January 31, 2008 12:00 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
The core of the game market is its very own culture, and at times it can be a bit tricky to understand, a tangle of contradictions. We’re geeks – we don’t want to be cool by anyone’s standard, and yet we retain the right to judge nearly anything outside of our world as lame.
We’re often deemed as antisocial or isolationist, and in many cases embrace that judgment – but we want to find each other online, to play together, network and discuss en masse nearly constantly. We’re annoyed whenever the mainstream media misunderstands our pastime – and yet we love to brawl with them. We don’t want to be part of the mainstream – and yet, we often wish our non-gaming friends would just “get it.” Alone and yet in a crowd, immersed in fantasy and yet immediately reactionary to real-world events, craving challenge while longing for accessibility.
With that in mind, it’s no small challenge game developers face trying to produce something that will appeal to us. We want games to be fun, but when we’re not occasionally frustrated, we dismiss the lightweight, relegating the title to the realm of the casual. We want depth and engagement – but we’ll snooze through too much dialogue, cinematics and story. We want emotion, but characters being “emo” is something to be mocked.
We know we’re a reactionary bunch – even the best among us as individuals have been caught up in the mob psychology from time to time, with a little help from the internet. And for quite a while now, it’s seemed like the core of the gaming audience is impossible to please, continually frustrated on a real emotional level by games that try to pretend they “get it,” but are really just trying superficially to hit all the right notes.
But with No More Heroes, it’s finally happened – someone’s made a game that knows who we are.
Imagine someone who knows literally nothing at all about video games, and have them look at, say, Mass Effect -- oops, that’s already happened. Okay, send them to active internet forums where gamers regularly congregate, and have them read some threads. Wonder what they’d think? Ever tried explaining to your non-gaming friends, for example, why you were so happy to get a $40 stuffed cube with hearts on it, since they sold out in 12 hours?
At a glance, we look bizarre. Maybe hilarious. Maybe crazy. Read the back of No More Heroes’ box, and that’s what you’ll think of it, too.
But inside is a glorious exercise in simultaneous reverence and irreverence, featuring a protagonist who’s awkward, geeky and a little gross – while also being uncompromisingly lethal, decidedly sharply-dressed, and all-out cooler than frozen hell. It’s both a tongue-in-cheek send-up of Grand Theft Auto’s format and a conscious, even respectful reproduction.
It blows the doors open on the same old cast of characters we’ve come to expect from most of our games, and at the same time, continues a long-standing, almost hallowed tradition of nearly implausible, over the top super-weirdoes at the end of every stage. They’ve all got names you’d expect to read out of the manuals of the ‘80s. They’re wildly entertaining and inventive while being conceptually familiar.
Rather than trying to pull out a slick user interface on the Wii, the UI’s a nostalgic throwback to our eight-bit roots. Hard to tell whether this is a friendly screw-you to the next-gen or a respectful nod to an iconic aesthetic – or whether it was simply the most logical idea given the resources available.
Amid all the strangeness, offbeat themes and left-field, hyperbolic dialogue, No More Heroes is nobly, almost lawfully structural, a game that deeply understands the archetypal flow of the game stage. These are contradictions that we can really get our heads – and hearts – around.
It’s excessively, almost laughably bloody. Grasshopper Manufacture capo Suda 51 told IGN he wanted to make the game “as violent, or even more violent, than Manhunt 2,” a title whose depraved gorefests caused a massive ratings controversy and made many of us reflect on our feelings about game violence. But No More Heroes creates unlikely fountains of copious blood and coins that spout joyfully, almost musically, from the severed heads of the legions of identical aggressors loudly bemoaning their spleens – it’s almost as if Suda and GHM were laughing at us.
That sense of being ribbed lightly by a really good friend exists throughout the game, even characterizes it. The protagonist, Travis Touchdown, is living a fantasy life, somehow climbing the ranks of the assassin’s association while using an internet-bought “beam katana” that looks quite a lot like a fluorescent light. He rents – and forgets to return – so many porn videos that the hapless rental store employee is forced to call every day.
Though he seems to be an American resident of a California-like city, he stocks his shelves with bishoujo figurines and plasters his walls with mecha posters, affectionately embracing one of the anime girl pictures with the adoring and vaguely lecherous utterance, “moe.” There are wadded up tissues on the floor next to the living room TV chair, and Travis uses the toilet (the save mechanism, of course) with giggle-inducing, shameless urgency.
This is an inoffensive play on otaku culture, of course – which most gamers are somewhat familiar with, if not indulgent in. Even to those gamers for whom otaku culture is analogous and not necessarily overlapping, living Travis’ undignified life, in every precise detail – from begging to get laid with a chilly little blonde right down to the cute, intimate scenes in which you can pet his cat – feels like holding up a bit of a good-naturedly mocking mirror.
And for once in our life, we don’t really mind being teased for being gamers. A big part of this is that No More Heroes is just so unapologetically entertaining. But largely it’s because of the over-arching impression that the GHM team is one of us. Many Wii owners have lamented the fact that there have been so few titles that their Mom isn’t hogging, and yet “Hardcore on the Wii” is yet another contradiction No More Heroes skillfully achieves. And one wouldn’t call it that for its difficulty level or its traditional themes -- No More Heroes is not particularly difficult and is markedly non-traditonal.
Instead, it feels precisely like a game that came from our spirit and speaks back to us. Maybe Mom can pick it up, but she won’t get it. Because, you know, we like playing with Mom. But we also don’t like it. We’re weird like that. And No More Heroes understands us. Finally.
[Leigh Alexander also has moe posters on her wall. She is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer