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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 Rothbart

A lot of people are commenting on how this "notgame" challenges their moral convictions and whatnot, but for me it sort of fell flat. I mean, of course you're not going to shoot the guy. Unless you're in detached "this is just a video game" mode, no sane person is just going to randomly shoot a guy that they don't even know. The message about Cambodia is a valid one, but the experience gives nothing new. Especially with the grating music on. I'm glad I played with ambient noises the first time round.

All in all "The Killer" is... well, underwhelming. If the only question I have to ask myself to know what kind of a person I am is "Will I shoot this guy whom I forced to march for two days?", life is a lot less complicated than I thought. The pretense of art does not automatically give something value.

Posted by HerbieBug
@Haru48 said:

Honestly, I thought the presentation of this 'piece' was pretty lazy. I thought of at least half a dozen ways that could have made a stronger impact, other than an excruciatingly long and needless walk. I understand that contemplation is one of the strongest ways to drum up emotion, but only having to hold space made me rest my head in my hand rather than contemplate the ways that I would put a bullet in the dude. also the tiny pixel art made it hard to grasp any context. is this dude I'm going to execute black, or does he have a bag over his head? am I in a forgen country or am I about to rob a bank? Why the hell should I care where that field is? and after the confusing and boring walk then it gives me context, so much for that contemplation. basically it's a waste of time, don't play it, read a text book and you'll get the same effect.

Yep.
 
I appreciate what he's trying to do, but the subject matter and intent does not excuse the shortcomings of the presentation.  This is one of the things I argued a lot about with other students back in art school.  There has to be a certain level of craft that we must all strive for.  It's not enough that the idea and message is a good one.    
Posted by HerbieBug
@Do_The_Manta_Ray said:

Now, let's just entertain the idea that this was all a psychological test, a means to ascertain your own take upon said difficult issue. In this case, I recommend this game. "YouFindYourselfInARoom". Try it here. It's a really minimalistic game. A non-game, you could say. But one that requires you to think, to process, and to think. It doesn't spoon-feed you anything, but simply offers things you do not want to hear as a reward for your efforts. In the words of the author: "It's a game that slowly realizes that it hates you, and everything you stand for."


I just played through this.  It's unfortunate the designer decided to put that quote right at the beginning of the game.  It kind of spoils the whole reveal. 
Posted by mshaw006

Has anybody ever had Cambodian sushi? 

Posted by rocketboot

Post your speedrun times!

But seriously, that shit was boring. I'd rather watch a movie or read a book about what went down in Cambodia than hold down my spacebar for 3 minutes waiting for something to happen.

Edited by Do_The_Manta_Ray

@HerbieBug: Actually agree with you, mate. Despite the fact that it loses some of it's impact, I still think it's pretty much a prime example of how much you can do with so very little. Making your way through the game actually requires you to pay attention and to process all of the information given to you, and that includes the almost sickening blows beneath the belt that it dishes out. It's a very, very intellectual way to say "Pay attention!", and I've got to say, upon finishing the game, I had that same, little tingle of accomplishment as when I finished Portal for the first time.

He made another great game, a bit in the same spirit, called "The Company of Myself", which is shockingly similair to Braid, despite being released way before Braid even painted the horizon. A source of inspiration for one of the greatest 2D platformers we've had in the last years, maybe? Give it a try here. I really enjoyed the game and it's concept; without spoiling too much, it's an interesting way to deal with loneliness, and literally how to "build bridges" between you and your fellow man. Hint, hint.

Posted by afrofools

I shot the sky, I'm a good guy.

Posted by insanejedi

This isn't deep or powerful in any way Patrick. It's cheap. It's a piece of art (yes art, because everything expressing an idea or opinion is art, though there is good and bad art) that uses an emotionally impactful scene like a mass grave as a cheap grab at your heart strings to say "You should care about Cambodia". If this is something of what modern games aspire to, then Uwe Boll has already surpassed us morally with his latest piece of work.
(warning, not only Uwe Boll but graphic images ahead)
  

Uwe's film does the exact same thing that the Flash game does. Takes a scene out of context to jar up our emotions to a state that allows us to be humbly taught "You're a terrible person and you should know about this." 
 
If this is what the artistic side of serious gamers are impressed by, then I highly doubt anyone outside this industry will take us artistically seriously. 
Posted by TheLeamenator

People have no fucking heart, no diversity. Take your heads out of your asses and stop trying contradict new ideas. This is why I can't stand most video game fans. They're like the fat family cat that nobody cares about. They're too afraid of change. I'm takin' my ass back to Screened!

