Killer 7 - Making Gameplay Obsolete

Originally published 2005, October 26.

Much has been written about Killer 7, and its "lack" of traditional gameplay. The reviews that have lambasted it as shallow and uninvolved nearly all believe it's just about graphics, style, and story. What is hardly mentioned is how this really doesn't matter.

Killer 7's purpose is not to be played, it is to play you.

Saying such a thing may appear like an excuse, or apologetic (and certainly pretentious). And in all honestly, it probably is. But this is really how I felt throughout my time with this game. Killer 7 is schizophrenic and psychological - as an ends unto itself; its difficulty is not in fighting off slothful zombies, or solving brain-dead puzzles, it's in trying to remain emotionally involved in the story without losing your mind. The player himself, and not his in game avatar, is subjected to the real trial.

This theory is especially supported by Killer 7's focus on post-modernism (four parallel storylines, seven separate personalities, transcendent time, and gobs of symbolism). It's the gameplay equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, something attempted previously in Eternal Darkness. The best example in Killer 7 is probably the boss of chapter 4 (the Handsome Men). First, the player is forced to automatically lose parts of the boss fight, destroying their sense of how to progress. Next, the final phase is concluded with the boss becoming amiable and simply talking. Afterward, the graphics degrade into a retro, NES-like, style - something especially strange and confusing. All this from a boss fight, which were up until that point in the game fairly difficult to figure out, if not to perform.

The fact that the main mechanic (scan - seek - shoot), is so mentally jarring is another good example. Trying to stay immersed in the game world, while at the same time wondering what's going on with the story, without being disrupted by the Heaven's Smiles, it tough. Being able to experience this effect, however, requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief, and voluntary imagination, which is surely why many reviewers didn't get it.

Of course I don't think this makes the game perfect. It probably would have been possible to have this game play the player - and have enjoyable gameplay - at the same time. It would have been nice if more time had been spent on balancing out the mechanics, but the result is interesting nonetheless.

A friend of mine observed that Killer 7 could be seen as a new interpretation of taking the text adventure genre into full 3-d. Just as in any Zork-like puzzler, here you're navigationally stuck on rails, and every object you can interact with is plainly displayed whenever available. Though this does streamline game world interaction, it greatly destroys any hope of thought-inducing puzzles. As before, this seems somewhat purposeful, but also could probably have been improved without destroying the meta game surrounding it.

However, I still unabashedly like the on-rails aspect. Every since Mario 64 got free roaming 3-d right, countless follow ups have gotten it horribly wrong. In most 3-d "games", there's more of a challenge in navigating (often benign) environments than there is in actual gameplay. Whereas in 2-d games, trivial navigation usually meant holding the right button (and periodically pushing "jump"), in 3-d it requires wrestling with an analog stick, playing with a sloppily implemented camera (Ninja Gaiden, I'm looking at you), and judging arbitrary distances between polygons (Way to go for realism, guys. I too have trouble waking down the halls in my house without running into walls). Killer 7 made it nice and simple - hold down this button to go from point A to point B. Leave the overdone control schemes for the parts of the game I should actually care about. It would be nice if more games follow this control mechanic in the future.