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Player as Foiled Detective: Negative Game Mechanics, Attention, and Neoliberalism in Killer7

December 8, 2016

By Joel Jordon


Killer7 most clearly positions the player as interrogator in the Ulmeyda chapter. Each animated cutscene has a character being interviewed as though in a police drama, but the protagonist speaking to them is never shown, and you don’t hear the question. This may be because the player could currently be playing as any one of the seven protagonists, but the effect is that the character you stumble upon appears to be speaking directly to you, the player. Of course, you didn’t choose the question that you asked, but that is consistent with the role you are made to play throughout the game, the role of a detective who is never given the opportunity to solve the mysteries they are presented with.

The decapitated head of the girl who gives you a ring in each episode, explaining her situation, seems almost to be explaining your own:

It’s not that I don’t like tight places, but there are limits to everything. This place is a bit too tight. A box? It’s no way to treat someone. q(-.-)p I look like a victim of a mutilation murder. Like slashed into pieces. Pieces? It completely slipped my mind. Maybe I’ve fallen to pieces. Family’s in pieces. Lover’s in pieces. Body’s in pieces. My whole life is about pieces.

You’re in a “tight spot,” as Iwazaru always says, and on top of your control being split among seven different playable characters, you have all these pieces of story that don’t add up. And yet the decapitated head and Iwazaru are both also among the many repetitive elements that make up Killer7, taunting you with the logic that seems to tie them together. In spite of its fragmentary nature, where each of the game’s five episodes, focusing on a new antagonist, seems not to be directly connected with any of the others, Killer7, like so many games, is tightly structured through repetition. Each episode always begins in Garcian’s apartment with the same phone call, followed by the same visit to Harman’s room, followed by the same transition to a meeting on an overpass; the same cast of ghost characters always slowly unveils the story in each chapter; the decapitated head of the same girl always gives you a ring; the antagonist of the preceding episode always makes an appearance as a ghost; the passage to the ending of the episode is always through the same colosseum, secured through the use of soul bullets as tickets. You circle around the game’s spaces, getting items and coming back around to use them. Like in many games, the repetition holds the game together, creating its logic, but in this case it also seems to lock you in, show you the limits and your inability to ever break through, as a mere player of videogames, and understand what is going on, as if to say, what, after all, can playing a videogame tell you about politics and the real suffering it causes in the world?

When Killer7 was released in 2005, there were excellent in-depth plot analyses like this one by James Clinton Howell, which not only pieces together the plot but also presents an argument about its historical references to America and Japan. But these analyses relied in part on information from a book about the design of the game published separately, with ideas that didn’t make it in. To the average player, and especially the “gamer” whom the game seems to anticipate will be playing it, the details of the plot, their logic and coherence, would be elusive. My objective is to identify what relationship the game establishes with the player in the immediacy of play.

The player is a foiled detective. They are foiled, in the first place, because rather than being allowed to focus on solving the story’s mysteries, they are continuously distracted by enemies they must shoot at and puzzles they must solve. Firewatch, by stripping away what are traditionally thought of as game mechanics, focuses the player on the activities of moving in and looking at a space. If Firewatch thus identifies the positive meaning inherent in mere moving and looking and establishes that these are meaningful game mechanics in themselves, Killer7 does the opposite: it shows that many of our traditional game mechanics are bereft of positive meaning. In both games, mechanics operate primarily on the player’s attention. In Firewatch, moving in the space between plot points creates time for contemplation, and the natural environment facilitates it. By contrast, shooting and puzzle solving in Killer7 work against the attention the player is attempting to muster to solve the plot. And yet if these mechanics thus serve a largely negative function, this in itself affects the player’s relationship with the game and the form and flow of meaning. Watching a let’s play or a compilation of the game’s dialogue and cutscenes would lose the fundamental meaning of this relationship contained in the immediacy of play, just as it would for any walking sim.