Posted by RE_Player1

I shot the guy... I feel like a douche. Cool concept of spreading a message. Please people stop critiquing this as a game.

Posted by Luck3ySe7en

@Olivaw said:

Articles like this always make me sad, because when I'm finished reading them I scroll down too far and see the comments and realize that most Giant Bomb users, and the vast majority of people playing video games, are either unable or unwilling to have this discussion.

Hell, most of them are probably unaware that there is a discussion to be had. And that's almost as depressing as the end of this nongame/game/thing.

My thoughts exactly. I was honestly glad i came to this article today and played the game (with no idea of what the theme was). Now I kind of regret coming down here. Still, i hope people who are curious ask themselves why things happen beyond just trying to get to the credits in a game. I wish i could go back to a year ago when the GB forums were lit up with chatter about the ending of Red Dead Redemption. Not just to say, "wow, cool ending. Unexpected.", but to ask themselves exactly why what happened had to happen. The threads went beyond discussing the gameplay and cougar ninjas. People wanted to know the meaning of Marston's journey and his ultimate "redemption". The same goes for a lot of games (Portal 2, Half-Lives, Bioshock, etc.)

Posted by InternetDetective

"I do not think this game is important therefore I do not care about bad stuff that happened on Earth and probably kick kittens and beat homeless people. also I am ignorant and watch Ultimate Fighting on my gas powered 83" plasma television." - American Giantbombs Reader

Pat yourself on the back and brag in a Facebook update if you defended this shitty "game" in the comment section of this article.

Posted by Fenrisulfr

So, after reading the article and playing the game a couple of times (first time I tried firing, nothing happened), I've come to two conclusions: 1) you should play the game blind and 2) pretentious games, movies and books make me sick. Especially the ones that tell me I need to care about something.

No.

Okay, going in blind, and figure out what's going on? You're pushing a captive somewhere. Who was he? What had he done? Was he an enemy? Was he a traitor? A thief? A murderer? Someone who slept with the wrong person? All I know is that I have a gun, the other one is tied up, and I'm pushing him somewhere. When I get to the beach, the what ifs no longer matter. I'm sure my purpose is obvious: he is an enemy and needs to die. I shoot him. The body falls into a mass grave and then I'm treated to a "You monster. You killed someone. Feel bad. Back in the 1970's, Cambodia had a violent civil conflict that resulted in X number of people dying." Yeah, back before I was born, and I need to feel sorry for that? No. Human history has proven only one thing: the strong will flourish and the weak will die. Now, granted, I believe in a fair conflict. Each side gets armed and then they slug it out to decide whose right it is to rule over that land. But, that's only if the oppressed are willing to fight back. There was no remorse for shooting this "victim." He was the enemy. Plain and simple. I pulled the trigger because it was in my best interest, as an individual and as a group.

Besides that, the 70's was a really fucked up time in recent history all around.

@Luck3ySe7en:

Do you mean what Marston's death meant metaphorically or literally? There's a lot that could be said with only a few words either way.

Posted by csl316

@afrofools said:

I shot the sky, I'm a good guy.

Same.

Anyway, mass murder is terrible, no question about it. But this notgame, or whatever you wanna call it, didn't grab me in any way. Fun, or a sense of some sort of audio/visual wonder, makes a game worth playing. This message could've just been accomplished with a Flash movie.

Honestly, this just reminded me of spam emails with sad facts, sad music, and sad photos that attempt to make you feel guilty because you aren't in a less fortunate part of the world.

But it is what it is. So congrats on making what you wanted, I guess.

Posted by Giantstalker

This "game", The Killer, made me cringe because it's designed to make people feel violence, suffering, and injustice in another part of the world.

After my first tour to Afghanistan, I realized that no form of media can make you really realize any of that or even appreciate it. You have to be there, you have to work despite it, and deal with it during your time there. As a soldier it provided a wildly different perspective on matters such as collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Things like this aim for a cheap emotional response, but there's nothing else behind it. It's making you think about what you've done but you don't really need to deal with it, or really live with it, and that's not a fair way to assess what it's portraying. It's evoking awareness, but not understanding.

If you're going to call it a game, make it what games should be; enjoyment, intrigue, competition, fun. Stuff like this is just gives true games a bad name in my (admittedly jaded) view. I honestly consider this nothing more than a tasteless attempt at art.

Online
Posted by TheDudeOfGaming

Fictional stuff is fictional.

Posted by myghart

I shot the guy. Then I kind of wished I had shot the others, too.

