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Sunday, January 07, 2007
On the heels of my in-depth review of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! comes some disturbing news: the game has been pulled from the Slamdance game festival due to pressure from sponsors. You can read the original story at Kotaku.

Update 1: The game Braid withdraws from Slamdance in protest as the story continues to unfold. There are lots of posts coming online with opinions and analysis---I'm tracking a list of them here.

Update 2: Now a total of six finalists have withdrawn in protest. I just posted an interview with Danny Ledonne, the creator of SCMRPG.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/05/2007 03:55:00 PM:  
"Unfortunately, the indie game festival scene is not as experimental and daring as the indie film scene, and there probably was never a lot of empathy for SCMRPG" - Quote from Kotaku

I may sound a little extreme here, but I think something like this is utterly unforgivable. From what I understand of the indie game scene there's almost no limit to how far some developers will push the boundaries of conventional gaming. From "I'm O.K"'s example of bloody satiricism (How was any of that game NOT daring?), to "Knytt"'s Side-scrolling platforming combatless exploration, and Interactive Fiction that can be just as satisfying in it's conclusion if you got there by typing 1,000 different words to uncover the mystery, or simply saying four little words the moment the game starts up.

I would understand POSSIBLY... if SCMRPG was just a bloodbath exploiting a tragedy, but to anyone who's played it the game gives a much more purposeful reason for it's existence. Or perhaps not, since all art is surely open to interpretation. I honestly don't believe that you can condemn a piece of media just because it's controversial.

'Irreversible' (Uber-controversial french film from Gaspar Noe) features two segments where the one man's face is literally smashed in with a fire extinguisher, and the entirity of a woman's rape is shown on-screen for it's full 9-minutes. This is sick, obviously. It's directly confrontational. It makes us feel like our stomachs are twisting inside ourselves, we don't WANT to watch this happen, and yet it's being forced onto our brains through this incredibly intrusive moment. And why the hell not? It's Art! As an artist you want to provoke a reaction from your audience. That's why SCMRPG works so well in my eyes. It's much worse than watching 'Elephant' in some ways because we need to participate. We can't just say 'Oh well, we're watching a movie, it's fine, I have no part in this'. We aren't allowed to take a passive role. If we want to dig into the story we have to act it out ourselves. We have to become two boys who we don't understand, who we pity, who we maybe despise. If art's effectiveness can be measured by the emotional reaction of it's audience, then how can a game like this be condemned for being a piece of art? I understand that it's supposed to be an Indie Game Festival rather than some art exhibit, since SCMRPG is actually pretty dull in that sense, but it wasn't scrapped for that. It was scrapped because it wanted to tell a story using gaming as it's medium rather than any other media. From what I've read about Slamdance it seems to be a great festival for Indie Gamers and Film Makers alike. Surely something like this should be in the very spirit of the festival.

I may have ranted a little too long about this, I just think what's great about these festivals is that was get to showcase our work to people who want to see it. Who cares about what protestors and the outside think? The festival is a safe place where we can share with like-minded people, maybe only people we actually wanted to share it with in the beginning. I think they have every right to protest it, I wouldn't dream of silencing their reaction to the game (even if they haven't played it of course ¬.¬), but one life imposes itself on another's, things always get messier than they should be.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/05/2007 05:20:00 PM:  

It's easy to evoke this kind of emotional response in the player. I could make a game where you are in charge of a Nazi concentration camp. The game might feature emaciated inmates, gas chambers, ovens, mass graves, etc. Such a game would certainly be controversial, would invite protests, death threats and bans.

It also doesn't require any amount of genius to show images of torture, rape and mutilation on a movie screen (there is a whole genre of horror film where this is the main focus).

In short, it isn't hard to upset people and make them feel uncomfortable or disgusted. The fact that few game developers are willing to make a game like the one I imagined above does not mean those who do should be exalted. There are some things that aren't made because, well, most of us feel we're better off without them.

Whatever merit SCMRPG had as a GAME or even as a statement about the event in question was sure to be overshadowed, in the player's mind, by the cheap thrill of indulging his morbid curiosity. I would not be surprised if this was the creator's intent.

In which case, the game was really designed to be banned and protested, and the author is probably pleased with this outcome. Take Columbine out of this game -- and, with it, all the controversy generated by casting the player as the killers -- and he would not be getting any press.

