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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 aceofspudz

I wasn't affected by the game until at the end when the guy was tumbling after you shot him, and I saw the first of the other bodies and realized it was a mass grave.

It helped that going in I knew a little bit about the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields.

Posted by TheMustacheHero

Is this a test to see if someone's a psycho? I walked all the way and shot in the air.... I don't know why.

Posted by wafflez

This to me is a prime example of why video games are classified as art.  There is no back story for who you are, where you are, where you're going or who is in front of you.  But it sparks a reaction none the less.  Sure some of it is pretty obvious, but after a prolonged journey (which is there for a reason, if you just choose at the start, there is no impact, you can just replay it and see the other ending) and at the end of it you choose how it ends.  Its a perfect blend of feeling for who you are and the difficult decision that you have to face.  Why is that person in front of you?  what did he do?  why do I have to do anything to him?  Sure these are all rhetorical, but if you think about these things, they take true meaning.  I dont see anywhere where someone said this game was 'fun' or 'exciting'.  If you think its an artsy fartsy POS, then I feel truly sorry for you.   We live in such a secluded world that we don't understand what Cambodia or any third world county is like.  Or even just a certain segment of their history or culture is about.  
 
I thank Patrick for having the gumption to write something that has a lot of emotional backing behind it.  He has opened up Giant Bomb as something more than just 'the place I go to laugh about bad games and listen to a podcast.'  Maybe some people don't like that, but I do and I hope he continues. 

Posted by Myre

Great article, but all I could think about while moving forward to music is that Techno Kitten Adventure was a way better game.

Posted by TheWan

great article and great game. The moment we as gamers define what a game is it's all downhill from there. Interactive experiences or video games whatever you want to call them, it's trying to do something different and that you Jordan Magnuson and Patrick Klepek for introducing me and others to this.

Edited by Jethuty

Five words struck me hard while i was "playing" the game: Incrediblely pretentious and horribly lazy.

A hit and miss Patrick......

Posted by hoossy

I appreciated it for sure... and I found a new artist that I like.. so I'm 2 for 2     hooray!

Posted by Twinzero

Another great article! I love to see coverage of these kinds of games and issues, and I agree that the medium (though not necessarily the industry) stands to benefit a lot from experiments like this "nongame"

Posted by JohnRabbit
We're in agreement there, even if I understand the precarious balance, as ultimately games need to make money.

I disagree that games need to make money.

Online
Posted by Jumanji

A parasitic trekker who can't program made an unbelievably shitty "game". If you want to see shit about how fucked up Cambodia was, go watch The Killing Fields.

Posted by ARTB

Thank you for this Patrick. It's awesome to have someone here showing us these extraordinary experiences.

Posted by NekuCTR

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.

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

@JohnRabbit said:

We're in agreement there, even if I understand the precarious balance, as ultimately games need to make money.

I disagree that games need to make money.

The people who make them need that money to make a living, and provide themselves and families with basic needs. You may not need to eat at McDonalds, but the poor guy that loses his job sure needs that money he was getting until he stopped being paid to flip burgers. It's hard to say if anything is really "needed" because there is always something connected to that thing.

@StrikerTheLizard said:

Did you castrate and burn 10 jews in your basements or why are you writing these "thoughtful and emotional" articles? How about VIDEO GAMES. I don't give a F about some Indonesian bloke dealing with the loss of his dog by playing Rapelay. Get a life.

Then don't click on the article that is clearly that. If you want a site dedicated to only what you give a fuck about, then go hire some poor saps to suck your dick and give all your favorite games glowing 5 star reviews. You aren't the only one coming to this site, and many of us in the community enjoy this stuff. It's not like your getting this instead of the newest juicy scoop. You aren't even a subscriber and you want them to cater just to you? lol.

Posted by Spiritof

Man, it must be tough living in a world filled with so many people that enjoy the box.

Posted by JohnRabbit

@MordeaniisChaos said:

@JohnRabbit said:

We're in agreement there, even if I understand the precarious balance, as ultimately games need to make money.

I disagree that games need to make money.

The people who make them need that money to make a living, and provide themselves and families with basic needs. You may not need to eat at McDonalds, but the poor guy that loses his job sure needs that money he was getting until he stopped being paid to flip burgers. It's hard to say if anything is really "needed" because there is always something connected to that thing.

