If you're interested in video game violence, its treatment, its origins, and the discussions that have arisen around it during the past few years, you should play 2007's Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, by IO Interactive. Similarly, if you find video games frustrating storytellers—if you wish your behavior as a player was more often married to the personalities of your characters—then you should play Kane & Lynch: Dead Men.
From an old hat, out-of-ten, boring video game review standpoint it comes up short, dragged down by bugs and dud sequences, especially towards the end. But when BioShock was wringing its hands about player versus developer, and Spec Ops was still just a squad-shooter for the PS1, Kane & Lynch connected the player to their character through a shared desire for violence.
"We did most of the writing by just taking those characters, putting them into a situation, and thinking about how they'd react," explains Jens Peter Kurup, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men's creative director. "So for the Tokyo level, they've been on a plane for hours, they're tired, they're in a queue outside this club being pushed around and Lynch gets into this mood, and then we built the level around that. My favorite moment in the whole game is turning the corner into that club and just knowing that Lynch is going to blow up."
Kane and Lynch in Tokyo
Kane, your main playable character, is a selfish crook who'll kill or abandon anyone if it means getting what he wants. When his escape van crashes after a botched bank robbery, Kane takes one look at the shattered vehicle and says, "Leave him." Though his daughter despises and wants nothing to do with him, Kane keeps going after her—at the end of the game she either tells him she hates him one last time or ends up shot, seemingly dead.
Kane's motivation isn't grand or impressive. Unlike most video game protagonists, who are trying to save the world or stop the bomb, he's in this only for himself. Likewise, the player shoots people and shoots people and shoots people, commits all this violence so they can reach the game's end. Player motivation—your attitude towards killing people in the game—is as blunt as Kane's. Both you and he are, essentially, in it for yourself. But where Kane & Lynch stops short is moralizing. The game ends on an ambiguous down note, but it never devolves into directly addressing what Kane or the player does. Either overtly happy or overtly sad, there's no resolution.
"We would have lost the characters if we gave them any resolution at the end," says Kurup. "And the older I get, the less violence interests me. I think a lot of games are being destroyed by it. It's beautified, it's dressed, it's justified with a purpose. Violence is always framed very well. But the violence in Kane & Lynch, I think, is naked violence. It's not pleasant. It's the symptom of a disease. In the first part of Kane & Lynch I think we served it up raw.
"I actually have a problem with the scene in the club when Lynch hits and knocks out that woman. It's because it's not something that's being played. It's a cutscene. It's just something that we presented, and dressed up with a fun bit of dialogue. We needed her unconscious from a gameplay perspective—she had to be carried over Lynch's shoulder—but that was out of tune."
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When the audience for shooting games has such specific, unmoving expectations, and mainstream video game design insists on fun, action, and consistent player feedback, it's difficult for games to be nuanced, or even varied, when it comes to violence. Even Kane & Lynch, which is one of the boldest shooting games of the past 15 years, struggles with consistency. It's never as aggressive or smart as you'd like, held down and sabotaged by video game industry realpolitik.
"When you do game design you're looking for your kicks," explains Kurup. "You need a kick—a response from the game—at least twice a minute. People have to have something to do. I wish it wasn't like that. I don't like the sheer body count in Kane & Lynch. It gets comical. I become numb. I also personally hate the plot. We needed something to pull them around the world, but I don't get what they're doing in Cuba, or in the jungle. It loses its way after the first half.
"You have restrictions on any game but I feel annoyed that I didn't get my way with some things. We didn't get the right funding, we got moved around a lot, and we had a lot of concepts and mechanics that we just couldn't pin it down. It was an odd game. But I don't know if people were ready for it. I was perfectly fine with the bashing it got from a mechanical standpoint, but I was disappointed with the lack of interest people had in trying to get the characters. I thought they'd have been more interested, and if I had an art product, I would have been right. But I had a commercial product."
Since launching to derision in 2010, the original game's sequel Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days has picked up a worthy few admirers, including Max Chis and Steve Haske, who've written about it at length. It's a terrific game, and I'm glad it's slowly gaining some traction, albeit well after the fact (I only played it last year). The original however, thanks to a few problems and technical shortcomings, remains, if not unexpectedly, disappointingly maligned and disregarded by video game history.
Considering the debates about violence that calcified during the last console generation, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men's 2007 launch, right alongside the start of the PS3, now feels wonderfully prophetic—for the questions that have been put to games during years between then and now, about ethics, characters, and the dissonance between player and developer. The game has some kind of answer, not always fully formed or digestible, but at least present. It's far from perfect—Kurup is totally right about its latter half falling apart—but at a time like this, when mainstream shooters couldn't be in a worse state, I encourage you to play the first Kane & Lynch. It's a crystalline example of why expectations, around video games generally, need to change.
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