A look back at one of the most unique games of the last decade and its intriguing theme of mediation and the effect it can have on reality.
In a book, the first person narrator is always difficult to trust. We read a story as told to us by one of the characters, who may or may not be telling the truth. Things are emphasized that may not actually be important, while other seemingly more important events are ignored. The narrator may even outright lie to the audience, seeking to elevate his or her own importance. (This is one of the fascinating things about The Sound and the Fury, for example. The narrators of the first three parts all carry their own biases into the mix, which makes it difficult to figure out what is going on until the introduction of an omniscient third person narrator in the fourth and final section.). A similar trick can be used in a movie, as the camera may follow one character's version of events only to go back and contradict that very same version of events (such as in Fight Club or really any movie with a twist that involves a trusted friend's betrayal). The narrator of a story mediates between the world of the story and the world of the reader/viewer.
Suda 51's divisive masterpiece Killer 7 chooses to throw additional levels of mediation into its gameplay beyond merely seeing the game world through one character's eyes (or more accurately the seven characters' eyes). Killer 7 utilizes several sub-layers of mediation as the game progresses, including changes in art style during some animated sequences that add to the confusion of what the world of the game really looks like. The reality of the game demands that the player engage it through these additional levels of symbolic mediation in order to not just play the game but to understand what is going on in the narrative.
The gameplay of Killer 7 is unique in its marriage of the mechanics of an on-rails shooter with the sort of open world exploration and puzzle solving of a first person adventure game (Myst being the most obvious example). The rails do not keep the player from being able to see the environment around him, however, because of the first person view. While in the third person view things do remain hidden, a change of viewpoint allows the player to take in the full picture. It is only through the mediation of the characters' eyes -- and not the third person camera -- that the player can gain a full view of what is going on. Similarly the Heaven Smiles cannot be seen as anything more than ghostlike outlines unless the player peers through the eyes of their assassin of choice and scans for the presence of them. Only through this act of scanning can the Smiles be clearly perceived and dealt with. The mediation of the eyes of the player character not only changes how the player sees through that character's eyes, but on the return to third person view, the world has altered to fit the view that the character had -- revealed Smiles stay revealed. In short, the third person camera can be influenced by the first person camera's perspective.
In any other game, this probably wouldn't be that big a deal. It would be just another game mechanic, and we'd hardly worry about any further significance in terms of any thematic underpinnings. But this is Killer 7, a game described as having a "willfully obscure arthouse intent" (Kristan Reed, "Killer 7", Eurogamer, 22 July 2005), and given the other nods to mediation that pop up in the game, it does not seem so odd to view a mechanic as meaningful. Given that the player is often confronted with different symbols of mediation, it seems almost foolish not to take the gameplay itself into consideration. But the gameplay is not the only thing -- a few of the assassins have their own themes of mediation inherent in their characters and some of the stylistic choices concerning their presentation and abilities carry their own meaning as well.
Garcian Smith is the reason that the Smith organization is able to get any work done. He is the go-between for the rest of the personalities and Harman himself (as the central "personality" of the seven) as well as the official spokesperson for the group when accepting assignments. Garcian is also the reason that the Killer 7 can see past the optical camouflage of the Heaven Smiles, a product of what the game manual calls his "gift of telegnosis", which I'm pretty sure isn't a real word (clairvoyance is the less made-up explanation) ["tele-" suggests a distance, while "gnos" is knowing, so "telegnosis" implies the ability of "knowing across a distance" -Ed.]. The scan that the player does is made possible by Garcian's abilities. When later in the game, Garcian discovers his own true identity, it is interesting to note that his power is no longer given to the player. In fact, the player is forced to merely rely on Garcian's aiming abilities to destroy the Heaven Smiles. In essence, Garcian refuses to mediate any more and insists on doing the work himself, for his own benefit.
Garcian is also unique in that not only is he the only character whose death will cause a game over, but he is also the only character who cannot be selected from a main menu -- the only thing that can change Garcian to a different Smith is the external eye of a camera, which is either set off by the player via use of the television set or in some cases is just part of the plot. This is in part due to the nature of Garcian as the "dominant" persona and in part because it makes perfect sense for the mediator of the group to only be removable (or made redundant) by another level of mediation -- in this case, a camera lens serves the purpose. The only other Smith to require this extra level of mediation is Harman, the "leader" of the personalities even if he is no longer necessarily the dominant one. Unlike Garcian, Harman cannot even be accessed via television most of the time, spending the rest of the game either hidden away completely or as a comatose old man in a wheelchair. Only the mediation of either the television or his maid Samantha's use of the television remote can bring out Harman apart from a few moments when he is given to the player for use through a security camera.
The albino Kevin and his sunglasses.
The other characters do not require this extra level of mediation to switch between, although it is only through the mediation of the television that they can increase their abilities. One such ability is Kevin Smith's ability to make himself invisible through the removal of his sunglasses. The albino Smith apparently cannot be seen unless his glasses are on, as otherwise there is nothing to distinguish him from the rest of his surroundings. Much like Garcian mediates between the Smith assassins and their employers, Kevin's sunglasses mediate between him and the rest of the world. Remove that layer of mediation and he disappears, even from sophisticated security technology. Not even the player is able to see him clearly once the glasses are off, and it is only the sound of his footsteps and a wavering outline that hint at his presence.
Killer 7's narrative too expresses its own need for mediation -- much of the actual events are not actually witnessed by the player but are reported through either carrier pidgeons or computer screens, while cutscenes occasionally take place in the game's engines unless a Smith is not in view, in which case the cutscene is presented in a slightly less stylized and more traditional looking animation (the one exception is a shot of someone who might be Harman conducting an assassination in the first animated cutscene of the game). The central conflict between Eastern and Western sensibilities places Garcian in the role of mediator, as the one who makes the final decision as to who will be victorious is ultimately left up to him in the end. Even the "boss" characters (the assassination targets) are sometimes only accessed by traveling through the somewhat bizarre Vinculum Gates, which are there to either help or hinder (it is never very clear) the Smiths as they make their way to their targets. The Gatekeeper serves as another level of mediation, as he is the final thing standing between the player and his goal -- and the areas the player is sent to after passage through the gate tend to look very much like alternate versions of the level in which the gate appeared. It is the world through a different filter.
The art style of Killer 7 too is the world through a different filter, contrasted against the more "realistic" visions presented in the animated sequences. It seems as if the influence of the Smiths' viewpoint extend to the way that the player sees the game.
An example of the softer edges in the animated scenes. Compare to the image of Kaede below.
Where the animated sequences are dimmer and less vivid, the world as seen through the eyes of the Smiths is vivid color and angular, almost modernist in its sharp edges.
Kaede as seen in the game\'s default visual style.
Even the options at a crossroads appear angular, breaking off like splinters of broken glass rather than paths. Juxtaposed against the softer angles of the animated world, it seems as if we are being treated to the world as it is and the world with the mediation of the Smith syndicate. This, combined with the characters, the overall narrative, and even the gameplay, provides a rich exploration of the centrality of mediation to operating in a world (be that a real one or a fictional one) that, even six years later, remains unique in its presentation of such ideas.