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Play The Killer, Then Ask Yourself, 'What Kind of Person Am I?'

Jordan Magnuson is travelling the world, crafting experiences based on what he finds.

Boom.

Does a game have to be fun? What constitutes a game, anyway? And what's a nongame?

These questions are more weighed after finishing Jordan Magnuson's The Killer (play it here). About a minute in, I died. A mine had killed me, something I had no control over. It's one of three endings to The Killer, an interactive...experience? The pixel artwork will remind you of a video game, and you are a controlling a character from left to right, but it's...well...

The Killer isn't about defeating an alien menace or terrorists or resurrected Nazi zombies. Set in Cambodia, The Killer involves a lot of walking. I'd recommend you just go play it, actually. I'll wait.

Done?

Powerful, right?

A photo snapped by Magnuson and his wife, while travelling through Cambodia this year.

"I was lying in bed one night listening to Jonsi's 'Tornado' when the idea for The Killer came to me," explained Magnuson, writing to me over email as he makes his way through Europe. "I was traveling in Cambodia at the time, reading about the Khmer Rouge, and I had just been to visit Toul Sleng: a prison camp in Phnom Penh where 10,000 people were killed between 1977 and 1979. As I listened to Jonsi's lyrics, and those haunting vocals, I imagined myself marching someone to the field where I would shoot them, or bludgeon their head in (as was more typical). Imagined getting to the field, and having that simple choice to make, of whether to carry out my purpose...or not. Once anything is in my head that way, it's only half a step to my imagining it as some kind of computer game, or notgame."

Magnuson has no problem with the term "notgame." When you say "game," that saddles certain expectations. Games have an ever-expanding history, compounded by a struggle with the very term of "video game," and having definitions is problematic.

I touched on this idea when writing about L.A. Noire a few weeks back, asking for game experiences that better reflected the broader range of human emotion. As someone who is paid to play and write about video games, however, I often wonder whether my colleagues and I are the only ones who'd like to see more of this. When you're exposed to a random violent military shooter number for the thousandth time (like this year's E3), you crave more. For the vast majority of players who use video games as escapism, the exhilaration of the power fantasy may be enough. Even if that's true, why limit the medium?

But I digress. Magnuson puts it much better, anyway.

"The Killer, as far as I see it, is something like a short interactive poem, and it doesn't intend to be anything more," he said. "I call it a notgame to try and spark a little bit of realization that not everything interactive has to be a game, and also to try and prepare the player for encountering something that won't be fun."

The Killer is a spiritual successor to Walk or Die, another Magnuson experiment.

It's best to know as little about The Killer before playing it. The surprise, especially if you encounter the random element that is the mine, has an exponentially greater impact. And the point of game vs. nongame may be moot, as The Killer is simply using the interactive possibilities of software to make a point, and having barrels of fun while making a point is not required.

"In some ways it's an experience to be 'endured' rather than 'enjoyed,'" admitted Magnsun, "which some people may find odd or objectionable, as the idea of 'interactive experience' outside of the realm of software tools has become conflated with entertainment for most of us."

One of the most recent snaps of Magnuson on his GameTrekking trip, this time in England.

There are three ways The Killer may end: encountering a mine, choosing to kill the person or firing into the sky, not killing them. The epilogue, explaining how the game was inspired by the horrors faced by the Cambodian people past and present, is the same no matter what.

Magnuson has made nongames in the past (play them all here), but The Killer's one part of a more ambitious, world-spanning project called Gametrekking, whose mission statement is to make games influenced by seeing the world. The Killer is just one example. Following the same path as so many others these days with a concept they're hoping people will love, he funded the idea through Kickstarter. He's been "trekking" for months now, moving through Taiwan, Vietnam, and others.

As mentioned, The Killer was inspired by Magnuson's stay in Cambodia.

"GameTrekking project is not about attempting some objective presentation of Cambodia, or any other place that I've been to," he said, "but rather about my trying to express something of my own particular encounters with places as I travel in the twenty-first century. [...] It was because of this project that I was studying the Khmer Rouge, and it was because I was in Cambodia that I saw how much its past history is still affecting the country today. I strongly doubt that I ever would have had the particular idea that turned into The Killer if I had not been able to actually visit Toul Sleng and the Cheong Ek killing fields."

I've spoken to Magnuson before, as part of a piece for EGM, not long before he hit the road. He's a man who takes the potential of games very seriously, frustrated by today's most popular games (read: Call of Duty) coming to define the medium for a great many people.

