Friday, August 23, 2013

Kane and Lynch 2: The Anti-Shooter before Spec Ops



I've never played a game like Kane and Lynch 2.

Most other reviewers haven't either, it seems, judging by their largely negative treatment of the game.  Destrectoid gave the game a score of 1: An "Epic fail" calling it "a broken, messy, sloppy, completely unbalanced joke of a game". Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation gave an overwhelmingly condemnatory review of the game, saying "There's nothing fun about the game...just one piece of nauseating unpleasantness after another."

Which is why I was quite surprised to find I actually enjoyed the game. Indeed, the bar had been set so low for the game that at a point I was in the giddy hyperbole of calling it a masterpiece. Later, after a cold shower and sufficient detoxing time, I recanted that statement, but I still found myself with a surprisingly good game on my hands, and one that had done something few other games before it had attempted to do: make an Anti-Shooter.

By my definition, an Anti-Shooter is a game which uses the common Ludonarrative tropes of the Shooter Genre with the intent to subvert them. The Anti-Shooter is about taking the cliches and characteristics commonly accepted in the shooter and exposing them to fresh critique. By this definition, Anti-Shooter elements can be found in the "Would You Kindly" scene of Bioshock, the nuclear blast sequence in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and even in the over-the-top killpoint mechanic of Bulletstorm. However, while these games subvert some elements of the shooter, they remain at their core traditional shooters. Far rarer are those games whose greater ludonarrative language is geared towards subverting the shooter, but among those few I include Spec Ops: The Line and Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days.





The entire game of Dog Days, in fact, could be taken as an extrapolation of the Thomas Hobbes's quote on the state of the uncivilized man: Nasty, brutish, and short.

Short is the stickler among most people. One of the most often quoted criticisms of it was that even though it was sold the full $60 price, it only provided four to five hours of gameplay. Fortunately for consumers everywhere, that price dropped sharply after release, to the point that it's now an easy $10 on Steam, and it's well worth an afternoon's playthrough.

For full disclosure, I have not played the original Kane and Lynch, Dead Men, nor do I particularly feel inclined to do so. While I'm sure the knowledge of what occurred in Dead Men is helpful for more easily getting acquainted with the world of Dog Days, I feel that Dog Days can and does stand on its own. We do not need the original game to know of the relationship of Kane and Lynch: we see it when Lynch reaches out to shake Kane's hand and is left hanging. We don't need to know of what goes on between Kane and his daughter: we see it in how Kane avoids discussing it just as the duo prepares to undergo another violent spree. And we don't need to know of Lynch's firing on hostages in Dead Men to know that he is not mentally sound: we see it on the battlefield as he mutters to himself, counting backwards from ten in an attempt to control himself and ultimately failing. Many criticized Dog Days for providing little in the way of characterization for its characters. I found the opposite: not only were the duo well-characterized, but they were characterized in a way that showed a remarkable amount of subtlety and restraint (relatively speaking: we are talking about shooters here).


From the beginning, the game is about subverting the conceits of the typical modern shooter. In contrast with the aesthetics of games such as Modern Warfare or Battlefield, which inundate the player with a cinematic view of a gorgeously realized world, the aesthetics of Dog Days are deliberately anti-cinematic.

The camera looks and handles like the cheap handheld camcorder that is the weapon of choice of amateur filmmakers--and snuff films. Lights are distorted with vertical bars, pixelation and digital artifacts pop up when the player is shot, and the muffling of the wind cuts into the audio when the player sprints, while the camcorder bobs nauseatingly up and down as though the person holding the camera is struggling to keep up. When the player is knocked down or killed, the camera falls with them, like the filmmaker was caught in the crossfire.


Then there is the intentional pixellation. Nudity is prevalent in several parts of the game, and the various naughty bits are kindly pixellated for our comfort. Yet there is another pixellation, which occurs when a character, either the player of NPCs, is shot in the head--the entire head pixellates, working as both an easy way to avoid animating headshots, and also as a disturbing implication that whatever happened to the person's head is so horrific it had to be censored.

