Killer Is Dead — A Killer Is You
I take no issue with the current phenomenon popularly known as “Slutoween”. Not just because I am a hetero male with the attendant urges thereof, and not just because several thousand other, far more pressing global issues would have to be resolved in order for it to merit any real attention, but because fear and arousal are so closely linked in the popular psyche that Slutoween seems like the natural product of human consciousness. Fight, flight, and the fleshy fraternization feat are so essential to what we are that our gods are avatars of lust and violence. Zeus is the king of the gods, emperor of the cosmos, arbiter of absolute wisdom and wielder of the primal forces of creation, and he uses this great power to get laid as often as possible. Sex and death are inexorably linked; they are the alpha and the omega of the human experience, and though their influence may be rechanneled into an infinite variety of outlets we are never far removed from their elemental, chthonic influence; we never love more than when we are dying, and we never fear more than when we are loving. Patton Oswalt memorably described the singles scene as “...a fun nightmare. It's a nightmare, and then there's boners in it somehow, I don't know how that happens, it's awesome.” There is something not just intimidating but genuinely frightening about sexuality, which is one of the reasons why supervillains tend to be so much more alluring than superheroes. Some artists are exceptionally gifted at tapping into the fear that accompanies sexuality: David Cronenberg, H.R. Gieger, David Lynch, that ghoul who was in Sex & The City. There's a reason why Erotic Thriller is a genre unto itself. The link between sex and death is acutely felt in Japan, whose art tends to emphasize the link between the two, ergo such phenomena as the infamous Vagina Bubbles From Hell, the art of Makoto Aida, the act of shinjū, and the games of Suda51 & Grasshopper Manufacture, Inc., whose latest release is Killer Is Dead.
Killer Is Dead is the most narratively incoherent game Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture have ever devised. That may sound like nothing unusual, (like saying “the thinnest runway model” or “the most jingoistic national anthem” or “the stupidest Michael Bay movie”) but it's still quite the feat. No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned had elements of the fantastic and the absurd, but at least retained the basic structure of a story, with events more or less occurring for a reason, even if that reason was utterly ridiculous. True to its paradoxical title, Killer Is Dead's story largely eschews the trappings of cause and effect. It plays like a Frankenstein's monster of a video game, with its various disparate parts unceremoniously sewn together into a great shambling beast that knows not from whence it came or why it be. Suda51's games have always been heavily stylized and subject to a kind of free-wheeling dream logic, but Killer Is Dead takes it to an entirely new level, like a canvas painted in haemorrhaging geysers of unbridled Id. Like a mid-period Takashi Miike film, it starts out odd, then becomes bizarre, and finally lands somewhere in the realm of incoherent lunacy, with our hopes of any of this madness being explained vanishing as the credits roll. (I'm thinking specifically of Gozu, but take your pick.) As always it's difficult to tell what Suda51 was going for, assuming he was going for anything at all and not composing every element of the game on a whim according to whatever he found interesting at the moment. Regardless of the process, the result is a schizophrenic amalgam of sex and violence that opens Grasshopper Manufacture up to the usual accusations of tastelessness, sexism and shoddy craftsmanship—some of which are more well-founded than others.
The game starts in a grime-caked alleyway. A gentleman with poor posture, bulging eyes and a gun for an arm fires some bullets at a man with a katana, who blocks the bullets with his sword, as one does. Killer Is Dead's pretensions to noir are already on display, and the alley as depicted by the game's cel shaded graphics is absolutely smothered in shadows, they drip down the walls and pool along the ground like a particularly aggressive form of ivy and will only prove more ubiquitous as the game goes on, conspiring with the characteristically Japanese excess of particle effects and an awkward camera to significantly detract from the combat. As if foretelling our future visual woes, Mr. Gun Arm gets the drop on our hero and shoots him in the head. Clouds obscure the moon, turning from white to black in the process. It starts to rain. Our hero inexplicably gets back up, chops his foe's arm off, then chops his head off. Purple light flows out of the body and floats up to the moon, which turns purple. This makes no sense, and the game will never make any attempt to explain any of it. Welcome to Killer Is Dead.
