Arthouse Games
Review: Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
by jcr13Monday, January 1, 2007 [7:10 pm] This is the sixth in a series of Slamdance Finalist reviews.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (SCMRPG) is Danny Ledonne's attempt to explore the 1999 Columbine High School massacre with a video game. In his artist's statement, Ledonne writes that he "wanted to make something that mattered" and that he "wasn’t willing to put months of [his] scant free time into an easily forgotten adventure set in a mythical realm of dragons or spaceships." You can read his statement in full if you wish (and I would recommend that you do), but I'll distill one point from it for the purpose of this review: he was apparently aiming high with SCMRPG.

What Ledonne has given us is a full walk through the morning of the shooting, but one in which we are doing the walking as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. You start out in Harris' bedroom with a wake-up-call from Harris' mother. Then you head to the basement to gather your gear (picking up duffle bags and propane bombs). At that point, Klebold joins you in the basement, and you move through most of the game controlling both boys as a team.

I see the game as being comprised of three distinct "acts." During the first act, the goal is to gather the gear, drive to school, and plant bombs in the cafeteria without getting caught. This act plays much like an adventure game---you pick up necessary items, bring them to prescribed locations, and avoid run-ins with hall monitors and security cameras. None of the standard role-playing game (RPG) elements, such as experience points, are prominent during the first act.

This first part of the game is the most successful in terms of emotional power. There's something quite disturbing and moving about carrying out these preparatory actions yourself. I've watched a movie that explores Columbine (Elephant, 2003, d. Gus Van Sant), but it didn't snag me in the same way. Just hitting the spacebar to pick up those duffle bags in Harris' basement---there was an inescapable feeling that I was doing it. The sadness, loneliness, despair, and fatalism of those preparatory activities could not be ignored. Perhaps nothing could really put us inside Harris' head on his final morning, but SCMRPG sure comes close.

The first act, like the rest of the game, mixes in some nice scripted dialog between Harris and Klebold (mostly compiled, it seems, from their writings and home movies) along with flashbacks to events that occurred before that final morning. Ledonne states that he tried to stay as close to the true events as possible. Several times, while playing through SCMRPG, I encountered some event or detail that made me think, "Wait a minute... did that really happen?" My skepticism sent me scurrying off to Google, and my doubts were always quelled. Ledonne clearly did an impressive amount of research when crafting this game.

At the end of the first act, Harris and Klebold realize that the various bombs they have planted are not exploding as planned. They decide to start shooting anyway, and that leads us into what I am calling the second act. At this point, the game turns into a stock-standard RPG (albeit with a non-standard theme). You wander the parking lot or school halls amidst scurrying students and teachers. When your character runs into one of them, the screen changes into a turn-based battle mode that shows your stats and lets you select your attack. You attack, then the cornered victim attacks back, then you attack again, and so on, until the victim collapses.

With each "victory," Harris and Klebold gain experience points and may also pick up items. As experience points accumulate, Harris and Klebold advance to higher combat levels, which make their attacks more powerful and their defenses stronger. This is standard RPG fare, with all the tedious and repetitive gameplay that the genre generally entails. A jock-type crosses your path. Eric fires off a shotgun blast. Jock type dodges Matrix-style. Dylan sprays TEC-9 bullets around. Jock type gets hit for 82 damage. Jock type attacks. Eric gets hit for 1 damage. Eric fires off a shotgun blast. Jock type gets hit for 82 damage. Jock type collapses. Another victory for the Trenchcoat Mafia. You gain 25 experience points. Eric attains combat level 14. Dylan attains combat level 14. Repeat.

The only connections to Columbine in the second act are found in the way that the standard RPG elements are colored. The enemies you encounter bear stereotype names like "jock type," "church girl," "preppy boy," "black kid," and "popular girl," which apparently peppered the boys' writings and recordings. The weapons available to the boys when attacking also jibe with the facts of the shooting (TEC-9, sawed-off shotgun, etc.).

Otherwise, as I played through this part of the game, I found that the RPG model simply did not fit. Why are the victims attacking back? Of course, they do very little damage when they land a hit, but they're still swinging. My understanding is that most of the victims (even the "jock types") were cowering in fear when they were staring, unarmed, into the smoking barrels of Harris and Klebold's weapons. Why do Harris and Klebold's "combat levels" improve as they progress? From accounts of the actual shooting, it sounds like they made pretty poor fighters (armed to the teeth, with the goal of killing everyone, and only killing twelve?), and that they may have even gotten more sloppy as the shooting progressed (perhaps as their anxiety levels increased---but who knows?). Instead, in SCMRPG we see Harris and Klebold ascending toward the status of combat gods.

The second act continues as long as you want it to. You can kill as many or as few people as you want. This is also inconsistent with events from the actual shooting. Of course, this is a game, not a movie, and Ledonne had to give us some freedom as players. Eventually, if you make your way into the library of the school, you are given a choice: commit suicide or continue killing? When you finally decide to end it all, you are treated to a long photo montage (which includes two photos of Harris and Klebold as they were found, dead, in the library).

After that, you move on to what I am calling the third act. This is the most surprising part of the game, so spoiler-haters should bail out here.

Klebold finds himself in Hell, and Harris is nowhere in sight. Hell is populated with an assortment of demons, all of which are taken directly out of the game Doom (which the boys were apparently quite fond of). Compared to the student and teacher foes from act two, the demons are incredibly tough. What's more, they actively pursue your character (the school enemies fled from your character), so combat cannot be avoided. Initially, I found myself dying repeatedly---making progress in Hell was impossible. To stand a chance, you must attain a very high combat level before entering Hell. How can you do this? By killing as many students and teachers as possible in act two before committing suicide. In my case, even after killing every single person in the school, I found Hell to be a challenge.

