Being a criminal psychopath sucks - but what did you expect?
This post is an entry into Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table January 2012 on the theme of 'Being Other'; it follows up and expands on my original article in German.
The sound, the fury. A rapid succession of explosions, my only ally in this world shouting profanities while emptying a clip of his AK into the dark Chinese market ahead of us. The cover I hide behind suddenly splinters and breaks under the impact of bullets, fired by an unseen attacker, somewhere up ahead in the labyrinth of market stalls. A few direct hits send me sprawling. Frantically I crawl sideways, blood-splatters obscuring my vision. What the hell's going on?
The third-person camera lurches and shakes as I get up and make a dash for a nearby cart, lens-flare and video-compression artefacts obscuring the view. As I stop, the camera crawls back towards me, to stop unnaturally close behind my naked, razor-cut and bleeding body. I can't see who's shooting at me, my surroundings are bleak and ugly and for once in a game, the repeated firefights aren't fun, but chaotic, stressful affairs, with no sense of agency, satisfaction or heroism to them. Why am I voluntarily spending time with something that makes me confused, annoyed and angry?
Being a criminal psychopath sucks.
When IO Interactive released Kane & Lynch: Dog Days 2 in 2010, the game was met by mixed reviews. The critics acknowledged some technical advances over its predecessor, but mainly dismissed it as mediocre. Some of them were maybe still upset because of Gerstmann-gate, the media shitstorm following the first installment's Gamespot-review and the publisher's subsequent economic pressuring of the site. Some critics were more emotional. Zero Punctuation's scathing review destroyed Dog Days utterly, and both Yahtzee and Destructoid voted it "Worst Game of 2010".
A vocal number of players, however, hated it even more, with a passion that still persists today. Try arguing in favor of the game in any gaming forum on the internet, and you'll find the hatred for Dog Days is still hot and passionate in some players, almost two years past its release. (Go try it. I'll wait here with kind words and some band-aid.)
The obvious points of criticism included the 'unsympathetic and ugly' characters, the 'hectic' shaky cam, the allegedly 'broken' cover system, the repetitive action and the grim and pointless story that leads players down a bleak spiral of death and violence. (Quite ironically, an additional critism was that the game was too short.)
A short synopsis: After the events of Dead Men, Kane and Lynch meet up in Shanghai for an arms deal. In the opening chapter, Kane unintentionally kills the daughter of a powerful Chinese underworld boss. The pair try to escape Shanghai, but in vain: Lynch's Chinese girlfirend Xiu, the only person Lynch seems to care for, as is made evident by the phone calls we get to hear during load-times, is raped and killed, her corpse dumped in a toilet stall. In the end, there is revenge, of a kind, but there is no satisfaction in it. In an anticlimactic final run for your life towards escape, the last two enemies you encounter and kill in the game are two guard dogs, and then the five hours of the game's story mode grind to a halt. At the end of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days' depressingly bleak plot, everything has gone from bad to worse, to end on a whimper. To call the game's plot nihilistic would be an understatement. Dog Days indeed.
Considering the plot, it seems safe to say that IO Interactive, beloved and accomplished developers of the Hitman-franchise, quite definitely intended to deliver a game that's simply not supposed to be fun. The interesting question is if they didn't succeed a bit too much.
It indeed seems as if Dog Days is meant to deliver a nasty, immediate experience first and exclusively. While the ill-fated first installment, Dead Men, cast the single player as Adam "Kane" Marcus, a ruthless criminal and mercenary, Dog Days puts you in the shoes of Lynch, Kane's former NPC side-kick, an 'impulsive, reckless, self-medicated psychopath' and wife-killer. In the first game, Lynch's psychotic episodes are a constant hazard to all around him. This change of protagonist makes itself felt in many ways - aesthetically, in terms of gameplay and effect on the player. To draw an analogy to movies, it's like moving from Michael Mann's Heat to Roger Avary's Killing Zoe, also a remarkably bleak and nihilistic piece of Heist-movie that left viewers shocked and disgusted.
