Requiem for a Tough Guy

"I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word."

Frank Morrison Spillane died July 17, 2006.

Mickey Spillane was one of the most reviled writers of the 20th century. He took a genre built from the dapper tweed of Sherlock Holmes and he ground it down until all that remained were bullets and blood. His critics called him a sadist, a racist, and a misogynist. Worse, they called him a hack.

He was the most important writer in the short history of videogames.

"The Body. Now I could call it that. Yesterday it was Jack Williams, the guy that shared the same mud bed with me through two years of warfare in the stinking slime of the jungle. Jack, the guy who said he'd give his right arm for a friend and did when he stopped a bastard of a Jap from slitting me in two. He caught the bayonet in the biceps and they amputated his arm."

Spillane's rock-hard detective, Mike Hammer, was the first modern almost-anti-hero. He lived a value system entirely of his own devising. He did what he felt he had to do--a path that lead inevitably to sex and violence in book after book. A standard Hammer plot begins with him taking something personally--a death, a theft, it doesn't matter. It's always about vendetta. It's always about street justice. And someone, usually many someones, gets a bullet.

"The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte staggered back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her naked belly where the bullet went in. A thin trickle of blood welled out."

Millions of people have reveled in Mike's thin code of morality, his willingness to just do something when faced with injustice. He was one of the best selling writers of the 20th century. (He refused to call himself an Author, quipping that writers sold more books.) When he walked onto the cold rainy streets of the post-war US for the first time in the late '40s, Hammer's attraction was difficult for the world to understand--and most modern critics still don't get it.

But you do.

The connection between Hammer and video games is much, much deeper than just noticing that "Max Payne", when spoken through too much gin, sounds an awful lot like "Mickey Spillane". Mike Hammer is the first "First Person Shooter." Spillane's customers are invited to put themselves in Mike's fantastic shoes--walking the razor-edged tightrope of vigilante justice. Hammer is not only written in the first person, he's written in first person imperative. Every action is an exclamation point. Every decision predestined from the very first page.

I love to play Master Chief, or the Marine, or the Hitman, or even random-engineer number 3 in the endless zerg of a Battlefield 2 game. I love it because I am involved in the actions of conflict without having to invent, process, or even care about the reasons. When a story is told through an FPS, it is rarely a fable that invokes deep moral questions and emotional ambiguity. Instead, even the best-told story simply weaves a convenient fiction to justify the inevitable bloodbath that ensues.

Consider--as we so often do--the Half Life series. Even this, the most story centered franchise of the genre, fails to challenge the reader with a real moral decision. There's no sense of choosing to do what is *right*, rather, there is doing what must be done. Despite the depth of the storyline, Gordon Freeman is actually closer to Mike than the faceless machos of Doom and Halo. Gordon doesn't fight because he's getting paid, because he enlisted and its his duty, because he had a long conversation where some character convinced him, or even because someone reached down and gave him authority. Gordon fights because he has to fight. He fights for self preservation, and, one suspects, for revenge.

In his best, worst, and first work, "I the Jury", Spillane created the videogame superhero we now know and love. He knew what he was doing--before creating Mike Hammer, he wrote Captain America, The Human Torch, and Captain Marvel. He was deep in the pulp before he ever came upon the detective novel. Even the book's title seems appropriate for any number of game concepts: WW2 soldier, GTA thug, that-guy-from-Prey. Hammer always traverses his plot (action packed, thrilling, but ultimately forgettable) in the singular pursuit of revenge, and like any good first person shooter, nothing ever gets in his way for long.

"Her eyes had pain in them now, the pain preceding death. Pain and unbelief. "How c-could you?" she gasped. I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in. "It was easy." I said"

And so it is. Pulling the trigger is always, always easy. There are no consequences.

Mikey Spillane was demonized by most critics for scenes just like this. Mike Hammer is anti-everybody. The only people safe from his wrath are those enough like him to be "normal", but boring enough to be ignored. Spillane's descriptions of violence, and more importantly the emotions behind it, were shocking in a post-WW2 world, and they're no less shocking in a post-9/11 world.

