Are video games basically stupid? Whatever their arty trappings, just about every video game revolves around the act of overcoming challenges. But behind the scenes, the challenge has been carefully constructed to be beatable, meaning games are essentially a drug to induce ersatz feelings of empowerment. Every gamer has, at some point in his or her life, used digital triumph to hide from real-world failure: I may not be good enough to get my life together, but I can, by god, defeat a level boss! That’s very psychologically useful, but it’s closer to cheerleading than art, and frankly, it’s a little gross, like hiring a hooker to provide “girlfriend experience.”
I don’t believe that’s all video games can be. But I’m starting to wonder if much-celebrated game-design auteur Goichi Suda does. Shadows of the Damned, the long-awaited collaboration between star designers Suda and Shinji Mikami, is a fantastic shooter, set in a compelling world, but it’s crippled by a weird hostility toward either itself or its audience that comes through in the (deliberately?) atrocious script. Whether you think the awfulness of the dialogue overwhelms the pleasures of the gameplay is in no small part determined by what you think games are for.
While Suda’s influence is all over the story, Shinji Mikami was clearly the major influence on the gameplay, and that’s a very good thing. Mikami is best known for the absolutely perfect Resident Evil 4 and the cult classic God Hand, and his unique knack for making slowness compelling is very much on display here. Mikami’s games aren’t slow in their pacing; on the contrary, Shadows of the Damned is distinguished by some of the most relentless pacing since, well, Resident Evil 4. But he enjoys crippling his characters’ locomotion in a way that creates interesting strategic challenges; while other designers aim for perfectly fluid avatars, Mikami’s heroes have to fight through their limitations. In Shadows of the Damned, protagonist Garcia Hotspur’s mixture of ponderous shuffling and quick dodge-rolls plays nicely off his enemies’ demonic leaps, making every encounter both visceral and tactical.
And speaking of visceral, the shooting in Shadows of the Damned feels great. A shooter’s intelligence is revealed by the variety of its weapons, and Shadows of the Damned deserves to be placed next to Bungie’s classic Marathon as an example of how to make every weapon useful in just the right circumstance. In order to survive, you can never afford to forget about any of your guns, and combat is a constant dance of dodging, shooting, and switching weapons. It helps that just changing guns is incredibly visually satisfying, with the sheer tactile delight of Mario’s jump; it’s fun to mess with the guns even before you start using them.
Gunplay is further enhanced by a nifty light/dark system that adds an extra layer of consideration to every trigger-pull. Along with regular bullets, your guns fire light shots that freeze enemies in place, remove armor, and light rooms filled with an oily, health-draining blackness. Keeping rooms bright as enemies try to douse the chandelier makes the player far more terrain-aware than in most shooters, and the light/dark dichotomy gets even more complex when you confront bosses who can only take damage in the dark, forcing you to carefully judge how much time you can afford to spend shooting the weak points before you turn on the lights.
And did I mention visceral? Or more precisely, viscera? Because that’s all over the game too. The hellscape of Shadows of the Damned is rendered with loving care and absolute mountains of gore. Suda and Mikami, whose previous games were on relatively underpowered Nintendo consoles, are clearly having a great time with the possibilities of high-definition corpses, and the Unreal Engine’s sometimes problematic shininess is here used to make every blood-slicked floor gleam. The general aesthetic—a combination of Central European village, medieval castle, and butcher-shop dumpster—isn’t exactly unheard of, but it’s beautifully executed here, pun intended.
Now, if only the writing worked with the game, instead of making an ugly mockery of it! In earlier Suda games, his adolescent horniness provided an effective grounding for Dadaist flights of fancy, but this game is nothing but unfunny dick jokes and grotesque leering. The sex-mad obsessiveness isn’t even likably goofy as in the first No More Heroes, it’s just predictable and kind of depressing. Similarly, the mannered repetitions and sneering clichés with which Suda used to deconstruct the video game form are just tedious in a more realistically rendered universe. There are moments when Suda tries for the kind of self-aware autocritique that he executed so beautifully in his previous games, but without the abstraction that low-spec hardware forces on designers, the meta moments seem like superficial references rather than deep self-consciousness. Even the few creative touches, like the goat-head chandeliers, are made less enjoyable because every clever bit is accompanied by a ferocious poke to your ribs to make sure you don’t miss it.
Most off-putting is the constant sexual violence visited on Paula, Garcia Hotspur’s kidnapped girlfriend and the game’s official MacGuffin. Punk rock has always been a major source of inspiration for Suda, and here he seems to relish the punk gesture of shoving the viewer’s face in an ugly truth that was implicitly present in sweeter games past. The quest to save the princess has powered a million E-rated franchises, and Suda seems determined to imagine every horrible detail of what happened to Princess Peach while she was trapped in Bowser’s bedchamber.
But punk’s desire to revel in the awful is only exciting when it expresses an unacknowledged truth. When it’s combined with Suda’s unabashed embrace of goofy fantasy, the misogyny stops seeming like a grim fact of life and looks instead like a particularly ugly aspect of his own daydreams. Last year’s Bayonetta similarly toyed with the tropes of objectification, but that game got by on effervescent campiness; Shadows of the Damned, by contrast, exudes the sweat-sock stench of the angry onanist, making its misogyny more “No Fun” than the Sex Pistols could ever have imagined.
Maybe the most punk thing about the game’s story is the way it dares you to reject it, constantly asking how much ugliness and stupidity you’ll put up with if the shooting is fun. And the answer turns out to be “Quite a lot!” (I kept having a good time with the game even as I had to suffer through the dialogue). But it seems to me that if you think games are built on a fundamentally ugly and dumb foundation, the best response is to do something better, rather than flinging poop all over the place in order to prove that games are shit. It’s nihilistic, and worse than that, it’s lazy to smirk about what’s bad instead of doing something good.
The last time Mikami and Suda worked together, they produced the stone-cold masterpiece Killer 7, and maybe I’m so disappointed now because my hopes were so high. But Suda’s previous game, No More Heroes 2, was similarly uninspired, and it’s starting to seem like he’s gone from being gaming’s Johnny Rotten to being its G.G. Allin, offensive in a way that isn’t unusual or creative, but just one more day in the salt mines of the id. Shadows of the Damned is a lot of fun to play, but it’s definitely not a game you want seen by your spouse, or mother, or maybe even yourself.