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Discussion Friday: Suda 51 and the "Art" of Videogames

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Discussion Friday is a segment in which I look at either a recent news story or an always relevant issue and discuss my personal opinion on it. I try to stay objective, but overall, this is about me and my experience as a videogame player who spends most of his time either playing or discussing videogames.

In terms of gameplay, Suda 51 has never made a great game in his entire life. If it were any other developer doing what he was doing, we wouldn't care about them and wouldn't give a second thought to calling their games total garbage. When first released, Killer 7 was the first moderately successful venture into the American videogame market for Grasshopper Manufacturer, so not many people had experience with this man who went to every Press Conference with a Luchador Mask on. They looked at Killer 7 and either despised it or liked, but didn't really get it. Reviewers criticized the gameplay, called it tedious and needlessly complicated, and called the story ridiculous and meaningless, simply being weird for the sake of being weird. They appreciated the visuals, and called the cel-shading a true piece of art. This is a quibble I have with lots of mainstream reviewers, but more on that later. No More Heroes has become Suda 51's most popular game in America to date, but it seems that people still don't get "it". Like Killer 7 and The Silver Case before it, it had fundamental gameplay flaws that many reviewers wagged their fingers at. However what people did appreciate was the "quirky" story which made no sense in any conventional means, with characters with muddled backgrounds and a lack of motivation, but who cared? It was funny! That's what it was supposed to be, right? Yes and no. But why does he keep making the same gameplay "mistakes"? It's because they aren't mistakes, and he is well aware of this. Let's talk about Suda 51, one of the few people in the gaming industry that can truly be described as an artist.

What makes Suda 51's games any different than anything else available on the market; in essence, what makes them special? The popular choice is his eccentric sense of humor and style and his unconventional approach to gameplay. The correct answer, however, is that he doesn't make games so much as he makes interactive art that is commentary on videogames, politics, and social issues. Sure, his games are funny, with No More Heroes in particular being quite uproarious, sure his games are odd, with Flower, Sun, and Rain being particularly weird what with the Pink Alligators, and sure, his games play very differently, even arguably worse than other games, but these assumptions of "being weird for the sake of being weird" are leaving out the largest variable in the equation: Suda 51 knows what he is doing. Killer 7 isn't just some game about the Presidential Election being rigged and No More Heroes isn't just about some guy that wants to be the best for no particular reason, these are games that are created by a man who knows what it means for a videogame to be a videogame. In the developing medium of videogames, we are still in the stages where only a few people are willing to take the risk and put out games like Flower, Sun, and Rain. Suda 51 is one of the few game designers that are willing to alienate the mainstream audience in order to make a statement, which has it's pro's and con's, with others like the people at Team ICO and Jonathan Blow in particular coming to mind. What I am trying to get across is that when a reviewer complains that Flower, Sun, and Rain is repetitive, they're missing the point (The Destructoid review was brilliant in separating a review from a critique, and I suggest reading it!). Here's why: Flower, Sun, and Rain is one of the first mainstream games to be able to be classified as post-modern art.

Post-modern art involves taking something and stripping it down to it's bare and simplest message by way of ironic imitation; it seems like the artist is shamelessly copying something when in reality he is making a statement about it. Flower, Sun, and Rain, as a game that is meant to be fun, is terrible. It's god awful. The gameplay is repetive, frustrating, and completely lackluster to the point of being boring. But that's the point. Without spoiling too much of the actual story, Flower, Sun, and Rain is about videogames in their most basic nature. Videogames to Suda 51 revolve around completing a variety of tasks as an end to the means. It's all about repetition of simple actions, whether that be running across a stretch of land to exchange meaningless messages between two people or solving puzzles you already know the answer to. The main character of the game, Sumio, is meant to stop a plane from exploding, which will kill innocent people, but throughout the game, over and over, he fails to do so; it's Groundhog Day basically. But within the frustratingly dull gameplay and half-decent puzzles is a message that Suda 51 wants you to see: these are what videogames are. It's all about completing tasks to win a game. For example, in No More Heroes, Travis Touchdown is a despicable human being; he's rude, he's a slob, he treats women as nothing more than sexual objects (if he could get one that is), and kills hundreds of people without a single bit of remorse. Why? To be the number one assassin in Santa Destroy. It sounds terrible, but think about this; in say, Grand Theft Auto IV, though it is not a main objective, the most performed activity by anyone playing the game is tearing loose and killing as many people as possible until they themselves are either killed by cops, killed by themselves (car accidents, falling from a building, etc.), or arrested. Why? It's fun. Travis Touchdown is the same as a person playing Grand Theft Auto IV; they enjoy wreaking havoc and killing tons of people in funny and satisfying ways. Is there anything wrong with the person playing Grand Theft Auto IV? Of course not, we all do it. Is there anything wrong with Travis Touchdown? Yes, he's a murdering psychopath. Or is he?

