There is an unwritten rule in the gaming universe – a rule that doesn’t always fly in literature – that you can only comment on a game you’ve played. Furthermore, you can only REALLY comment on it if you’ve finished it. So I did both. Didn’t take long.
A fellow named Danny Ledonne wrote the game using RPG Maker. In a nutshell, it’s a commentary on the Columbine shootings in the form of an old-school RPG of roughly 16-bit Super Nintendo vintage.
You play as Eric and Dylan, starting as they get up on the morning of the shootings, and ending (or so it seems) with their deaths. You go through the school, shooting students via traditional turn-based combat (and in this game it is quite possible to shoot and kill everyone in the school, as I did) before the duo, grown bored with their rampage, blow their brains out in the library.
Careful attention to your surroundings will glean details and occasional flashbacks to their lives before the shootings – a night spent blowing up garbage cans behind the pizzeria they worked at, a failed romance, getting beat up in the locker room, daydreams of living on a Darwinistic island, etc.
After their deaths there is a montage of shocked reaction shots from students and police, as well as a chronological progression of kid-photographs of both shooters.
And then Dylan and Eric (or Vodka and Reb, as they more often call each other) go to hell. Hell is just another game level, of course, populated mostly by monsters from the original Doom, a game they were both overly fond of. Getting through Hell is ironically easier, in terms of game logic, if you killed all the students in the school, as this allows Dylan and Eric to be at a higher level and deal out more damage.
Hell is a little tedious, but eventually, after some strange encounters with famous people (my favorite was Nietzsche, although John Lennon, with his piano set up next to a flaming lake, singing “Imagine,” is a close second) you reach Satan. The Prince of Darkness appears as he does on South Park, and after a brief fight, he commends the pair for kicking some serious ass – at which point, everyone settles in to wait for the end of the world.
My summary may seem a bit flippant, but that’s about the size of things. The game works – and I would recommend it – because it occupies a space that usually isn’t occupied. We don’t think of games as actually containing reality. It’s sort of like when my students see me in the grocery store and realize for the first time that I exist outside of the college. In Reb and Vodka’s world, seen through the lens of a SNES RPG, the students they shot didn’t exist outside of school, either. They were just targets – and targets that fit into neat categories – Church Girl (can pray and heal hitpoints), Janitor, Math Teacher, Jock Type (more hitpoints), Preppy Boy, etc.
As I was grinding my way through Columbine’s halls, I realized that the early part of the game is designed to create the kind of listless boredom that the pair eventually experienced – they started to skip classrooms and let people live, and just shot things randomly and aimlessly. Once you’ve shot up a classroom or two, you’ve done them all, I suppose. And their Hell is the very definition of aimless combat – a maze that leads nowhere, filled with incredibly annoying monsters that spawn again and again.
A knee-jerk response to this game would be, well, they got this reality-defying mindset from playing games. But that would miss the point (and ignore that they themselves denied any such connection).
RPGs like this one have very well-established conventions that everyone simultaniously recognizes and ignores: When you touch someone you either talk or fight them to the death, your characters advance in levels that make them deal more damage and take less with each level, physical injuries are measured quantitatively and can be healed more or less instantly, you are expected to progress through clearly delineated areas in a predetermined pattern (being ‘on rails’), exploring every nook and cranny is rewarding, etc, etc.
Generally when we play an RPG, these conventions are waved aside. But the reality of the Columbine shootings, the sheer evil and horror of them, force attention to these rules, which are dehumanizing and insane if taken at face value.
But no one does take them at face value, of course. Assumption of their inaneness is a given. The vast majority of gamers know life is not a Doom level – these conventions are merely simplifications and abstractions that streamline very complex actions for smoother gameplay. We know when someone is shot in the head that they do not lose 20 hitpoints. Games are not an excuse for Eric and Dylan’s skewed worldview, but rather a useful metaphor that allows us to jump into their heads for awhile.
One thing that kept striking me while playing is that Dylan and Eric, despite being younger, seem much more self-aware than what we’ve learned about Cho. Most of the dialogue in the game is taken verbatim from their writings, recordings, and police reports, and I buy the entire package as a legitimate and thoughtful glimpse into their pseudo-nihilistic mindset at the time of the attacks. Perhaps this ability to reflect comes from having a sounding board in each other, whereas Cho was a loner. The result was the same pointless carnage, of course. But it does convince me that they knew what they were doing was wrong in every possible, concievable sense of the word. Perhaps that makes them all the more evil, and truly worthy of hell, if it exists, despite their lower body count.
I think of SCMRPG, as I stated earlier, as a piece of commentary in the form of a game – much as a political cartoon conceals thought under the artifice of wacky characters. It is not primarily a game. It is not designed for fun. It is designed to make you think, just as most thoughtful essays try to do. As games are not usually designed for commentary, it occupies a new space in the panoply of genres.
I particularly like how it subverts the usual aim of a RPG – instead of providing escapism, it makes virtual escape impossible, as I realized very quickly early on that everything I was doing in the first half was a dramatization of one of the worst school shootings in America. Except, of course, I managed to kill nearly everyone, with the expectation that I was pretty sure it would unlock a new area.