Arthouse Games
Interview: Danny Ledonne
by jcr13Thursday, January 11, 2007 [11:48 am] Danny Ledonne is the 24-year-old creator of the controversial video game Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, which was selected as a Slamdance Finalist in late November and recently reviewed on Arthouse Games. Shortly after I posted my review, I learned that SCMRPG had been pulled from the Slamdance program by festival coordinators. The yanking of SCMRPG turned out to be more controversial, perhaps, than SCMRPG itself, and that story is still unfolding as I type.

SCMRPG was Danny's first video game to see public release, and he primarily works as a filmmaker. His films include an animated Lego adaptation of Ted Kaczynski's short story Ship of Fools (quicktime movie) and a documentary on zoos called Wild Animals, Domesticated Humans (quicktime trailer or DVD). He is currently working on two films: a documentary about blind bird watchers in Texas and a documentary called Columbinegame Dot Com about the controversy surrounding his game.

The following interview was conducted by email on January 7, 2007.

Jason Rohrer: Can you describe the circumstances that lead to the creation of SCMRPG?

Danny Ledonne: I found RPG Maker 2000 and knew that I could finally make a videogame. Within a month or so of testing it out I realized that I could easily spend months working on a game... and at that point asked myself, "if you could make a videogame about anything... what would it be?" Of course, being that I was in a Colorado high school when Columbine happened, it was something that never really went away in my mind and seemed like the perfect subject for a game because it afforded me the opportunity to make a game that was at once serious indictment of the shooting and a metacriticism of the conventions of gaming. Six months of spending an inordinate amount of hours at my computer and the rest is still unfolding as I type.

JR: Where did the initial idea come from?

DL: When I was in high school I felt like the media completely misrepresented the causes of the shooting at Columbine. I felt like all the things I really liked (rock music, videogames) were under attack and there was no one defending them... in fact it seemed like a race to the bottom to condemn Marilyn Manson and Doom as harshly as possible on cable TV.

So my friends and I would always talk about "alternative viewpoints" to the conventional platitudes on the evening news. "Columbine!" the musical. Columbine action figures. And yes, a Columbine video game. I was put on a list of would-be shooters at my school because I would express my dissent in my writing (I referred to the shooting as "the showdown at the Columbine Corral" in my junior year writing assessment---two of the graders were going to fail me but then a third teacher pointed out that they simply didn't understand my satire and the paper was clearly exemplary work... I ended up getting a perfect score).

I suppose if, as a high school student, there was more room for open dialogue about the shooting instead of being marginalized and demonized for expressing a more gray morality about what happened and why, I would've never made the game because I wouldn't have felt so censored to begin with. Keith Olbermann said something like this one night on his show recently and it resonated with me:

"Try to suppress it and you only validate it. Make it illegal and you make it the subject of curiosity. Say it cannot be said and instead it will be screamed."

So I guess I "screamed" seven years later when I released the game over the Net in April of 2005. Complete with an exclamation mark at the end of the title.

JR: For games that aspire to be art, how should we balance "gameplay elements," like interesting mechanics, with non-gameplay content?

DL: I think it's important for people to know that I don't consider SCMRPG to be a "good game" by gaming standards; if I set out to make Quake 4 I clearly failed miserably. I think SCMRPG works most when it confronts the very mechanics of gaming: equipping a Marilyn Manson CD to boost your character's levels, the ridiculous "another victory for the Trenchcoat Mafia" when of course that affiliation was a media fabrication from the outset, and when you battle the big red Satan from South Park.

SCMRPG is exactly the kind of game you can never buy and should never have to pay for. To some people it's complete trash and not worth a minute of their time. For others is a revolution in videogaming. I guess it's a bit of a chimera that way; you take out of SCMRPG whatever you want: trash, treasure, or something in-between.

How anyone else goes about doing this is completely up to them. I don't exactly recommend following in my footsteps because they're not very easy to walk (I get more hate mail in a day than most people get in a lifetime). But at the very least I want people to feel free to make a game about whatever is IMPORTANT TO THEM. Some people send me messages on the SCMRPG forum saying, "you've inspired me to make a game about..." and I think that's awesome; the main reason I made it through high school was because I found outlets like film and theater for my creative tension. Maybe this game has meant the same opportunity for someone else. Who wouldn't want to put Mog the Moogle in their own game, right?