The Shanghai of Kane and Lynch similarly carries an unpleasant atmosphere. While much criticism has been made of the constant march of brown and grey shooters. Dog Days took that aesthetic framework and took it to its most extreme and miserable. The daylight sky is constantly overcast and rainy, and sterile florescent lights bathe all it covers in an eerie glow. From the cramped alleyways and the alienating lights of the city proper, to the drab, brown-and-gray husks of unfinished buildings and loading docks, Shanghai is to Kane and Lynch what Silent Hill is to James Sunderland--a reflection of their own inner psychologies.



In fact, in many ways is Kane and Lynch 2 like Silent Hill 2, primarily in the game play, which in both games is engineered to be deliberately unpleasant. The shooting in Dog Days is given a touch of realism often overlooked in other games--the two career criminals can't aim worth shit in a chaotic firefight. While all guns are perfectly lethal close up, their effectiveness reduces drastically even at midrange, where most guns can at best leave a violent spray that leaves only two or three bullets hitting their mark if you're lucky. The guns similarly kick back something awful, the sights jittering up and down with every shot.

An unlike many other games, which often involve the players in sanitized fights against enemies on a civilian-less battlefield, Dog Days is rife with civilian crossfire, innocents are gunned down for no other sin than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it's a distressingly common occurrence for a civilian to run out of cover only to be gunned down because I, in a split-second impulse, confused him for a belligerent.

And the combat is tough. Really tough. In contrast with the impenetrable cover of other 3rd person shooters, Dog Days's cover is often fragile and insufficient, and enemies can and frequently do blast through your meagre defenses through the power of bullets behaving like bullets and glass windows actually being the useless cover they are. And its a problem only compounded by the aforementioned poor aiming and the tough-as-hell enemies Kane and Lynch fight against. Often, these enemies seem able to soak up just as many bullets as Kane and Lynch can, and move strategically around the battlefield, flanking the two better than I normally could. More than once did I run down a corner I thought was cleared only to be shot dead by an enemy that had moved into an ambushing position while I wasn't looking.

The end result was me constantly on my guard, paranoiacally checking every corner, every edge of cover once, twice, and thrice to make sure no enemies were ganging up on me, and making sure I had enough cover and distance between them to give me a moment to catch my breath, which I often didn't. And because of the difficulty of fighting the enemies, with that difficulty came an anger and brutality within myself that seemed to mirror the emotions of Kane and Lynch: at least once during the game, when I opened fire on a group of exposed enemies, I had the urge to shout out completely seriously "That's right, eat it you fucks!". It's rare for a game to so immerse me in the world that I feel what the characters feel, but this is a game that did it.

The effect is a nauseating, unpleasant experience, and one that is absolutely perfect.


And the titular duo are just as unpleasant as the world is. Kane might be the more appealing of the two, but even he sports a scraggly, unkempt beard along with a long scar running down a whitened eye. Lynch, meanwhile, is overweight, with a combination of long hair and a receding hairline that does no favors for his face. They are the antithesis of the clean-shaven, whitebread-wonder shooter hero, because rather than taking the appearance of the handsome everyman and making him a shooter protagonist, they took the shooter protagonist and extrapolated the appearance from that. This probably is what two career criminals who use violence as their most common problem-solving means would look like. Their actions, rather than their intended audience, inform their appearance.

But they are not only externally ugly, but internally as well. Kane and Lynch: Even their names evoke deep-rooted evil. In combat, they bark out orders to each other and swear in equal measure, their voices a sandpapery amalgamation of anger, panic, and exhaustion. Throughout the story, they show zero guilt for the horrible things they've done, for the innocents they've harmed and the destruction they've wrought, and by the end it's clear they've not changed one iota. These are two horrible, irredeemable people, and they simply don't care.

Yet the characters are (marginally) more complex than that. When the game begins, Kane is coming to Shanghai to perform the ever-fantasized "one last deal" so that he can use the money to support his estranged daughter. Meanwhile, Lynch has settled down as a low-level thug, even finding a girlfriend who's seemed to tame the worst aspects of them, and is cooperating with Kane on the deal. Naturally, things go wrong, but what's interesting is how horribly they go wrong.