This is where the game mechanics seem to be at odds with any kind of reasonable message, and therefore where SCMRPG seems fails as a work of art. To progress in the game, the mechanics implicitly force you to kill everyone in the school (many, many more people than the twelve that were killed in reality). If you don't kill everyone, or at least a very large number of people, you will find yourself stuck at the beginning of act three, unable to progress.

The heart of a game, what makes it a game, is its interactive mechanics. Thus, an art game must have mechanics that reinforce the ideas that the artist is trying to explore. Of course, I'm assuming that Ledonne was trying to explore the events of the actual shooting. If that was the case, then Ledonne has failed, because the game mechanics do not lead you toward killing twelve people before giving up and taking your own life (and we can imagine various mechanics that could lead you toward the realistic ending---maybe anxiety factors of some kind).

However, the inclusion of Hell in act three leads me to believe that Ledonne's aims were somewhat different. If we consider all three acts, SCMRPG is a game that is ripe for a variety of interpretations. The mechanical "flaw" that I mentioned before may in fact feed into a different take-home message. What if SCMRPG is supposed to be a fantasy rendition of the shooting, as imagined by Harris and Klebold? After all, their goal was to kill as many people as possible, so shouldn't the mechanics reinforce this? If the boys envisioned the shooting as a kind of video game, then perhaps they imagined themselves "leveling up" with combat skills as they went along. Thus, maybe even the RPG model is appropriate.

What if the game is supposed to sketch the shooting as it is imagined by the media and the general American populace (or at least a stereotype of that populace)? Obviously, Harris and Klebold would go straight to Hell, where they would join a variety of other misfits (like John Lennon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Socrates, who populate islands in the corners of the game's Hell).

If you make progress in Hell, Klebold will eventually reunite with Harris. You will battle past an assortment of demons and have some interesting conversation with Hell's residents (including a nicely-written exchange with Nietzsche---what would that fellow think of the Columbine massacre?). Eventually, you will do battle with Satan himself. The game ends with one final glimpse of the world Klebold and Harris left behind---a press conference where various figures try to explain the Columbine violence from their own perspectives. There is a lot to contemplate here, for sure.

Thus, I would say that SCMRPG succeeds as a work of art after all, since it bucks our initial expectations and makes us think. It demands to be dissected, discussed, and compared to the actual shooting.

But what about the name? What about the inclusion of an exclamation point in the name? Is Ledonne simply exploiting a notorious cultural event to catapult himself into the lime light? Is SCMRPG an exploitation game? Even if it is, we should welcome it with open arms. If I had to chose between exploitation games and Madden NFL Two-Thousand-and-Whatever, I'd take the exploitation games any day. At least they give us something to talk and think about, and SCMRPG brings a lot more to the table than just its possibly-exploitative nature.

It succeeds as a work of art, but does it succeed as a game? I would say not, because the well-worn RPG elements are as tedious as ever. Each battle, with students, teachers, and finally demons, is mindless and repetitive. With SCMRPG, we have a relatively uninteresting game model (the RPG) being used as the foundation for art. The art here is not in the game design, but in what Ledonne uses the game to do. An RPG is simply his medium---the base of his expression. We could say that the game serves only as a skeleton for the content (i.e., that the art is in the cut scenes), but SCMRPG is more complex than that. The way that Ledonne uses the game medium is an important part of his expression, perhaps more important to his artistic achievement than the cut-scene content.

But wouldn't it be great if we could have a game that is both interesting to play and interesting to think about? We can compare SCMRPG to Elephant, which is a film about Columbine that is boring to watch but interesting to think about. As Elephant fails as a film but arguably succeeds as a work of art, so does SCMRPG fail as a game but succeed as art. Both works are only half as good as they could be.

Still, the bottom line for SCMRPG is that it saddens us, disturbs us, puzzles us, and makes us think. It's a nice example of an art game and a perfect example of why we need independent games (because no publisher would ever fund something like this). We need more games like it.


[Submit Comment]
by Capt_PocoTuesday, June 12, 2007 [8:03 pm]

1) "I can't believe I just killed a Church Girl. And I got a level for that... lucky me."

2) "This game is just like my collection of traditional Japanese RPGs. Except here I'm killing people instead of Charmelions and Heartless. And that makes all the difference, right?"

3) "Why do I feel bad about killing Church Girls but not about killing Rabites, which are arguably even cuter?"

4) "Candy-colored interfaces really lessen the emotional impact of playing a psychopathic killer."

5) "This was so much more memorable than those goddamn movies, newsreports and magazine articles that tried to make a buck from this thing"


by Some DudeTuesday, June 19, 2007 [4:39 pm]

You keep saying "fair" when I think you mean "fare".

One small discrepancy between your play-through and mine: I didn't bother killing very many people in the school (because, as you say, it was tedious), and I did okay in Hell anyway. I don't think I died once. It was kind of fun to try to survive, in fact--though this game feels severely unpolished next to, say, a Square-Enix game, its low-level design is nonetheless unusual amongst those of other console-style RPG's in that it provides enough difficulty (and begins doing so abruptly, at that) to force a skilled player who wishes to finish it into actually trying. This feature has nothing to do with the Columbine story, but I liked it anyway.


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