JR: You've described SCMRPG as a piece of concept art, and interesting gameplay was clearly not one of your aims. In my review of your game, I called for games that are both interesting to play and interesting to think about. We can imagine mechanics that resonate, somehow, with the artist's message. Do you think such a game would be possible? What might it be like?

DL: I think games like September 12th and Darfur is Dying are clear examples of mechanics that inform the message of the game. We can keep pushing in this direction. I think, just like not every superhero needs to have incredible powers, not every videogame protagonist needs to be almighty (or in the case of SCMRPG, the "good guy."). I like Ian Bogost's Disaffected in this way; as a kid I wanted to hack a ROM of the original NES Zelda game and retitle it "The Legend of Shopkeeper" in which you basically just sit in a cave selling items to this one hooded elf who comes in from time to time.

I think the sky is the limit. There's no reason videogames need to be imposed by artificial boundaries as dictated by what videogames have traditionally been. I think when people see SCMRPG and say, "we should make a game about 9/11 or the Holocaust" they're missing the point. Videogames CAN be controversial but they can also be completely inventive in a banal way. The real purpose of SCMRPG is to push the limits of what a videogame is supposed to be... and frankly that makes a lot of people feel understandably uncomfortable. Then again, when has a medium ever been about its predecessors?

JR: I noticed that SCMRPG is a free download. Why did you choose not to charge money for your game? Do you plan on releasing the source code to the public?

DL: This was never ever about money... and frankly if I was making money off this game I'd be a much more likely target for lawsuits. The game is completely free, completely open-content. The way I see it, I pulled a whole lot of stuff off the web, synthesized it, and put it back on the web. I view the Internet in a very utopian way. It should be as free as possible because money seems to have a corrosive, corrupting influence on genuine artistic expression.

So use RPG Maker 2000 and hack SCMRPG. Remake it. Here are some ideas I've had:
  • A version where you're a kid trying to escape.
  • A version where you're a cop trying to kill all the kids in trench coats.
  • A version where you're a soccer mom trying to stop your kids from downloading SCMRPG. get the idea.

JR: Some observers peg the peak of video games, as an art form, in the 1980s---during the so-called "Golden Era" of arcade games. Back then, lone creators, or perhaps very small teams, crafted some very novel games (Dona Bailey's Centipede and Toru Iwatani's Pac-Man come to mind). Do you feel that artistically-valuable games can be made by the huge development teams present in the industry today? Do they somehow hold an advantage, perhaps in terms of the sheer volume of high-quality content that they can generate? How can lone creators, such as yourself, compete artistically?

DL: Well I will tell you that over New Years I watched my friend play through the last six hours of Metal Gear Solid 3. There's something almost awe-inspiring about such a level of cinematic hyper-realism in a game. That being said, and being an indie filmmaker myself, I can tell you that my basic philosophy of films applies equally (if not more so) to games.

There is still much potential for "auteur" game developers who, with very limited resources, are able to make leaps and bounds in the industry. Making a game independently means much less compromise. With SCMRPG I would say the compromise was close to zero; I made almost exactly the game I wanted to make.

Industry legend John Carmack put it this way:

In the information age, the barriers just aren't there. The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don't need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. I slept on floors. I waded across rivers.

This is at least as true today is it was when Carmack was developing Doom. While major releases will always be filtered through consoles like the PS3, the Internet has made it possible for anyone to distribute there work---even a guy who knows close to zero about programming like ME. I suppose the case could be made for how this kind of decentralization is a bad thing for the industry but I don't buy it. I think games can be a more personal, intimate medium again. We're seeing more and more games with the budgets of Hollywood blockbusters... but we're also seeing great little punk rock games like McDonald's Video Game that accomplish things no major developer could ever hope to!

JR: Can you give us a one-sentence definition of art? In other words, how do you differentiate works of entertainment from works of art?

DL: Oh geez, dude. I would be able to give you a more confident definition BEFORE my liberal arts education challenged everything I knew! I would say that "entertainment" is a subcategory of art. I'm not an elitist snob; even Jurassic Park or Con Air fulfill the minimum functions of "art." I just think that not all art has to be entertaining---certainly not videogames. Art can make us feel uncomfortable, guilty, sympathetic, or completely depressed. When was the last time a videogame made you feel like crying? Why couldn't it?

So here's your definition: art is any form of expression that can be shared with an audience.

I feel like if I were to be more specific I'd end up leaving out something I really like so I'll stop there.

