Trolling the Player: Punk Aesthetics and the "Anti-Fun" of Suda 51's Games
Suda 51's games are smart, and, of course, annoying as hell, due to the frequency of repetitive tasks and the banal nature of such activities. Often enough, Suda's goal in game design seems not to be in facilitating a fun experience for the player but to troll his own audience. And I kind of love him for it.
I had forgotten how annoying it is to die in Killer 7. After all, death is significantly more complicated in Suda's 2005 shooter than it is in most games.
In the game, the player can swap (largely) on the fly between the personae of seven different killers, the Smiths, all of whom make up the twisted psyche of a wheel chair bound assassin named Harman Smith. When any of the personae die, one member of the Killer 7, Garcian Smith, has to go clean up after this mess by retrieving a blood stained brown paper sack containing their remains.
It's a clever idea. Garcian's role as a “cleaner” serves the purpose of explaining away player death in the game -- at least in the sense that this concept of resurrecting psychic constructs is rational within the context of a game in which a crippled assassin is capable of projecting himself physically into the world through the personae of seven very competent psychopaths.
It's smart, and, of course, it is also annoying as hell to do over and over again, usually suffering through a number of load screens and watching the same cinematic of Garcian retrieving the bag containing his colleague again and again.
Suda 51 and his studio Grasshopper Manufacture have branded themselves with the motto “Punks Not Dead,” which many critics have seen as a nod to his tendency to feature protagonists that wear leather jackets and dirty jeans (frankly, though, a character like Travis Touchdown looks more rockabilly to me than punk).
I have never really seen the fashions or music featured in his games, though, as representing so much his connection to punk. It's the attitude of his games that scream punk -- more so and more clearly than any of the visual or aural aesthetics of his games.
Take Flower, Sun, Rain, a game that asks the player to recharge one of its protagonist's powers by walking 100 steps. Ummm... yeah, annoying. Or try traveling throughout the city of Santa Destroy in No More Heroes on the slowest motorcycle in the world (barely faster than protagonist Travis Touchdown's running speed) to the jauntiest rockabilly track in the world played on an endless loop. Better still, play No More Heroes at all, a game that is about assassins dueling one another, a series of boss fights. However, each one of these exciting boss fights (and they are cool, imaginative, and inventive) requires the player to grind out money to participate in them by doing odd jobs around town. You know, the exciting kinds of activities one expects in an action game, like coconut collecting and mowing lawns.
All of these activities are banal, beneath the “hero” of an action game, beneath the player of a triple A video game. All of which is the point. These games frequently annoy, aggravate, and provoke. They're punk. And that is the point.
While the famous scene in Star Trek IV in which Mr. Spock uses the Vulcan nerve pinch on a punk on a city bus to the delight of the other passengers is a scene in which punks take the butt of the joke, it really is a scene that recognizes truly what punk is in part all about. When the punk in the orange mohawk, who is playing his stereo loudly on the bus, is asked to turn it down, he not only turns it up in defiant response, he gives our intrepid time traveling space explorers the finger. Honestly, the request to turn it down is fundamentally what he wants anyway because it allows him to provoke, which is one of the dominant goals of punk aesthetics.
Punks feel uncomfortable and weird. The goal then is to let others know that and possibly more importantly to make others feel uncomfortable too.
This is why you name your band after a “division” of Jewish women forced to work in concentration camp brothels (I'm looking at you, Joy Division). This is why you flick boogers on your own fans during a show (thank you, Johnny Rotten), why you wear a swastika armband or t-shirt when you play shows (Sid Vicious), or why you turn violent acts like Nazi blitzkreigs and child abuse into catchy rock songs (hey there, Joey Ramone, love that “Blitzkrieg Bop” and especially that “Beat on the Brat”). Punks express their own sense of their discomfort with themselves, then they make sure that you get a healthy dose of your own discomfort for good measure. They don't so much like Nazis or boogers or child abuse. They like shock. In part, punk is simply a form of psychic and social vandalism.
In that sense, trolling on the internet is almost a punk act in and of itself. The motivation for baiting people with homophobic, sexist, racist, religious, anti-religious, or just downright nutty thinking or whatever else pushes someone's buttons seems to me at least to be an obvious kind of punk reaction from some people that are clearly uncomfortable and alienated in some ways themselves. The only thing that trolling lacks as an act of punk-like social vandalism is balls. The relative anonymity of the internet allows for a safe place to vandalize society or subcultures from. The punks of yesteryear did it in the flesh, screaming loudly with and through their unorthodox and ugly clothing styles, hair styles, musical styles, and uncouth attitudes. They celebrated ugliness and a lack of competence and talent because you aren't supposed to celebrate those things. They were (and are) guys and gals that announced (and announce) themselves as provocateurs and were (and are) willing to take the beat down that might result from such provocation (or the occasional Vulcan nerve pinch).
Suda 51's embrace of the banal, his willingness to embarrass, to antagonize, to annoy, just to make his point, seems in large part to be his point. His games and their mechanics often might be classified as “anti-fun” -- his intent to bore and annoy, not to provoke thrills and challenge. Again, he celebrates what you aren't supposed to celebrate in his medium. He elevates the ugly. He centralizes ugly play. In other words, Suda 51's goal often enough in his games is to troll the player themselves, to make them feel uncomfortable, to provoke irritation.
Like I said, I kind of hate playing through those sequences in Killer 7 in which I have to clean up the bodies of my colleagues while occupying the body of Garcian. And, yet, I kind of admire just how annoying they are.
I think I get it, Suda. Fuck you, too.