Travis Touchdown to the world in the game is a terrible person who does terrible things and his only saving grace that makes him endearing in that sense is the fact that he is funny; he insults people, he strikes out with every woman he meets, and he switches personalities seemingly on cue between boss fights. One minute he's basking in the blood of Dr. Peace and the next he's burying the blown up body of Holly Summers. But if we separate ourselves from the dimensional barrier known as the fourth wall and examine who Travis actually represents, we see what Suda 51 is actually saying: We are Travis, and Travis is us.Travis treats the lives of the people of Santa Destroy as nothing more than a game, just as we do. He kills without remorse because we kill without remorse. We have been trained to kill without question because that is what the game wants us to do, just as Travis kills without question. Is there something wrong with this? No, after all, videogames are a virtual medium where the inherent joy comes from taking on the role of a character and doing what the game wants you to do. It's not always about fun, but for the most part, games are meant to be at least enjoyed on some level, the most obvious level being that they are fun and we have fun playing them. So in this light, Travis is actually just a regular guy who is merely doing what we would do; become the ultimate badass because that's what's entertaining to us. Take a game like Fallout 3 for instance; many people who play that game may not always choose to be evil, but by and large, we do bad things. We steal, we lie, and we kill to get to the end of the game; whatever makes the journey easier and more entertaining. We view them as separate from our actual lives where such actions are morally reprehensible and punishable by law, where as Travis views the same actions as part of his life, which he self-aware of being a game (Various scenes that break the fourth wall support this). That is why his motives are sketchy and nonsensical at best, and why he seeks to be number one and thinks nothing of killing hundreds of people for it; it is all just a game. That is why the Ranking System is nothing more than a High Score board reminiscent of Galaga or Pacman.

Delving a bit deeper into some of the idiosyncrasies that are generally regarded as simply comedy in games like No More Heroes or Killer 7 reveal some interesting things. For example, in No More Heroes Heroes, every time Travis needs to charge up his beam saber, which requires kinetic energy, he shakes it in a masturbatory motion. He's jacking off his sword. It's funny, but let's think about what this means as applied to Travis as a character. In literary terms, swords are almost always wielded by men, usually to be phallic in nature, commenting on the power-hungry nature of a character, or if wielded by a woman, it's commenting on the desire of that woman to be a man, or penis envy as Freud would call it; after all, just look at Joan of Arc or Mulan, who actually battles under the guise of being male. What does this mean about Travis? Well taken in that light, it's the shedding of the metaphorical guise of the phallic symbolism and is basically showing you that he is so bloodthirsty and power hungry that he is basically masturbating with his sword. Similar to Flower, Sun, and Rain's shedding of gameplay conventions to reveal the meaning beneath it, No More Heroes sheds the symbolism to basically show you a facet of Travis's character; he's power hungry, blood thirsty, and incredibly horny. He's a social reject and is turned down by every woman in the entire game basically, so he masturbates using his sword and plunges the giant phallus into enemies to get some of the satisfaction that he doesn't find sexually. Or how about in Killer 7, the names of the carrier pigeons, one of whom is dubbed "Pussy". Now, any fan of James Bond will immediately recognize every name as one of the names given to the women of the James Bond novels and films. However, this means that the appearance of the Golden Gun at the end of the game, which only Garcian can wield, cannot be just a coincidence. Let's think about James Bond as a character: he's smooth, an able agent, and most of all, a misogynist. He treats women as objects, as shown in Casino Royale. Garcian is basically James Bond; they even have similar lines of work. But here's the main difference.

While Agent 007 uses women for sexual pleasures and then discards them or kills them after learning they are working for the bad guys, Garcian treats women as well, if not better, than anyone else. There are three women we see Garcian interact with during Killer 7: Samantha, Love, and Linda Vermilion. That is, we see Garcian actually speak to them as opposed to another or unknown personality talking to them, like the woman in Ulmeyda's chapter, who is talking to the camera directly, meaning that we aren't sure who she is actually talking to. Samantha is an abusive care taker, yet he doesn't fire her and in fact tips her at one point. He never talks back to her or even says much at all. When confronted with Love, he talks to her and even shakes her hand and smiles, a sign that he views her as an equal and with admiration. Even Linda, who kills someone very close to Garcian does nothing to her and instead just talks to her as if she did nothing at all. This all points to the fact that he is respectful to women in general, where as Bond uses his politeness and manners to simply get into bed with them. However, we later learn that Garcian is not what he seems; he is another person completely. He is a person who is completely different from the civilized Garcian we know, and we even see this person murder a woman (Which woman is up to those who have played the game) in cold blood. There are even hints that this woman betrayed him in the past, so his reaction seems appropriate given the characters blood thirsty nature. With the Golden Gun in hand, we see that Suda 51 is telling us that Garcian is not who he seems to be, just as Bond isn't who he seems to be to the women he destroys, both literally and sexually (After all, they surely feel betrayed by his actions).

