Wednesday, April 22, 2009

No More Heroes Revisited

Gamernode- As I've been playing through Suda 51's sometimes brilliant, sometimes baffling epic, No More Heroes, I keep coming back to something Eskil Steenberg, one-man creator of the upcoming MMO, Love, said on a recent episode of ListenUp regarding why we play games, (and I'm paraphrasing here). "We play games because our lives are so complicated and games give us small problems we can actual solve. They give us some sense of control." It was something of an epiphany for me as I often wondered why I would spend so much of my life focusing on the medium, and while it's possible that that quote would be relevant of whatever game I played next, today I'm talking about No More Heroes, which I feel is especially applicable as its main protagonist is in fact a gamer.

The world Travis Touchdown inhabits is an interesting one as it reflects both our own world and the world of videogame conventions (as opposed to something like GTAIV, which tries to mirror our world, but in my opinion, ungracefully shoe-horns it into videogame conventions). The nods to other games and pop-culture in general are anything but subtle with it's jaggy, pixelated aesthetic, 8-bit leaderboards, and goofy nonsensical villains. The game is unapologetically "gamey" giving you the illusion of an open-world with nothing to do between missions only serves to reinforce the notion that games like GTAIV's open-worlds are just an illusion; a window dressing laid upon otherwise conventional game design. By embracing its gaming roots, it allows Suda 51 to go hog-wild with his goofy ideas as it's not likely to break the immersion.

More telling is the way that it reflects our own world. Travis Touchdown, if you don't take his lethal actions at face value, is bizarrely relatable. He has two goals: be number one, and get laid. It's unclear if he wants the former to get to the latter, but it seems likely he want them both and uses latter as a carrot to give him an excuse for the former. The way I see it, the ranked tournaments in the game are not meant to be taken at face value, but as a metaphor for playing videogames (just as we are playing one). Despite being shot multiple times in cutscenes, Travis always comes out unscathed and ready for battle. He's not a real assassin, in this sense; he's a videogame assassin. It's merely something fun to do for him. And the retro aesthetic, where enemies explode in cartoonish bursts of blood and coins, does all it can to reinforce the notion that this is all good, silly fun. So that's where being number one comes in. He's a competitive high-score seeker that way. He suggests to Sylvia that he she "do it with him" if he reaches number one (something that she never explicitly agrees to), which functions as a.) an excuse for Travis to go around doing what he does best (i.e. kill people), and b.) it is his dream to find a woman who will sleep with him due to his videogaming prowess. I'm reminded of a Futurama episode where Fry wishes real life were more like videogames and ends up warding off an alien invasion due to his expertise in Space Invaders. Here's where Steenberg's quote comes in- Travis wishes to solve his real problems by succeeding at his fake ones.

Travis's life, when you get right down to it, is pretty fucked up. He cannot get laid, is always racking up late fees on his porn rentals, lives in a motel, the sandbox world of Santa Destroy is a dull bore and filled with shoddy jobs like collecting scorpions and defusing land mines at the beach, etc, etc... so you can hardly blame the guy when he just wants to chill out and slash some throats. The fact that No More Heroes' ending makes absolutely no sense angered me at first as it gave me the impression that it was all goofy just for the sake of being goofy, but it might actually be a big cosmic joke on how complicated life is. A game that portrays fun with hilarious, over-the-top hack-and-slash violence must portray difficulties with a hilarious over-the-top pile-driver of increasingly ludicrous cliches. Travis has whiled away exploding foes in his own delusional fantasy world, but he hasn't really solved anything by the end when his life is just as fucked up as ever (even more so in fact), and he still hasn't gotten laid. Poor Travis.

No More Heroes is basically Fry's dream come to fruition; what life would be like if it were a videogame. Our problems would be easy to solve, at face value, but we'd still be unable to make heads or tails out of any of it, because nothing is ever that simple.

One a side note, while I love most things about No More Heroes, one aspect where I've always felt a bit out of sync with the rest of the world is in regard to its dialogue. It sounds very odd and stilted to me, and not in a good way. I felt like I genuinely had a hard time following what it was the characters were talking about. Contrary to much I've read about the other assassins expressing a deep sense of pathos, to me they just seemed goofy and cartoony with next to no character development. Dr. Peace was a bit of an exception, with his monologue about missing his daughter, but the rest didn't feel like they had especially fleshed out stories. Most of which felt like an odd mishmash of cliches without enough of a role to really develop any concise character. Take Holly Summers for instance. Her name and setting bring to mind that she's a beach bunny, her chic French haircut and high heels equate her with being classy, and then she's got the prosthetic leg/green camo with grenade thing going on giving her a more masculine, butch theme. None of these three disparate elements cobbled together well in my mind, and I didn't feel as if I had any understanding as to who she was by the end. Can someone please explain to me why this is genius? Or isn't? It tends to leave me scratching my feeble-minded head, even after four playthroughs.
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