Sunday, July 28, 2013

Analysis: No More Heroes

This post is dedicated to everyone who responded negatively to this video.


What is the artistic statement of No More Heroes?

What is the authorial intent? What is it hoped that the player will take away? What is it attempting to comment on?

Before I hypothesize about that, let's set up three major things set forth by the game.

A) Travis Is A Poor, Friendless, Sexless Otaku Loser
B) The UAA Is A Scam That Travis Fell For (Because He Is An Otaku Loser)
C) Travis Represents "You, The Player" In Some Way Because He Is A Loser Otaku

Those are pretty inarguable parts of the game's narrative, which is to say, it is clear that those are things that the game wants us to believe based on the things that characters tell us. These are the things from which the game draws its "art" value because other than that it's just a bunch of murder and sex jokes.

Now let's start asking questions.

look at this ugly neckbeard sack of shit
Question 1: Why Doesn't Travis Have Any Other Friends?
It is established early on that Travis is a loner with only one real friend in the entire world - Bishop, the owner of a nearby video store. This is important to characterize Travis as a loser, and it's important because in the second game Bishop is murdered, which spurs Travis' revenge plot.

But why is Bishop the only friend Travis has? Surely in a town as large as Santa Destroy there must be some anime clubs or fight clubs or motorcycle enthusiast clubs. Travis has a wide range of hobbies. What is stopping him from hanging out with people who share those hobbies? He's not terribly ugly or even particularly shy, so it's not like his social awkwardness is an issue. He has no problem talking to people in any other context. Nothing about him suggests that he's even an introvert. The only thing preventing him from having other friends is that he's unable to talk to other people within the game, unless they are selling something or training him. It's almost like it's a forced contrivance to attempt to artificially reinforce Travis' status as a loser otaku.

Question 2: Why Can't Travis Get A Girlfriend, Or At Least Get Laid?
Travis' journey to the top of the rankings is spurred onwards by Sylvia's promise to have sex with him when he's #1. But, like Bishop, I am forced to ask: are there not any other people that Travis could have sex with? I understand that he finds Sylvia attractive, but the setup is that Travis is a terrible otaku virgin and that's why he's so desperate to have sex with Sylvia.

Again, the only constraints visible on Travis' socialization is the invisible, un-addressed barrier known as "the game won't let you". Why can't Travis hit the club and find some willing ladies? He's got style. He's good-looking. He's confident. He has about as much chance of having sex as any other man - probably more, when you get down to it. Sure, the anime covering his motel room might creep most women out, but it's not like there's not other places they could go, and it's not like it's established that he's tried and failed. He's just an unexplained virgin and this is a source of great shame for him.

Question 3: If Travis Is So Poor, Why Does He Have A Lasersword And A Rad-Ass Bike?
It's set up that Travis bought a sword on an online auction and has his giant bike because [mumbles, trailing off]. But it's ALSO set up that Travis is laughably poor, since he lives in a motel instead of a big fancy house and his internal dialogue during the Rank 10 fight is all about how he wants more wealth and power out of the whole "assassin" thing. This poverty is why Travis has to take humiliating jobs in between assassinations, such as coconut collection and scorpion wrangling.

The economy of Santa Destroy is unfortunately inconsistent to attempt to make a cohesive statement about "wealth" or "poverty"; some shirts cost tens of thousands of dollars, but so do enhancements for legitimately lethal laser swords. There's basically no other kind of store, and Travis never has to make payments on his bike. He doesn't even seem to have to pay rent. There's no way to tell what being "poor" means, or WHY Travis has to take demeaning jobs when it also turns out that-

Question 4: If The UAA Isn't Real, Why Was Travis Being Paid To Murder People?
In one of the first game's later cutscenes, Travis talks to Sylvia's mother, who explains that the entire "ranked fight" thing was a scam. This would work if the entire game was about building up money via menial tasks so you could pay off Sylvia and she would arrange for you to fight another assassin, at no real benefit to Travis. However, that's not the case. Travis IS given jobs to murder people for money, and  as it turns out he's really good at it since the world is infested with people who are barely one-hundredth as strong as he is. This is not a hallucination or a setup since one of those assassinations is the canonical reason for the entire chain of events in No More Heroes 2. So Travis is in fact being paid to murder people, including the CEO of a major corporation, and yet he has to take menial jobs to make basically the same amount of money. Also, the organization paying him for murdering people doesn't exist, even though it is paying him and there are legitimate reasons given for the contracts assigned to him.