I didn't say the creator's don't deserve to be rewarded for their creations, I said I disagree that games need to make money. Turn a profit. Line the pockets of a useless middleman who does absolutely nothing. Should art make money? Is art a product to be consumed?

Don't answer those questions because they're outside the purview of this article. The point I'm trying to raise is that its foolish to think all games everywhere should turn a profit in order to justify their existence.

Online
Posted by Mechanized

Didn't emotionally strike me that hard. But at the same time I get what it's trying to do. I tried to make the Killer commit suicide, but unfortunately that just counted as shooting into the air. I didn't think of myself as the killer at any point, I thought of him as any guerrilla leading someone to their death. Then with the music playing I felt like this killer who was essentially walking forever, didn't want to commit to killing his prisoner, so in my mind he had just as much sadness as the prisoner he was holding, he either led this guy to his death or released him(regardless of what outcome that may imply) and face repercussions he could not escape. So I decided to put him out of his own misery.

Posted by Maajin

Why, Patrick? Why would you spoil in the article title the one thing that would affect me in this experience?

Edited by George_Hukas

The implied story telling is lazy. I don't care what the creator was trying to accomplish, fact is he is telling a story through an interactive medium. Its a shallow story, and barely interactive.

If you have a meaningful story to tell, you should write a book.

I hardly see how the goofy pixel art compliments the serious nature of "the story".

Posted by ch3burashka

In this case, it's "faze", not "phase". 
 
Also, yay nongames.

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

@JohnRabbit: Profit is needed to invest in future operations. That money has to go somewhere, pay someone. Especially if you try and put out a game without a publisher, or start one without a publisher, you need money to start that project, and even if you have a publisher or financial backing, it's not going to pay for everything.

Have fun being a hipster though, my hat goes off to you.

Posted by JohnRabbit

@MordeaniisChaos:

apparently "hipster" is internet code-language for "someone who doesn't agree with what i'm saying".

you're not even seeing the point of my original post. artists should be rewarded for their art. the reward in this case, is money (or fame, respect, whatever). i just disagree with patrick's sentiment that games "need to make money" in order for them to be successful as games. games "need to make [their creators] money" in order for them to be successful business ventures. if you're comfortable with art and entertainment being dictated by lawyers and accountants by all means continue to teach lessons in economics 101.

Online
Posted by StaticFalconar

it wasn't until I stopped walking that I realized I was the one holding the gun. I seriously thought the entire time I was the one walking waiting to killed. 

Edited by RecSpec

I'm a sucker for games like these, I'm reminded of the weird game Passage.

Edit: nvm, should've read it better, haha

Posted by Mcfart

Holding space sucked.....little emotionial impact at the end, as I was busy nursing my poor finger.

Posted by ep_driver

Why does Patrick love this "game" so much? He's written about it before. Sometimes I feel like he tries too hard to write 'moving' or thought provoking articles that often result in a waste of words. 
 
Just my own opinion of course, but there it is. I dig his news contributions to the site, some better than any GB news content in the past, but the other half is poop like this. 
 
FIN.

Posted by AURON570

I put this in the same category as "One Chance". They're both great the first time you play it. They're nice experiments, and it'll be interesting if these kinds of games are realized on a bigger scale. But for now they're just experimental flash games. 
 
Also, I don't know why, but this suddenly made me think of hipsters.

Posted by MattBosten

Interesting experience and a clever way to convey the message. Reminds me of a 'game' I played a while back; it gave you one screen, a cross-hair and a stick figure against a wall. If you shoot, you get a game over and when you reload the guy is always dead thereafter.

For this I shot in the air at the end.

Posted by leebmx

This story has really brought out a lot of small minded, rude and aggressive people. If you don't agree with the story, or don't like the game then great. Forums are here for people to debate things like this but the amount of obnoxious, spiteful comments from people who don't even want articles like this written make me sad.  
 I didn't think The Killer was particually amazing, but good God, the rest of the internet is full of cut and paste, PR driven gaming "news." Patrick and the whole Giant Bomb crew seem to be trying to broaden their, and our horizons and I am staggered to think this angers people.

Posted by CletusTheFoetus

Made an impact on me, that's for sure. For those who argue about needing "gritty realism" to evoke some emotional response try reading a book or a poem - the ones without pictures.

