In an effort to get Lambourn's side of the story and answer some nagging questions I had for Ledonne, I interviewed these two frequently despised, often applauded game creators about the possible importance of their games.
First, some notes on the Ledonne interview. It's somewhat short (in terms of number of questions asked) because it was 3:30 am where Ledonne was living, and he's done a hell of a lot of these interviews before. I did not ask him about his feelings toward the VTech game, because he already stated them here. The interview centers almost solely around one aspect of SCMRPG I took personal issue with: namely, that the second half of the game where the killers battle their way through hell seems to contradict the seriousness of the first half and call everything that preceded it into question. Since this question was so personal, the interview includes a hell of a lot more commentary from myself than there really oughtta be -- but I know there were many in our readership who had the same questions I did.
DESTRUCTOID: Your stated intent in creating the game is to present the events from the perspectives of the two boys, and create discussion as to what video games can mean and/or do in our society in relation to such a national tragedy. If this is the case, then why does the game seem to include so many unsympathetic aspects that almost seem to deify the two killers? From the way that none of the schoolmates have real names (while I assumed this is meant to be a method by which the player is put directly into the shoes of two boys who don't differentiate between their classmates, it also doesn't seem to go a long way in making the murders have a real, moral consequential feel as the rest of hte game and your statement seems to suggest they should have), to the in-game text referring to them as "brave boys," and, most especially, to the fact that the entire second half of the game concerns them killing Doom characters and Satan in hell?
The hell sequence where you meet Pikachu and Mario and the game essentially parodies itself works as great fodder for discussion, but -- at least to my thinking -- doesn't do much to help the game's status as art amongst those who would be quick to dismiss it.
Danny Ledonne: Firstly I didn't design SCMRPG as a genuinely packaged experience with a single message that I expected all players to walk away with; I didn't take "exit surveys" or hire a screening firm to evaluate test subjects who played the game. I wanted to make a videogame. Period. I wanted to make a videogame about something that mattered to me. In doing so, I found myself fleshing out a number of angles and concepts - some of them serious and analytical and others more akin to satire and social commentary. One area that was a particular problem was perspective. To represent the viewpoint of the killers, I wanted to dehumanize all the other students in the school by taking away their names, their identities, such that we would see the world as it seemed to me that Eric and Dylan must have: merely as cliques and stereotypes. How do you make a "sensitive" game when the subjects of your game - the windows through which the player experiences the story - became so profoundly insensitive? This is a genuine problem.
Aspects of the game like "another victory for the Trench Coat Mafia" and "brave boys" underscores the conventions of videogames (which were another target for my game to examine). The protagonist in a videogame is most nearly always portrayed as being morally centered, generally with benevolent intentions and forced into violence as a means of a greater cause (for example, James Bond most surely has killed more people than any of his supervillian adversaries). To use that same vernacular and invert it by calling two boys killed unarmed children "brave" serves to comment upon the role the player is put in with SCMRPG. Regarding the "Trench Coat Mafia," that was an affiliation the rabid press coined after the shooting that has no merit; the game is lampooning the press' assessment of this organization at Columbine High School that Eric and Dylan weren't actually a part of. Another way of saying, "the media got it wrong with Columbine."
The Hell sequence is particularly divergent for many because of course it diverges from the realm of serious games, documentary games, etc. It casts a tragic event in an oddly fantastic, almost parody-like light. For me, this choice seemed fitting based on the heavy moralizing that took place after the shooting: all the victims HAD to be in Heaven and the shootings HAD to be in Hell (as an atheist myself the entire dichotomy seemed so reactionary and farcical). I thought to myself, "if Eric and Dylan ARE in Hell, they might just be enjoying it." So the decision to take the monsters from their favorite videogame (Doom) - a game in which the monsters are supposedly coming from Hell - and have the shooters battle these monsters in an eternal recreation of their favorite videogame was a statement in and of itself.
