*Author’s Note: Contrarian opinion time! I consider Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days one of the best shooters of the last generation. I touch on its appeal a bit, but I won’t defend its quality here. Smarter people than me have already done so
Justin Keever | 9 Jul 2014
Recently, against my better judgment, I found myself contemplating the iOS game Mountain and, I’m ashamed to admit, what exactly makes a videogame a videogame. I’ve always abided by a performative definition of videogames: that is, if it calls itself a videogame or feels the need to define itself in terms of the videogame medium (that is, things like Gametrekking’s “notgames”), then it is a videogame. End of discussion. Reading about Mountain didn’t shake my resolve on this point, but I did start contemplating possible commonalities between Mountain and other games, in some futile attempt to find some heart of ‘gameness’. One particular perspective on Mountain crossed my mind again and again: a tweet from Ian Bogost, where he says simply that “Games are about experiencing other things. A game about being a mountain is important.” From that, I managed to parse out an answer to my question: games are about empathy. Games model subjective experience, asking the player to take on a role – the role of a soldier, a writer, a pirate, a mountain, a team, an army, a nation – and then invest the player in that experiential model by placing them at the center of it. Perhaps, I thought to myself, that the structure of most videogames: placing the player at the center of a world that doesn’t move forward until they do, isn’t a model of empowerment, but a model of subjectivity. The world doesn’t move forward not because it’s an objective reality that looks to the player for guidance, but because it’s a perceived reality filtered through our avatar. Or, maybe, videogames model solipsistic empowerment: the freedom to look around and think “this is all for me” and be right. Maybe all games are power fantasies, existence given purpose, even if that purpose is to let things fly into you, a mountain in the void.
My point being, videogames tend to have a tether at their heart. With varying degrees of success, games can transcend this distancing effect of the screen and impose empathy on the player by connecting them to an entity within the gameworld. You will feel for them, at least a little bit, because playing a videogame is sharing your existence with this fictional thing, for a few hours at a time. This is why I’d argue not playing a game is a valid (if limiting) way of communing with it: to not play a game is to reject its theses fully, to sever the tether and let the screen maintain distance.
I say all of this to provide some context for this statement: My latest playthrough of Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days was an utter failure. I had gone in to the game fully cognizant of its utter grimness, its darkness, its unrelenting assault on its protagonists, and had expected to be able to separate myself from what I was seeing onscreen; to take moments to peel my gaze away from the game’s grim, desolated vision of Shanghai and look around my own room, and think to myself “At least I’m here.” The effect was the opposite, like I immersed myself in an ocean of blood and acid rain expecting to appreciate the air even more when I resurfaced, forgetting how inevitably I’d drown. Kane and Lynch 2 is misery calcified; a long march through a hellish city stuck in a purgatorial loop of violence, death, and rebirth that mirrors the aesthetic of internet snuff. It is a goliath of sound and fury, its existence a condemnation of the sins of the modern action game. It is a game about the collapse of facades, slowly grinding away the protagonist’s guise of decency until his instinctual bloodlust is finally set free, let loose upon a world that appears to deserve it. It is a game about the myth of the simple criminal act: the one that will grant the perpetrator an easy life when the dust settles, the one with no repercussions. Piercing drones cover the sound of traffic, and Eastern music mocks the very sense of peace it would evoke otherwise. There is no joy here, no schadenfruede, nothing. Sharing in this Lynch’s existence is to experience a pain unrelenting: he would truly be better off dead.
Enduring all this interminable misery with you is the former of the titular characters, Kane (which is apparently only a nickname). Kane is yet another awful man in a world apparently populated almost entirely by awful men. He’s a skilled killer, levelheaded and goal-driven, like videogame protagonists all the world over. But, unlike his contemporaries, he doesn’t treat combat as a given: he is annoyed by it, angered by it, and made weary by it. He makes excuses for himself, saying he’s doing one last job for his daughter, but that archetypal videogame self-righteousness fades away, as he soon enough admits to his estrangement from her, and the futility of the “one last job.” But his brokenness is his strength: he has reconciled his nature, and is thus able to respond to threats with a grim certitude of his ability to survive. “Let’s just do this,” he growls when police find him and Lynch alone in a restaurant, interrupting one of the game’s few moments of peace. The last few years of his life have been an inexorable march into hell, and he’s adapted to it. Kane becomes an easy character to latch onto: he’s enough of a monster to survive, but self-aware enough to be repulsed by his own existence. He’s a cockroach that’s achieved self-reflexivity. And it’s exactly those characteristics that make him so easy to latch on to.
