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I finally got around to playing SCMRPG! this week, after reading a couple very good articles on it (Dugan, Gillen).

The strongest thing about this game is that Ledonne (SCMRPG’s creator) is trying to say so many things that the game inspires so much debate and critique. It fails to really deliver any of its messages because they’re all muddled together, and I disagree with a number of them, but this is infinitely preferable to a game that says nothing. 

I also disagree with what Ledonne said about it being either ahead of its time or that there would be no time for a game like this. It’s time is now. And we, as game developers, do owe it – not because it shows people that games can explore deeper meanings. The game’s topic is simply too divisive and off-putting for most people to play it for themselves (myself included, for a while). But it has introduced the meme of games as being capable or serious artistic statement to mainstream media and society at large (to some extent). So it is an early step in a long process many of us are working towards. But on to the criticism!

So there are basically three things I want to talk about, and I’ll just cover the first one for now:

  • Choice in SCMRPG – looking at what the game says about why Klebold and Harris did what they did.
  • SCMRPG as documentary.
  • SCMRPG as satire.

The way the game explores the motives and personalities of the killers is easily the strongest theme in the game, but this is confused by some flaws in the storytelling and internal contradictions.  

Throughout the first half of the game, first as you fulfill the tasks necessary to begin your rampage and then as you make your way through the school, there are flashbacks that try to capture scenes from Klebold & Harris’ childhoods. They show how alienating the environment they lived in was – getting beaten up by jocks, getting rejected by girls, being social outcasts – and how it affected them.

Meanwhile you can pick up items like a Marilyn Manson CD or a copy of Doom, and equip them (they give you small bonuses in combat later on), or Luvox, the antidepressant Harris was taking. The two boys, in dialogue, also describe their motivations some what – the emptiness of the people around them, how they’ve been treated. All to 8 bit styled midi Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein, etc.

Once you get to the school and plant the bombs that boys did (which fail to go off as in real life), your free to roam the school shooting characters like Jock Boy, Nerdy Girl, Church Girl, or Preppy Boy. If you try and leave, Klebold just tells you to not “puss out” on him.

So you’re basically left to wander the school with no direction. You have to kill the students in the library to advance the game (when the boys kill themselves and the second half of the game begins), but without feedback of how to progress your only choice is to continue shooting. You’re free to roam the school – the lack of direction with the singular affordance of combat is used to good effect to force the player to recreate & reflect on the events of that day.

The mechanics of combat are mostly made to be as uninteresting as possible; you overpower everyone. Which leaves you to think about the real-world events as you monotonously manipulate menus. The elements of parody distract from your ability to connect to your victims as real people – the poking fun of rpg game mechanics, the cute pixelated characters, the audio, etc. 

The cutesy characters do at least make you wonder if this is truly what Klebold and Harris truly thought of these people, that they were caricatures on top of stereotypes. What did Obviously Gay Boy or Black Boy ever do to them? Or did they see them as real people and just not care? When you come across the storytelling moments, the flashbacks and conversations are thought provoking and balance out the grisly scene with more contemplation. But those moments are very poorly paced, so any supposition on the author’s part of such thoughts come across weakly.

I was perhaps at an additional disadvantage than some players, in that I had consciously decided from thestart that I was going to finish the game. The characters became one step even further removed from their real world counterparts;they were just in my way of beating the game. Your only ability to stop the killings is complete inaction, or to stop playing.

Once you progress through the library, the boys kill themselves. A poignant interlude of grainy pictures from the scene is followed by the horrible second half of the game. You wander through hell fighting enemies from Doom, and the point is even further confused. Most of the elements here are concerned with parodying violent games (since most of the denizens of hell are existing video game characters). Then toss in some completely worthless philosophical comments from Nietzsche (Ledonne seems to draw more philosophical inspiration from from the Architect in The Matrix: Reloaded than Nietzsche – seeing how many times you can repeat the phrase “god is dead” is not deep), and it’s a total mess.

At the end, though, as you look with Satan down (up?) upon the townsfolk as they go on and on about the causes of the events – music, games, media in general – one thought stood out. You realize none of those things made me shoot those kids. It was my choice, and that was only the only thing that played any part.

Was it a choice? Ledonne seems to be saying they didn’t really have one, as he doesn’t give you any choice. The boys are a product of their alienating environment and all the shitty things that happened to them. And this was the inevitable result.

By saying they were a product of their environment, he contradicts the notion that music and games weren’t to blame, as a whole. Not that Doom gave them the idea to go on their shooting spree, but did any of the media in their lives show them any other way of dealing with the alienation they went through? Like many other people before me, I wondered what could have been done differently to prevent it. What if they played a game that showed them healthy ways of dealing with those feelings, and how to connect with other people? (Other people who aren’t going to go fuck up an entire school anyway.) So Ledonne seems to fall into the same trap the townsfolk do, assigning disproportionate responsibility to external causes.  

And it is a trap. You start wondering about those external causes and then you wonder which causes could have been different. You ignore choice they had, and the choices we have. Every day when we go to school, work, etc. we make choices in how we deal with others. To me the most positive reflection that game gave me was just to point how important all those little social interactions can be. Whether its a hello, or a conversation in the hall, those little moments of connection stitch together to form our day, our week, our month, our lives. I’m not sure just how much being without them would cause a person to do such things, but it is still not a fate I would wish upon anyone.

3 Responses to Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Part 1

  • Patrick says:

    I had an e-mail exchange with someone who though “leaders” in the industry should be actively dismissing the game as a detriment, rather than a catalyst, to the medium’s progress, so I’m glad to see you making a thorough critique of the game. Costikyan, Bogost, Gillen and myself have done so, but we’re a maverick CEO, academic, journo and indie designer respectively, so having an EA employee give the game the same treatment is a great benchmark, in my opinion. I suspect there are a number of game developers who would take your opinion, as a leader in the conventional industry, with more weight.

    I think your criticisms are fair, and your core point is actually what I was trying to explore in my article, though like the game itself, it may have gotten a bit muddled. Ledonne admits he’s a very amatuerish game developer, and is indeed a filmmaker by trade. However whats most exciting, to me, about the game is how it implies that this subject could be explored much better than the game itself does. Four months before I discovered the game I applied for an MTV grant to do a game called Pack Appeal exploring school violence in the motif of Beowulf. I may get a chance to make the game once my track record is more leveraged, but I suspect it’d be in part due to the Columbine RPG’s influence.

  • borut says:

    Thanks – although I am just an EA employee of 3 months. :)

    I am a bit surprised that someone (in the industry?) would hold that attitude, that we should actively dismiss it. Most developers I know just aren’t very aware of it beyond it’s name & the Slamdance thing, haven’t played it, that kind of thing. But if a game can’t possibly deal with a topic like this, then what’s the point, right?

    And while he does say he’s an “amatuer” game developer, it’s still quite an accomplishment – plenty of “professional” developers wouldn’t necessarily be able to make something like SCMRPG. Or, even more the case, they wouldn’t want to make anything that wasn’t purely “fun”.