Super Columbine Massacre

The vast majority of gamers know life is not a Doom level – these rules are merely simplifications and abstractions that streamline very complex actions for smoother gameplay. We know when someone is shot in the head they do not lose 20 hitpoints. Games are not an excuse for their worldview, but rather a useful metaphor that allows us to jump into their heads for awhile.

One thing that kept striking me while playing is that Dylan and Eric, despite being younger, seem much more self-aware than what we’ve learned about Cho. Most of the dialogue in the game is taken verbatim from their writings, recordings, and police reports, and I buy it as a legitimate and thoughtful glimpse into their pseudo-nihilistic mindset at the time of the attacks. Perhaps this ability to reflect comes from having a sounding board in each other, whereas Cho was a loner. The result was the same pointless carnage, of course. But it does convince me that they knew what they were doing was wrong in every possible, concievable sense of the word. Perhaps that makes them all the more evil, and truly worthy of hell, if it exists, despite their lower body count. —Mike DuncanSuper Columbine Massacre (Bad Rhetoric)

Some good commentary on a game that was easy to win (in that it wasn’t technically difficult to rack up points and be victorious in battle after battle) but very hard to play (in that I had to overcome emotional resistance to the fact that I was expected to make the plot progress by gunning down icons representing high school students and teachers).

I’ve been meaning to write down more thoughts on this game, and I guess reading this post was all the prompting I needed.

An early sequence in which we are supposed to sneak through the school and plant bombs without being caught was quite annoying. For no good reason, the game refused to let players save anywhere but the parking lot. That mean that if you got caught in the hall, you had to start that sequence over. If you planted one bomb and then got caught, you had to start over. If you planted both bombs but didn’t make it out to the parking lot without being chased by a hall monitor, you had to start over.

After the bombs don’t go off, I had a moment of relief — even though I knew exactly what was supposed to happen next. I was supposed to start killing.

I had to take a break — I was on a train ride to a conference where, I delivered a talk that used this game as a reference point. Even though it was a minor reference, I didn’t feel right talking about the game without finishing it, so I went back to it.

When I targeted someone in the parking lot and approached, expecting the fight sequence to kick in, instead I got an encounter with a kid that Eric and Dylan apparently knew well enough to spare.

That was a masterful stroke on the part of the designer, Danny Ledonne. I don’t know whether it’s possible to target someone else first, but for a moment, because I was ready to kill this simulated character, but the game spared my target. For a moment, I felt like I was a worse person than the real killers whose steps I had been retracing, since I made the choice to kill someone they chose to spare.

And once I got back inside the school, this time armed with weapons and able to save the game wherever the hell I wanted, I understood why the opening level was so tedious and pointless. It made me hate the hall monitors for making me go back and play the bomb-planting sequence over again dozens of times.

While those two design choices made me want to keep playing in order to see how the game would screw with my emotions again, assaulting the people in the various rooms quickly became tedious. The students rarely ever fight back, and when the occasional jock throws a punch, the damage is minimal. But every so often, instead of the same old battle sequence, the game would deliver a brief exchange of dialog or even a full-blown flashback.

I didn’t want to empathize with the player-characters, but I found myself going “awwww” in sympathy when a girl doesn’t pick up the phone or return a call from Eric Harris; then when the flashback ended, the game went into the usual combat sequence, jerking me out of a sympathetic reverie into the cold realization that the backstory only fueled the hatred of the real killers.

A rather unlikely scenario has Eric and Dylan rescuing a kid who is being beaten up in the bathroom. I don’t think there is an option to target this kid along with his tormentors. Once the tormentors are gone, the kid offers you a heath powerup and leaves. I find it hard to believe that anyone would beat up a kid in the bathroom while gunfire is going off in the hall, but the sequence does argue that Eric and Dylan saw themselves as heroes of some sort; still, my willing suspension of disbelief didn’t quite cover this vignette.

The extended sequence in hell also got tedious; the boys are separated at first, and for the first time the enemies are capable of doing some real damage, so I felt a sense of accomplishment when I reached the checkpoint that reunited the boys. From then on, survival was simply a matter of learning which enemies to target first when they attack in groups, and occasionally running past enemies to search for treasure chests in which more powerful weapons and other powerups are lurking. It was an easy matter wiping out the enemies on the way back.

The monotony of the hell sequence was occasionally broken up by visits to other parts of hell, where for instance one can meet icons of various historical figures and figures from pop culture (such as an alien or JonBenet Ramsey) who have a few thoughtful words to exchange (and, for some strange reason, video game characters). It wasn’t always clear to me why these characters were in hell, or why if the killers denied the existence of God they would expect a traditional hell with fiery rivers and demons, or why Satan seems perfectly happy that Eric and Dylan just wasted most of the inhabitants of hell, why John Lennon doesn’t seem to mind playing “Imagine” (“No hell below us… above us only sky”) while he’s depicted in a very traditional hell, or why for that matter the pop culture figures in the other regions of hell are not supposed to be targets for the killer’s rage.

Once I understood that the tedium Ledonnne imposed during the early High School levels had a payback, I guess I got my hopes up.

I guess I’m saying that I wanted more story interspersed with the action.

There is a final payoff of sorts, where Satan gives you a flying dragon that you can use to move to any part of the huge Hell level, but since I had methodically swept through every enemy on my quest to finish the game, there was very little for me to do except fly to all four corners of the screen and pick up a couple of necessary inventory items. Being able to fly around hell seemed like such a paltry victory. I guess it was too much to ask for the demons to unite and lead an assault on heaven, a la Paradise Lost.

After the game proper is over, an extended series of non-interactive cut scenes delivers Ledonne’s final message.

I interpreted the sequence in which a parade of speakers walks up to a podium on the steps of Columbine High School as Ledonne’s attempt to quote from multiple authorities and survivors who got it all wrong.

A final sequence (was it really final? I’d have to check my saved games one more time to be sure of the sequence) showing slides of the killers looking like ordinary boys made me sick. I thought it pushed too hard for a sympathetic response; every one of their victims deserved such a respectful and detailed slideshow, and I would have spent hours watching it in order to atone for and exorcise the feeling of complicity with which the game left me.