Posted by Red

I think The Killer is interesting, although I don't think I know anyone who would actually kill the guy, as the game ends either way. There are some old rants by Anthony Burch when he was over at Destructoid that this discussion reminds me of, pertaining to the ending of Fallout 3. In short, you gain nothing by dying or killing at the end, so there's no reason to not be a hero. However, if say, the option was presented in the middle of your quest, it would've been a much better moral choice. What if you were on the main questline of a game, and all of a sudden a grenade was thrown into a room with some companions you had been traveling with, and if you say, decided to jump on the grenade, they would stay alive, but you would die, and your quest would end, your save being wiped out in the process. It's something I would've liked to have seen in Mass Effect 2's final suicide mission, with the only way for everyone to make it out alive being you staying behind in the Collector Base or something.
 
Anyways, while the whole player empowerment thing is fun, it doesn't have to be in every game. The best parts of BioShock's were when you had to find ways to take down Big Daddies when you were low on supplies, not when you were running through the level, annihilating splicers. More games need to experiment with weakness, as those can be the most memorable parts of a game experience. 
 
Lastly, while I understand why people would just want to play a game for fun, it's not like a couple games that make you think will make there ever be any shortage of military shooters. Some people just like action movies, but that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be dramas for other people. Games should do something similar.

Posted by -Vigil-

Truly amazing. Very grateful that it let me spare the little guy, but wow. That ending.
 
I've been wanting to get into game design for a long time, not just to entertain, but to touch, teach and inspire. The industry could truly use some more heart and emotion.

Posted by Klaimore

That was interesting I personally liked it.

Posted by YukoAsho
@Giantstalker said:

This "game", The Killer, made me cringe because it's designed to make people feel violence, suffering, and injustice in another part of the world.

After my first tour to Afghanistan, I realized that no form of media can make you really realize any of that or even appreciate it. You have to be there, you have to work despite it, and deal with it during your time there. As a soldier it provided a wildly different perspective on matters such as collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Things like this aim for a cheap emotional response, but there's nothing else behind it. It's making you think about what you've done but you don't really need to deal with it, or really live with it, and that's not a fair way to assess what it's portraying. It's evoking awareness, but not understanding.

If you're going to call it a game, make it what games should be; enjoyment, intrigue, competition, fun. Stuff like this is just gives true games a bad name in my (admittedly jaded) view. I honestly consider this nothing more than a tasteless attempt at art.

@insanejedi said:
This isn't deep or powerful in any way Patrick. It's cheap. It's a piece of art (yes art, because everything expressing an idea or opinion is art, though there is good and bad art) that uses an emotionally impactful scene like a mass grave as a cheap grab at your heart strings to say "You should care about Cambodia". If this is something of what modern games aspire to, then Uwe Boll has already surpassed us morally with his latest piece of work.
(warning, not only Uwe Boll but graphic images ahead)
  
Uwe's film does the exact same thing that the Flash game does. Takes a scene out of context to jar up our emotions to a state that allows us to be humbly taught "You're a terrible person and you should know about this."   If this is what the artistic side of serious gamers are impressed by, then I highly doubt anyone outside this industry will take us artistically seriously. 
While I won't judge Auschwitz until I've seen it (is it on Blu-Ray?), you make a fine point.  It's easy to fill a work with shocking and distressing images, but putting them together to form a meaningful story, that's the trick.  Cheap cop-outs can never be a substitute for presenting a message in a meaningful way.  While Cambodia and many other 3rd world countries are hellholes, that needs to be framed in a way that makes the player give a crap.  Call of Duty, despite its frequent ridiculousness, really hammers home the ultimate futility of war, with its only end being the loss of ever more lives in ever more terrible ways, and people pay attention because they're engaged.  You can't make people care without engaging them.
Posted by desolation15

I'm the kind of person who would sit thru a pretentious drivel and not read anyone else's comment to gripe about the current trend in flash gaming. God, it makes me miss the days when putting a hamster in the microwave is consider the apex of flash games.
 
Also, never dig your own grave and always make a break for it if being marched to your death. What are they going to do? Kill you? Fucking let them dig your grave, that'll learn them.

Posted by Sharpless

Thanks for this, Patrick. This is exactly the sort of thing Giant Bomb could use more of.

Posted by bombedyermom

To put it simply, this project gives me hope for video games. There's so much potential in the medium to achieve something greater than "BOOM HEADSHOT!" I sincerely hope this becomes less of a rare phenomenon.

Posted by just_nonplussed

Hey, I posted about this game a while back. It literally got no replies. I guess it helps if you're staff, but kind of silly...

