and the invented scenario—in which Shinobu is claiming to seek revenge even though Travis never killed her father—are clearly parodying samurai movies, and layered on top of that is Travis’s claim that she watches too many samurai movies. This whole scene is so thickly layered in fictional media that it has almost no connection with real life at all. After the fight, Shinobu continues to say that Travis killed her father, Master Jacobs, and Travis says, “I watched Master Jacobs’ teachings on video over and over till the fuckin’ tape wore out. We’ve never met in person.” Travis absurdly states that he got all of his training through media rather than through real-life practice, adding yet another layer of consumption between him and real life.

Media finds its way into No More Heroes in all kinds of different ways. A ranked battle with a superhero, for example, takes place in a movie studio. Santa Destroy—the open-world setting of No More Heroes—parodies American consumption stereotypes with buildings like Suplex Pizza and Burger Suplex, the latter of which has a giant cheeseburger cupola. Travis’s room is filled with products and media. This constant presence of consumption is what divides Travis from real life and really traps him in the capitalist system.

Portrayal of the Protagonist

No More Heroes’s message is not just political. The game has a tragedy at its center: the protagonist’s participation in the capitalist system leads him to seek pleasure in consumption alone and become disconnected from other people.

Travis Touchdown is in many ways intended to be a parody of the stereotypical video game player, otaku, and geek. He gets a very vulgar and pathetic enjoyment out of violence and sex—he often seems only to be killing all these people because Sylvia promises to sleep with him when he hits number one—and he charges his sword by moving it up and down in a motion that obviously alludes to masturbation. He consumes tons of media and products—his room is filled with everything from toys to posters to wrestling masks. On a meta level, his portrayal might be interpreted as a critique of the player, who might share some of his consumerist compulsions and enjoyment of violence and sex. After all, a lot of players certainly bought and consumed No More Heroes just because it looked like an exciting, ultraviolent game, not realizing that it might be critical of them for doing this.

But the game is more than just critical—it really does seem to want to show just how tragic Travis’s (and maybe the player’s) situation is. The capitalist system seems to have ensnared Travis and led him away from discovering the things that can really make him happy; he’s substituted the pleasure he gets from consumer products and visceral thrills for relationships with real people. Throughout the game, he only interacts with a few different people: Sylvia, other assassins before he kills them, and people working behind counters from whom he either purchases products or receives job offers. When he does speak with these people, he frequently expresses a love of violence, and when he speaks with females he’s exceedingly sexist toward them.

But there’s one character with whom Travis seems to establish a genuine emotional connection: Holly Summers, the rank-six assassin. The first dialogue they share reaffirms Travis’s obsession with violence:

Holly: “Do you like fighting?”

Travis: “Yup.”

Holly: “Do you like killing?”

Travis: “Live for it.”

But then Holly tells him he’s immature for enjoying violence and not considering the consequences of his actions:

Holly: “Do you accept death?”

Travis: “Death? Never crossed my mind.”

Holly: “Death is the only truth. You are still a mere bud.”

But Travis doesn’t let any of her moralizing have any effect on him, responding with “that’s not a good thing, you know… seeking meaning in everything. Especially killing. That’s a bad habit among smart little girls these days.” Holly then seems to suggest that he might have a better understanding if only he could be intimate with other people: “come closer and you will understand everything.” But Travis insists only on flirting with her and fighting her, sticking to his normal obsessions with sex and violence. He asks, “Are you in the mood yet?”—a double entendre—and then says, “Normal assassins don’t shoot the shit like this. They see their target… And kill them!” The fight begins and the game transitions from cutscene to gameplay.

After the fight, another cutscene begins with Travis standing over a prone Holly, his sword pointed in her face. It’s a clearly sexual stance that evokes Travis’s physical dominance over Holly after having won the fight. But he hesitates in this moment and won’t kill her. Holly, though, insists that “assassins must die when they lose” and shows Travis the consequences of his actions. After saying “the moment you hesitated… I felt your embrace,” she puts a grenade in her mouth and kills herself.

This is one of the only times in the whole game that Travis expresses any guilt and intimacy—absent of any violent or sexual sentiments—and it’s perhaps because Holly kept trying to pull some feeling out of him. He says, while holding her corpse, “Forgive me, Holly. I was late in saying this… But I love your soul. Rest in peace.” Almost exactly halfway through the game, in this one break from all of the consumption, on a beach where you can hear the tide and seagulls, Travis then drops Holly’s corpse into a grave. The camera switches to a position within the grave, looking up at the corpse falling down and landing with a thud and a black-out, as if to tragically signal that connecting with others in this violent system is impossible and Travis won’t attempt it again the rest of the game. The black screen then transitions to a high score list showing Travis move up to rank six as some triumphant video game music plays.

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