We're in agreement there, even if I understand the precarious balance, as ultimately games need to make money. It comes back to this notion of fun for me, and whether fun is part of the equation that makes up an experience, game--or nongame.

Playing with this notion can lead to extreme reactions, as the comments on The Killer at Newgrounds underscore. Magnuson said most of the ratings are either one or ten, basically a love or hate reaction.

Take this one, for example.

"I came here to play a game, not wasting my time with this sentimental sob story crap," said a user named xzibition8612, not pulling any punches. "Who gives a shit what happens in cambodia? I don't care what happens there as long as they keep making my shoes and sushi. Don't waste everybody's time under the pretense of a game."

It doesn't phase Magnuson, but he worries about what it means.

"I think if we're afraid of 'losing fun,' we're going to severely limit our potential for exploration where this medium is concerned, and that would be a shame," he said. "Games are going to be around forever...I don't think we have to worry that our grandchildren are going to end up in some kind of grayscale world where they're forced to play boring notgames all day long. So my feeling is, let's not worry about it 'working.' Let's experiment, and see what's outside the box. I think there's plenty of room for all varieties of fun and emotion and meaning to exist together, and side by side."

Patrick Klepek on Google+
285 Comments
Posted by Macabros

Good, interesting story and thoughts. Video games should evolve more.

Posted by RagingLion

Yep, I want more as well Patrick.  Lots more to be explored.  Also, I detest the sentiment in the comment you quoted.

Posted by DuhQbnSiLo

Video Games are an amazing media that has seriously been under-used this generation. Developers just want to please the masses just to get rich. No one is willing to push the limits or  try something different. Just like music, the publishers have taken control over the producers. It's do what we say or your game never sees the light of day. It wont change because there are always people with no life, specially in America where tv is the fuel for people. People need their video games and blindly support and believe anything they see on it.

Posted by Cirdain

Apparently I am a good person :)

Edited by warmonked

Given that there's absolutely no narrative, why does everyone assume you're playing a bad guy?

Edited by whitesox

I, personally, was not emotionally moved by this project. However, for me, this project highlights the possibility for emotionally impacting games in the future.

Is this a game? I don't know, but I do know I'd like to see something similar in the future.

PS- Bringing Patrick on was a great decision.

Posted by louiedog

I wasn't surprised by the Newgrounds comments, but some of them here do surprise me. I guess when I consider myself part of a community I want to believe that maybe I joined something better. Even some people who are somewhat constructive in their criticism still show some of it in a very aggressive way. This is why we can't have nice things. This is part of the reason there's still a mainstream idea that video games lack value and that gamers are immature. Some people do their best to maintain that. Let's be better.

Posted by donkeyclaws

Patrick, let me just say, that ever since you came to this site, I've been following it a lot more. You're articles bring more to the site then ever before, and this one especially brought forth one of the things I rarely see on a game website, and that is emotion.

Edited by Mercanis

Not all books are fun to read; not all movies are fun to watch. The lack of "fun" certainly doesn't have to detract from the quality of the experience.

However, the idea of "game" goes back centuries and carries a lot of "fun" connotations with it. Should we try to redefine the word or come up with a new one?

Posted by Brendan

I think that using this a some sort of opposite to the evil money making games of today is a little much. It was interesting and imparted it's message, but the journey to get to that message extended too long to hold my interest when the point was made.

Edited by Moztacular

Certainly worth three minutes of my time not bad, click the link patrick made for that one guy's negative review and it shows a bunch of other 0/10 scores they're hilarious to read. (and of course they've all been downvoted to the back of the reviews page). Still interesting to see how impatient/uncaring/uninterested/ or whatever some of the people are there but that was part of what patrick is saying in this little article.

Posted by ShiftyMagician

It is very interesting to see based on comments and user reviews, exactly how accurate the creator was in his point that people cannot put aside the 'fun' out of a video game to try and achieve something else.  I also found it quite interesting that the creator didn't give any info about what is going on even in the critical decision, making you decide what you would do in a given scenario.  Unfortunately, people still view it as a game and just pick a choice without a care in the world.  Shows how people really treat decision making in games these days.

Posted by Itwastuesday

I don't understand how I'm supposed to get emotional about stick figures and sappy music.