When Kane helps Lynch in trying to shakedown a police informant, they end up in a series of firefights that culminates in accidental killing of the daughter of a powerful and corrupt official named Shanxi, and all hell is unleashed on them. The criminal organization they're doing the deal with is attacked, and when the organization finds out they turn on the duo. Shanxi captures Xiu and tortures her to death, nearly doing the same to Kane and Lynch, leaving them naked and covered in horrible scars when they manage to break free. When they try to escape Shanghai, they are captured by Shanxi only to break free and fight through his private army before finally cornering the man at the top of his corporate building. Kane tries to bargain with the man for a way out to Shanghai, only to have Lynch shoot him point-blank, disrupting any potential bargain they could have gotten out of him and ensuring the entirety of Shanghai is turned against them. Finally, when they try once again to escape, they do so by attempting to hijack an airplane full of passengers, and the game ends with the plan taking off and Kane and Lynch now internationally wanted criminals.

But so much of that could be avoided if Kane and Lynch simply took a step back and tried to go about their problems in a different way. Obviously the event that brings the two together--the arms deal--occurs because both seek to live a good life through the propagation of violence, but it goes deeper than that. Shanxi wouldn't have reason to pursue them if they didn't go after the informant guns blazing and end up killing his daughter. Had Kane and Lynch not tried to stay for the arms deal, Xiu might still be alive, and the three of them could have fled Shanghai and be safe from both Shanxi and the criminal organization. Had they not tried to hijack a plane, well...

What keeps them doing these things? What spurs them on to attempt increasingly violent acts even when the odds are stacked against them?

Perhaps the most clear enumeration of why occurs midway through the game, after the pair have escaped the makeshift torture chamber where Xiu was killed and have been running for their life naked and scarred through the streets of Shanghai. They take refuge in a TV store, and, as the ghostly blue lights of the televisions illuminate them, go over their motivations. Lynch, with his girlfriend dead, sees no reason for trying to meet with their criminal boss (who may not yet know of their betrayal) for the arms deal, but Kane tries to convince Lynch to help him by reiterating his own motivation: He's doing this for his daughter. With the arms deal, he's trying to get money that he can send back to his daughter, to repair the damaged relationship between them. "We can get out of here." Kane says to Lynch. "I want out. But I need this deal. I need to do this for my daughter. And then no more--this is my last job!"

Anyone else should see the illogic of it--hell, their own bodies stand as testament to just how wrong this course of action can and likely will go. But Kane and Lynch, intentionally or not, turn a blind eye to it. Ultimately, for both of them it's the result of what so many other criminals use as justification for their crimes: a fantasy. Both of them dream of using the money they glean from the deal to settle down, Lynch living out a comfortable existence with his girlfriend Xiu, Kane fixing ties with his daughter. Even assuming all things go well it's not particularly well-thought out: Lynch, while working as a thug in Shanghai, has no doubt attracted many enemies over his tenure. Kane, meanwhile, thinks he can solve the problems of his estrangement with money while ignoring the criminal behavior and controlling nature of their father-daughter relationship that brought about the estrangement in the first place (for example, later on, when Kane calls his daughter, he leaves a voice message on her phone, attempting to sell himself doing the entire thing for her, telling her that he loves her, and implying that the endeavor he's undertaking will likely end with him dead, a final move to cement the guilt he tries to put on his daughter to make her want him back).


They're ludicrous pie-in-the-sky fantasies, but Kane and Lynch cling tight to them. In part, it's a dream of paradise that tides them through their their violent hell of a career, a belief that if they just fight enough, shoot enough, and kill enough, they can eventually come out unscathed on the other end. At the same time, however, their fantasies are a way for them to convince themselves they're doing something good. That's not to say Kane and Lynch consider themselves to be good men, they most assuredly don't. But they do want to believe that they can achieve good ends with bad deeds. They want to believe that all their violence, all the ugliness and misery of their lives has a silver lining that justifies it. The tragedy, the one they fail to recognize, is that it doesn't. There is no silver lining for the two of them. There is only a hole they dig themselves further and further into.