Question 5: If Travis Is Such An Otaku, Why Is He A Buff-As-Fuck Ubermensch?
Travis is superhuman. This is undeniable. There are a huge number of humans around Travis, and he is stronger than almost all of them by an insane margin. Travis Touchdown found a lightsaber on the internet and took some wrestling tips down at the gym and now he is stronger than every trained thug and professional goon thrown against him. Not "just as strong", not "a little bit stronger", but so strong that he can wade through them and murder them all. Why is this. Why is he so much more powerful than them. Is it because this is a video game and not an intelligent, cohesive plot. What part of this is commentary on him being an otaku.

Question 6: Who Gives A Shit About Jeane?
Jeane comes in at the end and is like, hey, Travis, you totally forgot that your parents are dead and you swore revenge against me. And Travis is like, oh, you're right, I did! And the audience smiles. Now we know why Travis is a loser: because he forgot about his revenge quest. Because he let petty desires cloud what he truly needed to do with his life. Now it all makes sense.

It doesn't actually make sense. The fact that Travis was seeking revenge for his dead parents is already a childish escapist plot, so you can't shoehorn it into a narrative as a representation of serious adult behavior that's being deviated from. Revenge isn't "the real thing Travis should have been focusing on", it's a thing that's just as ridiculous as trying to have sex with Sylvia. It's a goofy terrible goal and not a grounded or mature objective in any way. So who cares. What did Jeane showing up matter, artistically. It's just a plot twist, it doesn't actually influence Travis' character at all.

Question 7: Is It Because He Jacks Off To Anime Porn
I think that's why Travis is supposed to be a loser otaku. I think that's the reason. I think the fact that he's a buff, confident, handsome, stylish man with a giant bike and a lucrative job is meant to be pushed to the side and the fact that he jerks off to anime porn in a motel room is meant to convince us that Travis is a loser. Okay. Fine. I can work with this. Jerking off to anime porn is pretty bad I guess. Except that the entire fanbase for NMH also jerks off to anime porn, because only those kinds of people would buy into a game where you murder hundreds of people with a laser sword.

Conclusion: There Is Literally No Real Commentary In No More Heroes
Sorry, guys! I know you thought there was but there isn't. It's just a series of basically unrelated events with no actual cohesion, because fiction is a lie and lies don't have to be plausible. There's no artistic lesson to No More Heroes, no moral, no concepts. It's just a random bunch of shit that Suda thought was cool but he wanted to maintain some of his credibility from Killer7 and also wanted to explain why No More Heroes was so boring and unfun.

Oh, wait, no, I almost forgot.

Question 8: Punk's Not Dead
There's nothing "punk" about No More Heroes. Suda51's appropriating a culture and he doesn't even care.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Symbolism: A Guide

"Dude, this guy is augmented. That's transhumanism. He has too much fun with transhumanism, and then he burns and falls to his death--this is my metaphor; this is perfect." 
Jonathan Jacques-Belletete, Art Director, Deus Ex: Human Revolution

We are alive, and then after a variable period of time, we die. What happens after that is a matter of debate.

As an atheist, I believe that when we die, that is it - we just stop being alive. There's no scoring, no reward or penalty, no post-game analysis. We are, and then we aren't.

So let me talk about symbolism for a bit, with the time that I have on this Earth.

Symbolism frustrates me because it tends to get used as a cheap, easy way to achieve credibility. It is part of a systemic approach to "story value", wherein linking enough concepts together gets you a rolling combo and lets you rake in that sweet, sweet Social Justification. It's part of a cohesive desire to escape the outcast nature of video games and anime by proving that, just like books and movies, they are capable of doing "the art things" and thus time spent on them is not time wasted.

