“Real Ain’t Pretty”: The Ugly Aesthetic of Kane & Lynch

This discussion does contain spoilers for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

Advertisements for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days currently begin with the declaration that “Real Ain’t Pretty”. This declaration is superimposed over an image of the titular characters looking a bit bruised and beaten and prior to a video featuring a glimpse of the ugly world that Kane and Lynch occupy in the game.

Having been playing the game for review, I can testify to the authenticity of this description of the game. This newest Kane & Lynch game makes a genuine effort to embrace a form of realist aesthetic grounded on the idea that life ain’t pretty. Thus, its representation of that kind of world needs to reflect that idea.

Ironically, I received my review copy of Kane and Lynch 2 last week on the same day that a column that I wrote was published called “Mountains of Men: The Mythology of the Male Body in Video Games”. In the essay, I had suggested a few common ways that male bodies are often exaggerated in games, in order to represent an ideal version of masculinity, including a kind of hyper-muscularity, a preference for scarring in male characters, and the avoidance of protagonists that are balding (barring those who have shaved their head by choice).

Of course, that was the same day that this game, featuring a long haired, but balding psychopath (Lynch) appeared at my doorstep. Along with it, of course, I became aware of the aforementioned ad campaign that claimed that these guys and their world were anything but ideal or beautiful.

However, rather than revise my thesis concerning the mythologizing of the male body in video games, Kane & Lynch may help in providing some clarification about some of my claims in that essay.

Part of the claim that I was making about male bodies and video games concerned how this medium tends to favor a very particular kind of representation. Like the comic book characters’ bodies that I had compared to game characters’ bodies, a more idealized and romanticized image seems more common to the fantastic realities of video games. Superman and Wonder Woman have grossly exaggerated bodies, but they are also more iconic in nature than some sort of realistic representation of human beings (indeed, in both cases, these characters aren’t exactly human at all).

Creating archetypal physical figures is a notably and classically romantic (by romanticism, I refer to the literary and philosophical movements, not the genre of romance that is pretty much concerned exclusively with love as a topic of fiction) in art. Consider a novel by an American Romantic, like The Scarlet Letter, whose protagonist, Hester Prynne, is one who represents freedom and liberation. Hester is absurdly beautiful, but she represents ideas that are highly prized by an American sensibility. Her controlling and manipulative husband (and the villain of the novel), Roger Chillingsworth, is a twisted, little hunchback. Bodies reflect abstract ideas in this fiction. They serve as a means of representing abstract concepts, rather than in presenting realistic reflections of what people are actually like.

In other words, most worlds and bodies in video games lean more towards the idealized and fantastic worlds of romanticism on a fictional spectrum, than they do towards some effort towards mimesis, a realistic reflection of the world.

The newest Kane & Lynch game is an exception in my estimation in the video game market (and there are others) as it is a game that does tend to seem to want to embrace a realistic aesthetic, rather than a romanticized one. Now, on the face of it, this might seem somewhat silly given some of the insane and absurd events in a Kane and Lynch game. After all, these guys are a two man army. In the latest game, they seemingly more or less successfully take on the entire Shanghai underworld. However, the kind of aesthetic that Kane & Lynch seems to want to embrace is actually one that comic books seemed to likewise also want to embrace during the 1980s in an attempt to seem less fantastic and absurd.

The work of writers like Alan Moore (of The Watchmen) and Frank Miller (of Dark Knight) was considered grittily realistic because it suggested the notion that a comic book world was by no means a giant cartoon. Indeed, in Moore and Miller’s worlds, the “Real (Also) Ain’t Pretty”, since the brutality and darkness of such worlds and their inhabitants are less than beautiful or ideal. Underlying Moore and Miller’s vision of realism was an assumption of sorts that nature or the world was fundamentally “red in tooth and claw”. Ironically, this is a description of reality by the British romantic, William Blake. However, his sense of the world contained images of both innocence as well the the nastiness of experience that the aforementioned paraphrase of his poetry suggests. The idea of any kind of innocence existing in a world created by Moore or Miller is certainly less likely to be found than in it is in a romantic like Blake’s body of work. Underwriting the physical ugliness of this version of realism, then, is a cynical attitude about the world and human beings, a common enough trait in realist fiction (see any number of stories or essays by an American realist and misanthrope like Mark Twain for example — the man is funny but very darkly so).