Dog Days' choice of aesthetics and game design decisions are justified by this change from the 'sane', methodical Kane to Lynch, the psychopath. The third-person camera, obviously taking its inspiration from YouTube-amateur-clips, loses focus, stutters and shakes wildly during runs. The engine even adds in post-processing effects like lens-flare, pixelation and compression artefacts. The effect is one of chaos and disorientation, and it induced head-aches in some players, and disgust in others. (This effect could be removed in the settings menu.)
Gameplay-wise, the player has little opportunity to plan a course of action. There is no relevant stealth-mechanic and hardly any relief from chaotic fight after fight. Dog Days' gameplay seems thinned-out, reduced to the bare essentials There is no gun-fetishism here; the unnamed weapons are fired and discarded, only to be replaced by guns picked up from enemies' dead bodies. The environments cast an understated and bleak look at the back-alleys, gutters and streets of a criminal underworld.
With all these immersive means at its disposal, Dog Days seems to attempt something decidedly bold and stupid: With its apparent focus on immediacy and intensity, it tries to let you experience being a criminal psychopath on a very, very bad day. No wonder people weren't having fun.
Casting a 'psychopath' as player-character may not seem especially surprising at first glance; after all, popular media depict 'insane' or merely terminally eccentric characters all the time, from The A-Team to Jack Sparrow. Depictions of 'clinical' psychopaths range from Hannibal Lecter to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; in any case, it's a motif that is firmly established in pop culture. In games, asylums are as ubiquitous as the inevitable escapes from them, and mental disorders are mostly treated as an opportunity for mystery-flick-style 'other-worlds in which the hero battles against his 'inner demons'. (And on another note completely, most players think nothing of behaving like comic-book psychopaths in just about any game as a matter of habit.)
Still, very few games have taken it upon themselves to explore mental disorders with the unique possibilities of the medium, the most accomplished of which must be Korsakovia, Dan Pinchbeck's mod for Half-Life 2. (And if you haven't played it yet, shush! Go ahead!) A far cry from Dog Days' polish and (intended) mass-appeal, Korsakovia doesn't deny the fact that it's not about having fun right from the beginning. Like Dear Esther, Pinchbeck's acclaimed first experimental mod, Korsakovia treads the fine, but ultimately imaginary line between art and games.
But first and foremost, Korsakovia's intentions are clear from the get-go: 'Trapped in the splintering fragments of a destroyed mind', as its tagline goes, the player navigates Korsakovia's world in the knowledge that, in a way, this ambitious FPS aims to simulate a specific mental disorder by letting the player experience some of its effects - disorientation, inability to discern reality from fantasy, paranoia. A bold simulation of being other than we normally are, Korsakovia works, because it's about providing an experience, not about having fun - an outrageous concept in the world of games, but not so much in other, admittedly more mature media. It's about an experience, and this experience includes frustration, anger and a feeling of helplessness.
If only Dog Days' audience hadn't expected something fun, things might have been different.
The question, of course, remains this: Does Dog Days make use of its core game mechanics, its story and its perceived shortcomings to intentionally expose its players to a fragmented, frustrated and raw mindset as broken and violent as its main protagonist - or is it simply a surprisingly bad game from an otherwise accomplished developer?
Luckily, there is no real need to answer this question. If Dog Days is indeed simply and only a bad game, then its greatest achievement is no less interesting for its being not fully intended. It denies us the heroism, agency and triumph we normally feel entitled to in action games. It delivers an immersive experience that's not fun, but actually intensely irritating and angering. It causes its players to experience sadness, impotent rage, incomprehension and frustration. It may even create a deep and lingering feeling of emotional distress, a disturbing memory of revulsion and, yes, even hatred.
Being a criminal psychopath sure sucks - but what did you expect?