Why Is Super Columbine Massacre Controversial?
Super Columbine Massacre is controversial for one reason only: Because our culture continues to assume that games are "mere entertainment," that a game based on so horrific an event must ipso facto be in bad taste. Games are fun, Columbine was a tragedy and never the twain shall meet; a game on Columbine must by nature trivialize or cynically exploit the event. Q.E.D.
Yet we do not make the same assumption about any other medium: a documentary on the Columbine massacre, or a novel, or a New Yorker essay would, a priori, be treated with respect, at least until the viewer or reader had experienced it, after which a judgment might be made as to its merits. And if the work proved insightful, somber,and respectful of its material, the world would consider it unexceptional.
I will suggest, therefore, that no one is entitled to criticize this game until they have played it--and am morally certain that those who do have not. Because those who do will find it insightful, somber, and respectful of its material.
Within the industry, Super Columbine Massacre has come in for a share of criticism as well--primarily because our industry is sensitive (and with good reason) to criticism that it is too reliant on violence and shock value for its success. The instinctive reaction of anyone within the industry when hearing about this game for the first time is inevitably "Oh god, we don't need this." But what we don't need is games even more tasteless than, say Postal; we don't need more ammunition for the know-nothings who attack games already.
What we do need is games that challenge the stereotype of games as mindless, violent thumb-candy for boys--and games that show the potential of our medium to enlighten, to illuminate, to teach, and to move. What we need is games that approach the status of art.
Like Super Columbine Massacre.
Nuts and Bolts
Super Columbine Massacre is built using RPG Maker (as was Aveyond). Color is 8-bit, and the screen is built using 16 pixel by 16 pixel tiles. Movement is in the four cardinal directions, using the arrow keys; all actions are accomplished by facing an item onscreen and pressing SPACE or ENTER. ESC brings up a menu that allows saves (in limited places), access to inventory, or quitting. Inventory can include a wide variety of weapons, as well as other items, some of which you need to give to other characters to trigger in-game actions. The whole looks like a mid-80s PC RPG, or an RPG for a NES.
Combat is Final Fantasy-esque, in that combat transitions to a separate screen and is character-skill rather than player-skill based. (Yes, Harris and Klebold 'level up' as they kill people.) It's turn-based, although most opponents pose little threat to the protagonists (a jock may get in a hit or two), at least until the Hell levels.
Cut scenes are created in-engine, although real-world images and occasional sound-clips are used at times. The game is highly linear, and completing it pretty much requires replicating the actions of the real mass-murderers. Dialog is primarily drawn from the words of Harris and Klebold themselves, and in dialog panels, they are represented by somewhat pixelated images of themselves.
Player skill is important during gameplay mainly for purposes of avoiding NPCs (particularly during the early bomb-planting sequence, but later on for purposes of avoiding combat, particularly in Hell, less because it is dangerous than because it becomes tedious and repetitive over time--a common characteristic of Final Fantasy-esque games). There is some degree of puzzle solving, but it is fairly minor; as with most such games players need to grab every loose item they can, but at least there isn't too high a degree of "hunt the pixel."
A typical gamer will find about five hours of play, though it can be completed in roughly an hour (a video of a complete run-through here).
Enough of that.
Perhaps the riskiest artistic decision in Super Columbine Massacre is in casting the player as the murderers themselves--risky because we expect to identify with game protagonists, take pleasure in their actions, and share in their triumph. The emotion most games strive to evoke is 'fiero,' the joy of triumph over adversity--inappropriate, in the context of a story where there ought to be no joy, there is tragedy rather than triumph, and where there is scant adversity: unarmed children pose little challenge to the heavily-armed PCs. In another designers' hands, this choice would have been crippling.
But the insight Super Columbine Massacre provides about its subject matter derives precisely from the fact that the player is forced to take the roles of the pepetrators. The player is exposed to their world: the music, the games, the heedless cruelty of high school life, the thoughts and words of Harris and Klebold themselves. Few people of intelligence and sensitivity emerge unscarred from the relentless anti-intellectualism and the cruel cliques of the American high school, and while most of us are not driven to murder (rather more to suicide), this game does a good job of evoking the thoughts and emotions of Harris and Klebold--without glamorizing or exculpating them.
Once the massacre begins, the game becomes, for an experienced player, almost routine; encounter opponent, enter combat, select weapon, collect experience and items. Yet rather than being a trivialization of the event, this in itself is a critique of the conventions of the game qua game--the way in which slaughter becomes an end in itself and a means to advancement. No Conan, nor yet any real-world adventurer (save perhaps Tamburlane) ever personally slaughtered so many foes as a typical RPG requires, and yet we do so without thinking. In Super Columbine Massacre, you can't do so without thinking, precisely because of its connection to a real-world event. Though these are still pixels you are killing, you know they are stand-ins for the real-world victims--and it's hard to avoid a feeling of nausea after a time. Indeed, it is only the low-res, retro nature of the graphics that make it possible to continue playing: the game-ness of it helps to cloak the horror.
