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'Shadows of the Damned': Punk's Not Dead?

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Wednesday, Jun 29, 2011
Visceral, scatological, and sexual... Suda51 is clearly back, but does his punk aesthetic still make sense in the gaming subculture's current climate?

I noticed that the Grasshopper Manufacture logo that appears in the opening screens of Suda51 and Shinji Mikami’s new game, Shadows of the Damned, is not the version that includes the motto, “Punk’s Not Dead.”  While I don’t feel like Suda51 has fully intended to step away from his infamous “punk rock aesthetic,” this latest game does leave me wondering a bit about the viability of that approach in the climate of contemporary gaming culture.
  
In addition to some of the throwback fashion selections for previous game protagonists, like the leather jacket and t-shirt of Travis Touchdown of No More Heroes, and the kind of stripped down and often even amateurish feel of the mechanics of his previous titles, Suda51’s style seems linked to punk in its commitment to being offensive and confrontational with his audience.  Like a latter day Johnny Rotten (famous for flipping his audience off and even for flicking snot on them during performances) or Sid Vicious (ummm… swastika as fashionable accessory, anyone?), Suda51 has often approached his audience with a degree of disdain and seemingly a desire to make them uncomfortable. 


Travis Touchdown, assassin and poseur, is a caricature of a video game player.  Fanboy and wanker (the animation used to recharge his weapon speaks directly to the latter), Travis embodies thoughtless killing for the sake of climbing the leaderboards.  He isn’t far from the stereotype of the most hardcore of FPS enthusiasts, and he isn’t the most flattering representative of video game culture, but that’s the point.  Most of Suda51’s previous games have satirized attitudes of gamers and the weird virtual aggression and outright violence that is contemporary gaming (for a longer discussion of this idea, see an essay that I wrote a couple years ago, ”The Mask of the Deviant: Understanding Our Role in Killer 7).


Additionally, Suda51’a game mechanics and control schemes often feel clunky and awkward in a DIY kind of way, seemingly mimicking the classic artistic “craftsmanship” of punk: “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.”  While No More Heroes‘s boss fights are rather delicious experiences and often offer some of the most bizarrely hilarious, yet still amazingly profound cut scenes in gaming (for me, the Destroyman sequences from No More Heroes are wickedly clever, for instance), the game absolutely makes the player pay for these moments with idiotic and fun-defying side quests that require the player to grind so hard to reach them that many have outright given up.  Eschewing virtuosity, Suda51 makes games that frustrate the player and may outright piss them off.  Killer 7 features some of the most odd and touchy shooting mechanics of almost any shooter that I have ever played.  No More Heroes features an open world with nearly nothing to do in it, except ride around on a gigantic and slow-moving motorcycle to a really dippy song.  No More Heroes 2 features “electrifying” mini-games like flipping burgers.  Mashing a button to cook meat to a customer’s tastes is a big “fuck you” to the player interested in the mayhem and madness that the laser sword on the cover of the game promised.


Within all of this punk rock attitude, of course, lies Suda51’s commitment to the outrageous, the obscene, the banal, and the salacious (a further commitment to punk provocation): a protagonist who has to “take a crap” to save a game, the aforementioned masturbatory weapon recharging, and naughty nurses and game guides offering advice while wearing bondage gear.  Like Rotten and Vicious, Suda51 desires to offend, desires to embrace the ugly and the scatalogical in order to get a rise out of you, to push your buttons (and in order to make sure that he finds yours, he pushes them all).


Which brings us back to Shadows of the Damned, a game that does much of what I described above but (somewhat like No More Heores 2) with one notable exception: it kind of plays better.  Now, I’m not going to say that Shadows of the Damned has the most exquisitely crafted third-person shooting mechanics that I have ever seen, but they’re serviceable.  Also, it does do some things to the player that are quite cruel and antithetical to the typical mindset of a gamer through its darkness mechanics (That you have to often enter environments of darkness—in which you will take damage regularly—in order to win certain fights or solve certain puzzles is not a very appealing idea to the player attempting to survive a run through hell. Very simply put, the idea of harming yourself to advance isn’t one necessarily overtly obvious or familiar to qualities of play important to the gamer, like efficency and effectiveness.).  Again, though, this is still the easiest Suda51 game to manage (from controls to effective gameplay) that I have ever played.  The game doesn’t do much in the way of confronting and confounding me with its systems.  It seems that it might even want me to (and this is really very unusual for a Suda51 game) actually feel comfortable with the controls and overall play-style?  Holy cow.


As a result, though, the typical Suda51 punk commitment to the viscerally offensive, the salaciously offensive, the sexually offensive, to anything provocative at all lacks some of the confrontational context (from his other games) that the frustrating design of the mechanics provided.  Partly why I understood sitting on the crapper as a banal and stupid metaphor for game saves or why Travis has a weird thing for scantily clad, underage anime babes was because everything was supposed to be fucked up in the game—plot points, imagery, and gameplay.  The previous games are consistent in their provocation of me in every aspect of the game from controls to narrative to visual cues . 


As a result, in this new game, in which play becomes much less confrontational, a lot of the more banal and sophomoric imagery and humor—a gun called “the hotboner,” a demon pissing darkness into a fountain, a torch that “goes limp” after it is inserted into a crevice—lacks its full clarity as satire or the sense that this is supposed to provoke me to offense.  The context of Shadows of the Damned historically is unfortunately a year (actually, more specifically, a month) in which Duke Nukem Forever was also released, a game which contains similar scatological, sexual, and overall offensive imagery but with none of the sense of satire of a Suda51.  Duke Nukem Forever is a game that features the need to shoot pregnant women before they give birth to aliens and also the opportunity to hold poop.  Yes, hold poop.  It does so with some weak sense of irony, but mostly because it seems to assume that you are the sort of person that finds things like breasts, penises, and poop inherently funny, not because it wants to expose anything about the mindset that chuckles at these things instinctively. 


There is no effort to provoke for the sake of anti-authoritarian provocativeness in Duke Nukem Forever.  Indeed, what is especially banal about Duke’s exploits (and this is what leaves me very concerned that Suda51’s punk attitude is even one that is at all recognizable 30-40 years after the punk subculture arose) is that it is a regrettably mainstream and acceptable aesthetic that Duke Nukem has embraced.  The stars of MTV’s Jackass now appear on Dancing With the Stars for your granny’s amusement and American Pie is a comedy classic; a little scatology is unlikely to provoke a contemporary audience in the way that a swastika t-shirt or armband would in the late ‘70s. 


Honestly, though, I’m not entirely assured of my own thesis—that I should be entirely concerned that people won’t “get it” when they play Shadows of the Damned (And honestly in the ‘70s and the ‘80s people didn’t get the “provocation for the sake of provocation” of punk either—they still don’t.  As I watch old ladies harrumph about my daughter’s green hair, knowing full well that the green hair is intended to provoke just that “harrumph,” I see that quite clearly).  Part of this is due to Suda51 and Mikami seating this game snugly into the form of the neo-exploitation style of cinema that is all the rage these days.  While claiming to base its plot on the writings of Kafka, truthfully it feels like Shadows of the Damned was birthed after Suda51 completed a marathon viewing of Machete, Planet Terror, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  And everyone “gets” that Lindsey Lohan dressed as a nun blasting away with a machine gun is supposed to be stupid, right?


One way or another, Shadows of the Damned does feel like a slight shift away from what I previously felt was Suda51’s very clearly punk inspired aesthetic and some of his provocativeness doesn’t seem quite as edgy as it could be.  Perhaps the shift will make him more accessible and (dare I say it?) more popular, but I’m not sure that that is exactly the goal of the traditional punk.


 

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