The shooting mechanics usually put emphasis on aiming precisely at enemies’ weak points. Attempting to target small areas of the screen is an absorbing activity that in a sense emulates the precision with which you are attempting to solve the story. But more than that, by constantly interrupting the unfolding of the narrative with this activity, your attempts at mustering the attention apparently needed to solve it are frustrated. The game begins to feel like it fluctuates between events that are relevant—the cutscenes for which you muster rapt attention to avoid missing anything, in hopes that you will begin to figure things out—and events that are not, which you are disappointed to have to engage in rather than flow immediately from one story event to another and find that seemingly elusive connection between all these fragments.

The puzzles are almost always entirely irrelevant to the story and abstractly videogame-y in form (like when equipping rings or using your personalities’ abilities or finding unexplained “odd engravings” to open the way) or at most connected to the story in an only superficial way (collecting action figures or color samples). In most cases characters will, in a tangent after giving a long monologue on story events that often only obfuscates things further, explicitly tell you the solution to a nearby puzzle, as if to taunt you with a meaningless answer, one that allows you to progress in the game but not in your understanding of anything that matters.

Most of all, the purpose of the puzzles seems to be contained in their use of space. They often task you with memorizing usually coldly numerical information in one area and bringing it over to another where you must input it. By thus requiring memorization from you for a period of time, it actively shifts your attention away from trying to understand the story and onto an irrelevant task. This is the key to understanding the player’s relationship to the game. It is antagonistic, but it implicates you at the same time. Even though it is because of what the game presents you with that you are unable to resolve any important questions, it makes you feel responsible. And this in turn reveals the truth of all choice in videogames: you are not truly free while making any choice you are presented with but instead circumscribed by the first choice—the only free choice—the choice to play at all.

There is a section near the very end of Killer7 where there are no puzzles and there is no combat, and you only move forward and initiate a series of plot events, in a presaging of walking sims. When all you can do is hold down the Gamecube’s big green A button to go on ahead, fully submitting to the inevitable, you are being made to identify with the protagonist’s avatar and accept responsibility for his actions. And this in spite of the fact that, even at this late stage in the game, you don’t even understand the motivation behind them, just as you don’t understand many of the details of the battle between the United States and Japan for hegemony. But just as it’s enough to understand that you are a pawn somewhere in the middle of that battle, and just as you can understand that there is something sick in society from the mere glimpse you get of children hung on meat hooks by a pedophile and murderer who obtained his obscene wealth through organ trafficking—the one moment where Killer7 pushes past its usually flippant humor in the face of extreme violence to arrive at the truly macabre—just as you can infer the drama of all the story’s events from their tone, you could always infer what your role was from your immediate interactions: you are a neoliberal subject, one who appears to have freedom except as regards your ability to opt out of the system that sets the terms of that freedom in the first place, or put another way, someone without real power over events who is nonetheless implicated in those events through your obligatory consumption and enjoyment of them. A unity of freedom and determinism. The battle on the level of countries is revealed to be about the undermining of democracy at the same time as you find out that the individual personalities under your control were not individuals at all. When you discover, at the end of that sequence without puzzles or combat where you only moved forward with a sense of fatalism, that Garcian killed all of his personae and is actually Emir, and he feels remorse and bewilderment, the loop is closed: like the neoliberal subject, you/he/they feel fully responsible for your/his/their actions although they have been pre-scripted.

Continuity of Space and Time in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

March 2, 2016

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is as committed to the continuity of a linear experience of space and time as Half-Life or Portal, even though you can see the future at save points, are shown elaborate cinematic fly-throughs of environments when you enter them, and can rewind time. That’s not only because all of these events occur predictably and repetitively (at save points, entryways, mistakes) but also because they ultimately revolve around the moment-to-moment flow of the platforming: you are rewarded for having paid attention to them when you return to platforming, since they give you hints as to how it is supposed to happen (or in the case of rewinding time, how it is not supposed to happen). In the context of the narrative, as the prince’s narration often reminds you, everything you are doing has already happened, which situates history and storytelling as deterministic. But because the feeling is of being constantly pulled back to the present rather than the past, play is experienced as consciousness that is continuous and lived.