Posted by leebmx
@NubMonk@NubMonk said:
If you want to inform people then write an article, make a documentary, write a book. Don't make a "game". Yeah it's horrible that such horrible things happened to these people but there are better ways to tell people about it than through a barely interactive, barely emotional experience. Games are meant to be a fun escape from the real world. I don't play games to get a "deep message maaaaaaaaaan"
You don't, but other people might and there's room for all of us. Games (or whatever you want to call it) like this don't stop the things you consider fun from being produced. I don't understand why experiences such as The Killer provoke such an angry reaction, it's almost as if people feel threatened that someone might make them think. 
 Games can be anything, and mean anything we want them to - why limit them to your narrow definition?
Posted by ThePwnee

Music was kind of lame. Should have been set to Holiday in Cambodia lol

Posted by Vigil80

One of the main things art is supposed to be about is expression.

Is this "notgame" the most powerful way this subject could be presented? No. But kudos to this guy for trying and putting his stuff out there. Important work doesn't just mean the "best" work.

Posted by RockinKemosabe

Hey I have that song that plays during the game.

Posted by MattyFTM

Is it just me, or does the landmine ending seem a little out of place? I mean, the most powerful thing about the game is the decision whether to shoot or not shoot the guy. Ending the game before that seems to defeat the point.

Moderator
Posted by Twisted_Scot

Walking for 10 mins only to get to my destination and die, it's like playing Bad Company 2 MP for me.

Posted by Phished0ne

Finally, someone who makes  interactive entertainment thats not a game, and happily embraces it being "notgame". 
 
But my whole thing is..why?  why do we want our 'games' to be like this? (if we do)   Im not gonna be the mean guy that brings the hammer down..but shouldn't our  "games" be fun? I guess thats why he dosent call them games.  

Posted by bill

didnt feel like holding the space bar past 5 seconds. got bored, not interested in this "notgame"

Posted by Tebbit

Playing that game made me think of Flower. If you want to use the dictionary definition, Flower was not "fun". What it was, was ambient, emotional, and beautiful, and as someone who games, I derive fun from that.

Posted by probablytuna

Towards the end I was thinking whether or not it is possible to shoot anything but the person in front of me. I figured I might need to shoot the person again if I somehow missed so I just shot the person down. It's an interesting "experiment", if you can call it that.

Posted by sixghost

Some of these comments make be embarrassed to enjoy video games.

Posted by HydraHam

Song was atrocious to the point where i had to back and load with just ambient sounds, and i don't like the smug way the deveopler put the "for people who don't mind the idea of exploring an emotional topic etc.", that is how i wanted to play this game but the music ruined that for me.

As for the game/non-game it's self i don't really see the appeal, played it twice and both times i wasn't into it, is it supposed to invoke emotions when i have to shoot the guy? when im pushing him towards his death? i can't feel emotional or empathy for a stick figure, maybe i am trying to hard to understand what this game is about or maybe it's just over my head.

Posted by Deusx

Another great article patrick. I love hearing about this kinds of games. Few can affect you emotionaly.

Posted by crusader8463

Sorry, but as a game, or "not game" as he calls it, he failed to make his point if it was supposed to resonate with me in some way. If you were like me and had no idea what those stick people were supposed to represent while you not played the not game then it was just me holding down space for 5 minutes, then accidentally shooting my gun in the air when I couldn't move anymore and I didn't notice the crosshair and was just randomly hitting buttons to make something happen. That doesn't exactly make for a powerful or memorable experience. At least for me.
 
Reading the above article I get what he was going for now, but I think that was a very poorly designed game, I refuse to say not game again as it just feels too pretentious to me, as it's impossible to know what you are even supposed to be doing as those stick men unless you know what the game is meant to represent before hand. 

Posted by RockinKemosabe

I've noticed that the majority of the negative comments on this article are coming from non-subscribers. Just saying an observation.

Edited by Branthog

I have room in my head and heart for innovative and moving experiences, but let's not get carried away, here. There wasn't much to this and without all of the context provided in Patrick's article, it's completely meaningless. The first time I played, I walked for a minute until we exploded on a landmine. Next time, we made it to the field and I chose not to do what was expected of you and that was the end.

I have room for different experiences, but you aren't a superior person because you dismiss the dude-bro genre (as bad as we agree it can be) and embrace artsy-fartsy. This experience was minimal, not informative, and fairly flat. The only compelling aspect of it was the very beginning where the music combines with the death march aspect of it to present a quite beautiful moment.

Some people have this tendency to be overly enthusiastic about certain things that they believe will give others the perception that the individual is more thoughtful, intellectual, sensitive, and hip. They're incredibly insincerely sincere. Don't you think I'm an interesting and deep human being? Look how much I love the whales and mother earth, you son of a bitch! Look at how hard I am caring! And I have a book of poetry in my hand, so you know I am a sensitive bloke! Just look at it!

