The Meaning of Meaninglessness in ‘No More Heroes’

“You’re joking, right? I don’t care about titles or power. I just wanna be number one.”

— Travis Touchdown, No More Heroes

We are a culture obsessed with ranking. No multiplayer game worth its salt releases without having leader boards anymore (and even single player games have leader boards these days) so that we can all see who is the “best” at whatever game that we’re currently talking about. Suda 51’s No More Heroes takes the obsession with being number one into the world of assassination, presenting a world where the mysterious United Assassins’ Association has created a ranking system for assassins in which one can move up the ranks by killing those above him. For Travis Touchdown, the promise of being the top ranked assassin is enough. “I wanna be number one… Short and simple enough for you?” he asks the player in the introduction. This is the first step on a bloody path that comprises the game’s story, which darkly points out by the end that the rankings don’t mean anything. Travis’s battle has been in the service of nothing at all. It is a nihilistic message that lies hidden under the game’s constant pressure to move up the rankings and be the “best”. By the end of the game, the plot itself refuses to provide any sort of actual conclusion, as Travis seeks only to bail out of the plot, saying “You want me to tie up all these loose ends [in the plot]? I don’t think so”.

There is a hint at this lack of meaning after the very first fight, when Travis complains that “I’m not feeling the sense of accomplishment that I should”, which in turn leads to the promise (but not a guarantee) that if he reaches number one, Sylvia might “do it” with him. The motivation for making a run at the number one spot (the desire to be “the best”) changes once Travis realizes that the defeat of the former 10th ranked assassin is not half as satisfying as he hoped it would be. Apart from the promise of sex, the only other motivation he has is that defeating assassins pays the bills, but when one of those bills happens to be the fee for setting up the next fight, it all seems a bit self-defeating. This is also setting aside the number of perfectly legitimate jobs that can do the exact same thing for Travis–and in many cases the assassination jobs that Travis can pick up pay less than some of these more menial tasks — the gas pumping job can reap sizable rewards, as can a job cleaning up litter, although the game does provide at least one assassination mission that pays far better than most other jobs.

Even the city feels empty.

There’s no real reason to take the assassination missions apart from a desire to destroy (small wonder the city is named Santa Destroy really) or, from a gameplay standpoint, to get better at the combat system. And why get better at the combat system? To be the best at the game, of course, which considering Travis’ underwhelming response to victory in the first place seems like a strange thing to do. As if that weren’t enough, the game slyly informs the player of the pointlessness of their actions by making the motion to recharge Travis’ beam sword a mimic of masturbation–another act that achieves nothing but a brief satisfaction and a mess that needs to be cleaned up afterwards.

Charging your sword. No comment.

The only difference between this work and that less dignified occupation is that in No More Heroes the assassination battles have a team to execute cleanup duties. Travis’s satisfaction with his victories also seems short-lived, and while in the number nine fight he exclaims that “nothing’s more gratifying” than fighting his fellow assassins, he doesn’t even stick around to celebrate after the fight is over, instead he wanders off. Not only that, but his surroundings are never improved by his victories, apart from the odd wrestling tape that pops up or the ability to buy a new shirt. These gestures are nothing more than shallow materialism, a superficial alteration that doesn’t actually mean or advance anything in the game.

Travis is not the only one who has no idea why the fights are going on — several of the assassins themselves question why there is a need to kill one another in the first place. Destroyman points out that “it’s absolutely meaningless” until Travis insists that “It’s about determining who’s best”, which seemingly changes Destroyman’s mind (or more likely Destroyman’s line of inquiry was only to get Travis to let his guard down). The exchange with Holly Summers is even more interesting, as Travis chides her for trying to find meaning in killing — a sign that while Travis may in fact outwardly claim that the fighting is all about proving his worth, there is no real value in the act. It is meaningless, and yet Travis continues to kill — although significantly he attempts to spare Holly’s life almost on principle, although she insults him for his gesture, calling him a common thug. For Holly, the only meaning for an assassin is their inevitable demise at the hands of another assassin, and to be denied that death is dishonorable.

It is the game’s climax that hilariously throws the pointlessness of the whole battle for first place into sharp relief. The United Assassins’ Association is as hollow as the ranking system; a con set up by Sylvia Christel in order to support her rather extravagant tastes. The money that Travis paid for the right to fight was probably used for far more than arranging the fights actually required, and there never was anything to win apart from an imaginary Rank One title. Travis responds with the shocked exclamation, “Do you know how many people I’ve killed?”, highlighting the sudden horror at having all of his battles rendered meaningless. Who cares about the ranking if the ranking is not legitimate? There is of course a sly winking at the player with the line “What’s the point? This is all some make-believe charade”. What’s the point of playing the game, No More Heroes asks, if it means nothing?

Travis continues the fight, of course, because there’s nothing else for him to do and after all “a good man finishes what he started”. The only course of action for Travis is to keep pretending that the rankings still matter–evidenced by his declaration to Dark Star (the number one ranked assassin) that “The only thing that matters here is who’s best”. As it turns out, however, the rankings are quickly forgotten with the sudden appearance of Jeane, who is able to give meaning to the game simply because there was no meaning there to begin with. Suddenly, with the addition of a swiftly dramatized “surprise” plot twist, the game was about a quest for vengeance, despite the fact that not even Travis was aware that Jeane would show up in the end. This added and nonsensical plot device is an attempt to retroactively assign meaning to meaningless actions, and the sheer over-the-top ludicrousness of the meaning assigned makes it clear that it was really only coincidence that brought the two together (and deliberately “bad” writing, for comedy’s sake). Travis is quick to embrace this new motivation, exclaiming “Now I get it! All those fights, it was for this!” with an enthusiasm born of needing it to be true. The appearance of Jeane sets the stage for Henry’s sudden post-final-boss reappearance and revelation that he is Travis’ twin brother (even Henry points out that both Travis and the player should have expected “a twist of fate of some kind” by this point in the game, as it makes about as much sense as everything else — that is to say, very little sense at all).

In the end, the only good to come out of the game’s narrative for Travis is a bit of closure to the loss of his parents, as well as — one supposes — the relationship with his lost love/half-sister and that only happens by chance. The game throws its own meaninglessness back into the player’s face by even refusing to end the narrative properl. Travis decides that he would rather keep running from the responsibility of tying up all the loose ends of the plot by having a showdown with Henry, and the game stops abruptly as the two square off . . . because fighting is really the only thing that Travis knows how to do at this point, and if he can’t put the plot together, he might as well fight something instead. This article began by saying that there was a nihilistic thread that runs through No More Heroes and that certainly seems to be the case–the actions that Travis makes throughout the game are all in service to a goal that is actually meaningless in the end; number one doesn’t actually mean anything as the whole United Assassins’ Association is a con set up by Sylvia, nor does it prove who the “best” is, as Henry is not even part of the rankings and seems to at the least be Travis’s equal in combat — but that emptiness at the center Travis’ rise through the ranks also opens the door to talking about the game as a call for better storytelling in games. Here’s a question to consider: if the player knew about Travis and Jeane from the beginning, would it have made the game better? If this were a story of a man seeking vengeance instead of a man trying to be the best at killing people for an association that doesn’t even exist, would there be more motivation to finish? Or do the players whom Suda 51 created No More Heroes for need that reminder that what they’re doing is playing pretend and that despite all the time that they’ve put into playing the game to become number one, they haven’t really done anything meaningful?

Either way, it seems that Suda 51 decided to explore the concept of a man out for revenge who actually remembers that he’s out for revenge in No More Heroes 2, which I will have to talk about sooner or later–assuming that matters, of course.