Freedom/Determinism and the Plot Twist Trope

February 20, 2016

Most modern mainstream videogames are about escapism. You feel as if you have enormous freedom, the challenges are easily completed and the rewards great, and the world revolves around you, the player. Alternatively, the game is very difficult, and it is a struggle but still you attain mastery, which is equally or even more satisfying to your ego. This is superficial freedom, both lacking an analogue in the real world and not even true in the context of these games, which are after all hard-coded, designed objects.

The illusion of agency that is created for open-world games is obvious (and these have, among AAA games, unsurprisingly displaced linear narrative games in the last decade or so), but linear narrative games have also always focused on generating this illusion. Even Portal, among the most coherent of linear narrative games—a game whose story seems to have been designed around the inherent limitations of its form (a linear puzzle game)—turns out to be a (literal) escapist fantasy. It’s more believable than many others because it’s justified by the narrative, but the escape of the second half is just as linear and constructed as the first half in spite of what the narrative may pretend and thus fantasy. It mirrors the usual structure of linear narrative games where the player is weak at the start but grows in power by obtaining upgrades and getting better at the game over time.

Some linear games invert this structure and justify the combination of linearity and the illusion of free choice using a common trope of a “clever” plot twist that is placed at the very end (Bioshock, Half-Life 2, the Metal Gear Solid series, even Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, among many others). The player is asked to suspend their disbelief about the game’s fundamental linearity throughout in order to experience a power fantasy (usually with some foreshadowing that it’s all false) before the rug is pulled out from underneath them—showing, on a plot level, that they’ve been manipulated into doing everything they thought they were doing, but also, on a meta level, de-suspending their disbelief by saying that this game was an artificial construction (in which case Andrew Ryan, the G-Man, the Patriots, etc. are stand-ins for the game designer).

What makes the twist seem fatuous is that the power fantasy remains dominant until the very end, which makes you wonder why you needed to play all of that first just to get the “real” point. But this is also a somewhat uncharitable characterization in some cases: Metal Gear Solid, for example, has constant points of tension between choice and determinism throughout. What is the purpose of all those cutscenes other than to constantly interrupt the player’s fantasy of playing out the role of an action hero and show that they are not the one who is really in control here?

In Emily Short’s response to a common theme of the talks at PRACTICE 2015, she asked how the player could be made to experience something closer to the real experience of a participant in democracy—not determinism (because people usually don’t have no agency) or power fantasy but minimal agency:

So I’ve realized from this discussion that there’s another kind of player agency experience that I also want to explore. […] Specifically: the situation where you have limited but not zero power.

This is, I think, the reality of democracy. I am morally responsible for the actions of my government and for the oppressive social systems I belong to. I did not design them, but I have not dismantled them. It is, of course, impossible that I could dismantle them singlehandedly. In fact, it’s unlikely that I will ever make any visible difference. To the extent that that there are obviously effective ways for one person to change a large system, most involve extremely violent or disruptive actions that would be a net negative. Nonetheless, the difficulty of making a difference does not remove the responsibility to try to improve both the immediate situation of the marginalized and the system itself.

Corrypt, in my mind, conveys an experience truer to this reality than many others: it grants you freedom only to show its limits in a world that is ultimately determined by its game designer and the code underlying it. The experience is of a more sustained, more complicated, more honest mediation of freedom and determinism than that provided by the plot twist trope. VESPER.5, another game by Michael Brough, could be described as being about coping with what you don’t have control over by bringing a meditative ritual to it.

In her essay on The Witness (only the most recent game to use the plot twist trope), Liz Ryerson writes about Corrypt and Starseed Pilgrim, “The tragedy is that these two games, and others like them, feel more self-contained and well-realized than many of the more widely celebrated games in the culture. They hint at the computer as a strange, distinct new organism — not something that should or really can be tamed.” Computer programs are by nature determinate universes: their possibilities have already been spelled out by the code that is there. But it’s only when you are confronted with this fact, not handed the illusion of escape, that you start to see, in the pressure points in the space between you and the game—while writing poems in Kentucky Route Zero maybe, choosing among only a few choices but feeling each reverberate in your head in infinite ways—any of the real possibilities that exist outside these universes.