Are these messages mixed? Yes, in some ways they are. As a first time (last time?) effort, SCMRPG was a way for me to combine a number of divergent ideas into a single game that I assumed only a handful of people would play; the fact that we're having a conversation about it for an online publication is honestly beyond the scope of what I had originally envisioned. If in retrospect the game seems to contain a jumble of messages and attempts at messages, that's probably because I didn't have the luxury of several years to cross examine this game with many game theorists and designers. Nonetheless, I think the net effect the game has does exactly what I intended: open up discussions about the shooting at Columbine, of the role videogames play (or don't play) in relation to school shootings, and how we can understand societal circumstances through unconventional means (IE a 16-bit videogame).
DTOID: Yet do you feel that the Hell sequence, in trying to convey a somewhat secondary theme (namely, the ridiculousness of the moralizing/the Christian ideas of the afterlife) goes too far into the realm of parody, to the point where it actively contradicts the seriousness of what came before? Meeting characters like Mario or Mega Man, for whatever satirical purpose they may serve in looking at video games, seems to nonetheless go against all the real horror in the first half, as if mocking it -- just the fact that the Hell sequence represents about 50% of the entire game seems to make it a much more significant contrast/mockery of the first half.
DL: You know I've thought about this before. The final sequence at the school seems to tie it all together for me; it contrasts the horrible and the fantastic. The player returns to the aftermath of the event and hears from those left behind to sift through the aftermath of the shooting. While 50% of the game takes place in Hell, this is more of an Easter Egg than a genuine symmetry, I think. The first half of the game is so anti-game, so outside the experience most gamers have, that I wanted to create something more akin to an homage toward games that influenced me growing up -games like Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and Doom. Perhaps this sounds selfish but of course I made this game for my own personal understanding of Columbine and to realize my longstanding interest in creating a videogame. Thus, the results reflect a personality and intuition of one person (me) as opposed to a team of commercially-minded developers.
I'm also not someone to maintain a single posture of seriousness. As I have said in interviews before, one of my favorite films is Dr. Strangelove - one of the most brutally comedic films ever made. Is the topic of nuclear annihilation a serious one? Yes. Did Stanley Kubrick view this issue seriously? Yes. Does that obligate his film to the seriousness of "Fail Safe" (another film using the same exact premise)? No. Kubrick's film is the better one because it understands the madness, the absurdity of nuclear war and the end of humanity. In a sense I was informed by this approach for SCMRPG because I think a blend of the serious, the satirical, the historic, and the fantastic engages audiences and keeps them on their toes - never allowing them to be comfortable with a single perspective or framework for the experience of playing the game.
Greg Costikyan's review at Manifesto Games understands this tenuous shift in tone and style. He wrote:
It's an interesting tension, in fact--between evocation of the brutality of the event, and enough distance to continue playing, between the banality of the conventions of the RPG and the anything but banal nature of the material under study ... After solving puzzles and encountering Satan comes the final cut-scene of the game: a ceremony outside the high-school, with the game putting in the mouths of the speakers a variety of the conventional sentiments the tragedy evoked. One speaker demands gun control, another a ban on violent media, a third the need to re-Christianize society. The sentiments are enough almost to make you wish you could take Harris and Klebold back to the school, at least in their game-character guise, and murder these idiots. ...because Super Columbine Massacre does a far better job of getting inside, and trying to understand, the events of that terrible day than these speakers do.
If the game were merely the Hell sequence onward, I doubt we would even be talking about it because killing demons in Hell is always an appropriate subject for a game. Nonetheless, the game still feels incomplete to many players and now some SCMRPG fans are creating a "Special Edition" with a third act that, I understand, will include a cameo appearance by Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech infamy. As an open source project made with RPG Maker, I encourage players to tinker with it and reshape it how they see fit.
DTOID: I dig what you're saying, and I agree with Costikyan's comments, but at the same time it feels like we're talking about two different things: contrasting game mechanics with the brutality of the real shooting works very well and is what, in my opinion, makes the first half of the game so effective -- the true mesh between the gameplay we've come to know and take for granted and the harsh reality of the Columbine shooting. But at the same time the Hell sequence doesn't feel as much like a combination of these themes as it does a rejection of them -- it almost feels like a completely separate game.
