Killer7 loomed large in my unplayed backlog for years. It’s early trailers showed off unique cell shaded graphics juxtaposed with an aggressively unsettling vibe. There was shooting from a first person perspective, anime cutscenes, constant screaming and abstract environments. And the running. So many characters running. Except the old man in the wheelchair with a large sniper rifle attached to his back. The words “Suda 51” flashed across the screen and it was over. Was this a promotion or a declaration of an independent reality? Killer7’s marketing campaign didn’t advertise to potential customers, it assaulted and abandoned it’s audience. I knew I had to play it.
Except I didn’t. 2005 has been cited as one of the best years in video games and for good reason. Psychonauts, Resident Evil 4, Guitar Hero, God of War, Burnout Revenge, and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory are just a few of the instant classics that somehow released in the same 12 month cycle, leaving little time aside for the experimental Killer7. But in 2012 I finally picked up an elusive used copy for the PlayStation 2, determined to see everything this unusual title had to offer. 16 hours later, I had completed the game I waited 7 years to play. I hated Killer7. It was self-indulgent, confusing, and ungenerously restrictive.
It’s been 3 years and I still can’t stop thinking about Killer7. How did an arthouse genre game sneak it’s way into AAA production?
The exact details of Japanese game development are notoriously hard to find and Killer7 is no exception. But it’s announcement is the stuff of legends. On November 12th, 2005 Nintendo and CAPCOM announced an exclusive partnership dubbed the “CAPCOM Five” The publisher and developer famous for cultural hits such as Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Resident Evil would release five exclusive titles for the Nintendo GameCube. The news took many analysts by surprise considering CAPCOM had only published three titles on the Nintendo 64, while Sony’s PlayStation received nearly fifty. Resident Evil 4, Dead Phoenix, Viewtiful Joe, P.N.03, and Killer7 would be built from the ground up for Nintendo’s plucky purple lunchbox.
From it’s reveal, Killer7 turned heads with it’s vibrant yet hyper violent trailers and stylish character designs. Much of the beta footage shown to the press would not make it into the final game, Con’s automatic pistols and a new location stand out as notable omissions, but these early glimpses created strong buzz amongst journalists and game fans. While CAPCOM would fund and publish the project, development was handed by the obscure Grasshopper Manufacture and directed by the mysterious Suda 51. Despite their names splashing over each of the game’s trailers, few westerners had ever heard of the either
Born in Nagano, Japan in 1968, Goichi Suda spent much of his youth bewildered by the world of Japanese professional wrestling. By the 1980’s, Suda expanded his passion to video games as he witnessed the rise of arcade culture. While working as an undertaker (yes, really) Suda spotted an job listing for Human Entertainment, famous for their Fire Pro Wrestling series. Tired of the smell of dead bodies, he applied for the job and surprisingly, he was hired. Not only would Suda work on Super Fire Pro Wrestling 3 Final Bout, he would direct it.
Despite some criticism of the game’s difficulty, Human were impressed by the 25 year old director and greenlit Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special, a wrestling game with an emphasis on story. But it was in the game’s ending that Suda 51 revealed his prowess for unusual narratives. After Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special’s protagonist is recognized as the best wrestler in the world, he realizes he’s still not happy. In fact, he’s never been happy. Without any professional goals left for him to accomplish, he goes home and promptly commits suicide. Fans and critics were stunned. Overnight, Suda 51 had become a recognized auteur in Japan.
10 years later, Suda 51 (51 being a jokely Japanese pronunciation of his first name) was facing a similar challenge. Despite founding his own developer and releasing a string of well received games in Japan, none of his works had ever received a North American release. But working with CAPCOM meant communicating a worldwide audience. Unaware that his previous game, Michigan: Report from Hell, was released in Europe, Suda knew he would need to stand out against the myriad of bigger titles to make an impression in the West. After three years in development, Killer7 was finally released in America on July 7th, 2005.
So what exactly is Killer7? Even a decade after its release that’s a tough question. To put it plainly, Killer7 is a on the rails adventure game with simplistic puzzles and immobile first person shooting sequences. Players must switch from 7 unique personalities each with their own set of abilities and weapons. Combat takes place in a fixed perspective where invisible enemies are revealed and slowly approach the player. Simply shooting them will earn you thin blood, which can be used to heal characters or unleash their special attacks. Shooting their glowing weak point results in an instant kill and thick blood, the currency for leveling up the 7 personas. And that’s about it.
But it’s the world of Killer7 that makes every part of 12 hour story fascinating. Global politics, comic books, terrorism, wrestling, hitman, human trafficking, ghosts, power rangers, elections, and cults are only some of the wide range of themes present in Suda 51’s masterpiece. On July 3rd 1998, world peace is achieved. In an effort to prevent terrorism, the world governments outlaw air transportation and the internet. But even these drastic efforts are unable to prevent the attacks of Heaven’s Smile, a group of seemingly normal humans that are able to explode at will. The U.S. government calls on the world's greatest hitman, the elderly and wheelchair bound Harman Smith, and his Killer7 (also named Smith) to end the anarchistic Kun Lan’s plot.
