Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Punk Gaming and No More Heroes

No More Heroes has captured its share of analytical attention. Of course, when Suda said that the game was influenced by the surrealist western El Topo, that was like announcing a $2 buffet to construction workers and college students.

Sadly for me, cowzilla3 wrote the article that I have been planning when I first started playing the game back in February, specifically the idea that in NMH, we are not so much playing a character named Travis Touchdown but that we are playing a gamer, all of us who have ever played a game just to kill and level. But since cowzilla and others have well described the irony and critique in NMH, I'll have to comment on something else, which is, I think, the obvious question for any artful creation that flaunts the rules and smashes the plane between the art and the audience: so, now what?

Spoilers ahead . . . .

NMH is a punk game, which is what makes it so interesting. At least, that's what the Grasshopper Manufacture logo suggests. But thanks to the continuous recycling of punk every few years, we may have lost the vitality of what punk is, or at least was. It was not just thrashing but conscious breaking of conventions, of making music what it was . . . rebellious. And NMH is one of the more rebellious games I've seen in a while, an upstart that disregards and even thumbs its nose at all the conventions that the 'stadium' games luxuriate in--the sexy, photo-realistic graphics, the complex stories, the intricate controls and involved gameplay, layers of sound and music, and especially the violent game play and objectives. (Schlaghund argues that parody is not necessarily punk, a point well taken. However, I think we shouldn't be too fastidious about what is and is not punk: Grasshopper's slogan is "let's punk" which he explained in a Gamasutra interview: "What I mean by 'punk' is to destroy existing ideas and create something new, original.")

Games have largely become a host of set of conventions with minor tweaks that are nothing more than the t-shirts of someone else's rule-breaking. Mixing FPS and RPG elements are not the stuff of ground breaking games, truth be told.

The ending, such as it is, for NMH is where it flaunts the rules the most. Not only do the characters start acknowledging that they are in a game, the ending splinters in a way that we don't really know what the story is.

  • When players complete the game, they have their choice of endings. But it's not an either-or selection: you can play an ending and return to play another.
  • One of the endings is another battle with a character from earlier in the game who, in another twist, turns out to be Travis's twin brother (albeit with a completely different accent, which, of course, makes no sense). This only emphasizes how little Travis knows about himself, an absurd parody of the amnesiac protagonist we find in so many games.
  • When the twin-brother battles ends (which it really doesn't, as the characters acknowledge), the scene morphs into a painting which Sylvia and her daughter Jeane are looking at. It is arguable if these are indeed the same characters or if, perhaps, the game has instead been just the imagination of Jeane, as she stared at the painting.
  • Sylvia appears to tell us there will be no sequel, only to be followed by the message "To be continued."
So, just in case you weren't sure of the point of NMH, Suda has beaten you over the head with this ending to clarify: bullocks to your narrative structures. The ending reminds me of when Public Image, LTD appeared on American Bandstand and Johnny Rotten disregarded the lip syncing conventions of the show and just danced with the crowd.

Anyone who makes a game like this deserves accolades because it is an expression of freedom and creative independence. Yet, we have seen this kind of rebellion before. The problem is that we often find ourselves with the equivalent of the Institutional Revolutionary Party: rebelling requires something to rebel against, and if the revolution becomes successful, then it must invent a foil to rebel against further or face the fact that, as the Who sang, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." Or it must simply fade away.

Rebelling against conventions for the sake of breaking those conventions only works for so long before we ask, "Now what?" and "So?" In painting and sculpture, we've seen artists rebel against a non-existant conformity after the impressionists, then the expressionists, the cubists, and other -ists make the point that artists don't have to paint cherubs to create something meaningful. Deconstruction is really only interesting and post-modern awareness is clever only for so long.

Even though we should enjoy NMH for what it is and isn't, it's hard not to wonder what Suda's post-punk game will be. These kind of creative efforts are significant because they can be watersheds for even more interesting work, something that might not be obvious to the mainstream until much later. Suda might be working on a game that goes even further in its parody and critique, but is it possible that, in flaunting game conventions, we can look for much different games? Will Suda and his games have that kind of influence? Or is he one of the rare types who can not only critique but can create alternatives, too?

I see NMH mostly as trying to accomplish the first aim for punk games, to destroy existing ideas about what a game is supposed to be. In fact, I think you could argue that NMH doesn't so much destroy those ideas as it has challenges them, maybe even bloodies them. Perhaps I'm being fastidious myself when I say that destroying something is not the same as creating something new. While I appreciate the cleverness and freshness of NMH, it strikes me as a transitional game, one that says, "Games don't have to focus on violence, use levels, have tidy endings, use realistic graphics." If NMH is a critique and rebellion against indulgent, violent and soulless games, then NMH really can't be What Games Can Be. NMH is original, yes, but it is not the real alternative to ladders of murderous gaming that it implies ought to be there.