The Mask of the Deviant: Understanding Our Role in Killer 7

The Killer 7 from Suda51's Killer 7, Capcom

Williams considers the often strange roles that masks serve in Suda51's games and how they implicate us as players of video games.

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.

Mask de Smith from Killer 7, Capcom
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.

Kaede Smith from Killer 7, Capcom
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.”

A Heaven Smile from Killer 7, Capcom
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.”

Iwazaru from Killer 7, Capcom
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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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