If that sounds strange it’s because it is. Killer7 is packed with story beats and monologues that rarely, if ever, make sense. Ghostly apparitions often appear to inform, criticize, or warn the Smiths. The S&M dressed Iwazaru plays Harman’s loyal servant, Travis hangs around to shoot the breeze and give hints, and the decapitated head of 16 year old Suzie tells you of her violent past. Later, a man challenges you to a game of russian roulette, promising to teach you how to “hit on women with 100% accuracy” if he loses. In another level, the Killer7 challenge a group of heroes resembling Power Rangers to a dual in Times Square. A series of letters expose the one sided correspondence of person demanding $100 and threatening to murder the recipient if they don’t play up. Two politicians with fresh gunshot wounds to the head toss their brains toward the player while adjusting their ties. Yes, the game is very fast and loose with reality.
Then there’s the Killer7 themselves, who in many ways are just as bizarre as the world around them. Dan is the cool guy, delivering powerful shots from his revolver to clear areas of Duplicator Smiles. Con is the snarky youngster, able to run and alarmingly fast speeds. Kaede packs a scope on her weapon and can clear barriers by slitting her wrists with the help of Iwazaru’s ex-wife. Mask is a professional wrestler with strength and grenade launchers. Coyote plays the professional thief, picking locks and leaping to roof tops. Kevin is the most mysterious of the bunch which plays into his ability to become invisible. Finally, Garcian is a self described “cleaner” who recovers the dead bodies of the 7, regenerating them back to life.
But were they ever alive? The value of art is often based around the audience interpretation beyond the author's intent. While Suda 51 helped produce a companion book to help explain the world of Killer7 (Spoiler Alert: It Didn’t), the game itself is loaded with contradictions. Suda himself has said each character is part of Harman’s persona, yet in one stage we see them in separate environments. At one point, the audience is explicitly told how one of the 7 died, yet two hours later we witness the death of that character under entirely different circumstances. Are the Heaven’s Smile humans that were transformed by an infection or are they chose by Kun Lan? And if that’s true, why are there larger Smiles that give birth eggs containing fully formed Smiles? Why are some of them shaped like Planes? If world peace is the new status quo, why is America going to blow up Japan? Why is the UN and every other nation okay with this?
The answers are never given. The world, it’s characters and events are simultaneously true and false. Killer7 is often far more interested in delivering the most engaging experience rather than a cohesive narrative. Even the cutscenes periodically change artistic styles, showcasing beautiful traditional animation for a single level before resuming to pre-rendered in game assists. Simple conversations with Iwazaru and Travis are written in text but accompanied with strange gibberish through unusual voice filters. Stranger yet, these dialogues are videos, meaning individual sentences can’t be skipped. If you want a hint, you’ll have to sit through Suzie’s 2 minute story of mutilating men’s genitals for fun. As one critic put it “At best, playing the game is like having someone shout in your ear for 15 hours straight.”
And that’s really where Killer7’s problems began. Its reception is one of the few examples of true critical divisiveness. Some even questioned its qualifications as a game.
“It just feels like an incomplete work that got too much artistic style and far too little gaming substance.”
Other cited its artistic aspirations as a hindrance.
“We admire the effort and love the style, but we expect our video games to be first and foremost good games, not good art. That's a bonus, not a foundation.”
But Killer7 did manage to eke by with the majority of critical reviews being positive. Sadly, sales were less successful with the combined sales of the PS2 and GameCube version reaching just under 240 thousand copies. Cast off into the bargain bin shortly after it’s release, Killer7 on the GameCube now fluctuates between $20 for a loose copy and $70 for a complete copy thanks to its “cult classic” status. Curious to see if I had somehow misjudged this obscure title, I tracked down a copy for the Gamecube, once again determined to explore everything the game had to offer.
And strangely enough, within only a few minutes I found myself completely entranced by Killer7’s paranoid paradise. Previously frustrating shooting sections became a joy thanks to the GameCube’s large green fire button. It became clear the controller wasn't simply a tool for interaction, it was an integral part of Killer7’s design. Simple puzzles I once viewed as “time wasters” transformed into invitations to watch toy horses racing and closely inspect the nature of propaganda. This is one of the many reasons Killer7 needs to be a game. Unlike a passive medium, Killer7 engrosses the player by asking them to perform actions they don’t understand. To watch Kaede slash her wrists as it spews blood is engaging, but to perform the action yourself is enthralling.
But the narrative inconsistencies still remained. Though this time their purpose evolved from reckless distractions to deliberate confusion. Killer7 wants you to dissect, to question, to dispute. Not for an obtainable understanding or final solution, but to simply place the player into a mindset. I couldn’t stop thinking about Killer7 years after I played it, and above all else, that’s exactly what the authors intended. The slow nature of its combat and walking through lonely environments were entirely designed to allow the play to ponder what exactly any of this meant.
And that’s why Killer7 is perhaps the best example of an abstract artistic game. It subverts the audience's expectation and eludes definition. To some, this will result in immediate dismissal. But those that dig deeper will return each time with a different understanding. And yes, there will be contradictions. The joy of playing Killer7 doesn’t end when you put the controller down.
It’s been 10 years since I first saw Killer7 and I still can’t stop thinking about it. I hope it never ends.