May the Lord Smile...: Killer7 Turns 10

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In a year that gave us Indigo Prophecy, Psychonauts and OddWorld: Stranger’s Wrath, Killer7 was probably the strangest game of 2005.

I could point to any number of moments in the game to make my argument as to why, but nothing makes a better case than the game’s first level. Starting a new game greets you with a squealing, maniacal laugh, followed by having to aim for the head of your first target (you are a killer, after all). When you score, the target erupts into a spray of blood pellets (platelets?). The image fades to red. Next, the unsettling moon. Tinted blue, it hovers in place for a single second, suddenly zooms close for an instant, then goes back to hovering. Then, a cutscene. These images are connected only in that they follow one another and evoke a mood.

Developer Grasshopper Manufacture’s motto is “Punk’s Not Dead,” and Killer7 was a punk game. It enthusiastically defied the norms of the age. In a time where most games where either meticulous recreations of war or colorful homages of Saturday-morning cartoons, Killer7 used garish, cel-shaded gradients to render polygons that already looked a decade old. Where Battlefield 2 emphasized freedom of expression through gameplay and opportunity, Killer7 had you follow a single, literal, branching line across claustrophobic environments. As Resident Evil 4 gave life to a new, more comfortable shooting perspective by throwing the camera over its shoulder, Killer7’s hung voyeuristically low, making it hard to see what was ahead. And where many games wanted you to feel like part of a group or get to know a single character, Killer7 made you one person with seven personalities and never bothered to characterize them. You were an assassin, and you had a job to do.

Early in the game you find the severed head of a woman. Somehow she’s still alive and can still talk. She, like most of the characters in the game, speaks in jumbled tones, unintelligible sounds just barely identifiable as language. The severed woman’s head speaks to you in a combination of words and emoji, the full-faced kind, the ones that look like Kirby. She doesn’t seem particularly bothered by her situation. In fact, all she asks is that you close the dryer and leave her alone. She gives you what you are looking for, and sends you on your way.

Undoubtedly strange. Defiantly punk.

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“...and the Devil have mercy.”

Killer7 may have been one of the first games I appreciated outside of the fact it was “fun.” It’s also one I had to appreciate from afar. Reading reviews of it at the time of its release, I resisted buying it because it didn’t score highly enough. I was still under the illusion that quality was objective, and if the review scores were mixed, I probably shouldn’t bother. I only played good games. So I didn’t buy Killer7 when it came out.

But after reading about its concept, about becoming other people (something that appealed to an overweight teenager who wanted to escape middle school), and about the undertaker-turned-game-developer who wanted to make punk games, I was fascinated. It wasn’t until No More Heroes, Suda Goichi’s next game, really brought me into his style of game that I went back and played Killer7. At the time, I simply called it “weird.” But I loved it.

But I was still a “quality is objective” kid, and I didn’t know what to do about the things I didn’t like about it. I loved its aesthetic. I loved the outlandish Smith Syndicate, from the calm-and-collected Garcian Smith, to the withdrawn and aloof KAEDE Smith, to the quiet and imposing MASK de Smith. I loved the trippy, metagame storyline, well before the TV show Lost wound up at a similar conclusion. It was so weird, so different from anything else I’d ever played, before the rise of independent games, and on the tail-end of the eccentric Dreamcast-era of Japanese games. I loved the soundtrack, the alternation between sedated tones and sharp screeches that had more in common with a horror game than a shooter. It was like a David Lynch film, and I had just come off watching Rabbits with a friend of mine. So I was entirely into the idea of game trying to do something similar. It probably wasn’t, but at the time, I just lumped everything that caught my attention in the “weird” bucket.

Killer7 encompassed a mood. It was calming. It made me feel okay with having done nothing with my time but having stared at severed heads and found Fire Rings. It had so many surreal, strange and shocking moments—a “boss battle” against exaggerated and sexed-up Power Rangers; a walk through a deserted pueblo town; another boss fight against a different severed head; an entire chapter dedicated to building up a slow reveal, only to make the “reveal” in the most obvious fashion. It was loaded with ennui and “clever” moments (not unlike films by Jodorowsky, whom Suda’s admitted to drawing inspiration from). I wouldn’t have been able to call it “ennui” at the time. Just “weird.”

The first time I tried to play through it, I couldn’t do it. I played the first level, a bit of the second, then resorted to a video walkthrough. It was a rough game to sit through, especially for someone who was all about fun. A proto-formalist. I had to abandon it, and leave it to someone who loved the game more than I did to finish it for me, because it wasn’t “fun.”

No, it wasn’t fun. It reveled in the tragic, addicting fantasy of being sad and alone. It wasn’t angry or brooding, like so many shooters of the modern era. It didn’t say “Everything is fucked up,” in an off-putting, nihilistic way. It wasn’t hopeful, to be sure, but it all it wanted to do was wallow in its sadness. When you weren’t shooting human shells in the face, you were utterly alone, accompanied only by apparitions, and your conversations with them only served to further alienate you from your environment. Save for the jaunty sounds of the final room before every boss, the music is aural, a heightened silence. Besides their eternal struggle against Kun Lan, you don’t get the sense that any of the killers you embody have a purpose. Your struggle is difficult, and it’s not a happy one. You can become other people, but no matter what you’re still alone. And that’s okay.