Posted by just_nonplussed
@Rattle618 said:
I guess a better executed form of this type of thing would be interesting, but this was just lazy.  I simply placed my phone on top of the space bar and moved on to other things once I realized that there was nothing else to what I was seeing/doing, then I shot the air once the dude knelt, and I feel absolutely no desire to do it again to see the other outcomes...
 
What did you want to be doing in the meantime..? Side quests? A little mini-game where you balance plates on your character's head? Shooting birds in the distance? This isn't GTA, or Fable. The walking is the build-up in the narrative. What did you want, just a button that says 'Shoot' / 'Do not shoot'? 
Maybe you're the lazy one, for not paying attention. It is what it is. 
Posted by Rattle618
@just_nonplussed said:
@Rattle618 said:
I guess a better executed form of this type of thing would be interesting, but this was just lazy.  I simply placed my phone on top of the space bar and moved on to other things once I realized that there was nothing else to what I was seeing/doing, then I shot the air once the dude knelt, and I feel absolutely no desire to do it again to see the other outcomes...
 What did you want to be doing in the meantime..? Side quests? A little mini-game where you balance plates on your character's head? Shooting birds in the distance? This isn't GTA, or Fable. The walking is the build-up in the narrative. What did you want, just a button that says 'Shoot' / 'Do not shoot'? Maybe you're the lazy one, for not paying attention. It is what it is. 
If you need me to spell this out for you I will. I expected:   
-Better art,  
-better sounds,  
-better music,  
-better and more creative ways to interact with the story. 
 
I understand the narrative structure and I found it lacking, hence my comment.
Posted by Smersh

Nice work Klepek, loving the depth you've brought to the bomb. 
Colour me inspired!

Posted by Anjon

It seems to me that the issue here is not with the concept of the game but how Magnuson categorizes it. He says that the term "game" carries connotations and expectations that the player has to have fun, which is echoed in the commentor's "Don't waste everybody's time under the pretense of a game." Magnuson tries to push "notgame" as a buzzword, but he shouldn't be calling it a game at all. He already mentioned plenty of times that it was an "experiment", so why not call it that instead of going "it's a game but not really".

It's kind of the problem i had with L.A. Noire in that t tries so hard to be more than a game, but still brandishes arbitrary mission rankings and powerups. If you want to be more than a game, then just do it and don't try to sugarcoat anything. You're only going to get more negative reactions.

Edited by Ragdrazi
@patrickklepek said:

"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."

 
So you been to school
For a year or two
And you know you've seen it all
In daddy's car
Thinkin' you'll go far
Back east your type don't crawl

Play ethnicky jazz
To parade your snazz
On your five grand stereo
Braggin' that you know
How the niggers feel cold
And the slums got so much soul

It's time to taste what you most fear
Right guard will not help you here
Brace yourself, my dear

It's a holiday in Cambodia
It's tough, kid, but its life
It's a holiday in Cambodia
Don't forget to pack a wife

You're a star-belly sneech
You suck like a leach
You want everyone to act like you
Kiss ass while you bitch
So you can get rich
But your boss gets richer off you

Well you'll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
'Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need, my son.

Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you'll kiss ass or crack

Pol pot, pol pot, pol pot, pol pot, etc.

And it's a holiday in Cambodia
Where you'll do what you're told
A holiday in Cambodia
Where the slums got so much soul (tee hee)
 
Pol pot
Posted by Brockly46

Pretty touching for a game that is a couple minutes long

Posted by sagesebas
@Mikular: I did the firing into the air thing to but I aimed it at my head and thought I was shooting myself.
Posted by Aetheldod

I feel ashamed by the response of the people at this forum ....  regarding the article great job Patrick and I wish you do more of its kind , regardless of what some backwater neanderthals tell you. As to the people who genuinly didn't liked it but didn't insult , I respect your opinions , just I will not of  those who insult whenever an attempt to make art/statement is made , I guess we know from where the people who destroys art/books etc. come from. 
As to the game I was surprised that I blew up at the mine , I was carried away by the music which worries me that maybe I am the type of person who can make an atrocity as long as I am enthralled by music :(  really I need to think about stuff. Also I am glad that new attempts are being made to deliver other types of games and hope that people keep making/finding them , just as I am eager for games like Journey.

Posted by PirateNeal

I like these kinda of games cause they spark conversation no matter what. Some feel the emotional impact (me included) and its incredibly refreshing, I like the short interactive poem comparison. Great article though, although i would of appreciated a "play first before reading" at the very start. These types of interactive art are best played with no expectation going in.