[13 July 2011]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
This post contains major spoilers for Shadows of the Damned
Three things nagged at me throughout my playthrough of Shadows of the Damned.
The first thing was an odd one. It was the name of Garcia Hotspur’s girlfriend, which is Paula. I guess that it is just the thin quality of the premise of the game (more on that later) that made me immediately associate her with the similarly named Pauline of Donkey Kong. Paula is abducted by a large monster at the opening of the game, hardly an original catalyst for a video game adventure (again, more on that in a moment), but still her name and predicament and blonde hair (the original versions of Pauline were blonde on the arcade cabinet of Donkey Kong) made me wonder if Suda51, aficionado of retro gaming, wasn’t giving a nod to “the original” girl abduction game. Throughout my time with Shadows of the Damned, I kept looking for any other evidence of such an allusion.
The second thing that I kept wondering about was the tattoo on Hotspur’s neck. It said something, but I just could never get a clear enough image of it during cutscenes to read it clearly (again, we’ll return to this subject).
Finally, I was looking for Suda51’s dominant interest (as I see it) to be addressed by the game. This is a designer whose products seem to be extremely self aware. His games fixate on video games themselves as a topic and specifically seem to concern themselves with how gamers use them and what that may say about their own desires. Killer 7 seems to suggest that its plot, concerning the significance of destroying enemies that “don’t even exist” while trying on varying assassins’ personae, as having a parallel to the experience of the gamer (see my essay, “The Mask of the Deviant: Understanding our Role in Killer 7” for a more extended discussion of this idea). Travis Touchdown of No More Heroes offers the parodic vision of a gamer dork as mindlessly driven to the kill for the sake of stats.
Now the stamp of Suda51 is all over Shadows of the Damned from its propensity to associate weaponry with the penis to its introduction of dorky classic gaming stylistics (I’m specifically thinking of the moments when Shadows of the Damned transforms into a 2-D side scrolling shooter). However, overt deconstruction of gaming and gamers seem very light throughout. Indeed I feared through much of the game that Suda51 was merely aping exploitation tropes a la Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez (see—in part at least—some of my discussion from last week’s ”Shadows of the Damned: Punk’s Not Dead?”). Suda seemed to have taken a break from interrogating gaming to just rip off something like Rodriguez’s Machete (albeit with some of his own style mixed in along with some strong visual allusions to the Evil Dead series.
Weirdly, all of these nagging questions (Is Paula’s name an homage to Donkey Kong? What does Hotspur’s neck say? When is Suda going to get critical about games?) were all largely resolved for me in the closing sequences of the game. And even more oddly, they all seem to me to be somewhat related.
I was somewhat disappointed following the madcap events of the final boss fight, the psych out credit roll, and then the “real” final boss fight that the game did not end on the rather romantic note that the only really touching scene in the game seemed to suggest. Having freed Paula from the evil grip of the demon lord, Fleming, Garcia Hotpur finds himself confronted by an irate “princess” in the final castle. Paula is furious that Hotspur failed to console her or really aid her during his trip through hell and that he let her die in so many tortuous ways along the way. Hotspur’s final pursuit of Paula and eventual defeat of her (as a FINAL final boss) is in service it seems to responding to these complaints. She wants to know why he wasn’t willing to die with her when she was suffering so greatly. So, as the two find themselves alone after Hotspur’s final stronger with her “angelic” form and as the darkness of hell closes in, Hotspur chooses to just wait for it to consume them—to die with her, as she requested.
My disappointment came when this moment was supplanted by the seeming “it was just a dream” sequence, in which Paula awakens in she and Hotspur’s apartment and the two share a meal and discuss an upcoming vacation as if Hotspur’s harrowing of hell (and their deaths there) never even happened. I felt cheated of the romance of the moment.
But I also finally got a clear shot of what Hotspur’s neck tattoo says, which is “I would kill the world before it did you harm.” This message, of course, is the central conceit of the game. As thin as the opening of the narrative of the game seems (Hotspur awakens to hear screams from another room, he discovers his girlfriend as she is hanged, then demons cart her away to hell), this is the classic plot of video games themselves, and I never really questioned this motivation as a player. I never stopped to consider why Paula had been abducted, what Fleming or hell would want with her, or why Hotspur would chase after her. I have seen Donkey Kong scoop up Pauline countless times, climb to the top of the girders, and I went chasing after the two. Frankly, this happens throughout the whole of Shadows of the Damned—not that Paula is abducted once to be saved following the final conquest of this game’s Kong, but instead, that Paula is abducted, savaged, and dragged off over and over again, as if the game just keeps resetting (as Donkey Kong does through its endless repetition of levels—again, one of my previous essays ”Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Game ‘Endings’” might provide some useful clarifying context for my thinking here).
The other reason that I failed to concern myself with the reason for this quest is the pervasiveness of this mythic pattern of princess abduction and salvation in general, most especially to those of my gender at a certain age. Rescuing the princess is a plot far older than Super Mario Bros. and a recurring one that is often used to train boys about the “proper” way to think about their relationship to girls. James Joyce’s short story “Araby” interrogates this particular mythos rather famously, as a young Irish boy in love with the idea of playing at knight and acting chivalrously (in early parts of the story, he literally re-enacts grail quests as a kind of play) finds himself charged by a young girl that he is interested in in procuring an object for him from an exotic fair called Araby. While not a literal enactment of rescuing her, the premise of returning with a gift for a fair maiden is a similar premise, as it is the story of the sort of service that young men are traditionally supposed to make themselves available for in “pursuit” of a young woman. Joyce’s young protagonist finds his rather childish fairy tale world shattered by the lack of the extraordinary that he finds at the banal bazaar, forcing him to grow up a bit.
In Shadows of the Damned no such desire to grow up exists. Much of Suda51’s scatology here focuses on masculinity (with Hotspur toting around a gun rather obviously called the Boner, which is upgraded to the Hot Boner and then the Big Boner) and its rather childish expression (see the previous parenthetical). Hotspur’s actions, a further of expression of his desire to “kill the world” given the proper motivation, the service required of a knight to his lady, is a reasonable interpretation of the kinds of messages that media have been educating boys with for centuries. Violence is a requisite demonstration of love for a woman, and Hotspur does his damnedest to remind his enemies of his virility and masculinity as often as possible throughout his quest, taunting like a teenage boy, boasting arrogantly and posturing immaturely. If Hotspur and his sidekick Johnson’s dialogue seem juvenile, that’s because this is a story told to just that age group. Yes, he is a boy and his Johnson. This is early male sexuality reduced to its barest and most banal form.
In the end, seemingly like the story itself and especially classically in games where this story is told over and over again and repackaged for its current dominant audience (younger males), this is endless. What Hotspur does at the end of the game is finally explain the story’s premise. He explains that he chose to court the lord of the underworld’s mistress, which is Paula, leading to the game that you just played, and which he additionally implies, that will continue to be played. For every time that he gets Paula back, he will “kill the world” again, just as he has always done. And just as we always do every time we boot up yet another video game.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.