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Fear and Loathing in London

Colin Harvey

In keeping with the times, the video game, Killer 7 brings on suicide bombers. Also in keeping with the times, there is no clear solution for stopping them.

"A new golden age? All wars over. Happy New World Order. The population are under control. Not my populations. Their war on terrorism means the world needs terrorists. Welcome to your nightmare. Heaven Smile."
— from the Killer 7 instruction booklet

A furtive glance. The good-looking Asian man returns my look with justified resentment. I sit down in the railway carriage at a table next to him, opposite a grizzled white guy apparently filling out his tax return. The train strains out of the station with the kind of sluggish reluctance that uniquely characterises British public transport. It's about seven o'clock on a rainy Wednesday evening, and the creaking carriage is about half-full as the train trundles toward London.

The Asian guy is just a kid. Probably about 20 years of age. I notice he's getting furtive glances from other passengers, too. The bag in front of him is hardly discrete: bright blue, orange and yellow. I reassure myself that the bag's sheer bulk means that it probably contains sporting equipment of some kind. Tennis racquets, maybe, or cricket gear. Something wholesome like that. Most certainly not a bomb.

The train terminates at London Bridge station. As the weary commuters disembark, I notice that the lad is still getting furtive glances from other passengers. He gazes levelly back, waiting for his fellow travellers to disembark. He knows the bag is so bulky it would just get in their way. He's evidently a polite chap.

London is jittery. Hardly surprising given the events of 7 July 2005, when a group of suicide bombers killed, at present count, over 50 people on their morning commute at locations around the London Underground and on a double decker bus. They wounded many, and traumatised still more.

And that was just the beginning. On 21 July, a group of would-be suicide bombers tried an identical attack, which, through the grace of Allah or through the incompetence of the individuals involved, thankfully didn't transpire as planned. On that occasion, nobody, thankfully, died at the hands of the terrorists.

Instead, someone died at the hands of the police. An innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, was killed at Stockwell tube station by anti-terrorism police who'd mistakenly believed he was one of the perpetrators of the failed second attack. He was shot dead under the auspices of what has euphemistically been termed by the authorities a 'shoot-to-protect', rather than 'shoot-to-kill', policy.

Welcome to the game the world is now playing. A global contest in which we're all taking part. A game in which it's evidently impossible not to be a pawn.

Of course there are those who would consider themselves to be players rather than pawns. There are the suicide bombers, those gullible youths intent on Jihad, who evidently have the imagination to kill in innumerable ways but who lack the right kind of imagination to want to make this world a better place to live in. There are the neo-cons in Washington, zealots in their own right, oblivious to the fact that their policies are utterly, unequivocally counter-productive and that they're actually creating monomaniac extremists when they really should be neutralising them. And there are the scattered remnants of the old Al Qaeda, holed up in remote caves somewhere in Pakistan, babbling theocrats that probably knew about the London bombings at precisely the same time everyone else did, despite their playground threats to the contrary. They're all pawns, and so are we, forced to choose sides in a game that isn't actually winnable.

Talking of games, with truly breathtaking topicality and barely a whisper from a mainstream media otherwise obsessed with the literal world, an abstract video game masterpiece has emerged to comment, however obliquely, on the world of the suicide bomber. Killer 7 is a genuinely imaginative attempt at reinventing the thriller genre. This for an audience already deluged with carbon copies of such games that may innovate in some regards, but the games are generally stuck in familiar first and fourth person grooves that don't seem to have evolved overly much since the N64 classic Goldeneye.

In Killer 7 Shinji Mikami and his team have produced a glorious cell-shaded masterpiece that makes the player feel like they've fallen into a particularly dense Anime. Mikami, creator of both Resident Evil and Devil May Cry, isn't afraid of playing with the aesthetics, plot, or characters of video games to make something that intelligent adults might actually like to play.

So we get a camera that defaults to a low angle shot of the avatar and a plot in which the eponymous hero, the world's greatest assassin, is actually one character with seven split personalities. We get a deeply disturbing sound track, powered by isolated, unseen noises and distorted dialogue. We get similarly disturbing visuals that invariably only show us part of what's going on: rooms cloaked in shadow, or angles that only semi-reveal what's happening.

Killer 7 pulls off the trick of blending an abstract and captivating look with a plot that contains many fantastical elements, but which still manages to remain eerily familiar. As the player, you control Harman Smith, leader of a group of government-sanctioned assassins. So far so, so usual. But the unique selling point of this game is that Smith is actually only one identity of seven, each of whom look and act very differently within the game environment, each of whom is an assassin with a very distinct set of abilities. So far, so unusual: a nice twist on what we ordinarily expect from this kind of game.

Except what makes Killer 7 different isn't limited to the so-called 'hero' (hero, indeed). The world as portrayed in Killer 7 is being menaced by a group of adversaries with the ironic moniker of 'Heaven Smiles'. These opponents are not the bulk standard monsters or gangsters we might recognise from innumerable horror, science fiction or crime-based video games. They're invisible for a start, only revealing themselves at the point when they explode next to the player's avatar. And they die not with a wail but with a terrifying cackle. More important still is the fact that they're actually terrorists. Suicide bombers, in fact.

Crucially, Killer 7 taps into those contemporary anxieties about knowing just who our enemies are and how they will operate against us. Sure, Mikami knows what sends chills up people's spines: the zombies in Resident Evil, natch, although I always found those clacking puppets from Devil May Cry much more scary. But Killer 7 not only keys into those abstract but nevertheless deep-seated fears of the unknown that we all possess, but also the very specific contemporary fear of being destroyed by someone who doesn't value their own life, let alone the lives of those around them.

This is the fear that I experienced on the train on that rainy Wednesday after the London bombs when my liberal instincts were thrown into flux by the sight of that perfectly innocent Asian kid going about his normal business. It's the fear that the person sitting on the train or the bus beside you might blow themselves to pieces and take you with them. Even though the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are actually greater than the odds of being hit on the head by a falling meteor.

In the game environment of Killer 7 the decision to make the player's adversaries invisible can, of course, be read as a metaphor for the real world, where the key characteristic of this seemingly new threat to democracy is the invisibility of the threat until it's too late. In the context of the gameworld, where real lives are clearly not at stake, there is, of course, room for experimentation. If a player's avatar dies in these circumstances, the player can make a cup of tea and try again.

The real world doesn't have the same luxury. Get the wrong person, and someone like the innocent Brazilian student Jean Charles de Menezes winds up dead in an underground station, shot by nervy police. But hesitate to kill a suicide bomber, and a lot more people could end up dead.

What strikes me as unusual about Killer 7 is the extent to which the game chooses to key into contemporary concerns. It's not that it has any great insights to offer into the problem of how to deal with suicide bombers. A didactic video game that addresses the need to see what turns people into suicide bombers, rather than just concentrating on the devastation wrought by suicide bombers, probably is possible, but Killer 7 isn't it. Nor can Killer 7 be seen as an exact simulation of the horror of having to deal with suicide bombers from the perspective of a civilian or a figure of authority, like a police officer.

What Killer 7 provides, though, is ample opportunity to face an abstract facsimile of the suicide bomber in a 'safe' environment. It's naively optimistic to hope that killing Heaven Smiles might provide some cathartic outlet for besieged people who might otherwise take out their anxieties on innocents in the real world. But anything that makes us understand that fear more than we do already, anything that makes us understand how to deal with the threat of suicide bombers, anything that makes us understand how to respond to that threat without sacrificing democracy but whilst safeguarding individual life, has got to be a good thing.

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