Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smilin' on you but he's frownin' too
Because only God knows what you'll go through."
-- The Message, GrandMaster Flash
It's 2AM on Friday night. It's dark. There is no dark like a moonless night in the country. My wife has draped her shirt over the clock's grey blinking. I have earplugs in, a habit learned of sleeping with infants in the room. I'm painfully sober and irrevocably awake. Each time I close my eyes, I start thinking. And the more I think, the more I think about my kids. And about death. And about fear.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, self-published by Danny Ledonne in 2005 (but only recently mainstreamed), is a bizarre and brutal attempt at a documentary told through a game engine. Like most machinima, it uses antique game tools to tell a story. Unlike most machinima, rather than present a film as the final product, Ledonne left the game as an actual RPG, forcing the viewer-cum-player to participate in order to advance the plot. As the name implies, it puts you in the shoes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on April 20th, 1999, as they walk into Columbine High School in Colorado and kill twelve students, a teacher, and themselves.
The game draws heavily from historical accounts, fictionalizing surprisingly little along the way. I will admit to not being a student of the event. I remember being horrified, saying prayers for a few nights, having a few long and wine-soaked discussions among friends, and then trying to forget as quickly as possible. I didn't read the Time Magazine stories or watch the morning talk show interviews. I was thirty minutes into the game when I realized I simply had to know how much of the game was real, and how much was fabricated. Four hours of link-chasing wikipedia later, I was more disturbed than ever. Thousands of pages, pictures, videos and audiotapes surround the shootings, much of it written and recorded by the two themselves.
The premise of this fact-as-fiction construction -- that you must do something horrifying in order to advance the story -- is no more original than Grand Theft Auto. The difference is that when you shoot someone in the face with a sawed-off shotgun in GTA, it's pretend. When you do it in Columbine, you're reenacting. Of course, I have no problem playing Defcon in the face of Hiroshima, or playing the Germans in a game of Battlefield 1942. But this pixelated and pixilated nebbish of a game crosses some internal line where it's not OK. This juxtaposition is in and of itself disturbing. Many gamers, if not most, will launch SCMRPG!, play through the first 10 minutes, face that first act of violence and promptly delete the game. This should be considered ample evidence of being human.
I played through most of it. I don't recommend that you do so. Instead, go watch the video walk-through. The meat of the game ends 37 minutes in -- that's the close of the four minute slide show, depicting the families, friends and survivors, funerals and vigils. And that's where you should stop, because after that, the game goes too far.
I don't mean it crosses a moral line in the sand, I just mean that it tries too hard. The second half of the game takes our anti-heroes directly to hell, where they wander randomly, deliver books to Nietzsche, negotiate with the devil, engage in vague anti-Christian diatribes and exchange witty one-liners with various icons of history from Mario to Nixon. Hell is rife with inside game-industry jokes and pointless, rarely-funny jabs at celebrities. It's as if Ledonne, weary from the weight of his project, decides to work on his Trey Parker and Matt Stone impressions.
But even forgetting the game's bizarre second act, I'm still uncertain how seriously to take the author. The words of his "artist's statement" (a suspect title to start with) are heavy, and certainly imply that he takes his game very, very seriously -- more seriously than the second act would suggest; and the game is far from an endless and insensitive South Park sketch. Moments of it are deeply touching, more are deeply disturbing. It sets an oddly laconic tone leveraging everything from KMFDM song lyrics, T.S. Elliot, music evocative of both 1999 and King's Quest, what-if flashbacks, to crime-scene photographs. It repeatedly lulls you into identifying with the villains, and then slams you against the wall for doing so.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! isn't a great game. It's not really even a game. Nevertheless, it was considered for the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition game festival, won a finalist slot from the jury, and then got the boot because it was too controversial. It got kicked not because it's bloody and features acts of violence -- the other finalists boast such selling features as "full dismemberment and decapitation." No, the imagined threat of legal action trumped all:
"Slamdance does not have the resources to defend any drawn out civil action that our legal council has stated can easily arise from publicly showing it."
Which is funny (both the "ha ha" funny and the eyebrow-raised sad-clown "weird" funny) in light of these comments from Ledonne's "artist's atatement":
"Somewhere between April 20th, 1999 and September 11th, 2001, America entered into a new, terrifying, and desperate era. Citizens can no longer afford to believe the necessary illusions of modern society. In an age when hastily-formed scapegoats and false dichotomies of 'good' and 'evil' run rampant, SCMRPG dares us into a realm of grey morality with nuanced perspectives of suffering, vengeance, horror, and reflection."
Personally, I don't need more evidence of a "new, terrifying and desperate era" than this kind of fear-induced self-censorship inside the cardboard-walled and desperate-to-be-hallowed halls of our industry.
I'm glad Ledonne made the game.
And I'm sure I'll sleep better in a week or two.
I'm trying not to lose my head.
It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under."