It's an interesting tension, in fact--between evocation of the brutality of the event, and enough distance to continue playing, between the banality of the conventions of the RPG and the anything but banal nature of the material under study.
Nor will the designer let you escape into the banality of gameplay; once the massacre is complete, he exposes you to a series of images, real world photographs of the corpses of the boys--and of the grief of the survivors and their families. The sharp-edged nature of these, in stark contrast to the pixelated images of the game itself, remind the player that this is more than "just a game"; it is a harrowing replication of a modern horror.
Perhaps this is where the game should end, but in fact there is a sort of giant easter egg to follow: the Hell levels. Hell is surely where Harris and Klebold should be, but in perhaps another risky choice on the designer's part, they seem to like it there, as it's a lot like Doom. Indeed, the monsters they encounter and fight are drawn directly from that title. In the course of their journey through hell, they encounter the outer circle (per Dante, the place where those damned but not evil, such as pagans who never received the word of God, spend eternity), where people including Jon Benet and Confucius are encountered--along with John Lennon (damned for being an atheist, presumably), who sings "Imagine" to Harris. This elicits the response "If you weren't already dead, I'd have to kill you," which does sound in character. They also encounter Nietzsche, who proves to be a Nine Inch Nails fan, which also sounds in character.
There's an element of humor here, in other words--and indeed, if an accusation of tastelessness has any merit, here, and not in the massacre sequence, is where it lies.
After solving puzzles and encountering Satan comes the final cut-scene of the game: a ceremony outside the high-school, with the game putting in the mouths of the speakers a variety of the conventional sentiments the tragedy evoked. One speaker demands gun control, another a ban on violent media, a third the need to re-Christianize society. The sentiments are enough almost to make you wish you could take Harris and Klebold back to the school, at least in their game-character guise, and murder these idiots...
...because Super Columbine Massacre does a far better job of getting inside, and trying to understand, the events of that terrible day than these speakers do.
A Work of Art?
Those who deny that games can be art generally argue that games are mere entertainment, and therefore cannot aspire to that status. This is a form of category confusion; Harlan Ellison, for example, argues that being entertaining is the mininum criterion for a story, that any good story must entertain--but if it does no more, it is not much of a story. Naked Lunch, Burrough's novel of social pathology, is entertaining in its fashion--but it's also a brutal and harrowing emotional experience.
Others claim that games are not (yet) art, because of the limited palette of emotions they can evoke: tactile pleasure, fiero, and frustration, certainly, but not (or rarely) tears or nostalgia or righteous anger, the vast panoply of emotions that film and fiction evoke. To my mind, this is category confusion again; architecture also has a limited emotional palette, but we consider it art. By this standard, however, one can certainly posit Super Columbine Massacre as a work of art: it evokes emotions rare in games--pity, horror, and repulsion.
The great strength of games as a medium, the one thing games are able to do that other media cannot, is to illuminate their subject by engaging the player directly in the action. Other media can depict, but they can't bring you inside. Reading a novel or watching a film, you may identify in some sense with the characters, but you are never unconscious that you are outside, watching; in a game, by nature, you are inside, doing. Thus a game such as Zucker's Napoleon's Last Battles can help you gain better insight into the nature of Napoleonic warfare than reading Clausewitz; a game such as Sim City can lend insight into the nature of cities that's hard to obtain in any other fashion.
And a game such as Super Columbine Massacre can lend insight into the events of that terrible day that newspaper reports, or somber and thouthful essays, cannot. Not necessarily better insights--but different ones--precisely because it makes you complicit in recreating the events.
As gamers, and those who love games, our reponse to this game, and to the criticism of it, should not be to hide, or run away, or hope that it goes away. Instead it should be to say: You do not understand, nor are you attempting to understand. This is not a glamorization of the murderers, nor yet a trivialization of the tragedy; it is a work of serious artistic intent and accomplishment, based on considerable research, that in fact illuminates and reflects the horror of that day. Just as there are novels of the Holocaust, there can be a game of Columbine, and neither need trivialize a tragedy.
- Designer's Statement
- Ian Bogost's Analysis
- Patrick Dugan on the Game
- Super Columbine Massacre: Better Than You'd Think (via Kotaku)
- Retro Super Columbine Massacre RPG a Mostly Thoughtful Take on the Tragedy (via Gameology)
- Rampant Coyote has a very different view of the game
Or you could play it.