I won't play this game, primarily because, from what I know about it, I imagine it would be intolerably boring -- like a crucifix in a bottle of urine, craftless "art" that tries for attention in the easiest and crassest way possible.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/05/2007 06:10:00 PM:  
Wtf is that example with a crucifix? I bet you are hebrew or muslim.. don t give a fu.ck to this stupid game, and i think they break a law(quite international), u can 't use real names or facts in movie or other arts, at the end of every movie they say every referral to real facts..etc etc was unintentional.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/06/2007 01:05:00 AM:  
Freedom is frightening
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/06/2007 03:43:00 AM:  
I'm with Anonymous on this, they may as well include games like 9/11 Survivor if they're admitting indecorous dreck like this.

That he's managed to spin some talking engagements out of it as well just saddens me.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/06/2007 04:49:00 AM:  

10/10 DDD, you've found todays Word Of The Day.

On a slightly more serious note - why is it always the really, really crap games that feel the need to thrive on this kind of attention?

The JFK shooting simulator (pointless), 9/11 Survivor which looked cack regardless of premise and then this, adolescent controversyfest.

If you want to argue for games being taken seriously then you have to rise above exploitative tat like this. Its got no satirical merit (unlike I'm OK), its little more than a half assed, ripped sprite filled naff game.

No amount of evangalising will ever escape the fact that deep down, its really, really rubbish.

Next thing people will be trying to tell me that Zombie Flesh Eaters is a deep and profound examination of the human psyche.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/06/2007 01:13:00 PM:  
Haha, well naturally I know it's a pretty shoddy game, it's just that the game as it is hasn't changed. Even if it's a tedious and droll RPG, there must've been something they liked about it enough for it to be a finalist, and now they're kicking it out the competition. It should either have been left in the festival or it should never have been a finalist to being with. It sucks as a game, I don't think you could miss that... so it must've been the big controversial stuff that got it into the competition. Removing it because of the controversy only makes me ask why the hell they put it in there in the first place?
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/06/2007 01:56:00 PM:  
Well, sponsors have the right to withold their money if they want to (it is THEIR money, after all). They either found the game personally offensive or worried that its presence would harm their business. It's hard to fault them for this.

The festival's organizers are really to blame. They should have a) found less discriminating sponsors; b) kept the game in anyway and ate the loss; or c) not nominated the game in the first place.

The latter choice would have been best, in my opinion, since, as everyone has pointed out, the game is crap. Why put your sponsors at risk of a boycott for a game that is generally acknowledged to be a subpar hack job? Pretty poor way to thank these sponsors for their generosity.

I bet the organizers thought nominating this game would drum up some attention for their festival. "No press is bad press," as they say. Oops!
Blogger Jason Rohrer (jcr13) said at 1/06/2007 04:04:00 PM:  
Anyone who calls it a sub-par hack job either hasn't played it or has played it and failed to get the point. Do you think you can make a meaningful game without snazzy graphics? Do you think you can make a meaningful game with borrowed (or as you might say, "stolen") graphics? Could a game with said borrowed graphics actually be *more* meaningful than a game with original graphics?

Did you know that Klebold and Harris (oh, yeah, those are the last names of Columbine pair, for those who don't know) loved the game Doom? Did you know that they actually designed (and posted) their own custom levels for Doom? I didn't know this until I played SCMRPG (and after playing, I did some more reading about Columbine). So, does it seem like such a hack-job for the game it borrow graphics from Doom?

There's meaning lurking everwhere in SCMRPG, and it's all tied together in one neat, heavily-pixelated package (Doom was, if you recall, very pixelated). That's part of the point. People blamed video games for Columbine, and SCMRPG tries to be the ultimate straw man for those blamers. This game is a very complex piece of work. I have never encountered another video game, in my lifetime of playing, that was as powerful, overall, as SCMRPG. If you're dismissing it outright as dreck, then you're not thinking hard enough.

This afternoon, I wandered into an EB World. "Wow, a PS3 demo station!" I jumped right on it. An offroad driving game. An NBA game. They both looked a little shinier (and a little spookier---too real, yet still fake, you know?) than PS2 driving and basketball games. I looked around the store, poked through the used bins, and tried to find something in the place that was interesting. I walked out thinking, "This scene is dead."

But SCMRPG is very much alive. As this new controversy unfolds, the evidence for its life is still all around us---here we are, still talking about it, still arguing about it, a year after its initial release. What can we say about NBA Ballerz 2007? "Wow, the players actually look sweaty on the PS3 with an HD display!"

If the game really sucked, there would be no controversy. The controversy exists because we are dealing with a work that is very good and yet deeply distrurbing. And it's not "very good" because of state-of-the-art graphics or interesting gameplay, but because of what it does to you when you play---it makes you think.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/06/2007 04:56:00 PM:  
"Anyone who calls it a sub-par hack job either hasn't played it or has played it and failed to get the point."