When we next meet our hero, whose name we learn is Mondo Zappa, his left arm has been replaced with a biomechanical prosthesis that is proving no obstacle for the woman he's fondling. It could be her fetish, but we aren't afforded an opportunity to find out, since their heavy petting is interrupted by a call from Mondo's boss, who has someone he needs Mondo to kill. Mondo ends his liaison immediately, showing he is a cyborg that puts business before pleasure. In the course of the evening's festivities we meet Bryan Roses, Mondo's half cyborg, half black guy boss; Vivienne Squall, his English motorcycle-driving handler; and Mika Takekawa, his Japanese scatterbrained aide-de-camp. Mondo's nationality is identified as USA, and while Americans don't really give their kids names like Mondo Zappa, perhaps they should. All of Mondo's associates fulfill certain roles we've come to expect. Vivienne Squall is the consummate professional: calculating, clinical, not above kicking a little ass. Bryan Roses isn't so hard nosed—he's an avuncular, go-with-the-flow kind of dude, an attitude he broadcasts to the world with his Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts and big ass gold chain that says “BRYAN” on it in case he forgets what his first name is. We get the sense that Bryan Roses fought his war a long time ago. It claimed the left half of his body and he's now content to ride a desk, though, as we'll see, he isn't above kicking a little ass either. Mika Takekawa's role isn't so clearly defined. She lives with Mondo on his house boat, and we learn early on that she took the same assassination accreditation test Mondo did and failed. (let us remember that standardized tests are infamously culturally biased, and standardized murder tests doubly so) When questioned as to why he lives in a boat with a Japanese girl who's supposed to be 20 but looks 15 and behaves like a hyperactive 8 year old, Mondo says that he found her on the streets, and keeps her around because she's talented at making the soft-boiled eggs he so craves. We'll see later in the game that Mondo's story isn't exactly true, but the real explanation makes even less sense.
Mondo Zappa will kill many people over the course of his tenure at the nameless (But government funded! That part's important, I guess) assassin's guild, but the vast majority of those sampling the icy wrath of his blade will be what the game calls Wires, enemies that take many forms, from armored humanoids to massive hulking brutes to floating eyes. What are Wires? Well, according to the game, they come from the moon. Why do they come from the moon? Shut up, that's why. The enemy designs are very good, but they're also very hard to appreciate. Grasshopper and Suda51 have always embraced an extreme interpretation of the Style vs Substance debate, for them it's not style over substance, style is the substance. Grasshopper & Suda51 moderated this stance somewhat in Shadows of the Damned and produced their best game as a result, but in Killer is Dead their dogma of Style Über Alles resurfaces to a self-defeating extreme. The scenes are lit by extremes of inky blackness and lens flares, and combat is a storm of whirling particle effects. They say the goal of extremists is to alienate anyone sympathetic to their cause, and with Killer is Dead Grasshopper & Suda51 may have finally succeeded. It's a shame, since the combat is largely solid. It's simple, it's no Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, but the controls are tight and enemy variety keeps things moving, at least when the environments will let it. Killer Is Dead's level design is bewilderingly uneven, with an elegantly paced level like Episode 6: The Man who Stole her Ears followed by the teeth grinding frustration of Episode 7: The Tiger that Faded into Darkness, which clearly wasn't playtested. You would think a game with only a meagre twelve levels—several of which are less than five minutes long and re-use previous locations—would at least design those levels very well, but apparently homie don't play that. Grasshopper & Suda51 have the unmitigated gall to presume that players would want to spend even more time in their tiny handful of areas, and offers bonus missions that allow you to return to the same place to look for stuff and kill enemies without having to put up with all that weird, surreal storytelling, because it's not like that's the only reason people let Grasshopper & Suda51 get away with game design this sophomoric in the first place. That, dear reader, is the real crime perpetrated by Grasshopper & Suda51 on the gaming public: neglecting the fundamentals of game design, making it a constant struggle for people who like their weird aesthetic to justify even picking up the controller. They don't just build a house on sand, they build a palace on a landslide, then expect fans to equivocate about how how gorgeous it is as it crumbles to dust. Compared to that, whatever crime against gamerkind the now-infamous Gigilo Missions constitute hardly registers.