Just such a cynicism also underwrites the story of Kane and Lynch and their bodies. Both Kane and Lynch are criminals with bodies marked more by human frailty than a noble spirit. This may sound like more romantic exaggeration, just of a villainous sort (a la Chillingsworth in The Scarlet Letter, but it seems to me that the reason that Lynch is bald and ugly is because some guys are just bald and ugly in the kind of world created in these games.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean through one of the darker moments in the game. In my essay on idealized male bodies, I suggested that scarring spoke particularly positively on a male body, as scars on characters like John Marston of Red Dead Redemption speaks to his resiliency and endurance, notable qualities in a father and husband trying to keep his family safe. In Kane & Lynch 2, both Kane and Lynch are captured by rival gangsters, stripped naked, and tortured during a cut scene. A fairly lengthy level of gameplay follows in which Kane and Lynch hobble naked and bleeding around the streets of Shanghai after their escape. Their bodies are covered in wounds.

This sequence reveals no profound truths of the nobility of suffering (indeed, Lynch has just lost a loved one that he isn’t strong enough or resourceful enough to save). Instead, Kane and Lynch appear vulnerable, exposed, and struggling (their bodies closely resemble Christ’s body in The Passon of the Christ). Their wounds evoke horror and pathos. They make us feel something, pity, but they speak no intellectual or ideal message. Instead, their bodies are merely gross and stomach churningly sad.

That both men’s genitals are blurred out (a decision, perhaps, made to avoid an AO rating on the game) does not allow us to consider their masculinity or potency in any way. Indeed, if we could consider their penises, we would likely be distracted from the simple evocation of pain that these images present. This censorship might aid in avoiding conveying a message about masculinity and instead refocuses the viewer on the awfulness of the torture that they have undergone.

The scene is a strange one in video games and somewhat reminiscent of some other stories. In the classic poem, Beowulf fights in the nude against Grendel. He does so to demonstrate his fearlessness and toughness. He wants to be masculine, to be “ballsy” by defeating a foe while wearing no armor. This decision is eminently romanticized and ideal. This same scene appeared in the recent film version of the story to less noble effect as Beowulf’s nudity became an almost comic affair. The decision to hide his genitals through camera angles and “cleverly” placed obscuring scenery came off as something like a similar set of sight gags from Austin Powers. However, Eastern Promises infamous nude scene, in which a mobster played by Viggo Mortensen, struggles naked and unarmed against rival mobsters in a sauna is more like the sequence in Kane & Lynch, in which the power of the masculine is less an idea being conveyed, than it is a scene in which fear is evoked through an image of the vulnerability of Mortensen’s character. He is stripped bare and has to fight like a beast rather than as a man.

Again, a certain cynicism and sense that the world is one of suffering, where men are reduced to their most fundamental impulses while being pushed around by forces larger than themselves, tends to locate Kane & Lynch in a slightly less common kind of world than most video game characters usually occupy.

The inclusion of the nude scene was likely intended to be provocative, as games like Grand Theft Auto have done in the past by including “edgy material”. Here though, Kane and Lynch’s nudity and wounding isn’t funny. It is pathetic and effectively horrifying as all their wounds are left open in a world that really ain’t pretty at all. This kind of exposure in a “real” world isn’t at all beautiful. Instead, it speaks of much more “real” consequences of human existence. Open wounds lead to the potential for further damage, infection, and death, and not at all to the strength and endurance of the human spirit.