Killer7 #1

[12 June 2006]

By Richard Goodness

What I’m reminded of when I read Killer7 are those comic-book versions of great works of literature that my classroom had when I was a child. While the plotline of, say, Great Expectations was kept intact, so much of what makes the book a classic was taken out—the language, Dickens’ turn of phrase, the development of the story over time. If, as I do, we contend that gaming is an art form, we must recognize that there are certain stories that can be told better in videogame form, that there are certain things that are so intimately entwined with the joy of play that we cannot separate them without doing damage. What Killer7 the comic attempts to do is to remove the plot and put it down in written form. What it does not seem to realize, and what is ultimately damaging to it, is the fact that Kille 7 is a videogame through and through—it draws its power from its nature as interactive entertainment.

I could not, in good conscience, put down Killer7 as my favorite game of 2005. That was a toss-up between Dragon Quest VIII and Shadow of the Colossus. Anyone who knows me will be unsurprised: I’ve been a Dragon Quest fan since I was small, and ICO, the precursor to Colossus, is my favorite game.

So much as I was impressed by Killer7, I was unable to give it high honors, and I’m even loath to recommend it to anyone. Killer7 the game either deconstructs or intentionally ignores the past 20 years or so of gaming conventions. Its plot is absurd and surrealist. Its control system is like no other. It deliberately dares you to play it, and every element of it is designed to alienate and confuse in order to further the game’s themes.

Consider a late-game sequence in which the player is being led through a hotel to view several crucial and revelatory sequences. It is the second level to take place inside the hotel. The first time is in the context of a regular stage; the usual amount of exploration is available: the player is able to visit different rooms and corridors. The second time through, the path is greatly restricted. The level’s rails are such that one can only visit the rooms that contain cut scenes; one can only progress towards a revelation or away from it. At the time, we don’t notice it. It’s like a magician talking fast so we don’t notice he’s forcing a card on us. The game’s system acts to lead us while giving the illusion of freedom—much more subtle than if the game had simply shown us a progression of cutscenes.

So on an artistic level, Killer7 is the most important game to have come out in 2005, and I’d even venture to say it’s one of the most important games (artistically) of all time. In no other game do I see such a level of control; in very few other games (Metal Gear Solid 2 being one of them) do I see the work of a designer who understands the strengths of videogames so well that he’s able to use the medium to tell his story. If the inherent strength of gaming is its interactivity, Killer7 understands the barest minimum of interactivity needed, and uses that bare minimum to make a point about the single-minded nature of the assassins that the game focuses on. There is, largely, only one option for the player to choose throughout the game, and in actively making us choose that option, we realize just how limited and fated our moves are.

This is all a necessary prelude to introduce the Killer7 comic book. Published by Devil’s Due, written by Arvid Nelson, and drawn by El Dazo (incidentally, is such a nom de plume a red flag as to the level of quality here?), Issue 1 retells the story of roughly the first half of the game’s second episode. Perhaps its first mistake is there. The game’s first mission throws you in a building; you’re told little more than “go kill some monsters” and left to your own devices. It’s perhaps the most alienating beginning of any videogame I’ve ever seen—the characters and the situation are such that a back story is required, and yet one is not given, heightening the confusion and the bizarre situation. After the player has gone through the relatively lengthy first level, things settle down somewhat—we are given the world’s situation and introduced to the characters we’ve been playing.

That situation, as the game has it, is that the governments of the world have made peace, and as a symbol of that have decided to explode their nuclear weapons in space where they won’t be harmful, and the people get to see a pretty lights show as a symbol of the impending peace. A shadowy group wants to foment war and uses beings known as Heaven Smiles to bring it about. Who these being are exactly and who is controlling them is one of about six dozen plots the game juggles at once. Killer7 the game manages to confuse us not by giving us not enough information but by giving us too much—just as we’re about to get a handle on a plot, it distracts us with another character. I’m not sure—untangling the narrative threads is a lengthy paper in itself—but it’s possible that half of the plot threads are red herrings. The comic, although we’re only one issue in, appears to be not nearly as lengthy, complex, or intricate, and it appears to suffer because of that. Rather than a mysterious introduction of the nuclear disarmament and a slow reveal of the mysterious Heaven Smiles, we get some grotesque and sensational monsters and explosions, plus some tasteless and unfunny “political satire.” Killer7 is not without its absurd humor, but our introduction to the president “Herbert Walker” (complete with aides Consuela White and Richard Marey, all drawn as caricatures) comes with the Secret Service alerting the President to a terrorist action while he is in the middle of a photo opportunity—reading a picture book at an elementary, in a clear echo of Bush’s whereabouts on the morning of September 11th. Your political views notwithstanding, you can at the very least realize that not only is it a lame attempt at humor, it doesn’t really add anything. It doesn’t ground the story in the Real World as it’s merely parody, and the satire doesn’t really seem to be directed towards anything in particular.

I realize that for the most part I’m talking about the comic as a poor adaptation of its source, and I’m trying to talk about it in the form that I have, but it’s difficult. The artwork is functional, but nothing special. Killer7‘s most immediately striking feature is its visual style—a stripped-down cel-shading—and the comic-realist style as they’re going for in the comic book is jarring to me. The biggest thrill I got from reading the comic was turning to an ad for the videogame which showed a few screenshots. The graphics from there are simple, almost elegant, and very striking. Certainly they’re a very marked contrast from the gore of the comic.

Having seen this story through to completion I know what all the loose threads are. I know who Iwazaru is and the function of the Smith Syndicate and how the characters drift in and out of frame, all of which cannot translate to the printed page. I find it difficult to analyze the comic as a comic because it is not a well-done adaptation. The game is a story that is designed from the ground-up to be a videogame, and a literal translation as I have in my hands is missing the point. I would have enjoyed—perhaps even looked forward to—some of the early adventures of the Smith Syndicate (when we first pick up the storyline they’ve been working for a long time.) Giving us original content and fleshing out the backstories and personalities a bit better would have been a welcome and possibly necessary series—certainly a book that had a point to it.

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