You're right! How could we be so stupid as to judge a game on its gameplay! We are such sillies! Tsk!

"If the game really sucked, there would be no controversy."

Oh yes, gaming's history is littered with controversy about really good games, isn't it? Like Custer's Revenge, BMX XXX, 50 Cent: Bulletproof, etc.

There have been many controversial games that have been excellent, but the two do not go hand in hand.

I judge games as games, if they don't play well then they've failed at the *first* hurdle, and everything else is for nought.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/06/2007 05:41:00 PM:  
I haven't played the game, so I'm afraid I'll have to do the Jack Thompson thing of criticizing what I know nothing about, but by most accounts I've read by people who have played it, the game's main strength isn't its design or writing but the controversy it provokes. If so, this latest development sounds like the game continues to accomplish precisely what it was designed to do.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/06/2007 06:06:00 PM:  
From Kotaku:

"Ledonne said that he bears no ill will toward the festival, but that the decision to pull the game does raise concerns about freedom of speech and video game development."

Part of the reason we are still talking about this game is because Ledonne is an attention seeker.

This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Freedom of speech derives from property rights, i.e. the freedom to use your own property -- printing press, computer, etc. -- as you see fit.

Nobody stopped Ledonne from making his game. The festival sponsors would simply be exercising their own property rights by choosing to withold their donations. Likewise, boycotters also have the freedom to buy or not buy for whatever reason they choose.

Ledonne calling this a freedom of speech issue is an attempt to make himself out as a victim, simply because other people exercise the SAME RIGHTS over their own property that Ledonne does when he makes his games and films.

This is like a business owner claiming his "freedom to work" was violated because potential customers didn't shop at his store.

People who are so ignorant or confused are apt to call for government funding of the arts, so they can parade their creations in public using money that was taken forcibly from people who would never have given it voluntarily, including people who are offended by the "artwork" in question.

In other words, they want to violate other people's freedoms in order to provide for their own bastardized "freedom of speech," which really means "free access to other people's wallets."

Ledonne's upcoming talk on "the first amendment and video games" should be a real hoot.
Blogger haowan said at 1/07/2007 04:42:00 AM:  
I think if I wanted to make an interesting and thought-provoking interactive experience based on the Columbine event, I would probably not call it "Super Columbine Massacre" and put an exclamation mark at the end of the title.

The guy deserves any criticism he gets for not taking the subject matter seriously enough, artist's statement be damned. I don't care if a lot of thought went in to it and it uses Doom assets (which is mildly clever admittedly); if you give the game that title, you are seeking attention, just like the above anonymous poster said.

I don't think games like this should be banned or not made, but if you're going to do it then do it seriously. Giving it a stupid name is just going to make people attack it without even playing it.
Blogger Jason Rohrer (jcr13) said at 1/07/2007 05:20:00 AM:  

If you're complaining about the title, or the exclamation mark included in the title, I still say you're not thinking hard enough.

Why did the creator used that title? Why not pick a name like "Elephant" (which was an indie film about the same event)? Do you really think it was just to get attention? Can you even imagine someone naming their film "Super Columbine Massacre Movie"?

In my review, which is now close to a week old, I too questioned the title of the game. But as I've thought about it more, it has started to make sense to me, and at this point, I cannot think of a better title for this work.

I could lay it out for you, as I see it, and if you want me to, I will. But I'd rather let you reformulate your own conclusion. Right now, you're holding the "just to get attention" theory. Drop that theory temporarily, as an experiement, and then think about the title again---see where that takes you.

In general, I'm wondering how many of the critics have actually played this game. From what I've seen so far, it seems like the folks who have played it (like me) are saying, "whoa... there's really something here." Then there are a bunch of other folks who are saying, "I haven't played it, but obviously blah blah blah." I just don't get it. How can you critique it without playing it? Would you consider doing the same thing regarding a film (in other words, critique it without watching it)?

On the other hand, I would love to see some honest negative critiques. Right now, the true reviews (by people who have actually played it) are certainly skewed toward the positive. We need more balance.
Blogger haowan said at 1/07/2007 06:30:00 AM:  
I fall into the latter category of people who haven't played it, but while I'm not offering critique on the actual game (as I do believe it's possible to make games of real-life horrors that are thought-provoking without being tasteless), I don't think the author has gone about it in the right way and it's fairly easy to see from a lot of the reactions that that is true.