JR: What electronic game do you consider to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement?

DL: My favorite games as a kid were the Megaman series (maybe being 5'2" gave me a similarly-sized hero). These days I'd say Doom and Final Fantasy VI were about the best games I've played (maybe why they both influenced SCMRPG so heavily). I threw away so much time killing Russians in GoldenEye for the N64, though... hmmm. I still hop into an arcade and play Street Fighter II sometimes... and there's nothing like a lot of pizza and some Smash Bros. Melee.

No one seems to remember a couple other titles that I regard as really special: EVO: Search for Eden and Wonderboy in Monster World were huge favorites for me growing up... and yeah, I guess there was something charmingly different about Harvest Moon... and yeah, I still replay X-Com every year or so. Man. I'm sorry. I should just stop. I really love videogames.

JR: Can you explain why these games rank so high in your mind artistically?

DL: When I think of why a particular video game is important to me, it almost always specifically relates to that time in my life. I suppose one could say the same of a film, a book, or a CD they were really into. For example, Street Fighter II was one of the first games I got insanely good at; I would stand at the arcade and a whole group of guys would lose five dollars in quarters to me. That was it. The kid who got picked last for the kickball team, the kid that everyone made fun of on the playground, the smallest kid in the 4th grade, he was finally really good at something. That was totally validating--and no, playing SFII for hours a day did NOT compel me to throw fireballs at people.

Some people try to paint videogames as huge wastes of time that essentially drain a hapless player of their childhood. I disagree. I have so many positive memories connected to the games I played, the people I played them with, and how many chores I would do at my house to save up for that next game... videogames never judged me and they certainly never stood me up on a Saturday night. Once I realized I could get really good at Sonic or GoldenEye, it became clear to me that I could get really good at anything I put my mind to. That's why my New Year's resolution for 2007 is to develop one new talent. I figure I have another six months before I have to decide what it'll be...


[Submit Comment]
by PatrickThursday, January 11, 2007 [4:04 pm]

Something I just noticed about E.V.O. - it actually had some interesting ideological overtones. The notion of being vs. becoming were well expressed in that game's mechanics and story, where different races would try to become this dominant force, but than the way things are would transcend that situation and kill them. Also, you could evolve into a human using a few specific steps, but doing so actually made you much weaker and the final boss much more difficult.


by Alex JMMonday, January 29, 2007 [5:33 pm]

Similar to above, XCom had themes similar to SCMRPG in a way, the whole "become a monster to destroy a monster" thing we find in lots of film, tv, music, etc. I always enjoyed that in order to defeat the alien menace you had to use *their* technology, *their* tactics, even *their* psionics (and thus even use them!) You became what you hated, a point subtly alluded to in SCMRPG.


by elrosFriday, April 20, 2007 [2:55 pm]

This guy is an idiot


by KennyWednesday, May 30, 2007 [2:27 am]

An question for Danny Ledonne (SCRPG), Ryan Lambourn (Virgina Tech Game) , others like them and their supporters.

Would you make fun of people killed at Columbine, Virginia Tech and other similar places if your family and friends was the one that was killed?


by Some DudeWednesday, June 20, 2007 [10:14 am]

Myself, I'd be pretty angry (from beyond the grave) if somebody shot me at a school and then a bunch of other people took the opportunity to specially refrain from making fun of me. As if I wasn't good enough to deserve everybody's most solumn respect and weeping until a crazy guy saw fit to knight me with his crazy gun. Whoop-de-do, I would think, ghostily. I've got a hundred thousand new friends, all around the world. How nice for a dead person to have all those noble people standing up on his behalf against minor works of art.


by Some DudeWednesday, June 20, 2007 [10:16 am]

Something I, in turn, noticed about E.V.O. (and occasionally spout off about) is that it hides several big chunks of its story in scenes that are completely optional. Some of them lead to alternate endings, so that you have to reload a saved game after experiencing them (a bit lame), but some are just cleverly hidden. Without looking around as you play, you won't quite know all that's happening in your own story. I think this makes it extra significant when you do find out!

Part of the reason why this is possible, of course, is that E.V.O. is a solid game without the story--it uses RPG-style experience points, but keeps your level-gaining interesting by marrying the experience system with a Metroid-style upgrade system for your avatar. What an excellent use of metaphor!

TANGENT TIME--here are two other awesome games that you (Arthouse Games guy) should review, or at least play: Seiklus, and Immortal Defense.


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