Symbolism is easy. If you lower your standards to Evangelion levels, symbolism is absolutely trivial. A character martyrs themselves - just like Jesus did! A character shares a name with a person from the bible. A cross appears, in some format. In ANY format. Someone quotes Shakespeare. Someone else quotes Buddha. He talks about his bibles, talks about John 3:16...AUSTIN 3:16 says I just whipped his ass! It's basic.

wow its almost like this magic evil town is magic and evil and not regular and normal
Games are often compared to "Skinner Boxes", which is to say "operant conditioning chambers". You press a button, you get a reward, and the reward makes you feel good. It's the primary mechanic in MMOs - the long-awaited "ding" doesn't mean anything outside of the game, but it still feels good to get it. There's no meaning to it, no purpose, but it triggered a positive response in your brain despite the fact that it's fundamentally "not a thing" at all.

Symbolism is operant conditioning. Metaphors are operant conditioning. "Value", as a concept, is operant conditioning. They don't mean anything. They don't make you a "better" person, or a more-informed person, or a more empathetic person. They just trigger feelings of "I'm better now". They rely on the existing structures of literary analysis to provide feelings of worth associated with these very basic and easy-to-construct concepts.

People play games like Bioshock or Spec Ops The Line, and maybe they enjoy the ride - that's fine. Maybe they enjoyed the emotional ups-and-downs, that's fine. I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, but "emotional evocation" is both subjective and, itself, pretty easily accomplished, so it's not a thing I'd comment on. But then people play games like Bioshock or Spec Ops and they say, yeah, that game was really Meaningful. That game really Made Me Think.

Did it? Did it really? Please, tell me what it made you think about. Tell me if you actually breached your comfort zone and thought about uncomfortable topics. Tell me if your viewpoint was actually altered by the presentation of these fantastic, unrealistic scenarios and the way people behaved in them. If you say "no", then you were really just spinning your wheels - it didn't change anything, it just made you feel like you were learning something. But if you say "yes", well, you're not off the hook there, either, because now we have to go back and EXAMINE the things you think you've learned.

who would've thought the killer was a mere 13 year old
I'm going to link to a much longer, much better article than this concerning Ender's Game. Specifically, the article talks about how Orson Scott Card orchestrated events in his fictional universe in order to justify his own real-world viewpoint: the viewpoint that morality is based entirely on intentions and not on actions. Card's world, as depicted in Ender's Game, consists of problems that the protagonist must be forced into, and then those problems must be solved with violence. The former aspect exists so that the character can be "good" and "justified" when they do violent things.

People read Ender's Game, and many enjoyed it. Some thought it was a nice tale in its own right - an enjoyable journey, perhaps, but not a philosophically viable one. What about the people who didn't think that? What about the people who thought that yes, you could learn something about how to live your life from Ender's Game? What about the people who did think that genocide was justified and sympathized with Ender for it? What about the people who truly believed, after reading Ender's Game, that you did have to "beat people until they weren't capable of beating back"?

I'm not going to pretend that people wouldn't come to these conclusions on their own. Moral absolutists have always existed, and one book isn't going to make or break that reality. But fiction can be persuasive because it presents a highly emotional case - a case that exists in a courtroom where the author is representing every single part of the trial. The author is free to malign their opposition, to make the jury sympathetic to their side, to make the judge rule in their favor. How can you learn from that? How can you take lessons about how to behave from an individual who is no more "qualified" in this matter than you are, and who has orchestrated an entire scenario to make you think they ARE?

So to sum up, symbolism serves two roles.

The first role is empty emotional evocation - useless, but harmless. It makes people think they've learned something when they haven't, but at least it's not actively making them worse.

The second role is to convince an individual of real-world lessons - a process that is inherently biased. A process that can be used to convince people of things that they will then carry into the real world, because they have faith that the real world resembles the fictional scenario they just witnessed.

Fiction is fake. Fiction is made up. You can put anything you want in fiction because it's not real. You're not required to have any rules for fiction because it's not real. You're not required to have consistency or applicability for fiction because it's not real. You can "blow people's minds" easily because it's not real. You can "totally fuck with someone's perception of reality" because it's not real.

The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.