I'm not going to defend the Gigilo Missions, but I'm not going to condemn them just to disarm any potential criticism. The internet is not a good place for this kind of topic, you can't even bemoan what a sad Ouroboros of mutual condemnation the discourse has become without creating your own sad Ouroboros of mutual condemnation, growing this sad Koch snowflake of impotent rage while meanwhile, in reality, the conditions for both sexes steadily erode. When I saw and played the Gigilo Missions I thought “Ha! It's like a dumb, silly mini-dating sim based on something everyone does in real life only exaggerated for effect, just like everything else in the game! That was mildly amusing for two minutes! Now, back to the indiscriminate murder I came here for!” Is it sexist? Yes, in the sense that Priest & A Rabbi jokes are anti-semitic. If someone takes a Priest & A Rabbi joke as the literal truth, they're probably anti-semitic or anti-catholic, and if someone takes a Gigolo Mission seriously, they're probably sexist and very, very stupid. The Gigilo Missions are tasteless. They are self-consciously, deliberately tasteless and stupid by design, and if you think that is how Japanese men really view women you're probably a racist and oh my God I've become one of them make it stop make it stop make it stop
It would be different if Killer Is Dead was a serious game.
Pointing out tastelessness and stupidity in a Suda51 game is like pointing out intemperance at the Gathering of the Juggalos. It's not incidental, it's why we're here. It's all part of the same cocktail of sex and death Suda51 mixes for us. I just wish it made a lick of sense.
Here's what happens in Killer Is Dead. Mondo Zappa is a killer. He, along with Bryan Roses, Vivienne Squall, and Mika Takekawa take assassination jobs. He is hired by an artist to kill a monster that, as it turns out, is a woman who dresses like Alice in Wonderland who went to the moon and came back infested with a monstrous parasite, and her house has a layout similar to the lithograph Relativity by M.C. Escher for no reason other than it looks cool. After succeeding in killing the Alice in Wonderland lady/monster the artist who hired them turns out to be a ghost and vanishes, stiffing Mondo and company. This will turn into a running joke, with their clients revealing themselves to be aliens or songbirds who run out on the bill once the job is done, to the point where Mondo really should start insisting on payment in advance. After the Alice in Wonderland job a client contacts them who is clearly modeled after Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and calls herself Moon River, appropriately enough. She says she's been kicked off her home on the moon by a guy named David. Mondo travels to the moon (his means of transit is never explained) where he confronts and fights David in his moon mansion. David is wounded and escapes, however for some reason Moon River still can't return to the moon, and Mondo invites her to live with him and Mika on his houseboat, at which point Moon River's part in the story pretty much ends, though Mondo starts having nightmares. In these dream sequences he's tormented by a woman in a red cloak whose eyes are obscured behind a mask and who seems to control the dreamscape, presenting him with memories from childhood of dubious legitimacy. Eventually, after a few other missions, it'll be revealed that David is Mondo's brother, and he killed their mother, for no apparent reason. Mondo re-encountered David in the course of rescuing a kidnapped Mika Takekawa, got his arm cut off, then was carried by a unicorn to Bryan Roses. There is also a client from the army who's modelled after Colonel sanders who hires Mondo to kill a giant who's stolen a small, but seemingly real version of the earth. They also encounter a small version of the sun that Mika touches. She says it's hot. All of this really happens. Mondo eventually takes a drug that lets him fight and kill the woman in his dreams, though it's never explained who or what she is. When Mondo kills a boss purple energy floats up to turn the moon purple, prompting Mondo to comment “The moon is full of malice.” Eventually Mondo goes back to the same mansion on the moon where the nefarious David apparently just kept hanging out this whole @%#$&! time and confronts him in one final showdown. David changes his form to better resemble the guy on the Grasshopper Manufacture, Inc. logo and fights Mondo, who kills him and becomes a bad guy in turn, taking the moon mansion for his own. This sounds like an issue of Ax Cop. I think the unicorn is a Blade Runner reference.
A lot can be gained from the story technique of strategically withholding information from the audience, but the longer it goes on, the more likely it is to become a crutch, or lead the writers into a corner. Laura Palmer was killed by her father, who was possessed by a magic disembodied janitor. The island is a random place God and Satan decided to f#@& with people, because they have nothing better to do. The Patriots are defeated by uploading a virus to a computer, and there was really no reason for Snake to be there at all, though you got to press X for a very long time, so there's that. There is a right way to do what Grasshopper & Suda51 are attempting. They could abandon linear storytelling altogether and let the weirdness be the story, like in the surrealist game Middens. Ideally, story and strangeness should serve one another to create a well balanced, meaningful experience, like in the masterful cartoon Bee and Puppycat. Alas, both of these approaches require a coherent vision from their creator, something Suda51 clearly feels no obligation to provide. He likes to cobble together whatever he wants whenever he wants, assemble it as cleanly or crudely as he sees fit at the moment, and dump the result in the public gaping maw.
As long as we keep taking it, he'll keep dishing it out.