Style, Substance and Killer 7
“Master! We’re in a tight spot!” Iwazaru was rarely wrong. Killer 7 is one enormous tight spot, being all kinds of claustrophobic, nonsensical, perverse and wrongheaded. What’s perhaps most indicative of its unique style is that some of the latter are true in the most literal sense; opening a cupboard to find the disembodied head of a suicidal schoolgirl who then passes a vital item to the protagonist is undoubtedly an interaction unique to the Grasshopper masterpiece. Occasionally, the player is made to feel like the butt of one big joke, at others as awesome as Harman Smith himself. It’s rare to find a game that so readily fluctuates along the emotional spectrum, eliciting at turns fear, disgust and unbounded joy.
Probably the most common criticism of Killer 7 is that it succeeds only in placing “style over substance”. Indeed, no less than my esteemed colleague Terence Gage tarred the title with that very same brush, describing the above offence as “possibly the ultimate sin any game can commit”. He’s certainly not alone, though. The other Thunderbolt review, though scored three full points higher and this time written by Justin Boot, claims that it’s “an incomplete work that has too much artistic style and far too little gaming substance”. Phil Theobald at Gamespy echoed this, calling it in his conclusion “a pretty severe case of style over substance”. Ben Silverman at Game Revolution goes all out, purporting to “admire the effort and love the style, but we expect our video games to be first and foremost good games, not good art”. These reviews, bear in mind, are in good company and represent only the broadest and mildest complaints.
There are two problems with all of the above. Firstly, who decided substance was so preferable to style? The answer seems to lie in a semi-consensual product of history. It’s ostensibly self-evident. We all pretend that we’d like our partners to be astute and personable rather than merely physically attractive, so why shouldn’t the approach be the same in the case of our video games, even if it is a self-deceptive one? If the analogy seems creaky, it only remains so in the face of the arguments I am about to advance, applying as it does to the one dimensional nature of the central criticisms of Killer 7. It is somewhat ironic that many of its detractors appear to be quite guilty of the very things the game is accused of, making no attempt to analyse either the designer’s intentions or their own reactions. More oddly, Killer 7‘s successes are often acknowledged but rarely celebrated.
Case in point is Maxim’s admittedly short review, in which Paul Semel claims that it left him “helpless and confused”. There are obviously a couple of caveats here. One, it’s Maxim. That’s not intended in sneering manner, it’s simply a matter of fact that they’re not going to contain an in-depth critical essay on any video game, not least one as niche as Killer 7. Two, he probably didn’t actually play much of it. Again, I don’t want to assume anything and it’s not accusatory, but there’s no doubt of its likelihood. In a way, his condensation of most complaints about the title into one succinct paragraph is impressive, and this means he’s able to cut to the core of the issue like few multiple-page diatribes could. However, it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s missed the point. Killer 7 can indeed leave the player feeling lonely and puzzled, but that ought to be something considered a unique strength.
Vulnerability, as Anthony Burch has so helpfully observed, is so infrequently explored in video games. It’s risky, what with the acquisition and use of power being so unusually central to this medium, but it can produce some astounding results. Not being in full control of a situation and without even having the means to do so can be utterly compelling, as well as a sensation virtually exclusive to video games in terms of the direct experience. Killer 7‘s mechanics are geared towards this end, and though uncomfortable and not necessarily “fun”, they create a mental state that stands up to interesting meditation. An absence of direct movement control, counter-intuitive camera positioning, a convoluted aiming system and the variety and relative power of enemies contribute to this in the most marvellous way, enabling each level’s sparse environment to be ostensibly much more hostile than it really is. The artificially extended shadows and starkly flat textures of the reductive art direction are in this case at work far more effectively than simply contributing to “style”, and that brings us rather neatly to my second issue with that most clichéd of cited cons.
What do “style” and “substance” actually mean? It seems an entirely facile question that begs an easy riposte, but actually coming up with one is surely difficult. Leaving aside the virtuosity of style in and of itself, that nebulous but loaded term “content” strikes again. But what makes the largely psychological character of Killer 7‘s particular thrills any less substantial than the gameplay of any run of the mill shooter or dozens hours of grinding in an RPG? The Game Revolution reviewer at least attempts honesty in this regard, making a psuedo-recommendation to certain players; “you’ll laugh, cry and quite likely have a hard time sleeping the first night”, he writes candidly. I found myself nodding in agreement. Surely then, Killer 7 is something to be treasured? Perhaps not, says he. Though I don’t personally agree with the notion, neither do I find it particularly objectionable that some people play games for fun and fun alone, of which Silverman admits as much of himself.
