You suspect that if Danny Ledonne knew what the fallout would be from uploading his 23 MB RPG Maker-constructed game to his website in 2005 … well, he’d have just gone ahead and done it anyway. You don’t make a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! if you’re that worried about getting attention.
In literate circles, it’s probably the most controversial game of recent years. To mention it is to beget an argument. In the mainstream, despite some sporadic coverage, it’s barely a blip for a variety of obvious reasons. As an indie game, it’s not popular. As a freeware game, there’s no money to be had from ambulance-chasing lawyers. But where a game as castigated as Bully was generally defended by gamers who knew the mass media was misunderstanding a game built on a sound premise, SCMRPG doesn’t have it that easy. It’s constructed in a primitive videogame engine, taking the form of an old-school RPG. Its subject matter remains a highly charged issue. It’s widely rejected on either the charge of bad taste or bad craft, often both.
Well over a year after its initial release, it’s still being talked about, growing ever more infamous. Its notoriety reached a peak as 2006 turned into 2007, when it was forcibly ejected from the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition, after being selected for the shortlist of finalists by the panel. This precipitated a walkout of a sizeable proportion of other contestants – an act of solidarity.
With so many issues, it’s difficult to know what to think about Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
Let’s see if we can do anything about that.
Is there any place for a subject like this in a videogame?
There’s a mass of films and books on Columbine, whether directly about the events or exploring it through thinly veiled analogues. Why is one cultural form allowed to comment on a tragedy and another one not? It’s clear by the strength of the reaction that the mere idea of a game that places you in the shoes of murderers provokes powerful emotions.
The outrage comes from a couple places. First, games are for children. Ergo, a game of a serious event must, by its very nature, trivialize it. More sophisticated positions argue that it’s the act of becoming Klebold and Harris, the perpetrators of the massacre, glamorizes what they did. A book doesn’t ask you to pull the trigger and make you complicit. The former argument can be rejected by simply restating the truism that not all games are for kids. The latter argument makes the assumption that if you’re pulling the trigger, you’ll find it enjoyable. In actual fact, this is simply untrue. SCMRPG is as uncomfortable as gaming gets.
In regard to Columbine, I’d actually argue to the contrary on games’ suitability. In fact, the computer game may be the most appropriate medium to explore the situation. After all, it was the pair’s favored one. The music cited as influential on Harris and Klebold are cult, peripheral acts. Doom, which Harris even made levels in, was absolutely mainstream for the form. While game creators have no direct responsibility – like all creators – it’s entirely natural for them to try and examine why they actually had this worm in their apple.
I’m clearly never going to play the bloody game. What actually happens in it?
It’s basically divided into two sections. The first half of the game, opening with the art theorist Andre Breton quote, “The purest surrealistic act would be to go into a crowd and fire at random,” retraces Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s final morning. One calls the other; they meet up; they record a final video. They place two homemade propane bombs in a canteen and set the timer for lunch, then retire to the hill overlooking the school and wait for the bombs to go off.
They don’t. The game then proceeds into a more combat-orientated RPG, where the boys tool up with weaponry from the trunk of their car and move through the school, confronting groups of student stereotypes – Preppy Girl, Nerdy Girl, Black Boy, Jock Boy. No one has any real chance against the boys’ automatic weaponry. Most don’t even fight back. As you work through the school, you experience various narrative vignettes, some purely fictional but directly illustrating events leading up to the attack, others actual occurrences in the school. For an example of the former, Eric reminisces about his telephone confession to the 20-something Brenda Parker he was dating that he’s actually a teenage boy. For the latter, they fire shots at police from school library window, before the final double-suicide. After a sequence of Eric’s fantasies – from idyllic ones of Antipodean islands away from the “fuckheads” to ones of mass death and violence – the scene fades to black. Fade up on tiny pixelated corpses. The cartoon image swaps for real photos of the two boys, lying in the library with gaping head wounds.
You presume it’s over. In fact, the second half opens. The game restarts, and we’re in Hell. The Doom music strikes up. The Hell they’re stuck in is populated by the cast of that iconic, violent game, which now you’re stuck in a proper fight with. Exploring, you eventually discover an island of lost souls equally damned – from Mario to Ronald Regan to John Lennon to Confucius – and finally hook up with existentialist philosopher Nietzsche, who in exchange for a copy of Ecce Homo, gives a little lecture of how their actions fit entirely into his philosophy of the Genius. Heading on, you meet and beat Satan, who then accepts a tasty Devil Cake and shows the pair what’s happening back on Earth.
That seems terribly confusing.
Yeah, it is a bit. SCMRPG is nothing but confusing. It’s got many problems, but the key one is it’s trying to say so many different things simultaneously.
So what’s the point, then?
The game’s points can be divided into two rough categories. First is the documentary-styled recapitulation of the events of the day and Ledonne’s portraits of the two killer’s motivations. The second is a satire on the events of the day and the mass of hypocrisies and knee-jerk reactions surrounding it, as well as a more general satire on videogames.
