When it was released without fanfare in 2005, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was met with near-universal shock, horror, disbelief. News of the patchwork game spread slowly at first, and then like wildfire, fueling anti-video game crusades near and wide. CNN said the game was part of a subculture that worshiped terrorists; PC World labeled it one of the ten worst games of all time. “My god!” cried parents, journalists, and senators, “Jack Thompson was right all along: video games come from the devil direct!” How else can you explain such glorification of violence? Such worship of bad guys?
What nobody bothered to do was play the game.
I won’t lie: SCMRPG is a difficult game to play, for multiple reasons; for some—like the parents of the deceased—I suspect it would be impossible to play. The game puts you in the shoes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on April 20, 1999, the day they shot and killed twelve high school students, one teacher, and themselves. It is an RPG in old-school style, featuring homemade sound and graphics, and real pictures of the boys, their schoolmates, and the event. What makes this work very differently from a biography, or a film—even ones written from the perspective of the killers—is that in SCMRPG you are the killers: you must go to the school, you must load the weapons, you must shoot. This, I think, is one of the reasons that this game met with far more resistance than a book or film from the perspective of the shooters ever would have done. The other reason is that as a culture we despise computer games, and never consider that one might exist to make a point, to be thoughtful, to breed discussion, introspection, reform.
The Purpose of SCMRPG
To understand SCMRPG we must back up from it, and from Columbine. We must consider the complexity of human beings, of our society, of the interactions we have with others. We must examine ourselves and look where we do not want to look: in the darkest corners, at our darkest thoughts, our darkest moments, and our darkest dreams. If you believe that the entire world is black and white, that people are either good or bad—that you’re of the first type, and Harris and Klebold were of the second—then you will never understand the existence of this game, or of any work of art. We create art to express, to communicate, to help us understand the other, and ultimately, to help us understand ourselves; not as black and white cartoons, but as human beings full of shades of gray. All alike, and all different.
Understanding the other—and in that process gaining a better understanding of ourselves—is fundamentally what SCMRPG is about. Whether it glorifies Harris and Klebold is a question for discussion, but that is not the game’s purpose or intent; rather, it is an attempt at self-examination in light of a terrible, heartbreaking, and confounding incident. Danny Ledonne was willing to look in the mirror. By that I mean that he was willing to look Columbine straight in the face and ask “what does this tell me about myself?” The rest of us were not—neither as individuals, nor collectively as a society. We were content to cry, to condemn, to blame video games, and to walk away—but not to ask the hard questions. And then, staying wonderfully true to ourselves, we did the whole thing over again with SCMRPG: cry, condemn, blame video games, walk away… don’t look in the mirror, don’t play the game.
If we want to try and understand ourselves, understand Harris and Klebold and what they did, then we must play Columbine, regardless of how hard it might be. Not because it will give us all the answers, but because it might help us ask some of the right questions; not because it is good, but because it is an attempt to be honest. SCMRPG asks us to turn on our computers, strip off our own skin, and pick up the gun.
The game begins with a quote from Andre Breton: “The purest surrealist act would be to go into a crowd and fire at random.” From there you are dropped directly into Eric Harris’ shoes the morning of the day of the massacre. The game’s aesthetic is retro looking, which is critically important: the large pixels and scrolling text remind you in Brechtian style that you are playing a computer game. 3D, photorealistic graphics would attempt to draw you into the game completely, and potentially allow for the glorification of the action, and the killing; SCMRPG pushes you back with its appearance to remind you that you are viewing something constructed, something that was made for a purpose besides escapism. You could argue that the developer didn’t have the means to create any other kind of aesthetic, but that does not negate the fact that the aesthetic that he was able to create is the one best-suited for his purpose.
The early stages of the game give you some interesting insight into Harris and Klebold. Ledonne spent months researching the Columbine shooting and the killers, so the picture he paints of them is both convincing and thought-provoking. At a number of points Ledonne uses flashbacks to help explain the boys’ motives and emotions. This kind of detail belies critics who paint the game as being purely sadistic, and points clearly to Ledonne’s intention with the work, which he has since made manifest.
Soon the game progresses to the point where you must actually start killing. Reviewers have objected to the game’s cartoonish depiction of the people that you kill, and the way the entire experience of killing is caricatured, as if the people weren’t real people, and killing weren’t real killing; but they are going the wrong way on the wrong track. The way the killing is depicted serves two purposes: first, because it is done in classic RPG battle style, it once again strongly reminds the player that they are playing a computer game, rather than reading a book, or watching a movie, or doing something in real life. Secondly, it insures that the killings are not glorified in the way people are so worried that they will be.