To many I've spoken to who have played the game (I know, I know, it's generally disingenous to use an abstract, possibly nonexistent outside group as support, but this includes my friends, family, and co-workers at Destructoid), the Hell sequence plays exactly as it would had it been made by someone who literally idolized the killers. I'm absolutely not suggesting that this is the case, but it brings the rest of the game into serious question: were it not for the Hell sequence and the way it seems to fly in the face of everything prior to it, I wouldn't have wondered why the game text referred to the boys as "brave," and whatnot. Dr. Strangelove effortlessly mixes humor and tragedy, parody and stark seriousness -- the first half of SCMRPG most definitely accomplishes this, but the inclusion of Hell doesn't feel like a mix so much as a completely different series of messages.
I have to disagree with you on one specific point -- if the game were just about the killers in Hell, murdering demons, then I do believe we'd be getting a great deal (if not a comparable amount) of controversy, because that section of the game, especially if taken out of context, truly does seem to support the actions of the boys. They are not "punished" for their massacre, and indeed take over Hell, living the typical video game fantasy.
Which leads me to my last question: given the game's (seemingly intentional) messages that, on the one hand are a scathing criticism of media, religion, our attitude towards the killings, etc and on the other hand a sarcastic, ironic portrayal of the events, do you worry that many of the game's fans aren't "getting" it in terms of its stated purpose, and do indeed enjoy it (or Ryan's game, for that matter) simply because it lets them re-enact a real killing with the killers as the protagonists?
Not to suggest that they'd go out and actually recreate the murders (I'm not Jack Thompson), but as an artist is it worrying that some people are taking the exact opposite interpretation of what your statement seems to depict?
DL: In fact I was aware of the large "fanbase" Eric and Dylan have and, in some sense, this gave me an interest in addressing that through a satirical jaunt through Hell complete with John Lennon and Frederick Nietzsche. It's also no accident that Satan isn't JUST Satan but rather the Satan from South Park (admittedly another influence for this area of the game). Having said that, you're welcome to conclude whatever you'd like about the Hell sequence; this entire project was a gamble for me and for some it connects more cleanly than others. Maybe for you the Hell sequence IS a separate game. In fact, you can download the ColumbineRPG.zip file right now, unpack it, and edit it with RPG Maker to END THE GAME THERE. I certainly wouldn't stop you, Anthony. In fact I readily suggest you edit SCMRPG into the game you want it to be; the game is uncredited because I didn't want the design to end with my authorship. If games can be interactive to play, I believe they can also be interactive to (re)make.
Regarding the bigger question of whether a SCMRPG player won't "get it," I wonder if Shakespeare had the same question asked of him when he wrote a play like 'Titus Andronicus.' How does Oliver Stone feel about the fact that countless criminals regard "Natural Born Killers" as their favorite film (including Eric and Dylan)? I'm not sure I know the answer to this, per se, but I know the rhetorical question is worth asking. Should artists think twice before picking up a microphone, a brush, a pen, a mouse, or a camera because there's a possibility that their message (if there is one) may be misconstrued? I believe the answer is "absolutely not." Art is often about impulse; when I saw RPG Maker I had the impulse to create something. I followed it. Now we're talking about it and there are any number of avenues we can parse with regard to interpretation and perceived meanings. Some players have told me that SCMRPG broadened their understanding of the shooting, some have told me that they want to make an RPG themselves as a result of playing this one, some have emailed me their final papers for school that use SCMRPG as subject matter, and some have told me that the game made them rethink the idea of shooting up their school. Yet despite all this, Kimveer Gill listed the game among his favorites before going to Dawson College with a rifle and killing a young woman I will never know but have now personally interviewed peers of. So what's the creator of this game to do? Take it down? Obtain written consent forms from all who play it? Interview them personally to make sure they understood the game to mean what I want it to mean?