Incredulity, though, is the only possible reaction to his proceeding dismissal of Killer 7 as “a game”. A failure to recognise its use of game systems in aid of atmosphere or mood or however one may describe it is his first oversight. His second is even more objectionable and glaringly obvious, and exists in his disingenuous inclusion and recognition of what the game does so well without a modicum of assessment of its context. Nobody said Killer 7 was meant to be out and out entertainment. It’s akin to saying “despite its hilarity, I found this comedy film devoid of any subtle subtext or incisive commentary on the human condition”. Nobody expected to see gunfights in Sex and the City 2 (however preferable that may have been), nor that their new watch would teleport them to Mars. Despite seemingly recognising that an audience exists for this game and that, by proxy, its design approach is at least valid, there’s something of an indignant refusal by many (not just the unfortunate Silverman, who has become the unintentional target of this piece), to evaluate Killer 7 on its own terms.
Its methodological scheme is as schizophrenic as its titular character, but a heavy handed blending of stripped down mechanical constructs is Killer 7‘s greatest strength. Part early nineties adventure game and part first-person shooting gallery, the removal of immediate directional control and violent shifts of perspective are its greatest assets. The latter beautifully reflects and compliments the existence of multiple playable personalities, allowing the player to observe each in context before inhabiting them, as well as allowing the emotional scale to exist in a state of constant flux.
Sympathy for the pathetic, almost emaciated figure of Kaede, the sole female fragment of Harman’s mind, dissolves rapidly into an admiration for her handling of combat. When she slits her wrists in order to break barriers, the fountain of gushing blood is a horrifying one. Awe at the sharp, calculated Dan can be misplaced. He talks a good game, but his ineptitude at close range is the rapid non-reward for selecting him. The personality, though, remains a magnetic one, if only for his coarse utterances. When we first watch Garcian stick the head of a fallen personality – unfailingly contained in a brown paper bag – we may laugh, but the skill is a vital one. Mask de Smith’s bulk betrays perfectly his combat utility, but precision, it turns out, is not the Luchadore’s forte. The contradictions and contrasts between strength, weakness and the outstanding mastery of all aspects of Killer 7‘s awkward design are no more evident than during the sections in which we’re granted control of the wheelchair-bound and ageing Harman himself. Wheeling forward is done so at a painful pace, but pulling out the hyper-charged sniper he keeps strapped to the back of the vehicle is as empowering as it is surprising.
And the sinister hordes of opponents are not to be sniffed at either. The perpetually grinning Heaven Smiles are suicide bombers – a topic that few realistic video games dare touch – and agents of the face of chaos, the enigmatic Kun Lan. Rolling, crawling, shuffling or sprinting their way to Killer 7 and cackling all the way, each must be “scanned” before properly visible onscreen. This adds a subtle but well considered extra layer of complexity to the otherwise straightforward combat controls, inducing panic at just the right moments and forcing needless errors. Weak spots are key to play here; nailing this golden chink on each enemy earns Smith blood, and result in an eminently stylish death animation. There’s that term again, but once more, what makes the effect insubstantial in this case? No more than a handful of shooters can lay claim to such a satisfying one-shot mechanic that rewards calm and patience in the most direct way. Interestingly, the “pure gameplay” critics of Killer 7 are among those most likely to defend Capcom stablemate Resident Evil’s needlessly draconian combat systems, which cannot hope to achieve nearly such tension in the face of its melodramatic and shooter leanings. If there is one thing Killer 7 cannot be accused of, it’s a lack of self-awareness.
Of course it’s not perfect, the garbled narrative methods being the main culprits, but its bare-bones puzzling is just as effective as the combat. Though linear in the sense that the characters all move in on a preordained “line” and the rigid path to progress, its stages can be largely explored at the player’s leisure, and are never too taxing to solve whilst sidestepping the patronising. Environmental hints are paramount to progress, and it’ll take some consideration to unlock further areas. Once more, it’s surprisingly well balanced considering the deliberately esoteric nature of much of the peripheral elements, and one wonders how such a system was sustained in the face of all the utterly weird shit going on most of the time. The gimp Iwazaru, douchebag Travis and sometime attractive maid and sometime white-trash hooker Samantha are Harman’s friends, themselves just as unpredictable as the Killer himself. All are genuinely interesting characters in their own right, adding to the emotional and sensual assault the more strictly interactive pieces of the puzzle mount so staggeringly.
And it’s this that Killer 7 grasps so well. Yes, it does toy with the player. Yes, it does place stylised notions on a special pedestal, but they all work tirelessly to move the player in ways no games have moved them before. There won’t be tears of sadness, but it will creep into the consciousness, stressing, prodding and pulling players to breaking point. Its wicked senses of humour, repetition and the surreal are unmatched, and while not fun – read “substantial” – by any stretch, interacting with this strange thing is rewarding for reasons other than the arbitrary. Excruciating, as well as excruciatingly cool, it’s a game that thoroughly deserves a second crack. Laboured descriptions of its numerous outlandish or bizarre mechanics form the bulk of the writing in many of the more critical reviews, but the poverty of the arguments against Killer 7‘s genius are profoundly exposed by this more than anything. Laying out its systems on paper, it seems beyond hope. Working in brilliantly balanced disharmony, though, they prove that not only is it OK to be ostentatious, but that this can serve a much more worthwhile purpose than one would conclude at face value.