Lollipop Nightmare: Suda51, I salute you
Like a lot of you unwashed, keyboard-permanently-attached sorts, I’ve been avidly following the response to Lollipop Chainsaw. It’s been fun to watch the reaction of ‘serious’ games journos to what is in many ways the antithesis to the things we claim to enjoy about modern games — strong characters, involving story and an engagement with ISSUES (you know, whatever it is that most indie games are about).
The criticism has ranged from a whole-hearted embrace of the knowing kitsch-ness of the aesthetic, to a lukewarm porridge of “it’s fun, but”, to a chorus of groans from the gallery about more bloody zombies.
The game itself is an odd beast. Initial thoughts turned to the cynical and manipulative: the perky, stupid cheerleader main character, the cheap pop-culture referencing sub-Whedon elements and the dodgy attempts to tack new mechanics on to a shaky combat structure. However, most critics will turn around at some point, and admit that the game got to them; somehow, despite the unholy cacophony that the creators vomited on-screen, something worthwhile comes through.
I like to think of it like listening to Rihanna. Terrifying corporate mascot she may be, but enough exposure will see you humming a jaunty tune on the way to work without any idea how it came to be rolling around your brain.
To extend the metaphor to breaking point, Goichi Suda is Timbaland here, waving his phallic wand over a pile of disconnected fragments of brittle pop detritus and turning it into smooth, creamy money. The CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture is the very picture of a modern gaming auteur: a former undertaker who prefers to go by a pseudonym, enjoys a following that many a cult messiah would envy, it is behind some of the most critically well-received titles of his generation.
Many people of otherwise spotless characters will begin drooling on cue at the mention of killer7. Go on, try it. See what I mean?
The problem is, see, that I’ve really got no interest whatsoever in playing Lollipop Chainsaw. I’m like a tourist wandering into an Italian football match; all the noise and aggression has fired my imagination, but I’ve got nothing at stake, no interest in the spectacle of sweaty men with odd haircuts falling over.
Frankly, Lollipop Chainsaw is a game that could have been designed to drive me up the wall. First, I am no great fan of score attack slashers. I can’t think of a single genre of game that I enjoy less than the kind of knee-in-spine design that makes you go back and replay a section over and over again — not because you aren’t good enough to complete it, no, but because you haven’t done it with enough style.
Second, regardless of what you think about misogyny in games, the way that Juliet, the supposed heroine, is presented is a big problem for me. I get personally offended by games that try to stick me into the mould of a leering, moronic peeping tom. Perhaps that’s my issue, but it feeds into a general sense of dread that stops me picking up a copy of a game which prominently features a scantily-clad young lady with absurdly proportioned, ah, assets.
That little insight into my psyche is by way of an explanation — I haven’t played the game, and I don’t expect to. But I do like the fact that it exists. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
You see, games are a pretty young medium. In the early days of most other forms of expression and art, they were kicked around, ignored and misunderstood at least as much as interactive video entertainment ever has been. Yet out of defying the consensus, breaking technological and mental boundaries, comes a wellspring of inspiration. Could Jane Austen have ever written the fantastically subversive Northanger Abbey, if the novel form were not dismissed as suitable only for silly women and servants?
That’s why I like Suda51. In an industry in which development costs have obscenely ballooned and expected returns are so hallucinatory, he is out there making games that take risks. Can there be a more beautiful word in the English language? Grasshopper games may have a devoted hardcore audience, but they won that audience by doing things that it would be difficult to imagine a major player, EA say, doing: building games that were complex, full of ideas and off-putting to large sections of the market.
When I talk about my wild inferences to people I’ve cornered at parties, there’s one parallel I like to draw — Robert Rodriguez. No, hear me out.
Here’s a guy that has, for the majority of his career, made a consistent virtue of appealing to only a small group of people who share his cultural obsessions. He cares more about choreographing a single shootout than about 90 minutes of dialogue. He takes huge, not to mention expensive, risks, and gets away with it because his audience appreciate that every film is refining a formula, composed of the same elements mixed up in new and stunning ways. He also makes brutal, unpleasant pictures that I have no desire to sit through.
The only criticism I could make, beyond my deep and abiding desire to avoid both of these men’s creative output, is that they must both make accommodation for the realities of the industry machine. In Rodriguez’ case, it’s having to alternate Grindhouse and Machete with Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D (the fourth dimension is smell, in case you were wondering). In Suda’s case, it’s been a gradual winnowing down of the ideas into a more marketable form. Killer7 was a sprawling tale of a wheelchair-bound mentally ill assassin who could project his split personalities to carry out on-rails assassinations on behalf of the US government. Now he’s making games about cheerleaders fighting zombies.
What I’m saying, I suppose, is that I don’t want Suda to make games that I want to play. I don’t really want him to make games that anyone wants to play. I want him to keep the boundaries in constant motion, to shake up the genre map that stifles so many big name projects in their infancy. If this time next year, we’re not playing a coming-of-age drama about mutant moles living on Mars, I’ll be most disappointed.