I'll close with a quote from a man much smarter than I on these matters:
"Art is not supposed to be comfortable. Art is not supposed to be a "positive educational experience," … Art must be allowed to be disturbing and dangerous. It must be allowed to make us uncomfortable. There is a place in art -- and in games -- for work that speaks on its own, without appeal to authority, educational standards, psychology, or anything else. Designing solely for reception is a weakness we must overcome. … discussing how games do or should be created or received, in the abstract, is not useful. Discussing how and how well specific games succeed in their attempts at representation is useful. That's what we call criticism, and it's something we desperately need more of in games in general. The world is a messy place, and we don't always, or even often, get to make sense of it in a clean way. We have to get our hands dirty. Art is one way to help us do that. And art does not take exit surveys. - Ian Bogost, Watercooler Games
Now for the Lambourn interview: we spoke through IM and the interview ended up reasonably informal and schizophrenic, so I've rearranged conversation pieces to give the interview a better feeling of continuity. Additionally, I've chosen not to correct Lambourn's grammar, or even combine his separate messages into paragraphs -- whether this benefits Lambourn's responses or if I'm just being lazy is up for debate.
DESTRUCTOID: Do you think there's one specific message people should be getting from this game?
Ryan Lambourn: i just made the game as a recreation of the events as i knew it as best detailed as i could in the short game form.....and added jokes of course for lulz factor
RL: it was meant to be offensive so me and my friends and people like me and my friends could have a laugh
RL: a laugh at the other pissed off people....and the game of course
RL: making so many angry has won me enough points for the rest of my life :d
DTOID: Do you think this game furthers video gaming as a medium of legitimate social reflection and criticism, or is it just for a laugh and that's all?
RL: theres depth to the game....but is there depth to the message? maybe not....im only finding messages to it like other people maybe im doing it the wrong way but i think maybe other artists do it the same way.....find the message after you make it
RL: i read a while back when i was studying cho where someone interpreted McBeef [a play written by Cho Seung-Hui] as a look at american society....with the mother being the reactionary society, the son being the media and McBeef being the person/consumer being shitted on by everyone
RL: i could see what he meant...and its possible.....was it originally intended? maybe not
DTOID: When you say you don't care what other people think, does that extend to the families of the victims? Does it bother you at all that these people could be horrified by your game?
RL: any different from columbinerpg in that respect?
RL: sure i did it when they didnt have the mental scab yet probablly
RL: but i dont see that as my need to wait for them to build up a tolerance to pain
RL: if anything im just being an ass to do that
DTOID: How so?
RL: i can do it now and they'll have a strong emotional reaction or i can do it later and they'll have a small one...the second one is just tearing old wounds though
RL: the first one....they should already be having s trong emotional reaction
RL: hell if the entire world is with them now maybe they'll feel better.....i dont know
RL: theres no big difference with time.......if its gonna be done put it out when you finish it
DTOID: Well even ignoring time, didn't the possibility of deeply mortifying the families of the victims make you consider simply not making the game?
RL: im a heartless bastard
RL: quote that one well
RL: maybe make it bold
RL: im perfectly content laughing at the hypocracy of everyone and taking my title as troll of the year
DTOID: What do you think is hypocritical about the media’s reaction to this game?
RL: THIS GAME IS JUST A PATHETIC GRAB FOR ATTENTION........tonight at 9
RL: the vtech uni rep is my fave...."This game is beneath comment."
RL: *mind explosion*
DTOID: A lot of people who played the game feel that the way Cho is portrayed makes it seem as if you supported his actions -- if the player screws up, he's insulted for not being as good as Cho, etc. Is there any truth to that?
RL: well when i was making the fail scenes more than anything i was just thinking of how to guide the player to the end......its a pretty easy game but you cant let them get stuck just because they dont realize that killing everyone in level 1 will get you caught
RL: and the tone of insulting the player for not fulfilling the simple historical goal of the game seems obvious to me
DTOID: But generally the game does indeed seem to, if not support Cho's acts, at least not condemn them. Is there any truth to the people who say you at least partially supported his actions?
