Super Columbine Massacre RPG!: Can a Historic Event Be Examined Seriously By a Video Game?

“The silly mortals always chattering… but never saying much.”

— Satan, Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

I spent a recent evening being Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. It was not fun. It was, however, somewhat interesting.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is a game designed and released a few years ago by Daniel Ledonne. I had not heard about it until it recently made news again when, according to Game Informer magazine, it was removed from competition in the Slamdance Guerilla Gamemaker Competition. Game Informer reported that Ledonne had ironically been initially invited by the folks at Slamdance to enter the game into competition prior to his disqualification, as well as the fact that Slamdance was more concerned about the use of licensed music in the game than the game’s controversial content when the decision was made to pull it from the competition.

The game’s content is, of course, what makes the game potentially troubling, though. In part, this is due to its collage-like use of other forms of media and art to construct the game and its narrative. In addition to quoting lyrics from and playing MIDI versions of songs by artists like KMFDM, Marilyn Manson, Nirvana, and Radiohead among others, the game draws on material from Apocalypse Now, the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, video games like Doom and even Super Mario Bros., and images from South Park and news broadcasts. There is a fine line between artistic allusion and plagiarism, especially in new media forms that incorporate both less regulated forms of art like literature and more regulated media like music and film.

Burning down the library is one of many
disturbing tasks to be accomplished.

The questions that the game really raises, however, are much more interesting in regards to the nature of an art form like game design as opposed to some of those earlier forms of media, especially in regards to what is appropriate to present to a gaming audience. Unlike more passive forms of art that largely require the participation of viewers as interpreters and observers of their subject matter, video games raise thorny questions about “viewing” content, since the action of a player is more directly participatory for the audience. It seems especially relevant that this game is titled Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, since this is indeed a game and as a result requires its audience to play roles. These roles have a historicity to them, though.

Consider, for instance, the idea of watching a film about Abraham Lincoln dealing with the ramifications of the Civil War as opposed to playing a game in which the player takes on the role of Lincoln and determines policy decisions for the United States during that tumultuous period (which might make for a really interesting game). There is a uniquely different level of participation being asked of the player of the game than would be of the viewer of the film.

Of course, games have broken this threshold before. There are certainly, for instance, a number of games out there that offer the player the chance to take on the role of an American soldier during World War II. Such participatory historicity in those cases is hardly controversial for a number of reasons, not least of which are that the event has occurred a sufficiently long time ago, and the player is playing the role of a “good guy.”

The first issue has been challenged before in both video games and film (for example, consider the video game Black Hawk Down or the film United 93) and remains somewhat of a hot button issue, especially for individuals and families directly affected by the events that those media depict. The question of “is it too soon?” has been raised in regards to both. The second issue has been challenged in film as recently as last year’s Oscar nominated Letters from Iwo Jima. However, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! raises both concerns at once, dealing with a horrific event in recent history that definitely provides troubling memories for individuals effected by it and by asking the player to take on the role of two unstable individuals, the perpetrators of the massacre itself.

It is one thing to play a fictional homicidal killer like Jason based on previous fiction like a Friday the 13th game or even a designer-invented-psycho in Rockstar’s Manhunt; do we want to play a game called Gacy or Super Dahmer Serial Killin’ Adventures!?

Super Columbine Massacre RPG! chooses an event and individuals perhaps less overtly purely gratuitously glorified, though, because (horrifyingly) the victims of the event were largely children and because (again horrifyingly) both perpetrators were also children. Understanding how children become victims and predators both seems to serve more social interest than salaciously experiencing Gacy or Dahmer’s crimes.

Seemingly, this is the goal of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, then, to raise questions about the motivations and impetus of the events that led to the Columbine Massacre and to serve as social commentary on it by placing the gamer in the shoes of the killers themselves and, perhaps, as a result of needing to make decisions for them, in the heads of the killers as well.

Designed using RPG Maker, the game resembles old school role playing games in terms of gameplay as well as appearance (think the 2D sprites of early Final Fantasy games, like the American versions of Final Fantasy II and III). The game is broken into four basic settings or “stages”.

The first section has the player waking up on the day of the massacre as Eric who can explore his house, gathering supplies for his “mission” as well as viewing some of the media products that informed the boys’ worldview. Firing up “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the stereo in Eric’s room, the player also finds a copy of Doom, the game that some pundits upheld as one of the catalysts for the boy’s killer rage, as well as a copy of a Marilyn Manson CD. Both items are ironically used as equippable accessories that improve the boys’ attributes in fighting, agility, and the like, suggesting in a coy fashion that those who blamed such media for the boys’ actions were “right” as they serve in the game literally as skill bonuses for their characters. Additionally, Ledonne has constructed much of the dialogue from actual recordings of the boys (Eric mentions that he isn’t much of a fan of Manson) and includes a clip viewable from Eric’s television from Apocalypse Now that served as inspiration for the boys’ Kurtz-like philosophy.

