On June 9th, 2005, the world changed. Sure, a few months previously Capcom had dropped Resident Evil 4 on the world. A member of the "Capcom Five," sure, that game reinvented its iconic franchise and pioneered game mechanics that serve as the core basis for many games we play today. Big whoop. (I love Resident Evil 4.) No, a few months later with Grasshopper Manufacture's Killer7 we'd get something stranger.
More abstract in its pitch and seemingly-barren in its gameplay, the surreal and hardboiled Killer7 was arresting (visually), confusing (narratively), and disturbing (violently). Though it didn't set the world on fire, financially, the game was immediately met with critical praise (if not, attention), with Killer7 destined from the start to become a cult item. And indeed, the sheer striking style of it all garnered a legion of fans enough to sustain subsequent Grasshopper games, many of which would prove big money-makers for Tokyo-based developers. But is it still worth remembering Killer7, 15 years later?
The answer, of course, is heck yes it is.
Killer7's playability a decade-and-a-half later is nothing to dismiss (it can be shocking how a game from two years ago come across as unplayable, while some of Mario's 20+ year old adventures feel good as new), but as a singular development in video games as art, Killer7 deserves canonization.
Show Me to the Gallery
I think it's easy to stigmatize the notion of "arthouse" films. You hear that and you picture someone like me, frowning in his chair talking about "depth of field" or something irrelevant, but I promise it's not always an awful thing! For me, defining something as "arthouse" comes about as a work that looks to transcend the medium in which its created. Applying, perhaps, to mediums like cinema or video games--inherently commercial ones--these films and games would look to do more than simply "make a buck" or "kill an afternoon." Which is to say, Killer7 is a darn work of art.
What kind of game is Killer7? Pigeon-hole it, for a second. A shoot-em-up? Basically. It's on rails, it demands the firing of firearms for progressing. But you wouldn't really jump to House of the Dead or Wild Arms when you think "Killer7," would you? This isn't about "better" or "worse," of course, simply different. Whereas those games look to primarily achieve a vibrant, entertaining romp for the player to blast through, gargantuan steampunk and alien monstrosities to pelt lead at while pop music blasts, Killer7 has a more intellectual agenda. Certainly a more philosophical one.
While I want to save some semblance of narrative analysis for another section coming up, the ways in which Killer7 delves into questions of the self within society are almost in the name. Grasshopper's game begins to explore ideas of self-reflection and identity from go, which should be indicative of Killer7's role in curating games as an artform. And much of this comes down to the anarchic writing of its director.
Goichi Suda, or Suda51, is the trailblazing leader of Grasshopper Manufacture. Director and writer of Killer7, Suda's storytelling is a pillar of the game's lasting impression and case for canonization as one of the greatest video games of all time. Much like an initial glance at a film like David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. or Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing, Killer7 can come across as obtuse, fragmented, and utterly bizarre. Even taking notes as I revisited the game recently, Killer7's plot of international espionage is one of macguffins and haphazard shootouts amidst flaming Japanese restaurants. We've got to have some fun with it, right? No, like those films, Suda is hammering at several strong, philosophical points here, and the depths to which we need to speculate and infer are indicative of a work of true interpretive genius.
Back in 2005, speaking with Nintendo Power (RIP), Suda spoke of the blossoming perception of games as an art form, particularly in "America and Europe," though he would lament "the interest level in video games as an art form [was then] very low in Japan." The production of Killer7 was a part of the "Capcom Five," five titles to be produced by the Japanese powerhouse exclusively for the Nintendo GameCube. Killer7 was the exception in that Capcom didn't directly develop the software, though legendary director Shinji Mikami served as a co-writer on the game with Suda; sort of like the babysitter, making sure the kids don't paint the house. Not to undermine Mikami, of course--I don't say "legendary" lightly. In fact, his tenure on Resident Evil and other Capcom projects would show in Killer7's gameplay at times, with the puzzles and key-finding particularly reminiscent of those long halls of the Spencer Mansion.
Still, Killer7 was a product of its director. Suda attributes film influences, as well as his past history working a plethora of odd jobs (the man worked as an undertaker at one point!) as a major influence on some of the game's more eclectic aspects. Though one might say that the democratization of game engines and development software has produced more gaming auteurs through the independent scene since 2005, 15 years ago this was a somewhat coveted peek into the mind of a singular artist. Again, I would never imply or ignore the contributions of a dev team; producer Hiroyuki Kobayashi's experience working on other Capcom classics, or the strange and droning score of Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda that are essential to the atmosphere Killer7 thrives on.
And not to forget the dozens of programmers, artists, and others (think about those brave marketing workers who were given a game about blood-spurting, cackling suicide bombers to sell) who made the work possible. Because a game is a symphony, created by an orchestra. But it needs a composer to lead them.
So maybe we should talk a little about what it is exactly Killer7 is about. Do I feel qualified to explain its nuance, philosophy, and cultural implications? What do you think I am, a doctor? That said, I think there can be an incorrect analysis of Suda's work--Killer7 in particular--by some who simply see "weird for the sake of weird." Oh no, friends, this is weird for the sake of righteous psychological exploration.
Killer7's world is a perfect one. On paper. In an alternate then-near future of 2010, the world has managed to bury the hatchet, sing "Kum ba ya," and declare international peace. Nice! Planes are too risky, so we got rid of those, and instead trot the globe via intercontinental railways. Nukes, also, no good. So the world powers launched them all into orbit and took them out with other missiles in an act of peace now known as "Fireworks."
Only, not everyone's having it.
The emergence of the Heaven Smile terror cell, virus-ridden humans with an insatiable bloodlust and a "bomb organ," used in kamikaze attacks on the UN and other governing bodies. Kun Lan, wielding the Hand of God (but not the God Hand), is the plague-spouting agent of malice who leads the Smile terrorists in their anarchic campaign against harmony. And Harman Smith.
