For the post-mortem retrospective on Blood Bath And Beyond, Eric Peterson refers to the Matt Hazard series as a spoof (”Post Mortem: Vicious Cycle’s Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond”, Gamasutra, 1 February 2010). Hazard is a self-aware video game character staging his triumphant return to games who has been in so many spin-offs and sequels that his back catalog reads like a history of gaming. It’s a great idea, one that captured a lot of people’s imagination. But the original game and its sequel don’t exactly live up to expectations. While neither game is particularly funny, what’s interesting about them is the exact process that keeps holding the game’s premise back.
Probably the biggest hurdle facing a game that wants to be a comedy is that it’s not exactly what video games are known for. Something like Psychonauts is funny because of the content, the wacky characters and dialog are layered on top of a platforming game. The game design generally is just meant to get you to pay attention to cutscenes or your surroundings so that you notice the weird humor. The notion of a game design itself making you laugh exists, but I don’t think that I’ve ever seen anyone succeed at it unless the game involved multiple players. Wario Ware is pretty funny to play with multiple people for the same reason, and Buzz! can be. It gets a conversation going, and you can have a good laugh with your friends. There are also a lot of examples of satire in games like Paolo’s McDonald’s Game or No More Heroes that gets you to engage in conduct that you normally never would. If someone is going to claim that they’re making a spoof of video games, it seems reasonable to expect the person to do a bit of both. A video game spoof should be funny content in whatever form mixed with a design that pokes fun at gameplay tropes through hopefully both multiplayer and single player elements.
Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond doesn’t do any of these things. The game is a solid 2.5-D side-scroller that draws heavy influences from the Contra series. The premise is that Matt is traveling through various games as he hunts down an old nemesis who wants to kill his 8-bit self. Levels draw on everything from Bioshock to Okami, working as a kind of background gag while you plow through the level. Each level will have a different type of soldier to face, but in terms of actual practice, they all die in one shot and fire the same blue/red bullets at you. The same goes for the robot enemies. Each level will also have one unique enemy, like an undersea diving suit monster or some tweaked out kid throwing Pokeballs at you. Like the background art, these are again just content gags. You shoot them like you do anyone else. Final bosses are all classic “Memorize the Pattern” fights.
This is where the game starts to not work well as a spoof. If you’re playing a 2.5-D game properly, you’re going to be tuning out the background to focus on the shiny bullets and bad guys mucking about that can kill you very, very fast. The design only draws your attention to the content during lulls. With so many different games being used for background gags, it’s amazing that they never bothered to include anything else about them. If you’re going to have someone throwing Pokeballs at me in a level, you might as well let me use them too. A few strange plasmid options in the Bioshock level or some insane platforming in the Mirror’s Edge level would all have been welcome. The audio jokes fumble this even more because Matt will make the same sarcastic comments over and over. A game like Rogue Warrior, despite being terrible, is hilarious because Mickey Rourke has something insane to say every level. At the very least they could have coordinated Hazard’s commentary to actually reflect back on what’s going on in the game.
Which brings up the biggest problem of both games in the Matt Hazard series: the main protagonist knows that he’s in a video game. All of the conversations involve him complaining about some genre trope that he has to put up with or pointing out the inconsistencies of the game’s plot. He knows that when he dies you just hit continue. He knows that none of the things around him are real. That’s not a funny premise for the same reason that Lord of the Rings would be pretty annoying if Frodo just complained that the Eagles could come get them the whole trip. If the main character thinks that what everyone around him is doing is stupid, it’s pretty likely the audience will agree, which isn’t going to make someone laugh, just convince them to turn off the game. Conversely, a character like Deadpool works in the comics (not the movies) because he’s completely insane and no one listens to him. He’s not the center of attention. He’s just this great addition to the characters around him. As a general rule of thumb, unless you are a really talented writer you shouldn’t have the main character in a story not care about anything. They’re the person who drives the plot through their motivations and losses. Without that, you’ve just got a series of jokes while a person plows through a level, which would be fine except Blood Bath and Beyond insists on having a coherent narrative.
None of this is to say that by itself Blood Bath and Beyond is a bad game. If you like Super Contra, this is a good investment featuring sharp two player action and it is damn hard at the highest difficulty setting. The problem is that the game’s creators wanted to create a spoof. and on their second try, they are still making the same mistakes. Matt Hazard is a great idea for a game that has a lot of potential, but it can’t ever quite getting everything together. It’s worth talking about that just because it would be great if someone could finally pull it off.