As a teenager facing a flurry of emotions that came with being stuck in high school (I didn’t get around to actually playing it until around ‘09), I deeply empathized with the idea of allowing myself to let my sorrow simmer. In a school environment where everyone was constantly telling me to cheer up, Killer7 let me stay in that perpetual state of wandering, self-indulgently, through my own head, dealing with my emotions by letting them pass through me.

My experience with it, as a strange trip through a disjointed narrative, as a game oozing with style, as something that was so utterly different from the games at I had played up until then, has stuck with me, more than just about any other game before or since. It stays with me as one of the greatest games of that generation. Depending on the day you ask me, of all time. Because it’s a game that wants to stick in your mind, simmering inside you then jumping out, like that blue moon, in a most unsettling way.

I’ve since ditched my adherence to “fun.” There’s much more to games than whether or not the gears click together in satisfying ways. And it took this broken, confusing, jigsaw puzzle of a game to shake me of it. And I’m eternally grateful I don’t feel like I have to follow reviews anymore.

Killer7 is not particularly fun. It is repetitive. It is linear. It is unclear. But it is cool. It is something else, still, not a catalyst for a new way of thinking, perhaps, but a sign of things to come. It is important. You’ll remember parts of it at random, and return to them. But you also forget it just as quickly, like a daydream.

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“Are You Awake From Your Nightmare?”

The Activation Synthesis Theory suggests dreams are less your brain trying to talk to you and impart some meaningful message, and more your mind exercising as you sleep. Bored, perhaps, by the idea of having to spend hours in idle, the brain starts using your thoughts in new ways, toying with both things you’ve thought throughout the day, latent cerebral impulses, and often, some random shit. These thoughts go into a pot, and out come dreams, scraps and ideas tied together. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they’re just there, defying explanation. The theory’s not bulletproof, but it gets us to rethink the prevalent interpretation of dreams as Freudian attempts of the id to reveal personal truths to us.

The kind of surrealism Suda Goichi dabbled in with his earlier works is often described as dreamlike. Michael Thomsen called Suda’s whole pastiche “nonsense art,” bits of tissue and non-sequiturs irreducible by critics obsessed with wrangling meaning from them. Like some of Killer7’s level, it’s hard to pin down just what Suda’s ever going for, and Killer7 is his prime example.

If dreams are brain exercises, they’re more connected to daydreams than we might think. Daydreams, too, are brain exercises we engage in when we’re bored by our surroundings. We imagine fantastical scenarios where we’re whisked away from our boring lives and brought into something much more entertaining (with every scenario sped up to maintain our attention). Maybe we win the lottery and don’t have to go to our day job. Maybe the person we’re crushing on in our chemistry class finally pays us the attention we desperately yearn for. Whatever the case, there’s a meaning to them, and they’re usually aspirational.

In that sense, Killer7 is more like a daydream than a nocturnal one, and it’s more cohesive than we might think. Dreams, in most modern fiction, are depicted as surreal, abstract visions of meaning, where different aesthetics and objects can collide without having to justify any of the loose connections. To find an example, we need only look back to last month, when Media Molecule unveiled its most recent project, Dreams. In the trailer, we see the creation of a charcoal man in a room, watch him move him from scenario to scenario without a connected thread, and see objects inserted into the screen on a whim. At the end the man’s head is replaced by bear’s, a tie-in to a bear we saw earlier. It’s a dream, so why not, right?

Killer7 doesn’t throw random objects on a screen and say “make of this what you will.” Though it’s loose and hard to parse, there’s a thread. It inserts absurd ideas and concepts into the established framework of the real world. People fly and transform into others at a moment’s notice, but beyond those conceptual conceits, it’s really not too different from, say, a comic book.

More importantly, it doesn’t take place in a dreamscape. It takes place, ostensibly, in the real world. It’s a strange interpretation of it, I’ll grant, but it’s more of a daydream in that it imagines the real world with all these things locked up inside it. What if our world was invaded by evil, demonic terrorists that were zombies but not actually zombies? It also meanders into conspiracy and philosophy the way many daydreams do. What if the Japanese were recruiting Americans and turning them into assassins in an insane plot to overthrow the Western empire?

Inserting absurdity into a facsimile of the real world has been Suda’s motif for a while. The Syndrome series; The Silver Case; Flower, Sun, and Rain; Michigan: Report From Hell: All of these games inject surrealism into the banality of life, each with its own mood. The only one I’ve experienced outside of Youtube playthroughs, Flower, Sun, and Rain, is a daydream while on vacation. As “Searcher” Sumio Mondo, you deal with finding people’s lost items on an island. That game deals with the repetition of daily routines and our desires to get away from the boredom that entails, but it’s still every bit as absurd, as connected to the idea of daydreaming, as the people and scenarios you encounter become more and more strange and surreal. It also ends in a similarly convoluted way.