The first part is arguably the most successful. Fundamentally, what happens in the actual game is what actually happened in the day. If you complete SCMPRG, you will know more about the events and the personalities of Harris and Klebold than you would have if you hadn’t played, in a more memorable way than the average dry news report. It is well researched, with much dialogue lifted from actual records. Not that it’s a pure documentary; there’s a lot of convincing fiction filling the gaps in an attempt to answer the key question almost all art surrounding Columbine asks: “Why?” That is, why would some kids want to do this? Ledonne, at school in Colorado at a similar period, uses the evidence to create his take.
The satire in the game is obvious, even in the title, recalling all things Mario and the classic age of Nintendo RPGs, of which its graphics are strongly reminiscent. What could be more videogame than defeating hundreds of people in combat? By its existence, it asks the question, Why is playing one sort of killer acceptable and the other beyond the pale? What’s the difference between American’s Army and Under Ash? That it’s an obvious hypocrisy doesn’t make it any less poignant, but Ledonne covers his bases a little by avoiding glorifying the actual killings themselves.
Seriously. You have a game where you’re wiping out an entire school of kids. How can this not glorify violence?
Because it’s no fun.
This is where the “bad craft” arguments fall apart. They imply that the game may have actually been OK if they’d made wiping out the kids more entertaining, as if SCMRPG could have been Medal of Honor, if only Ledonne tried harder. Nothing could be further than the truth. A designer chooses the mechanics required to create the desired emotional response. If you want to make a game about a massacre and capture the core disgust, the last thing you want to do is make it fun. Starting with the RPG Maker’s limited combat, its mechanics are tweaked appropriately.
In the actual fights, you’re loaded with weaponry and find increasingly devastating firearms as you progress. You can return to your car to replenish ammunition whenever you want. The vast majority of the students and teachers don’t even fight back. Maybe you’ll take a couple of hits from jocks to begin with, but soon it’s all just embarrassingly perfunctory. You can kill as many as you want and be hailed ironically as “brave boys” every time you do it. All of this conspires to underline the meaninglessness of their slaughter. And fundamentally, while it’s not much fun, the one bit of craft it gets right is the basic Final Fantasy-esque compulsiveness of improving statistics. The grind is the key mechanic which addicts people to RPGs. There’s only vestigial pleasure in it, per se, but you can’t stop doing it. Here, it’s harnessed for more existential reasons. You’re not enjoying it, but you go from one pointless fight to another, the alienation mounting along with the experience points.
It’s cold. It’s really cold. As cold as what the pair of them did to the people in that school, and you’re struck at a profound level of how sad it is. Not just that people would die like that, but more because the horror of the mindset you’d have to enter to treat real human beings as nothing more import than two-dimensional sprites. Why would someone go and do something so pointless?
While videogames didn’t make them do it, it’s clear the repetitive brutality of a videogame is a good metaphor for how they viewed the world. By showing the absolutely hollow, tedious nature of the pair’s fantasies, it can’t help but critique them. Even for Harris and Klebold, living out their fantasy wasn’t all they hoped it’d be. Not that it can be found in the game, but the pair are reported to have talked about how, near the end, shooting got too boring, and they thought about switching to knives.
As the death toll of “Preppy Girl” or “Nerd Girl” is inching into the hundreds, you feel likewise. This is the game at its formalist best, in how it subverts classical mechanics to make its point.
OK. I get it. But if you had to say one thing about Super Columbine Massacre RPG! what would you say?
In 1995, in the 10th anniversary book of Calvin and Hobbes, creator Bill Watterson inserted little pieces of commentary onto some of his favorite strips. In a Sunday one, Calvin attacks his school in an F-16 “loaded with tons of every conceivable missile,” reducing it to “smoldering crater.” “I got some nasty mail about this strip,” he noted. “Some readers thought it was inexcusable to show a kid fantasize about bombing his school off the face of the Earth. Apparently, some of my readers were never kids themselves.” Five years later, such opinions were conspicuously absent, but the truth remains. Lots of people didn’t like school. Lots of people fantasize one way or another about doing something about it. Lots of people would love a game where they’d be able to annihilate it from the face of the Earth.
This isn’t it.
Rather than a means of acting out these fantasies, the alienated slog of SCMPRG, warns against it, while trying to argue why someone would want to do it in the first place. It’s not a celebration. It’s a lament.
The game ends with the lyrics from one of the pair’s favorite bands, KMFDM: “He represents the problem – no, he emboldens the problem. If he is expelled, the problem will go away.” Except not: “He is not in this alone. He is not the problem.” Super Columbine Massacre RPG! isn’t the problem. It’s certainly not the solution – that’s society and the people within it – but it’s not a problem. It’s something worth having an opinion on. It sits on the boundaries of what videogames have become and could become.
You won’t enjoy it, and for that you should be grateful.
Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.