It might be true that whatever the game's title was, this sort of thing would still have happened. But that's no reason to go down the other path.

I'm complaining about the title, yes; not in terms of it offending me but because it lends itself to an unsympathetic view of controversial video games, which is the last thing we need. This is compounded as above posters have said by many other controversial video games being poorly-produced rubbish; why associate yourself with that by presenting the game in the same way?

As I say, having not played the game itself, I can't offer comment on its tastefulness or worth in that respect.
Blogger Chentzilla said at 1/07/2007 06:34:00 AM:  
I downloaded it and tried to play, but got bored at the first "stealth" segment (when they enter the school).
Really, maybe the Doom graphics remind of the levels this guy did, but what about Final Fantasy and Earthbound sprites? Also, those cars at the parking lot are just horrible. Monty Python worked well with cut-outs, this guy doesn't. If he sucks at graphics so much, why didn't make a text adventure? Aren't the texts that matter most in this game?
Blogger Chentzilla said at 1/07/2007 06:36:00 AM:  
The one 'good' point of this game is that it's nice to discuss.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/07/2007 09:42:00 AM:  

I passed on playing this game, in part, for the same reason I pass on playing most other games: time is scarce, and nothing I've seen or heard about SCMRPG made me want to play it instead of doing something else.

While it would not be fair for me to critique the game, it is fair for me to prejudge and decide I'm better off not playing it. I may be wrong because the scarcity of time requires me to act on incomplete information. We all make these kinds of decisions all the time.

I've also decided I'd rather not watch Saw, Hostel, or Touristas, for instance (or Elephant, for that matter). I feel I get enough exposure to ugliness just reading the news.

What irks me is not the quality (or lack thereof) of the game itself, but rather the inflated claims of many people, including Ledonne himself, that free speech has (or may have) been violated.

Also open to criticism is the contention held by many of this game's defenders that something is "high art," and therefore has merit, simply because it pushes the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. What about child rape? Should we show that in graphic detail on movie screens or, better yet, make a video game where the player is the rapist? That is where this logic seems to lead.

And while this game's supporters have called it a serious treatment of the Columbine shootings, no one has yet revealed what worthwhile conclusions Ledonne actually conveys to the player through the game. Is the point just to wallow in the awfulness? To rub it in our faces? To make us feel guilty (for what, I don't know)?

It's all well and good to satirize the political/media reactions (which are always ridiculous) but is that all?

I'm asking these questions honestly.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/07/2007 10:02:00 AM:  
Ledonne also says:

"I want to stress that one controversial game made by one vilified individual can only get us so far. History always seems to paint the impetus for change as being that of “leaders” when it fact the underlying sentiment of the large majority is nearly always the true cause of progress. If we collectively want videogames to be more than mere objects to distract us, it’s time to think about how that progress toward gaming as a true artistic medium can be made."

Somebody has a messiah complex.

Notice what he's implying. Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden? Inartistic crap. Mere "objects to distract us."

"Progress" means less of that and more of games like SCMRPG, made by visionary "leaders" like Ledonne with the support of the collective.

I like Super Mario Bros. just fine, thank you. Variety and experimentation are great but I'll never look down on games that are just plain fun to play. They make life a little more enjoyable, which is more than I can say for much of what is labeled "progress."
Blogger haowan said at 1/07/2007 10:17:00 AM:  
I like the cut of your jib, anon.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/07/2007 10:54:00 AM:  
I'm a huge advocate of games as art, but to suggest that art & fun are mutually exclusive is nothing but pure idiocy, and entirely self serving.

I fear the summation that Ledonne is little more than an attention seeking whore appears pretty apt.

I bet he's loving this. There's probably only one sock left in his house right now ;)

For the record, I have played it - I played it when he was whoring it on boards all over the shop and then, as now, I hold the same opinion.

Its controversial for attentions sake. Lacking in depth, substance, bite, satirical merit, political merit or any semblance of artistic integrity.

I've yet to see argued exactly what Ledonnes message is - his "artistic statement" is little more than low grade self publicity that you'd expect of also ran gimmick metal bands trying to elevate their status way beyond what it is.

Its not the contents of the game that bothers me, its the people who swallow this god awful self publicity drive as profound art that really scare me.

If progress is turgid lifeless RPG Maker dirge with ripped sprites, I'll stick with what we've got, thanks. This is as far from a step in the right direction as meandering down a dark tunnel straight into a speeding train.
Anonymous Anonymous said at 1/08/2007 05:42:00 AM:  
I've played the game 3 times already, and it's still horrible, adolescent dreck, no matter how you cut it.