We need to make something clear here: Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is not a fun game to play. Not even if you strip the game of any connection to Columbine to make yourself more comfortable, not even if you’re a sadist. Think about it: if you really like the idea of inflicting pain on others, or killing people, which game are you going to play? A) One with primeval graphics and terrible resolution, where slow-moving flashbacks take up a lot of your time, where you have to solve various puzzles to get to the killing, where the killing itself involves pushing a button, waiting, pushing a button again, waiting, and slowly watching pixelated people fade away, or B) One that puts a blazing gun in your hand, fills the screen with picture-perfect images, and lets you blaze away to your own soundtrack, spewing realistic blood and gore from here to kingdom come? Because there are plenty of options “B” out there.
The problem with SCMRPG is not that it lets you have too much fun reenacting a terrible tragedy. The problem, if anything, is that the gameplay is at times bad enough that it alienates you, pushes you too far away from what you are doing. There were times in the game where I caught myself getting bored, and not knowing what the game’s designer wanted me to do. It’s shocking and disconcerting to find yourself yawning while pushing a kill button over and over, but this kind of shock, I think, is not the game’s intention, and rather a product of poor design.
In general there is not a lot of direction in the game, which can lead to your wandering around for long periods of time, wondering exactly what you’re supposed to do next. Sometimes you need to kill a group of people to trigger the story to move forward, but there are a lot of people in the school, so you really need some sort of indication of who you don’t need to kill. Ledonne should have provided some kind of pointer system like in many action games, or else made the game less dependent on specific triggers. I used a walkthrough in a couple of spots and the game took me a little under an hour to play through. At least, that’s what I thought, until I realized that there was a second part—in hell.
The Second Half
The hell sequence is about as long as the first half of the game, and serves as a sort of parody-commentary. Here you play Klebold, and must fight a variety of monster from the Doom computer game. At this point I had really had enough of the fighting system, and just wanted Ledonne to get on with whatever he was doing. Eventually you make it into the inner circles of hell and find a number of fictional and real personalities, including Pikachu, Bart Simpson, Mega Man, Mario, Malcolm X, Ronald Reagan, John Lennon, and of course Nietzsche. Later you meet Satan himself.
This hell sequence serves a couple of purposes: by recreating a doom-like scenario early on it suggests that the frequently cited connection between Doom and the boys’ killings is laughable; while it obviously doesn’t recreate Doom’s gameplay exactly, one comes away with the idea that killing these monsters is not particularly thrilling, nor in any way similar to killing real people in real life. The sequence also serves the purpose of casting Harris and Klebold in a wider historical perspective, and allows Ledonne to pose a number of questions to the player, like whether the Columbine incident was an inevitable occurrence given the social climate of America’s public high schools.
Overall, one wonders if this second half of SCMRPG is necessary, or enhancing. The first half of the game strikes me as Ledonne looking at Columbine, looking in the mirror—something we all need to do—while the second half is more like an impressionistic picture of what Ledonne saw there—not bad to talk about, but given such a large place in the game it may hinder the player’s ability to see in the mirror for him or herself. The hell sequence makes it especially clear that SCMRPG is a very personal and autobiographical work, as anyone who’s read Ledonne’s artist’s statement would know, but it might just confuse the people who need to play his game most.
And here we have the tragedy of all good art: the people who need to interact with it the most are the people who, most likely, will never interact with it. But all is not lost: there are plenty of people who will stumble upon this game, who may not need it most, but who will nonetheless come away from it changed, and thinking. I thought I knew what I thought about Columbine, but this game made me think again. It is a disturbing, unenjoyable, and very imperfect experience, but it is thought-provoking and timely.
What makes this game absolutely necessary though is not its depth or insight, but the fact that we need a game about Columbine. We need a game about Columbine because computer games have a unique connection to the incident that books and film—and even music—will never have. We need a game about Columbine because so many people think that the medium is incapable of addressing issues such as this. We need a game about Columbine because only in an interactive art piece are we truly forced into the shoes of the people we most hate and fear. We need a game about Columbine because we need to move past crying and blaming and walking away; we need to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask, “What does Columbine tell us about ourselves?”
- First and foremost you should read the artist’s statement.
- Check out Wikipedia for an overview of the controversy this game has created.
- Mull through the large collection of press clippings and reviews of the game.
- Join the forum discussion of the game.
- You could also check out the documentary that Ledonne made about the game and its aftermath.
- Kotako interview with Danny Ledonne following the Dawson College shooting (thanks Sean, for the link).