[9 July 2009]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
The size of the world has changed. It’s changed to the size where you can control it with your hands just like a PDA. The world will keep getting smaller.
—Kun Lan, Killer 7
Everyone in Suda51’s avant garde game Killer 7 wears a mask be it in the form of the seven identities that make up the mask of the assassin “family” in Harman Smith’s head or the mask of the Killer 7’s faithful manservant, Iwazaru, to even your own as the player of the game.
For anyone who has the patience to have played what is more or less an “art house” video game, the notion of masks being important in Killer 7 probably make at least some sense. The more comprehensible moments of Killer 7‘s plot involve the ability of a crippled assassin named Harman Smith to manifest himself in the forms of seven of his former victims, Garcian, Dan, Kaede, Coyote, Con, Kevin, and (appropriately enough for my choice of topic about the game) Mask de Smith, it probably makes sense that the Killer 7 themselves are a kind of mask for whoever Harman is supposed to be.
The idea that you, the player of the game, might also be associated with someone wearing a mask may be less obvious until one begins examining Suda51’s interests in masks in the game as well as the parallel situation that he creates between the player of Killer 7 and the characters occupying the world of Killer 7.
For example, consider that Harman’s situation as a less than capable assassin, wheel chair bound as he is, probably resembles in a figurative sense the player who likewise (either physically or mentally) is probably not actually well suited to the task of actually being a killer. What Harman does throughout the game to rectify his handicap is very much akin to what we as players do all the time when playing video games and very specifically what we are doing when we play Killer 7, taking on the role of a character that has abilities beyond those of our own. In other words, if we can’t bring ourselves to “be” an assassin, we can at least play at being so by taking on the persona or mask of characters like Dan or Kaede (or for that matter, Niko Bellic or Mario or any other character in a video game). They allow us to be something that we are not.
When Harman first confronts his nemesis, Kun Lan, near the beginning of the game, there are a number of moments that suggest that the way that the world of Killer 7 is structured is intended to remind us of our own situation as players of games. The quotation that begins this essay is just such an example. Kun Lan observes that reality has become smaller and more controllable via the vehicle of technologies that allow us to structure and organize life (like PDAs) and lives (like video games). Kun Lan further observes that this power belongs to a generation bred to understand their world in this way when he says that a “new generation of children will bring order to this age.” Harman, despite existing in a world quite like the digital realm, one where with the twist of the dial on his television he can assume the life of someone that he is not, recognizes that such power belongs not to Kun Lan and himself anymore. Because unlike such children who get to play at controlling and manipulating the world, as he notes about his generation, “we don’t have time for fun anymore.”
The “fun” that Harman alludes to might be the kind of game playing that a new global politics has in store for the digital generation. The other elements of the plot of Killer 7 seem to have a real relevance to the very real world politics inherited by the “children of this age.” The Killer 7 have been contracted to destroy a terrorist organization dubbed the “Heaven Smile” that as an army of grotesque monsters that double as living bombs seem quite adequate to the task of creating a recognizable form of “terror” in the world. Since the advent of the “War on Terror,” we have lived in a world haunted by seeming monsters that, according to the press release, will stop at nothing to destroy our way of life. A terrorist is invisible because anyone could be a terrorist. The game design reflects this as the Smiles also are literally invisible. They represent a kind of abstract enemy that the War on Terror (not a war on a particular nation with a face but on terror itself) seems to represent. Their grotesque bodies and comic book villain laughter serves to parallel the notion of an enemy too alien and monstrous to recognize as anything other than evil.
When first introducing the Heaven Smile organization to the player, Iwazaru explains that these “enemies are invisible. In fact, they don’t even exist.” Iwazaru’s explanation recognizes the invisibility of terror in contemporary politics as “terror” because it is a description of an enemy that is broad enough to not allow us to not pin our fears on an enemy with a specific face. It also further re-enforces the idea that the events in the game parallel reality, not just political reality but also the reality of actually playing a video game. Enemies in video games, like invisible abstractions of a terrorist in a socio-political sense, do not literally exist. The video game world becomes a microcosm of this idea because it is a small world that can be controlled by children through objects not much bigger than a PDA. Indeed, the very real non-existence of enemies in games is what makes games pleasurable to play. Because these worlds are illusions, little solipsistic universes where there are no consequences for really terrible behaviors like becoming a killer, we can take unmitigated pleasure in obliterating monsters that represent terror and evil. We also take pleasure in assuming the masks, both in the game and figuratively as an avatar, that allow us to do so; the masks allow us our “time for fun.”
In other words, we, as video game players, are always trying to “save the world” from similarly invisible enemies—they don’t exist in any tangible sense so that it excuses our nasty behavior while at the same time negating any real value for saving a world from nothing. Thus as gamers, we become solipsistic killers. As Garcian observes about a young woman that is obsessed with games, “The girl’s an avid gamer, her world of games and the real world coexist as one.”
All of which returns me to the subject of masks and the significance of why so many characters in this game wear them and why they serve such an important role in Suda51’s other game that seems interested in interrogating video games and their relationship to accepting violence, No More Heroes. The most notable mask in Killer 7 is the one belonging to Iwazaru. He is the strange guide that emerges at various points in the game to offer gameplay tips and to fill in elements of the story while wearing a weird sado-masochistic latex jumpsuit complete with a full face “gimp” mask. It is a constant reminder to us of masks because it literally (as opposed to the figurative expressions of masks like Harman’s and the player’s assumptions of personas that are merely “like” masks) appears in front of us constantly, takes forever to talk, cannot be skipped, and contains his own hidden identity beneath the mask.
Largely, I have never understood the purpose of the necessity of the freakish image of Iwazaru in his S&M gear in the game. Frankly, he creeped me out because I find the whole S&M thing to be very weird. My wife observed to me generally about such “uniforms” that the taboo qualities of the sexual acts associated with sado-masochism are made permissible because of the mask. She argued that the reason one might wear such a mask is in order to become someone else performing a behavior that would otherwise seem too much a violation of the “normal” standards of morality. Such a metaphor seemed entirely appropriate to me in understanding Killer 7‘s solipsistic universe in relation to the unhindered experience of video games generally. The masks of personas and other forms of avatars in gaming allow us to play out a host of taboo behaviors (in this case, not sexual but violent ones). Intriguingly though, all such acts remain safe because the role that one plays is seemingly not one’s own because it is hidden behind the “mask” of an other “self”. The violence remains morally neutral because of the empty and invisible quality of the things that you hurt.
In other words, if Iwazaru creeped me out because of the mask that he wears to distance himself from his sexually deviant behavior, Suda51 seems to want to point out that the player also wears a mask when committing their own in-game atrocities. Suda51 seems to want to suggest that behind the mask may lie the face of a deviant, me.