These are all things that go to make Suda 51the type of game designer he is; he crafts games that aren't meant to be as fun as they are meant to be understood. Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, stated in his review of No More Heroes that "...any game designer who sacrifices fun to make an artistic statement is obviously stuck so far up his own ass that he's in danger of chocking on his own head." It seems that Mr. Croshaw, while funny and entertaining, has his own opinions on what games have to be: fun. I don't need to go into why this is a flawed idea, considering Rev already has done so, but let it be known that my opinion lies closely to Anthony's. Games don't have to be fun to be interesting and playable, just look at Flower, Sun, and Rain, which is unbearably terrible at points. Yet does this make it's message any less valid? Saying games should be fun first and foremost is like saying every movie that comes out has to have a happy ending; after all, what's the point of paying to see a film if you aren't uplifted by it? This is obviously ridiculous, because films can be anything ranging from happy-go-lucky to absolutely, soul crushingly depressing, and anyone with half a brain can tell you just because a movie is sad doesn't make it bad. This is why Suda 51 doesn't need to pull punches when it comes to game design; sure, he could make games that are fun and entertaining, and has, but this isn't the only way he has to express his ideas. Now, if we look at a game like Shadow of the Colossus, which is fun, enjoyable, and also has the greatest story ever told in videogames that comments on the trusting of NPC's in videogames ([shamelessselfpromotion]Read my Top Ten Greatest Videogame Stories if you want to hear more[/shamelessselfpromotion], but this is ignoring the one basic thing that Suda 51 is over anything else. More so then being a Game Designer or a Post-modern artist, he is a satirist. Satire is meant to be ironic much like post-modern art, which is why No More Heroes is both funny and brilliant. More than anyone else in the industry, Suda 51 is an artist, a true satirist who denies the critic's right to call games like Okami art simply because it looks pretty. Sex, violence, and attitude are the paints which Suda 51 uses on his canvas, and when finished, they come together to make a brilliant piece of satire, even if he chooses to wear a Wrestling mask while doing it.
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About Canti-samaone of us since 9:47 PM on 08.03.2009

Hello, I'm Trevor Johnson, also known as Canti-sama. I like to write about things including videogames (that should be paramountly obvious at this point...) music, film, and anime, so what you see in this blog is just one part of my pretentiousness! I'm a nit-picky bitch when it comes to basically everything, so excuse me if I seem like kind of an elitist, even though I try not to be. If I had to sum up who I am, I would do it through top 5 lists, so how about we a do a few right now! But before that, since DTOID tends to remove frontpage posts from my c-blog, here's the list of my frontpages, which I thank everyone very much for!

Frontpage Posts:
1. Monthly Musing - I suck At Videogames: Nostalgia's Curse, 8/12/09
2. Promoted Story - Suda 51 and the "Art" of Videogames, 9/6/09
3. Monthly Musing - Nothing is Sacred: Videogames, 10/7/09

-----FAVORITES-----

Top 5 Favorite Videogames:
5. Fallout 3, PC
4. Mega Man X, SNES
3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, PS2
2. Braid, PC
1. Shadow of the Colossus, PS2

Top 5 Favorite Albums:
5. Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm a Machine, 2004
4. Radiohead - O.K. Computer, 1997
3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992
2. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam, 2007
1. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation, 1988

Top 5 Films:
5. Brazil, Directed by Terry Gilliam
4. Fargo, Directed by Joel Coen
3. Fight Club, Directed by David Fincher
2. Shaun of the Dead, Directed by Edgar Wright
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Directed by Sergio Leone

Top 5 Anime Productions:
5. Spirited Away, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
4. The Big O, Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
3. Cowboy Bebop, Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Directed by Hideko Anno
1. Fooly Cooly, Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki

----OTHER STUFF----
Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks
PSN Name: MetalLink1979
Wii Friend Code - 8089-7286-5497-4717
XBL - Metal Link 904 (Note: My Xbox 360 is in possession of my brother, so this is no longer technically my XBL Tag)
Xbox LIVE:Metal Link 904
Steam ID:MetalLink1979
Mii code:8089-7286-5497-4717


 

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