Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The gigolo missions in Killer is Dead are awkward, offensive to me as a man and sexist towards women. The idea that simply staring at a woman’s cleavage when she’s not looking is a way to seduce her is ridiculous. And not the good kind of ridiculous. Add on top of that the minimalist exchange of gifts for services rendered presentation of sexual relations, while at least honest in how video games portray sex, is a tired rendition of commodity style sexual politics.
But leaving the content of the side missions aside, I find them an interesting diversion from the main action. Killer is Dead is an action game, a spectacle fighter style brawler. You fight waves of enemies through the game’s levels before encountering the boss. They may not be difficult, at least until you reach the bosses, but these battles require a lot of concentration and cause more than a little tension for the player. Getting hit causes your blood pressure to rise, and getting killed, whether or not you have a Mika ticket, causes an anguished yell of frustration. Everything in the game is so frantically paced. Then, you are offered a side mission with soothing music and a lot of waiting around.
Video games always have trouble with pacing. For most of their existence, games were monotonous in their pacing. From the arcade days onward, you were always repeating the same few action in different environments with different dangers. While there could be a lot of variety in what you were doing, there wasn’t so much in how you were doing it. Action games remained fast to varying degrees, adventure games were ponderous to plodding, and RPGs tended to waste your time in between sections of actual interest. Even when games tried to match play time with a narrative arc, it was the story elements doing the heavy lifting while the play elements would reduce or exacerbate the challenge to match—if they tried at all.
So much so, that when in 2009 Uncharted 2: Among Thieves included a chapter that was just you as Drake walking through a village, the gaming community was rather stunned. You could play around with some kids by kicking a soccer ball to them or by playing a little hide and seek. There were these tiny interactive moments of serenity that stood in contrast to the huge train set-piece that the player had just made their way through, complete with two mini-bosses and a crushing sense that Drake was about to die in the snow. The color pallet changed from blues and whites to greens and reds. Drake was once again alive. There were no fights, no action, and no challenges to speak of. You could run about and jump like an idiot, but there was no reason to do so.
That was one scene in Uncharted 2. Killer is Dead (depending whether or not you got the first day DLC with it) gives you two or three scenes that can be repeated whenever the player wishes. It leaves pacing in the hands of the player. If you want to go straight into the next hyperactive brawl you can. Maybe a shorter challenge mission, instead? Fine. If you want to calm down, all you have to do is go visit one of Mondo’s special ladies. The game provides a space within the fiction for the player to set and control the pace of the proceedings.
It comes back to the narrative arc. When zoomed out. it looks like a line going ever upwards to a climax before falling and flattening out in the denouement. In fact, that line only tends upward. The line is oscillating like a sine wave up and down as it angles upwards. It’s a pattern of tension and release. A work can only hold onto that tension for so long before it begins to wear on the audience. And with video games, rather physically.
I ended up playing the gigolo missions after protracted fighting sections simply to “de-stress” so I could get through the game. Killer is Dead isn’t a difficult game per se, but it is a taxing one. The enemy count creates a war of attrition, and it can wear on you to the point that you end up making mistakes that you wouldn’t have earlier. One’s reactions become sluggish, the thumbs become sloppy, and the clarity of one’s surroundings becomes muddled. The gigolo missions for extended play sessions have a restorative property to one’s abilities. A couple of minutes in the bar or geisha house and the twitching subsides.
Tension isn’t just about the physical activity of taking on enemies, but on the environment in which it is done. Even during sections of the levels that are devoid of enemies, you are still under pressure by virtue of being in an enemy’s space. You have to be vigilant because the next group of enemies could be right around the next corner.
If you boil it down, Killer is Dead‘s gigolo missions aren’t much different from the combat ones. They both provide a goal and a feedback loop in response to your actions. The difference is in tone. Nothing is really at stake in the gigolo missions and the mechanics define the rules of a piss easy minigame that allows the player to sit back and relax after the tough missions. In that way, it matches Mondo’s own behavior. You meet Natalia in a bar and Koharu at a geisha house. These are known as places to relax after a hard day at work. Mondo’s job happens to be as a governmental assassin of very surreal things.
The only thing that spoils the nature of these calming spaces is their content. I get that Suda 51 was trying to say something with Killer is Dead about the nature of games with their focus on violence and sex. He tried to build Mondo Zappa into a James Bond analog by which he could explore his own version of the super spy ideal within his own brand of bizarre anarchic post-punk sensibilities. But it isn’t revelatory in any way, and sometimes you don’t want to have to deal with the bullshit after long day of killing moon monsters. Sometimes you just want to sit back, drink your beer in peace, maybe play a friendly game of darts, and sigh. Any player interaction set to the correct tone and much slower pace would have been fine to break up the monotony.
It is something I wish other action games might crib from. While they focus on their game loops and crafting the right level of challenge, it might be nice for both the characterization and the pacing of the work to leave that behind for a small section of time. Allow the player to enter a different space with different rules from the rest of the game with the same character. It might encourage players to look at the fiction in a different light instead of fixating exclusively on the numbers that must be gamed underneath. Now, if only the escape wasn’t sex with a plastic doll fantasy.