The second section begins the game itself in earnest, with the boys sneaking into the school in a kind of stealth action style of gameplay in order to plant bombs (that will fail to go off) in the school’s cafeteria.

The game does make some attempts at honest reflection.

After this brief (though somewhat difficult) section, the third section — the actual massacre — begins. Your “party” of role playing characters, Eric and Dylan, enters the school and encounters what in video game role playing terms would be referred to as “wandering monsters.” In most RPGs, these would be 2D sprites resembling your opponents that would move to engage your character in combat. Touching such a monster causes the player to be launched into a combat screen where orders are then issued to your party to fight, heal, defend, etc. in a menu based combat system. However, in Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, these “monsters” move away from, not towards your character. When you, in the role of Eric, suceeed in colliding with the characters, combat does begin in the traditional style, though these “monsters” have names like “Preppy Girl,” “Sheltered Girl,” “Jock Type,” “Church Girl,” “English Teacher,” “Janitor,” and so on.

These encounters are disturbing in a host of ways. Firstly, they are very easy. Eric and Dylan are equipped with firearms, armored by their trenchcoats, and, of course, their stats are improved with equippable Doom game and the music of Marilyn Manson. However, their opposition can only fight back (usually doing little damage — assuming they even get an attack off before they die) with their fists or as the menu system describes they sometimes instead simply choose to “brace themselves for an attack.” In particular, I found combat descriptions like “Church Girl Kneels down and prays” before receiving a health and defense bonus and “Sheltered Girl begins to cry” also before receiving a health and defense bonus as particularly shocking descriptions of my opponents’ only defenses against Eric and Dylan. Additionally, an assumedly sarcastically intended message appears when these “monsters” drop health items after dying in combat, “X is all yours now, brave boys” (with X representing a medikit or hamburger). “Bravery” seems a less than apt descriptor for these easily-won victories over innocent combatants. After combat, a bloodied form of the sprite that the characters attacked appears on the screen on which you navigate the school, leaving a swath of bodies in the player’s wake. These elements serve to evoke a sense of horror about the actions the player is participating throughout this segment and the bodies remain on display where they fall over the course of this stage.

They are also a constant reminder of this idea throughout the game when the player returns to the parking lot to reload his arsenal and to save. This decision to have a fixed save point seems a conscious one on the part of Ledonne, as it is possible in the game’s fourth stage to save the game anywhere. Ledonne seems interested in making the player backtrack and as a result witness the carnage perpetrated through this stage and, thus, be remnded over and over again of the consequences of your own actions as a player.

While I have argued in the past in an article concerning the “hyperreal” nature of ethics in video games in an issue of Reconstruction that generally “killing” pixels in a simulated environment carries with it no real ethical content, moments like these in Super Columbine Massacre RPG! remind the player that there still is a semiotic and thus value-laden element to the actions taken in a simulation. Certainly, I don’t feel guilty for having “destroyed” pixels. However, this section is punctuated by a growing guilt in the player generated by the symbolic value of the representations of the children of Columbine. There is a reason that flag burning upsets some people, and it is not because people are burning cloth. The reality of the investments that people have in the representational value of symbols is what drives such emotional response to the “merely” symbolic.

The empathy generated for the massacre’s victims and the guilt of wielding the guns of the two killers themselves is also balanced in this section with some concern for Eric and Dylan’s motivations and inspirations. Some triggered, scripted cut scenes occur at various places in the school to remind the boys and the player of these things. A recollection of being beaten up by jocks in a locker room and a memory of viewing a soliloquy concerning alienation by Frankenstein’s monster in a high school production of Frankenstein attempt to explain and also produce further fuel for the boys’ and players’ vicious actions within the school.

This simulated consideration of Eric and Dylan’s reason for rampaging comes to a head in the school’s library where, by a window, the player is offered the option to end the massacre by commiting suicide. For, as the boys mention earlier in the game as they are considering the “guiltiness” of the people they plan to kill, “We need to die too.”

Yet, the choice is offered here because the player can return to combat and more killing at this point if any opposition still remains within the school. Ironically, to suceed in the game’s final stage, killing everyone in the school is probably the best strategy as this is a role playing game and thus requires that the characters improve their abilities by winning combats. The player affected by the earlier horror of his or her kills will likely suffer gameplay frustrations in the final stage by not taking advantage of draining every bit of strength from his or her victims. It is ironic that the best way to play the game may be to ignore the violence and horror generated by the game’s narrative, creating a kind of pragmatic distancing of the emotional content of the story being told from the need for good strategic game playing. In the game’s fourth section, this distancing may be related to the odd shift in tone.

However, before the game takes this unusual turn (but after the player finally decides to end this chapter with suicide), Ledonne treats the player to a reminder of the earlier mixture of empathy and guilt generated by the massacre through its real life inspiration. The player views a slide show of journalistic images from the day of the massacre and events leading to it, beginning with images of the real life Eric and Dylan lying dead in the Columbine library followed by images of students crying outside and being assisted by rescue workers and finally by photos of Eric and Dylan as children.