But Hammer is also beautiful, and important. Hammer is our collective id, set free. He allows us to purge those parts of ourselves which our superego would bury and deny. There is in the heart of all animals a dark side which must either be repressed or exorcised if the creature is to function in anything approaching a civil society. I can't imagine I am alone in my fear of this, both in my self and in others. Hammer doesn't give us catharsis in the literary sense: purgation through tragedy. He gives us catharsis in the medical sense: purging one's bowels.

Videogames are currently in the very same crosshairs that targetted Spillane for much of his life. The argument, as ever, is that fictional violence begets real violence, particularly in children. My rebuttal: children grow up violent primarily through neglect. I genuinely believe that the 14 year old with a rifle in a shopping mall is not influenced by anything. He's uninfluenced. He's feral. He's been left to grow up as an animal, rather than a person. It's not the games, its the absence of people.

I'm not completely stupid. The average 12 year old boy sitting in front of Half Life 2 is likely not thinking about the fate of his soul, and this excorcism of id. He's playing a game. Perhaps he'll feel the scrubbing clean of his soul. Perhaps he'll just waste an hour. Maybe that ain't so bad either.

So cheers, Mickey. You were what you said you were, no more, no less. You were a writer. You wrote what poured out of your soul onto the page. What happened after that says much more about us than it does about you. I am grateful for your gift of Mike Hammer. Not out of any admiration for him.

But out of cold, sweaty-palmed fear that part of him lies dormant inside me.

(All quotes from "I, The Jury", Mickey Spillane, 1946)


Beautiful write-up, rabbit. Very nice.

Very nice, though i disagree on the Half Life 2 point. Although Gordon is the main character, he is the faceless avatar immortal: a being so transparent as to actually not exist in any real sense in the world. There is no separation between the player and the game as there is no personality or ego to clash with. A concept that is at odds with what valve do by giving him a name and a face (on the cover of the games). He is the Doom marine incarnate - a being devoted solely to the task of rail-roading the player through the game.

Although the Half Life universe's story is rich and intricate i feel that they have tried to be too clever in too many ways. The story and witholding of those story elements isn't clever. Nor are the apparent emotional connections that other character have to "Gordon".
In essense, the Half Life story (to me) is the videogame equivalent of Quantum Leap crossed with Being John Malkovich.

But the other characters and games you chose excellently prove your point. Good post

Hrmm... I do see what you mean about Gordon, and I don't disagree that he is as much a faceless persona as any of the others. But I do get the sense from the series that you are supposed to *be* Gordon, and experience his full slate. Just my experience of course.

There's a whole separate way that games approach this--first person dialogue and cutscenes. Max Payne probably comes closest to this, but in some ways the dialogue/cutscene model removes the player from the first person, and has that wierd "here's the setup, now finish the scene" quality which seems so restrictive to me. In Payne it always felt like you had no choices whatsoever. You got dropped in the bar, and if you didn't kill the 5 bad guys, you were dead.

Excellent article, one of my favorites I think. I now wish my last name was Hammer.

Shawn Hammer, moderator without remorse. "Why did you ban me, Shawn Hammer?" she asked. "It was easy" I muttered as I clicked the submit button.

Shawn "The Ban" Hammer, does have a subtle quality to it.

So does your avatar!

I'm not noticing the subtlty in that avatar at all, actually. Though it does have a certain quality. A certain quality or two.

I sail with a guy named Mike Hammer. He has a really deep voice.

Incredible article rabbit.

...or even random-engineer number 3 in the endless zerg of a Battlefield 2 game.

I love this usage of the word 'zerg.' I knew instantly what it meant and and kept on reading. It rattled around in my brain for a sec before I went, 'Hey, that's new!' Very clever, rabbit.

Thanks Mix, I'd love to take more credit for it, but its been kicked around in my local gaming group since starcraft that I didn't even consider it novel!

Certis wrote:

So does your avatar!

Don't hate the player.

Nice piece Rabbit. Maybe I'll check some of those books some time, they do sound good.