I see that happen all too often with games. Look at a good portion of the people who wet themselves for six straight months over Braid. I enjoyed Braid. It was curious and new and encouraged a new exploring aspect. Some people just went way too far in a seemingly disingenuous . . . well . . . hipsterish sort of way. It started to seem like they were trying too hard to like something different, because it flavored their persona.

I'm sorry if I come across as dismissive of this gentleman's particular piece of work. It's just that there seemed to be so little there and so little conveyed. You can't blame people on that website for scoring it poorly if the only context you give for it is "this was inspired from my trip to Cambodia". More information needs to come through the experience itself, if it's to mean anything to the person interfacing with it. You shouldn't have to develop a story (or a giantbomb article) around it to really get across why you should be so damn affected by it and why it should move you so much and how you're just a dude-bro retard if you didn't sit for five minutes after reaching the field and sob to yourself.

It seems like something that is of more value to the author as a piece of expression for himself of an experience he had rather than conveying any of that experience to the rest of us. The real question is, how did this come to move Patrick so much that he felt it necessary to develop an article around this one piece of content, when surely there must be others that accomplish far more in the same sort of "artsy emotional" intent?

Cheers for more original content in the future that isn't just another game review, press release, or game trailer. However, please don't become one of those sites with a flood of content that is asserted to be very thoughtful and provocative but is really just a bunch of junior college lunchroom wanking about "serious social issues". Those are occasionally great, when they're clearly unique and sincere and have something to add to an interesting discussion. Not so much when you feel like you're just reading a navel-gazing attempt at self-branding. (*cough* gamasutra *cough*).

Posted by BoG

I totally agree with Mr.Magnuson, and I enjoyed his non-game. I've always been concerned with how games can be "more." One of my biggest concerns about the medium is that it's dominated by Hollywood action movie equivalents. So many of our greatest games are... shallow. Don't get me wrong, I love them all. Games, primarily, are fun diversions. However, I think we really limit games when we only focus on this. Games have a terrific opportunity as an art form, and a form of expression. Interaction is unique to games, and there is so much potential in that aspect. I totally support Mr.Magnusson, and his desire to express his ideas through games, or, "non-games."

Posted by RenegadeSaint

@warmonked said:

Given that there's absolutely no narrative, why does everyone assume you're playing a bad guy?

That's a valid and interesting point. However, I'd have to argue that marching a prisoner away from his home and executing him in cold blood is objectively wrong. If you have a suitably dramatic narrative about revenge, betrayal, or murder, is it then okay to kill a man, leaving his body to rot in a field? Of course we are dealing with a hypothetical here, but the video game extremes we know as good and bad do not hold up in the real world.

I really like this project because it is causing a bit of a ruckus among people who aren't accustomed to being morally challenged in their interactive experiences. It is not fun, it is not much of a game (a notgame, as Magnuson puts it), but it is very different. More of a philosophical thought problem than an actual answer to Cambodia's problems, there is certainly some worth in its existence.

Posted by Damian

Hey, if this shitty "game" can make one ignorant kid grab a book and reap up on some realworld, under-exposed tragedy like "Year Zero", then, fuck it. It was all worth it. My comments on how good or bad the gameplay or music is don't mean squat. Buddy wanted to have an effect and pass along a message. 
We're talking about. Done and done. 
 
And "GB's gone soft" and "sad things are for queers"? Seriously, people? I guess this guy is gonna have to find a way to slip his messages into an episode of Manswers to get a simple message across.

Posted by IamTerics

I played this one Sniper game once. There was a guy attached to this pole and you were supposed to shoot him. I did and that was the game. If you tried to restart and play again it was just him dead.

Posted by Itwastuesday
@RockinKemosabe said:

I've noticed that the majority of the negative comments on this article are coming from non-subscribers. Just saying an observation.

@RockinKemosabe: That is just plain false. Click any random page of comments and there are plenty of subscribers and non-subscribers arguing for both sides. Also, you are now officially the biggest douche on the website for having said or thought that. You are sucking your own dick so hard here, I can't believe it. It' so rare that I see such asshole elitism flaunted so brazenly. HEY GUYS NOT ONLY DID I LOVE THE ART NONGAME BECAUSE OF MY VERY SOPHISTICATED ART MIND, BUT ONLY DIRTY UNWASHED PEASANT NON-SUBSCRIBERS WOULD EVEN BE CAPABLE OF NOT LIKING THIS!
Posted by DG991

Ok, I played it.

