May 072008

Anyone picking up No More Heroes will wonder just what the hell it is that he’s playing, because like creator Suda Goichi’s previous game killer7 it defies easy categorization. That prompts a question, though: why should we want to categorize these games? Does figuring out what bin to drop a game into make the world easier to interpret, or do our categories, and the conventions that come with them, impose meaningless constraints on our appreciation and enjoyment of art? Early and late in No More Heroes Suda breaks the fourth wall—a sign that the game is trying to say something about its own medium. Suda seems to be illustrating the limits of video games—the borders of what they can do, and the borders of what we allow them to do.

The protagonist of No More Heroes, Travis Touchdown, is a scrawny, unattractive pervert with a bad haircut and questionable hygeine who apparently gets plenty of fiber in his diet. Travis is a confirmed otaku, and his motel apartment is filled with collectibles from an anime called “Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly” that is clearly a fusion of moe shoujo (behold the cute magical girls) and mecha (they pilot enormous robots called ‘Glastonburies’) styles. In addition, he’s obsessed with lucha libre wrestling. Having won a “beam katana” in an online auction—and if you can’t guess what that’s supposed to be you need to stop reading—he is entered in a competition to become the world’s #1 assassin by killing everyone ranked above him, a task he engages with gusto, for reasons that are somewhat mysterious even to him. Basically Travis is a dork who has been handed a real functioning lightsaber and told to go kill.

And kill he does. About half of the game involves taking on hordes of enemies using the beam katana and wrestling moves. Depending on the context one or the other will be more effective, but the ultimate killing blow always comes from the katana, ending your enemies’ lives in a shower of blood and cash that one reviewer compared to a gory slot machine. At the end of certain missions Travis finds a ‘ranking battle’ against one of the better assassins. The grunts along the way have little personality, but each of these ranked assassins has something interesting to set him or her apart.

I would love to say that all this constitutes some kind of commentary on violence in video games, but I’m not even sure that’s possible anymore. A kind of href=”’s_Law”>Poe’s Law has come into effect, in that it’s no longer possible to distinguish a game that parodies excessive violence from a game that celebrates it. Video game violence has progressed beyond the possibility of irony or satire, and maybe the fact that No More Heroes reinforces this idea is kind of a message in and of itself.

When confronted with the idea of a person being cut in two vertically and exploding in a shower of blood and coins one is tempted to say that boundaries are being pushed, but it’s important to understand the degree to which the combat emphasizes constraint. I don’t mean a physical constraint here, but rather an intellectual one. Travis’ primary attacks and defense (his ‘Force’) are all derivative of existing entertainments (Star Wars and wrestling), and his special attacks are mostly named for the characters in the aforementioned “Bizarre Jelly”. The Assassin’s Association is his way out of his fanboy lifestyle but at the same time his very mind is locked into shape by the mass-market pap he has consumed. What keeps him trapped in his lifestyle is not the absence of fame or money: it is his inability to imagine anything else.

But of course, not all of the game is killing. In order to reach the ranking battles against more qualified assassins Travis needs to gather quite a lot of money, and to this end he works a variety of demeaning part-time jobs and simple assassination missions. To get to all of this work and shopping he tools around the game’s town, Santa Destroy, on his monster motorcycle.

The mission-based structure and ability to roam freely around town certainly recall Grand Theft Auto, but the resemblance here is only skin-deep. The town is plenty large, but spots for actual activity are rather few and far between. Indeed, about half the town has essentially nothing to do at all beyond some dumpster diving. As for the people walking around, you can’t speak to or attack most of them. What you can do to them—run over them with the bike—seemingly neither harms them nor draws the attention of law enforcement to you. In fact, though you’ll encounter plenty of police cars, nobody seems to care that you’re running over pedestrians and lampposts, or leaving a trail of bodies that have been bisected in interesting ways.

What we’re confronted with here is the structure of a Grand Theft Auto without any of the texture. If you’ve ever seen one of Mondrian‘s compositions this feeling may be familiar to you. Suda has tossed in the lines and the colors, but none of those things are actually being built into the representation you expect. A Mondrian has content, and so does No More Heroes, but the sparsity of identifiable content has the effect of emphasizing the structural aspects of whatever it is that you are dealing with—in this case, a game.

Games are fundamentally constrained systems. Consider Grand Theft Auto itself for a minute. It’s widely and rightly praised for its flexibility and content, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a game about a violent criminal doing things that are violent and criminal. Niko Bellic can’t hook up with a handsome French man named Pierre, move to Provence, and start over as a vintner. No, Niko’s a criminal, and that’s the whole idea of a GTA game. The freedom of the sandbox games is an illusion, and No More Heroes loses the inner texture that creates that illusion, leaving behind the framework to remind us of what we expected to see. Suda seems to be arguing that realism in games isn’t necessarily a valid pursuit. Their nature precludes them from matching reality, and even if they did match it, they would cease to be art and become something else.