What makes Suda’s games special is that they keep their tones consistent despite the absurdity, whether it’s dreary (as is the case in Killer7) or curious (Flower, Sun, and Rain). They are often about exploring lived-in spaces, about understanding people (or a specific person) through the places they’ve been. Filled with ennui, they wander into esoteric and dark territory about the nature of existence. And again, they often have a bit of a conspiracy kick.

You consistently get the sense that something about a Suda game isn’t all there. In Killer7, something seems missing. Maybe it’s a poorly told story, in some respects. But there’s a thread. It isn’t just a dream the way we tend to think about them, a collection of thoughts thrown at a dartboard. The lived-in spaces, the cel-shaded gradient colors, give its surrealism impact. It imbues grounded, ordinary places with life by inserting the surreal into them. It’s an extended day dream, at once a collection of thoughts but ultimately aspirational, connected. It isn’t very clear about what it wants to be, but like all of Suda Goichi’s games, that’s the appeal.

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“Master, We’re in a Tight Spot.”

The Era of the Japanese auteur may be over, but Suda Goichi trucks right along, producing games at a steady clip at Grasshopper. But like many a director who eventually creates more commercial art, I can’t help but think he’s been slipping ever since Killer7.

Killer7 was a seminal point in Suda’s career, the first game that brought him out of the obscurity of the Japanese underground and into the American one (if nothing else, it was the first time I’d heard of him). The game was in many ways a compromise; it wanted to appeal to the crowd that loved shooters by being one, but didn’t want to alienate Suda’s dedicated fanbase by making it too similar to other games.

Case in point: the linear movement system. While the shooting was a way to grab a new audience, keeping the movement linear (and making the player stop and switch between moving and shooting the same way Resident Evil 4 did) was an appeal to a crowd who may not have had much experience with shooters. Because the movement was so simple, people who hadn’t played shooters could get into it. A few other small details about the game’s creation also highlight the extent to which the game wanted to serve two masters.

Since Killer7, Grasshopper Manufacture games have gone from structurally and fundamentally bucking the conventions of game design to superficially doing so. No More Heroes 2 may have been the sweet spot between its director’s brand of absurdity and modern design sensibilities. It wasn’t as fresh, as different, as cool and stylish as the original No More Heroes, but it was far more playable—fun, even. It managed to produce a worthwhile and insane daydream the way we’d come to expect from him, and other people could get into it, too. “We want to please the fans,” Suda said. And for once, it worked.

After No More Heroes, Suda-directed Grasshopper games haven’t found the punk inspiration they’ve needed. Their weirdness has been more on the fringes and not at the core of the games. In their quest to be more “playable,” the games have lost their edge. Shadows of the Damned, a “fun” game in its own right, is too similar to Resident Evil 4 (due perhaps to the involvement of that game’s director, Shinji Mikami). It’s pleasantly strange in some ways, incredibly demeaning in others. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was the modern, conventional game design Suda’s previous games were so defiantly against with Suda-flavored coating on top. Same with the game that followed, Lollipop Chainsaw.

Killer is Dead, the last game Suda’s directed, is the epitome of what I mean. It was fantastical in a way Killer7 wasn’t. In it, you travel to the moon, kill lots of wacky (boring) bosses, and wind up in various ridiculous scenarios, but most of it is tedious. And not in the same way Killer7 is tedious. Killer7 makes tedious things (walking around hallways, opening locked doors) tedious. Killer is Dead makes things that should have been fun a struggle to get through. Killer7 has gunplay, but its simple nature highlighted just how boring killing things became to a professional killer. There is no sense of that in Killer is Dead. The latter hopes that being conceptually outlandish will be enough. It isn’t. That just makes it feel like every other videogame. Not punk at all.

I don’t bemoan Suda’s downturn, however. Part of the problem of being “punk” is that it’s difficult to get away from yourself, to continue creating entirely new alternatives, especially when the opportunity for broader appeal presents itself. Instead, I’m glad that game creation has evolved to a point that I can still play games with Suda’s spirit. There’s reason to think Hidetaka Suehiro (Swery65) is the next Suda, though the moniker doesn’t give him enough credit. If I ever wanted a spiritual successor to Killer7, it’s probably Receiver. If I’m looking to wallow in ennui again, I can play Kentucky Route Zero.

I still plan to play anything with Suda’s name on it. Killer7 is so important to me—as a game; as a punk game; as a daydream that brought together disparate thoughts into something that evoked a perfect mood; as a game that doesn’t always make sense; as an experience that was the epitome of a mindset we didn’t see much of in 2005—that I hope against hope he can pull something like it off again. But if he doesn’t, I’m okay with that. Because even without him, punk is very much not dead.

Suriel Vazquez has written for Paste, Kotaku and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.