RL: i dont support murder
RL: i dont support being angry over a game
RL: i dont support lax gun laws either
RL: but i dont support a bunch of idiots screaming about lax gun laws and not doing shit more
DTOID: Though, as you said, the game was made so you, your friends, and people like you could laugh at those who get angry at it, does it bother you that your generally unsympathetic game hurts the public view of video gaming as a whole? That it may lead to people not taking the medium seriously, not to mention increased regulation and/or censorship of gaming in general?
RL: lol no.....this leads to people saying shit like that...but its MEANINGLESS
RL: if anything this should help push it as an art
DTOID: Why do you say that?
RL: the industry tends to put out nothing but games as toys
RL: its for playing
RL: not experiencing
RL: unless they want to sound arty to sell a game
RL: then it might be experiencing but really just playing
RL: Earthbound, Takeshi's Challenge........maybe Zelda Majora's Mask.....thats about all i can come up with for games as art
RL: from the industry atleast
DTOID: What makes your game more artistic than the other stuff the industry puts out, if it is indeed nothing more than a joke designed to piss people off?
RL: lol trolling is an art in itself
RL: you know what Takeshi's Challenge is?
DTOID: Yeah, I'm a big Kitano fan.
RL: me too
DTOID: But nobody ever dies in Takeshi's Challenge.
RL: what? but you get to beat the fuck out of them for no reason
RL: and then have to perform tasks completely unfun
RL: mines maybe the opposite but the same result
DTOID: The results are different as well; we laugh at Takeshi's Castle contestants, we don't laugh at the people who get killed in the Vtech game.
RL: well no one has to play it who doesnt want to
RL: theres fair warning
RL: of course the results are different
RL: its art
RL: if it resulted in the same as everything else it would be just like the industry
DTOID: But you just said the results are the same though the actual things are different.
RL: what are the emotions you result in from an ordinary game?
RL: frustration from losing, elation from winning
RL: thats not even close to being considered as art
RL: its a toy...a drug maybe
RL: something to fire up a couple synapses
DTOID: So you feel your game functions as art because it does more than just entertaining or frustrating?
DTOID: But people like Jack Thompson get a hold of stuff like this, and they pitch it to state and federal courts in an attempt to get video games regulated. Does it bother you that since the game wasn't created with a clear message in mind from the beginning that, even ignoring the game's relative artistic merit, it could give anti-game crusaders a lot of ammo?
RL: lol i didnt realize jack thompson didnt go after stuff if they had a clear message
RL: or that he'd ever succeeded in beating the first admendment
RL: gamers are just projecting their fathers on him
RL: OH NO JACK DONT TAKE MY GAMES AWAY
DTOID: Well, most developers can rationalize their games as having an actual message or idea to convey that somehow gives the game a meaning or context. By your own admission the Vtech game has no such message, so how would you defend it?
RL: i wouldnt
RL: why should i?
DTOID: Because its existence ostensibly hurts those creators who have established messages to express who might be hurt by people like Jack Thompson, using your game as evidence.
RL: jack thompson and anyone like him will NEVER win a case in america
RL: and if he ever did it would have much larger repercussions than losing your games
RL: think....big brother (but not the stupid reality show)
DTOID: Why did you say on your personal site that if you were paid $1000 you'd take down the game?
RL: my friend came up with it
RL: his name is Charlie
RL: put his name in he'll be happy
RL: the normal media have been disreguarding i have friends
RL: loner fits better
RL: 3000 for an apology....epic win joke!
RL: i was gonna change it but my site was down
RL : i was gonna make it 1000 and i never do a pun again, 2000 and i never make a sarcastic comment, 3000 and i never be ironic again, 1 million and i never do ANYTHING EVER
DTOID: Do you have any last things to say about your game, or to the people who played/hated/liked it?
RL: Do a barrel roll.
There you have it. Thoughts?
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