In the end, Kane and Lynch are no different than any other shooter protagonist, trying to use violence to fight their way through their problems, but unlike in other games, they are in an environment that reacts semi-realistically to that attempt. Namely, by only adding to the problems they have. Game after game is interested in providing for the player a power fantasy, but Dog Days shows just how utterly unreal that fantasy is by putting it in two of the most loathsome protagonists in videogame history. Nothing works out well for Kane and Lynch because they use their guns to solve their problems. All the gains they make in the game, they lose, and when they've lost everything they could lose, they lose more, because no matter what they still stubbornly cling to the idea that they can save themselves with liberal application of violence.

At one point, Lynch remarks "Why does everyone around us die?" To anyone else, the answer should be self-evident, but the central flaw of both Kane and Lynch is that they have no idea just how wrong they are, like every other shooter protagonist. While in Spec Ops, Walker eventually realizes the horrible reality of what he's done, Kane and Lynch have no such revelation--or perhaps they had it and ignored it. They are irredeemable, both from within and without. They'll continue on their path of destruction until either themselves or the world is destroyed.



So why has Spec Ops become the seminal anti-shooter while Dog Days remains confined in infamy? In the constant decrying of the medium's lack of maturity, this game was passed over entirely based on how "unpleasant" it was. It offered something radically different than what any other shooter at the time offered, and it was critically panned. It is perhaps one of the most ingenious AAA games of recent memory, and nobody noticed or cared.

Part of it, I think, has to do with the scandalous context of the Kane and Lynch franchise. When the first game, Dead Men, came out, a controversy erupted when one of Gamespot's editors, Jeff Gerstmann, was fired for giving a negative review of the game. Such meddling corporate influence has a tendency to leave a stain that's hard to remove for a time.

Dead Men was also, in a way, much more subtle than Spec Ops in its condemnation of the shooter. While Spec Ops out-and-out states its condemnation in the narrative, Kane and Lynch never stop to reflect on the moral bankruptcy of their endeavors, and it's possible this may have flown over some people's heads, particularly in a culture that is so predisposed to taking things at face value.

There was also the nihilistic conceit of the game. While Spec Ops slowly turned the happy jingoism of the military shooter on its head, Dog Days was encroached within the dark moral cesspool of its violent world throughout, creating a bleak and unforgiving experience that left many quite understandably soured.

However, I think the difference between the reception of the games also has to do with the shift in culture gaming society underwent in the two years between them. Gaming culture had become increasingly conscious of their medium's artistic potential in the two year span between the games, and a larger critical base exists now willing and ready to focus on such games. Add to that a string of massacres in America which brought the question of gun violence once again to the forefront of discussion, leaving fertile ground for Spec Ops to take root.

Ultimately, I think both games are fantastic, and a refreshing change of pace for a medium so abhorrently mired in samey mediocrity. I think the low ratings for both games is a criminal undervaluing of their true artistic worth, and I think both deserve much more success than they got. When a game is criticized on having enemies that take as many shots as the player to go down, where the game is only the length of two feature films, and where cover does not act as a be-all end-all bullet-barrier, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we're criticizing the game for being flawed, or criticizing the game for going against the conventions of its genre.



Dog Days is not perfect, of course. The game, perhaps intentionally, remains a hyper-masculine world, and the only positions women are seen in is as innocent bystanders or victims, and the female character with the most lines has at most twelve and uses them all in rapid succession before being killed shortly thereafter. The plot is as ludicrous as most any other shooter, with the duo single-handedly taking on what seems to be the entire military-police force of China in their quest for escape which then suddenly becomes a quest for revenge and then escape and then revenge and then escape again. Yet while it fails in the plot in the same way that other shooters do, it nonetheless succeeds in tone, theme, and characterization in a way that most other shooters don't even bother to try.

There has been much speculation and wringing of hands over a possible sequel to Dog Days, and that hand-wringing has only gotten worse with the announcement that IO has laid off half of its employees. Ultimately, however, I think that Dog Days stands on its own, needing neither Kane and Lynch 1 nor a sequel, and that indeed if those were included, the impact would only diminish. Dog Days stands on its own as a nihilistic response to the violent shooters, and strips away all the paint and polish of the Shooter Machine to reveal the rusted machinery underneath.




ADDITIONAL READING

Steve Haske on "Why I Love Kane And Lynch 2: Dogs Days

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