The unanimous hated spread for Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda51’s Killer Is Dead is alike the kiss of death; it hurls across a horrifying message that cautions not to tread differently, not to experiment, and not to have an identity.
As an artist myself, it’s painful to see. Killer Is Dead and its relationship to the industry it resides in, fascinates me very much. I wish to look at why Killer Is Dead aggravated so many reviewers and look at the game with a clearer mind, albeit considerably well versed in Suda51.
Killer Is Dead. A game that is considered misogynist, self-indulgent, and clunky by most reviewers, but personally this is not negative. Not every game should clean and amusing and represent the video game industry as a shining beacon of hope. To be clear, I do not think Killer Is Dead is misogynist, and am not condoning it. If a piece of entertainment attains a negative look on the world, that doesn’t mean that it is inherently pardoning such behaviour. Just as films and books can deal with drugs and sex and violence, so can gaming.
The gaming industry seems to be intent on growing up and construing a new identity that refuses anything that isn’t cinematic or indie or any other label. Killer Is Dead is neither AAA nor indie; it exists on its own, which one might choose to label as mid-tier, Japanese or simply ‘A Suda51 Trip’.
The industry needs to understand that if you strive to be Citizen Kane, that doesn’t make you Citizen Kane. Welles created Citizen Kane through not attempting to create an industry-defining product; it was made though the confidence of ignorance. A whole industry with highly ambitious goals is fantastic, however, these goals can be harmful to the identity of said industry. An identity should not be forced. Gaming is not cinema, and shouldn’t be a platform for attempting to force a false identity onto it. Gaming could potentially be a superb tool for exploring a myriad of different ideas, and like Papo and Yo creator Vander Caballero said, “Games are the only medium that’s creating memories in real-time. Movies don’t do that. Games do that. They’re actually creating memories in real time.”
Suda51 makes Suda51 games. He has his own identity, which permeates his work. His love for Mexican wrestling is littered in all his games, and the reason Travis owns a cat in No More Heroes, is simply because Suda likes cats. Again, his games are his own. They sometimes control worse than other games, sometimes are incomprehensible, and simultaneously exploitative and avant-garde. This is his signature, and the reason many of his fans enjoy his work.
With Killer Is Dead, Suda catered towards fans of his older work. Fans who enjoyed his pre-No More Heroes games, but also acknowledging any fans he may have picked up with his more mainstream titles. The game almost serves as a greatest hits complication but more on that later.
Why is it then that Killer Is Dead is brandished as a terrible product? Maybe the sensationally over-exaggerated ‘Gigolo Missions’ are to blame? The problem most have with this mode is simply a lack of understanding. Suda 51 is both a postmodernist and a satirist. Gigolo mode is an interactive joke. It’s a statement on male sexuality, a deconstruction of James Bond, and a moment of interactive auteurship, all washed with a light coat of 70’s Japanese New Wave cinema. It’s comparable to ‘charging a beam-katana’ in No More Heroes; a practical joke Suda is playing on the player. As a huge fan of many different types of entertainment, Suda is in love with the interaction video games offer. He has a very honest and fairly juvenile sense of humour, so as an auteur, he revels in the power of controlling the audience through these somewhat silly interactions.
Killer Is Dead is by no means a prodigious game, objectively, it’s fairly competent. A recent trend in Grasshopper’s games has been to lose the obtuse awkwardness, and gain a new reliance on understandable game mechanics. Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw function fairly typical as opposed to Killer7 and the absolutely underrated marvel that is Flower, Sun, and Rain. The ‘Punx’ spirit is brandished a lot by Suda and Grasshopper, and is another aspect that defines their identity, as well as being something truly missed when it dissipates. This punk spirit is definitely in Killer Is Dead, but lacking in the most needed component of the game, the gameplay.
The major problem Killer Is Dead broadcasts, is the discord between the writing and game design. This is one area where Suda, as a writer and director of his past games, truly shined. Boss encounters in No More Heroes were fascinating because the personality of the boss was weaved into the design of them. When Bad Girl drops on the floor crying mid-battle, the player instinctively rushes to her to land a few hits. She then leaps onto you and initiates an instant game-over through constant baseball-bat whacks to Travis’ skull. The humour and nature of this design choice is based on Bad Girl’s personality as an emotionally unstable figure, thus translates perfectly into the game design. Suda’s outlandish writing was governing the gameplay. Killer Is Dead lacks this essential component, which director Hideyuki Shin does an admiral job attempting to capture.
As mentioned before, Killer is Dead functions as a greatest hits compilation, which some might see as Suda running out of ideas and such, yet I believe it’s more important than that. ‘Kill the Past’ is an important conceptual ideology in Suda’s body of work, and to some fans, represents his greatest work. Some of the first games he worked on, Moonlight and Twilight Syndrome for Human Entertainment are among the first ‘Kill the Past’ games. The ambiguous trilogy of The Silver Case, Flower, Sun and Rain, and Killer7 comprise of the main bulk of this ideology. ‘Kill the Past’ refers to certain themes and characters that reappear with an underlying notion of moving forward without the horrors of the past.
I believe Killer Is Dead, is Suda’s attempt at killing his past. The amount of similarities with his older work is staggering, and is almost a joke, especially with main protagonist Mondo Zappa brushing off exposition as if he’s heard it all before. Furthermore this is the last game Grasshopper Manufacture makes as an independent developer; Gung-Ho Online Entertainment now owns Grasshopper Manufacture. Talks of this merger initially happened around the same time as the development of the game, and finally took place before it released. Killer Is Dead is the end of an era. Mondo happens to use the name of the game as a mantra and repeats it at the start and at the end of most levels. The repetition of the phrase ‘Killer is Dead’ is in some way a metaphorical emphasis of Suda killing the past. He’s created a product that echoes his previous work and attempts to ‘murder’ it and move fresh into the future. When the execution of the boss character takes place, a button prompt is asked of the player to raise the sword and then release it. “The job…killer is dead.” Once this phrase is muttered, we control the swift, swing of the sword that rids us of the past. We relive a moment in the present, that reverberates the past, only to rid it from the future.
This reverberation of the past acts like a human brain collating and organising all the stimuli it receives, and conveying this as a dream. It makes little sense, evokes a surreal nature, however it does capture you with its ambiguous allure. This is what the game offers the player, an experience that is not defined by pre-established labels.
A surreal, disjointed narrative actually is a big positive to Killer Is Dead. When I replayed the game, the cut scenes were not skipped. This made me realise that, being so vague, is actually a fairly intelligent idea for an action game, which is likely to be replayed. Normally one might skip the cut scenes in an action game to head straight for the game-play, but by offering a multi-layered fragmented narrative, replaying is a means to better understanding the story. This may not have been Suda’s intention, nonetheless is an intriguing concept.
Killer Is Dead is not a horrific product that deserves to be attacked. It’s a product of curiosity that is ultimately unsuccessful, yet still enjoyable. Many reviewers acted like a belligerent bull seeing a red target and dashed unmercifully towards it, missing out on discussing the interesting aspects of the game. It makes me wonder how many reviews I’ve trusted in the past, that have steered me away from a potentially interesting game. A truly disturbing thought.