“The expression of reality cannot be the same as reality.”—Piet Mondrian

The second idea, that our expectations constrain our own approach to media pops to the fore in the game’s finale. There is another nod to the creative prison, in the form of a mysterious masked man stating that he is Travis’ father. There is also a reference to the external limitations imposed by censors and corporate development cycles. But the principal source of constraint that Suda points out is us, the conventions that are enforced by our expectations.

This underlies all the enormously convoluted twists in the storyline and the amnesia that we only learn Travis has as soon as he overcomes it. As Travis’ family multiplies rapidly to include an unsuspected brother and sister (both of whom he must kill), the whole story of the game is thrown into doubt, and seemingly discarded characters inexplicably reappear. None of it really makes very much sense, and that’s kind of the idea. The plot developments have been thrown in to satisfy convention, without the narrative fabric that would allow one to make sense of them. The point here is to emphasize that features which rightly ought to be part of the content have been forced to become part of the structure by our expectations.

Video games are constrained by their programming, but also by our expectations and the conventions those expectations enforce. In giving us the lo-fi accessory graphics and textureless structure of Santa Destroy, Suda embraces the former; the gonzo finale seems to be his way of lampooning the latter. Taken as an expression of any particular genre, No More Heroes certainly fails to impress. But in a way it seems this is almost the point. The genres and their conventions are stale, and no level of graphical power or snazzy controls can disguise that fact. Nor can we get around the creative problem by smashing genres together.

In many ways, the array of games on the market resembles Travis’ collection of Luchador masks. Each of them has different colors and additions, but in the end there’s no escaping that they’re all essentially iterations of the same thing. That’s not just because designers and the corporate suits who write their paychecks are lacking in creativity. It’s also because the consumer rarely tolerates or accepts something that doesn’t fit preconceived notions of genre. In the end, No More Heroes is a game about games, an acknowledgment of the limits of what they can do, and a protest against the limits of what we let them do.

There are a number of other takes on No More Heroes that I quite liked.

Yahtzee’s review is hilarious but NSFW.

Steve Gaynor has a comprehensive review.

The Brainygamer compares No More Heroes to the French New Wave and also serves up a more conventional homage.

Insult Swordfighting has a good take, too.

In theory, if you are reading this review, you already subscribe to those blogs. If not, then why aren’t you subscribed to those blogs?

Comments on my view or recommendations of additional alternative interpretations are certainly welcome.

More good reading on No More Heroes:

Dan Bruno at Cruise Elroy talks sex and violence. He also has a postmortem with extra linkiness.

Schlaghund has a view very close to my own.

Cowzilla has an article at Destructoid that also asks what No More Heroes is saying about us.

  2 Responses to “It’s just lines and colors”

  1. Hey Michael — enjoyed your essay.

    I'm curious what you make of Yahtzee's comment that game designers shouldn't sacrifice fun to make a point. Were you at all frustrated by the game's thin structure — the fact that there's not much to do in Santa Destroy, for example — or did you take it all in stride in light of the big picture?

  2. Yahtzee has a good point, but not an absolute one. I think the fact that people can find the game, or large parts of it, to be no fun is a problem for No More Heroes, just as it was for killer7. And no bones about it, Yahtzee may love killer7 to death, but lots of people thought it wasn't any fun.

    One problem is that fun is subjective. For instance, I personally didn't find driving around Santa Destroy to be too bad, but I have what Mitch Krpata would probably call "completionist tendencies" so I actually went to the point of doing a lot of walking, too, so I could hit all the dumpsters. The lack of content actually didn't bother me, even on a "fun" level, until the very end of the game. Even then, had I chosen not to upgrade to the last katana or skipped buying some of the clothes then I probably wouldn't have found the last round of money-raising to be such a drag, either. You control the degree to which you have to repeat missions or wander the town. I haven't calculated precisely, but I think that you can probably get through the entire game without repeating a single mission, if you get no (or only a few) upgrades.

    The real dilemma is, I think, that there's no way for Suda to get his point across without having the untextured city. The result is a game that some will find simply inaccessible: they won't get it, or they won't like what they're getting enough to keep dealing with it. And that doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the player or the artist—many wonderfully intelligent people find Mondrian's compositions to be utterly inaccessible, too. It does, however, limit the audience that will hear what the artist is saying.

    You have to strike a balance sometimes between fun and artistic thrust. Yahtzee thinks killer7 struck that balance, but plenty of other people disagree. That No More Heroes is low on fun is something a lot more people agree on, but I think too few of them have considered the extent to which they were the reason it wasn't fun. Obviously, I would prefer to have a game like Shadow of the Colossus that makes an artistic point without sacrificing the fun. For me the point was worth the sacrifice, but I can see why others might not find it so. If the game had given me less to think about I might have hated it myself.

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