Kinda obvous theme set to sappy music.

Come on don't be dumb... there are better examples of expression by video games.

Posted by Alex_V

Terrific write up of a wonderful game. Thanks...

Posted by craigbo180

Not as good as Halo.

Posted by Beforet

Hey, guys, make sure not to rub your shoulders raw as you pat each other on the back.

Posted by TanoPrime

I lol'd at the mine when the music starting putting me to sleep.  As I have total apathy toward stick people, he was gonna catch a bullet anyway so it worked out well in the end!
Posted by Zor

While I kind of understand what he was going for by making this notgame, I have to say, it wasn't interesting. I have played the villain role before in a game, and I already knew of these events (the killing fields). In my opinion the walking scene was far too long, and he should have added a scene at the start where the player takes/drags out the prisoner to give a little bit more story. 
 
In the end it is nice that he is trying to spread knowledge of these events, it just, to me, it seem like he doesn't know what he wants the user to feel, so in the end, the product feels unpolished (hence why he pushes the argument of it being art).

Posted by 02sfraser

I think it was a lot better to read this after I had played it since it gave me something to relate the whole thing to. Really good write up.

Posted by warmonked

@RenegadeSaint said:

@warmonked said:

Given that there's absolutely no narrative, why does everyone assume you're playing a bad guy?

That's a valid and interesting point. However, I'd have to argue that marching a prisoner away from his home and executing him in cold blood is objectively wrong. If you have a suitably dramatic narrative about revenge, betrayal, or murder, is it then okay to kill a man, leaving his body to rot in a field? Of course we are dealing with a hypothetical here, but the video game extremes we know as good and bad do not hold up in the real world.

It might not be "good" but I'd sure as hell feel better in that scenario :)

I really like this project because it is causing a bit of a ruckus among people who aren't accustomed to being morally challenged in their interactive experiences. It is not fun, it is not much of a game (a notgame, as Magnuson puts it), but it is very different. More of a philosophical thought problem than an actual answer to Cambodia's problems, there is certainly some worth in its existence.

I totally agree with your sentiment. Some people are going nuts for no reason at all. If you go into this expecting something fun or entertaining, you'll be sorely disappointed.

Edited by ghostNPC

So many people here taking that commenter, xzibition8612's opinion.  It's truly sad that we have those people on this website.  I'm glad the ones that agree with Patrick actually take their time and write an intelligent post.

Posted by m2cks

I do not see the point to which all of this negative criticism is directed towards. It seems as though many of the negative arguments, in my opinion, seem to focus on how it isn't a game. Well...with a genre entitled "notgame", I honestly have no words other than "What the Hell did you expect?" I for one saw through that fact, and I found myself enthralled at how simplistic yet so moving it was. In particular, I liked the crude, minimalistic pixel art just barely representing what you are playing; it lets the player expand on the situation and the theme in a more graphic matter in his/her imagination. And that speaks volumes. I have always been aware of genocides in Africa and the like, but never did I focus on Cambodia. Well, now I know, and I thank this "notgame" for teaching me something interesting, for lack of a better word.

Posted by RelentlessKnight

this is why you don't want to look at the comments/"review" section of this flash game in Newgrounds. Racist morons like xbitionlion are the reason why you NEVER should take criticism from those sites.  
 
Although I have to disagree with Magnuson, why make a (non) game about a extremely lethal topic?

Posted by Make_Me_Mad

Eh, I've seen better experiments in making you think about moral decisions in video games.  I've enjoyed some of them.  This was just "Hold space and wonder why you can't just shoot the guy right in front of his house, it'd be way more efficient that way".

Online
Posted by Sildfisk

I just read a great story in Swedish magazine "fienden" about the games of Yoshiro Kimura & Kenichi Nishi. Starting in 1997 they have made some games that try to say something about what it is to be human (Moon, Lack of love, Chulip, Chibi-Robo and Rule of Rose). They all sound super interesting, but I have no idea how to get a hold of them. Might be worth checking out anyway!

Posted by Fuga

I left it for like five minutes and nothing happened. Patrick are you trolling me

Posted by JDW519

Wow, pretty great article, and quite a 'non game'. It would be great to see more stuff like this, I like things that make me think a little.

Posted by mrmanga

Thank you so much for sharing this Patrick it was quite a deep little experience to "play" this. It took me some time but in the end i fired at the sky letting the captive go. I just could not make myself shoot him for some reason.