Shadows of the Damned – Garcia Hotspur is a Mexican Psycho

[penned by Sir Gaulian]

I am not an avid reader  but Bret Easton Ellis is one of my favourite authors.  His writing is unique, interesting and often confronting in a way that books, let alone television or film, often aren’t.  He gets me reading when its the last thing I feel like doing when I get home from work at the end of a day spent, well, mostly reading.  But its not the violence or swearing, the mature themes or modern settings, or an overwhelming macabre atmosphere or characters that draw me into his writings.  All of that is good and makes for an interesting read, even if slightly altering your frame of mind for a duration after reading his books.  But it is the sense that anything could happen in his stories that, for all intents and purposes, seem to be a relatively accurate look at parts of modern society.  That is what really grabs me.

The way in which he writes should resonate with the way most people think.  Scattered images and words that often share no commonality between one another.  A dream for example, is the sub-conscious version of one’s thought process and can often be about anything and anyone.  But often, although a dream can be made up of disparate parts, it can also have a relatively pointed and direct narrative.  In both dreams and Ellis’ writings, the details serve only to provide vivid visual images to accompany a well structured story, even though the author often seems spend more time on tangents than actually progressing the plot.  These details and seemingly erroneous details however play some important role in the overall progression of the story, whether it be providing support to developing the characters further, or setting the scene.

At the beginning of Lunar Park, his ‘autobiography’ of sorts, Ellis compares and contrasts the beginning of each book preceding it. As the it points out, by his third full length novel, American Psycho, the author has almost started to document his thought process when writing.  His punctuation seemingly can be identified directly with the momentary pause between thoughts as the words form a setting and situation.  Rather than subconciously editing out details that most authors (or people, perhaps) may consider insignificant, Ellis captures them in full detail.  Everything from clothes to body language and the character’s (Patrick Bateman) feelings on the latest Genesis album are vividly spelled out – sometimes in such an incoherent manner that it begins to sound like a child making up a story on the fly.  Strangely though, every seemingly meaningless details provides the impetus to keep moving through the story, where any other author’s attempts at benality would simply end with the reader putting the book down and perhaps never reaching its conclusion.  While perhaps the benality isn’t fitting, the rest can largely be applied to the work of Suda 51, CEO of Grasshopper Manufacture and producer and director of more than 18 games dating back to the Super Famicom.

Suda 51’s gameography reads something like a nightmare, a description that certainly is not indicative of the quality of the titled developed under his watchful eye.  Rather it is an apt description for the tone and feel of his games, which often feel disjointed and confusing, but always feel like they have something larger happening within the subtext of the narrative, shown through disturbing imagery, bizarre dialogue and incredible artistic direction.  His games, both when directing and producing, range from the political intrique of Killer 7, to the larger than life comical storylines found within No More Heroes. But always the narrative and visual style of the game combined with a real sense of expectation of what may happen around any given corner because in Suda 51’s world, anything can happen.

And often it does.  Shadows of the Damned, Suda 51’s latest game,  is perhaps Suda 51’s most traditional ‘game’ since the inception of Grasshopper manufacture.  But on top of the mechanics of an incredibly sound and well controlling third person shooter, he manages to pack the game with enough eccentricity, humour and flat out bizarre game mechanics that it doesn’t feel like its ‘just’ a third person shooter.  Shooting a goat’s head to dispel the darkness from a room doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of the context of the game, but inside the demon world featured in Shadows of the Damned, it feels strangely familiar.  Drawing a comparison to Killer 7, its the details that transformed Killer 7 from more than just an ‘on-rails shooter’ to perhaps one of the most interesting and mature video games available for the last generation of consoles.  The same can be said for Shadows of the Damned.

Variety is another facet of Suda 51’s games that, again, Shadows of the Damned has in spades.  Aside from the wonderful breaks from the standard action provided for by the stylish, but brief, horizontal shooter sequences in the game, the environments that the game has Garcia Hotspur running through are nothing short of amazing (if not slight celebrations of death, decay and darkness).  The absurdity of the demon world’s ‘red light district’ is a particular highlight, which despite its brevity, manages to almost single-handedly define the entire game experience – an experience where anything goes and you could be anywhere doing anything at any point throughout the game.  Shooting a goat’s head on a wall is nothing compared to stuffing a strawberry into an infant demon’s mouth to open a door.  This is absurdity that haven’t seen in a game since Platinum Games’ Bayonetta over one and half years ago.  And I couldn’t have been smiling more.

But what would be the point of all of all of these deliciously depicted and vividly imagined environments if the characters were dull and lifeless?  Luckily the characters in Shadows of the Damned are likeable to the point of almost stealing the show away from other aspects of the game. The exploits of the duo of Garcia Hotspur and his ‘sidekick sidearm’ Johnson are fun to watch, sure, but its the conversations between the two that lends the most insight into the motivations behind them.  It is the lack of force behind developing these characters that makes them come to life in an incredibly natural way in spite of the incredibly fantastical scenario.  Of course characterisation is something that Suda 51 specialises in, with most of his games having an incredibly strong narrative as a result of the characters and their own vendettas and personal histories driving the experiences forward.  There is no better example of this than his depiction of Harman Smith and his multiple personas in Killer 7Needless to say if you haven’t played that game, his role alone is worth more than the price of admission.  A similar sentiment applies to Shadows of the Damned, whereby while the shooting, the guns, the violence and the environments are all fantastic – it is the relationship between the main protagonists that makes the game something incredibly special.

Suda 51 has a way of capturing my imagination that no other director/producer can.  That really is the key point to all of this.  Shadows of the Damned put a smile on my face and gave me something to look forward to at the end of the day.  It is the type of game that comes along in the midst of the repetition and soullessness of a majority of other releases and makes you remember why you spend money on playing games when there are so many alternatives competing for your dollar.  And while perhaps its not a work of literary genius the journey of Garcia Hotspur was entirely justified by an ending that blew my mind.  Not because it was poignant, life changing or terribly deep – but because it reminded you how awesome Garcia Hotspur, Johnson and the world Grasshopper Manufacture have created actually are.

While I often refrain from comparing literature or film to video games, it honestly is the only point of comparison I have for Suda 51’s works Shadows of the Damned at its core its a third person shooter, but like Ellis’ writings, Suda 51 packs the game with enough detail and strange imagery to keep the player running through until the fitting conclusion to a story about love and sacrifice with characters that are some of the best in the medium.  But the best part is that as soon as the credits rolled, I jumped right back in.  It is a video game after all.