Kane is not your friend. He’s barely even a business partner. But he’s a third of a grudging symbiotic relationship between himself, Lynch, and the player. He’s an unknown, as uncontrollable as a “friendly” videogame character can be. But he provides a comforting omnipresence, a constant that exerts its existence through dialogue and gunfire, tired yet unwavering. As more and more characters turn their guns on you and the world fractures and distorts itself more and more, Kane remains an ally. Of course, this doesn’t make Kane unique. The friendly AI partner is a staple of the AA action game. But Kane and Lynch 2 doesn’t follow its genre’s rules: it’s the proto-anti-shooter, like Far Cry 2 without the aesthetic pleasure, disallowing the gratification of gore through grim pixelation of dead bodies, hinting instead at the savagery of guns rather than their power, as if to say people shouldn’t look at what you’re doing. The presence of Kane is the one rule it follows, the reassuring shadow of the familiar. He doesn’t need to be a friend, a good person, or even remotely pleasant: what matters is simply consistency, something that you can look to and think “that’s normal.”
Of course, I wasn’t always cognizant of Kane’s importance. After all, Dog Days, for all its subversive ambitions, is still an action game, and thus still feeds into the narcissistic loop of self-reliance and perpetuation of the player as some Byronic hero. That is, only the player can overcome the odds and move the story forward, experiencing a hypocritically controlled simulation of purposeful living and self-determination that has long since been lost in the structure of real life. Such is the curse of videogames, especially those that do not wish to be power fantasies. Any semblance of control has become, on its own, a form of indulgence.
But, to my genuine surprise, Kane and Lynch 2 managed to break out of its model of self-determination long enough to deny me that indulgence, for a few seconds at least. I remember it. I hadn’t made any real money, nor written anything particularly meaningful, for about a month. And instead of granting me a bit of perspective, Dog Days assaulted me, as is its purpose. But on I pushed, investing my sense of self-worth into my ability to finish the game one more time. I was about halfway through, fighting a group of thugs on a rooftop, in pursuit of the men who had taken Lynch’s girlfriend Xiu hostage. I’d attempted this particular segment roughly 8 or 9 times (I play Dog Days on the higher difficulties, where the oppressive difficulty matches the dismal aesthetic), and, through me, Lynch was finally starting to fight with the unnatural clairvoyance he needed to survive. If I had to guess, this sequence probably consisted of little more than 500 feet of terrain; it felt like miles, listening to Lynch and Kane scream the same dialogue at each other with each resurrection, each identical exchange somehow sounding more and more pained each time. Eventually, though, knowing paid off: a flurry of relatively thought-out gunfire and movement led me farther than I had been in this playthrough. I saw the terrace from which Xiu would be threatened when this fight was over. Below, I saw two men move out of cover, and in a panic I moved into cover myself. I chose my hiding spot poorly: the protruding vent was only a couple feet high, and exposed on both sides. And the two men were charging at me from opposite sides. I pulled the left trigger and moved a joystick, and Lynch aimed to the right. I fired and missed, a few times. As I fired the shot that killed the first man, the second had long been out of my view; his gun had been out, at the ready, and he’d been perilously close. As the first man collapsed, I flicked the joystick in the opposite direction, half expecting the screen to be painted red and for the camera (as it were) to drop to the ground before Lynch and I could finish turning. But the screen remained the same dismal shade of grey and blue, and the camera stayed right where it was. And to our left, Lynch and I saw a dead body, and behind him, Kane, who had taken cover behind the vent next to mine. I remember what I felt then: it wasn’t relief or gratitude, it was disbelief. It was outright denial of what had occurred: as I darted the camera around, searching for the hidden assailant, expecting him to appear in the corner of my vision just before the screen turned black and informed me of my death. But for a few moments, Dog Days’ Shanghai was unnaturally still. I was perhaps more frightened then I’d been before; only a fool believes that good tidings manifest in hell. I didn’t believe I was safe until I took a few steps forward and triggered the next cutscene. And as I watched events take a turn for the worse for my avatar and his fellow monster-at-arms, I felt my pulse lessen and my breathing slow.
Videogames are about experiencing other things. At their best, they take the player beyond sympathy, forcing a deeper understanding of the digital thing whose life we share for a few hours. Maybe that’s why so many games try so hard to be so fun: maybe videogames’ potential to warp people drives us to reward the most superficial experiences, the ones that don’t set out to ruin us. And if we’re conscious on the medium’s nature, truly mentally prepared, they shouldn’t. But Kane and Lynch 2 ruined me. It ruined me, until Kane stepped in. There’s something undeniably uplifting about watching someone step in to help you, without prompting, without prior expectation. Even when the act is killing. Even when that person is a monster. And even when that monster isn’t real.
*This was written in response to Critical Distance’s June/July Blogs of the Round Table Topic about significant NPCs.