In the fourth section of the game, the gravitas of reality is torn from the player through Ledonne’s return to video games both as a theme related to violence and as a kind of setting for the game. In this final section, Dylan finds himself searching for Eric in hell.

Hell curiously resembles the video game Doom, as its denizens are made up of animated sprites from the infamous first person shooter. Demon Imps, Demon Soldiers, Lost Souls, and Barons of Hell become the “true” monsters of this final stage. Due to this section’s difficulty (the wandering monsters now seek out combat and can do significant damage to the player) as noted earlier, it becomes clearly beneficial for the player to have levelled up a lot during the massacre chapter but, after all, at this point the player is reminded by the characters encountered and the unreal setting that he or she is only “really” playing a video game. It is as if the social concerns of the game have evaporated and only good gameplay becomes key to success since the monsters all look like simulated monsters.

Horrifyingly, as Dylan is reunited with Eric, both boys reveal in dialogue that they are “stoked” that they can “kick ass” here in hell within such a familiarly simulated world, lending a weird credence to the notion that there is something to Doom-inspired rage for these characters.

The player continues through this, the largest and longest level of the game (it may require more than half of the game’s play time) killing demons and collecting familiar Doom-inspired (rather than the reality-inspired weapons of the massacre stage) weaponry to improve their chances. Weapons include Doom‘s shotgun, plasma rifle, and the infamous BFG (Big Fucking Gun) 9000.

Find Marilyn and boost your stats.

The weirdness of the environmental shift is only made more strange by a tonal shift’s in the game’s narrative. In particular, a brief side quest through a pentagram shaped portal to a place called the Island of Lost Souls seems to completely shatter the horror and pathos emoted by the earlier stage. The Island is populated by a host of people both real and fictional, including Ronald Reagan, John Lenin, an Islamic jihadist, Confucius, Darth Vader, Mario, Mega Man, Pikachu, and Santa Claus. These souls can be spoken to and their dialogue is at once serious, satiric, and goofball. For instance, Ledonne both pokes fun at religion and also asks serious theological questions about belief as some of the more religious souls complain about the fact that they are in hell as a result of their ignorance at following the “wrong” god. Reagan’s political policy and Lenin’s idealism is satirized as well. Mario, Vader, and the other fictional characters provide goofy screwball humor with famous sound clips from the media that produced them. For example, Mario exclaims when encountered, as he does in Super Mario 64, that “Itsa me! Mario!” or Vader intones, “I am your father.”

Goofball antics, serious social commentary, and social satire all blend into one singularly disconcerting experience on the Island of Lost Souls especially considering the focus on emoting social concern with more understated satiric elements provided in the first half of the game. As a player, I began to feel like a lost soul myself at this point as the experience seemed to muddle the focus of the game and make me wonder if the purpose of the game was becoming equally lost.

Returning to the depths of hell itself, a final confrontation with a Cyberdemon boss from Doom, a weird and equally screwball conversation between the boys and Nietzsche, followed by the delivery of Devil’s Food Cake (ha ha! Get it?!?) to Satan himself (of course, only after “kicking his ass” with Eric and Dylan), and the mash up of the game’s confused point of view came to a head. Completing the game leads to a scripted ending in which Satan reveals to the boys how famous they have become by allowing them (and the player) to witness 2D RPG-style characters enacting a Columbine memorial service, which is puncuated by three speeches, each of which place the blame for the massacre on different catalysts: the ownership of handguns, violence in the media, and godless secular culture. The final screen of the game contains an image of a Time magazine cover featuring Eric and Dylan whose caption reads, “The Monsters Next Door: What Made Them Do It?,” as well as a Doom-inspired message to the player: “The Final Epoch Has Begun: Mission Accomplished.”

The confusion and ambiguity of the “resolution” persists in this cacaphony of messages sent by the pundits choosing a targeted “issue” to serve as scapegoat for the crime and is puncuated by the magazine cover, whose question remains unanswered. Additionally, this kind of congratulations for “kicking ass and beating the game” seems ill conceived. This same confusion and ambiguity seems to be at the heart of the game, though, with its own confusion about what it desires to be and how to present itself to the player. The mixture of tones, from extreme pathos to low brow comedy, seem less daring and controversial than they are revealing of a weakness of the game’s design. Eric and Dylan’s massacre seemed a chance for the two to push boundaries and violate social norms. It was an “experiment” of sorts gone far beyond the kind of experimentation at testing and breaking boundaries enacted by most teens. This game, likewise, seems in a confused way to attempt a similarly childish experiment with violating norms and breaking ethical boundaries. Unfortunately, like its tone, it remains terribly awkward and confused at how to go about doing so in a meaningful way.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG! definitely raises interesting questons about both the event it attempts to simulate and about whether video games are capable of social and historical commentary. But, without a coherent, consistent tone or execution, one is left wondering: Why did he do it?

The game chatters, but does it have anything to say?