Smith, a wheelchair-bound, elderly master assassin exhibits a strange ability, having absorbed the persona of seven other highly-skilled (and utterly whacky) guns-for-hire. As a collective, he and his personalities are the Killer7, the world's top pliers of the blood-trade, and the sort of third party governments would rely on in this world of demilitarization and shadowy bureaucracy.
So, that's a lot. Already. The lore of Killer7 can be pored over in the tremendous Hand in killer7 book, which describes events far beyond the confines of the game's story, and would elaborate on some of the obscurities we see unfold. I don't feel the need to recount exactly what happens in the game, because there are myriad other explanations and analysis that do so excellently. But what I do think is fascinating, spurred on by my playing and revisiting Suda's magnum opus, is how much it tries to reconcile international culture, American and Japanese, in particular.
The relationship between these two countries following the Second World War could be written about for hundreds if not thousands of pages, but the anxiety any country must have imposed in its people, following defeat in war and subsequent reliance on the victor, must be tremendous. The machinations of Killer7's immediate plot, with parties of killers and politicians vying over the elusive "Yakumo" document (something akin to the ultimate piece of policy, said to be the key to Japan's success as an independent nation) is all about the reclamation of identity in a globalizing world, with the player caught amidst a power struggle for a nation.
In a game about split personalities, there's something remarkably interesting and unique in the way the Killer7 are presented as an intersection of American and Japanese values. On one hand, as an independent entity outside of the government, the Smith Syndicate represent the good 'ol American way of carving a name for oneself, no way no how. Smith and his... Smiths are self-sustaining and able to stand toe-to-toe with whole darn countries in the political sphere. They're likened to a small army of firepower, and clearly have the eyes of the world on them. But you can't do it alone, right? Whereas the American way is independence, Japanese culture has always valued the collective need; cooperation and order, knowing one's place, and the trust in being a cog in a machine. So while the Killer7 operate as a single entity, the fact that they're eight people (at least, there was a time where they were eight people) compounds the Japanese way of relying on others, and allowing others to rely on you. It's a sort of genius, ponderous ideology wrapped up into a concept that also doubles down on the metanarrative of Killer7's development, with Capcom looking to make a game with appeal in the West as much as back home.
Press 'X' to Suplex
For as much of a work of art Killer7 is, taking visual and sonic cues from avant-garde cinema, it does have to play like something, right? That's what people expect from a video game. Here it is that we double down, perhaps, on the subversion that highlights the game in the minds of many, and allows for it to have aged so gracefully all these years later.
Controlling our title character(s) with the hold of a button, sending them running forward on a pre-set path, it would sound as if Killer7 plays itself, the player intervening to turn around, pick a direction at an intersection, and shoot up the occasional Heaven Smile. The contrast of the straightforward game mechanics and the fragmented, sometimes-incoherent noir storytelling is in itself a work of artistic juxtaposition, but the fact is that playing Killer7 isn't just getting from one plot beat to another. Killer7 is a heck of a lot of straight up fun.
I've mentioned a bit how Shinji Mikami's involvement and that this was, indeed, a Capcom production filled in the more logistical aspects of Killer7. Finding keys, solving puzzles, and backtracking through the moodily-lit environments all scream Resident Evil, but in terms of capitalizing on its central, multiple-personality gimmick, the game design of Killer7 aces the test.
With the ability to switch between the Smith killers at will (for the most part), the puzzle-solving and combat takes on multiple dimensions. Need a lock picked or wall climbed? Coyote Smith will see to that. Or maybe we run into a cryptic note, and need to figure out just what's going on here. Maybe KAEDE can, uh, spray some of her magic blood and help out there? The game uses its characters almost the way a fighting game composes its roster, with each individual tuned to deliver a different flavor or experience. But whereas opting for Zangief over Vega in Street Fighter locks you into a given experience per match, the way in which the personalities of the Killer7 are implemented truly forms the basis for the entire experience. That is, you can play favorites (how could I not gravitate towards the luchador MASK de Smith?) but the point is to use everyone as the puzzles come up, and acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses when a rumble with the Heaven Smile rears its head.
For as much as the movement runs on straight paths and the story darts this way and that, the thematic core of Killer7 and its mighty morphin' gameplay are very much in sync. And, ultimately, I think one of the highest compliments you can pay a game is that it "plays the way it looks." "Whoa! Super Mario Galaxy looks positively amazing!" You think it looks fun, try playing it! Rushing demons in DOOM (2016) is absolute visual overload--and it fits like a glove, shotgunning all those Hellspawn. Killer7 presents us with an ambiguous world, full of shady characters of remarkable talent and treachery. When it comes to brass tacks, taking control of the Smiths and their quirks and abilties to navigate the world of international espionage is just as fulfulling as watching it unfold.
If there were a point to be made here, it's essentially this: With Killer7 Suda and his Grasshopper team, along with Shinji Mikami and Capcom's oversight, crafted what remains one of the most-unique and dazzling video game experiences of all time. It's frighteningly-violent, and there's a sense of dread that accompanies its cynical characters as they make world-altering moves from the shadows; though it presents a quasi-sci-fi, mystical reality, you get the feeling that there are backdoor politics that run the world in ways even less scrupulous than gun battles with cosplaying teenage assassins. Like I said, we've got to have fun with it.
As one of my favorite games, Killer7 stands in without question. But as one of your favorite games, maybe the journey is yet to be taken. In which case I would implore the inexperienced or incredulous to revisit Killer7, maybe in its recently-remastered glory. There wasn't anything like it back then, and there truly hasn't been much like it since then. This, I stand by, in the name of Harman...
(Also be sure to check out the official website for the game, for a little trip back to 2005.)