Games

Ten Years of ‘Killer7,’ Suda51’s Revelation of Raw Sensory Power

Delivering a level of extravaganza reached by few other games, this collision of individuality and corporate production remains magnetic.

by Ed Smith
Jun 29 2015, 3:05pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

My best experiences with art haven't come while deliberating, brow furrowed, over potential meanings or interpretations. They've arrived instead when I've let go of cognition—when the art has belied analysis, and simply cascaded over me. I love that feeling of being overwhelmed. But often, in video games, it's conflated with explosions and spectacle.

"Whoosh!" goes Call of Duty. "Bang!" goes Destiny. "Argh!" goes The Last of Us. And this so-called excitement and wow factor, the things games are supposed to do well, rapidly gets old. No matter how grand the action or how refined the graphics and sound, it's hard to be overwhelmed when you can anticipate each beat.

That's why I adore Killer7. I know interpretations exist, and there are essays about how it reflects Japan, America, politics, and history. But for me, Killer7 is raw energy. It's just there—it's instant. With blood, swearing, violence, and absurdity, Killer7 washes me away, and in doing so ascends to a level of extravaganza reached by few other games.

It's still spectacle—it's still shock, noise, and color—but instead of an explosion, a blood spray, or a zombie, Killer7 gives you a talking head in a tumble drier, a boss fight with a pigeon, a spectral gimp attached to the ceiling. And it doesn't ever question or roll its eyes at what's going on—Killer7 throws completely in with itself, and in doing so deftly avoids self-parody.

Coming out in the UK and US in July 2005 (and a month earlier in Japan), when boxed video game releases were declining towards uniformity, it was a final gasp of fresh air. Now, in 2015, Killer7 is an example of what Big Gaming ought to be. Published by the giant Capcom and overseen by Resident Evil series creator Shinji Mikami as part of the "Capcom Five," it advocates a kind of synergy, where the profits from stone-cold franchises are in part used to finance stranger ideas. Ubisoft tried this with Valiant Hearts and Starbreeze did it with Brothers. Those results were mixed, but what a better way to work. Killer7 is what comes when individuality and corporate production value somehow successfully entwine.

It's also the last decent game by Goichi Suda, aka Suda51. I don't know what happened, but after Killer7 the designer, director, and CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture collapsed into Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Killer is Dead—dumb, gratuitous, sexist shit, providing for Killer7 what Francis Coppola's Jack did for The Godfather. I have no love for Suda51—it's not like his games, post 2005, somehow broke my heart. But they make Killer7 an even greater curiosity. It's like that brilliant first novel from a writer who's not only pregnant with ideas but capable of getting them out in a coherent, intelligent single-shot. I get the sense that whatever Suda had to give, he gave it in Killer7. It's a striking, bold outpouring of consciousness—it's a real rush. But everything afterwards feels either wraparound or like emulation.

His ideas about sex changed, I think. In those latter games, sex is used for slapstick and titillation. You have Gabriel Hotspur in Shadow of the Damned firing a cannon from between his legs and shouting, "Taste my big boner!" Then there's the "gigolo mode" in Killer is Dead, where you ogle women for points, and Juliet in Lollipop Chainsaw, the worst kind of puerile, cheap, gaming wet dream. The representations of sex in Suda51's later games were anything but sophisticated.

In Killer7, though, sex was uneasy, bleak. The aforementioned talking head in the tumble drier, named Susie, relays the story of her first boyfriend, and how he tried to grab her one night. The relationship between patriarch Harman Smith and his assistant, Samantha, has hints of dominant/submissive play. And then there's Curtis Blackburn, the grotesque rapist, murderer, and organ trafficker who dresses his accomplice up like an animé girl and has a fetish for turning people into mannequins. From Susie's tale, to Blackburn's evil, to Harman eye-balling Samantha in her uniform, Killer7 casts a condemning eye at men and male objectification of women.

As I've said, I'm reticent to allocate it a concrete meaning, because what I love about Killer7, especially today, is its raw, sensory power. But it observes an ugliness on the behalf of men's sexual desires. Suda's later games were sex shot from a non-ironic, unquestioningly sexist perspective. Killer7 provided also a sexist view of the world, but contextualized it as gross and unreliable. It's telling that Killer7's story—if you want to reduce the game down to something narrative—is about two male gods, arguing the toss ad infinitum over who's the most powerful. It's a game about men's petulant and destructive desire to take what they like and make themselves heard.

Helped by Masafumi Takada's terrific soundtrack, Killer 7's environments—perhaps the most impressive of any mainstream game of the past decade—evoke queasiness, discomfort, amazement, and comedy. The game seems to have no objective or agenda. Like the characters themselves, who move between places, timelines, identities, and consciousnesses, Killer7 is loose, purposeless, unbound by expectation. Rather than tracking or predicting it, moment to moment, it's a game you stare into.

A trailer for 'Killer7.'

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The white noise on Harman's TV screen. The bizarre dance of a Heaven Smile, the game's cannon fodder. Travis the ghost, hanging from a tree, wearing a tank top that says "GOOD SHAPE." Killer7 is popping with images that aren't just strange, but magnetic, stimulating. It's the closest video games have got to relinquishing what Salvador Dali called "aesthetic concern." It just is. It just overwhelms. It's something that my eyes simply like and crave.

"We're in a tight spot," repeats Iwazaru, the aforementioned gimp from the ceiling. And in 2015, with games being what they are, he couldn't be more right. Pure expression is what we need in the mainstream. Of that, Killer7 remains a powerful example.

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