For me, in terms of gameplay for lack of a better word, I got two things from it. First I played cautiously, prodding the figure until the end. I fired in the air feeling pretty proud of myself until I was informed that had I made that decision in real life, I would have been shot as well. I started to think about Cambodia and all I've seen and read.

I started again, this time driving the figure forward without stopping, thinking about what I would do when I got to the Killing Fields again. We didn't make it. I jump out of my seat. My heart didn't stop racing for about a minute. I think about all the explosions in games I've played, the atmosphere that Battlefield 3 will bring and how mundane it really is.

I think games can be so much more, I would love to see what a mind like Peter Molyneux or Ken Levine could do interms of interaction. I doesn't matter if the story is fact like this or fiction. It's about the interaction and response and so far games have required very little from us.

Posted by Olivaw

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.

Posted by Michaelblack18

this thank you patrick for a very good article i played and shot in the air but afterwards seeing one spared cannot compared to the millions left there dead the music mixed in well with the atmosphere i get what the designer and make of this had in not to make play around but to endure to really think about everything that is going on around you wanting you to open your mind more 

Posted by MordeaniisChaos

@JohnRabbit: No, you literally just sounded incredibly hipstery with your language and sounding like a hippy. Which I don't disagree with.

And I did misunderstand somewhat. Your right that to be successful as a game it doesn't need to make money. However. He never said as a game he just said they need to make money. Which is true. Everything has it's value, and money is important, like it or not. Art is obviously much more than something to be sold, but that doesn't mean artists need money any less. In fact, they don't get nearly ENOUGH money. All the money in artistry is in digital arts, in fact. Obviously there is more value to art than what I'm willing to pay for it, but that doesn't make the money unimportant.

Posted by FuzzYLemoN

That was boring.

Posted by sthusby

I haven't read any like the articles Patrick Kleppeck writes before he came to GiantBomb, and I got to say, this is what gaming press needs!

Posted by abara

I'm glad that GB is willing to spend time disseminating and discussing experiments and art pieces like this. Despite what the trolls and troglodytes may say, I think the burgeoning space for thought experiments like this and Jason Rohrer's works is a noteworthy and fascinating offshoot to the video game culture we all love (or love to hate).
 
I hope you continue to write about things like this, Patrick.

Posted by prestonhedges
@CletusTheFoetus said:

Made an impact on me, that's for sure. For those who argue about needing "gritty realism" to evoke some emotional response try reading a book or a poem - the ones without pictures.

Except this dude didn't write a book or a poem. He made a flash game that rips off other, better flash games.
Edited by Gerhabio

Sure, artists or people in general are free to use interactive video as they like like any other medium. But yeah, like the creator said himself, it's doesnt feel like a game.

That said, it feels a little shallow (as in real short and lacking detail) as well. But if it gets people interested in the subject I guess that's enough.

Simple video (documentary) and anthropological studies (like ethnographies) are probably best suited for this type of documentation and exposition. Interactive mediums are OK for expressing emotion.

Ran into a mine.

Posted by apoloimagod

I wouldn't call it a not-game... I would rather call it a not-entertainment. Saying it's not a game would remove part of the elements that make this piece of software so impressing.

Edited by AngriGhandi

I went in blind, and didn't really notice the part where you said the game takes place in Cambodia-- so the combination of the slow pan down and the reveal text afterwards were pretty powerful.

People ask whether games are ever going to get more "serious--" and yes, heavier ideas are going to continue to find their way into mainstream games, here and there-- but independent projects like this are always going to be where actual statements get made, precisely because they don't need to operate under the requirements of being a game. They can totally undermine your expectations. And that's why I'm always glad to see them highlighted-- even on a decidedly un-heavy, feel-good site like this one. So yeah, great article.

Posted by yorro

Both are prisoners of their own world.
 
If this does happen in Cambodia and if I have a decision to end it all, I would without a second thought. Unfortunately I don't have that power, the only decision I can make is whether I dwell on this or not.  The thing is: I will still live my life, do I need to dwell on this? No, life has given me ample amount of stress already.
 
No matter what I decide, the outcome will be the same (just like the choice of the man with the gun, same outcome).

Edited by tourgen

Great scam this guy is running.  Kickstart cash to travel the world and make shitty flash nongames.
 
I gave his game as much consideration as he did making it - none.  Craftsmanship is worth something dude.  Get some skills.

Posted by InternetDetective

Hands down funniest game of 2011.

Posted by animaltime

Another Flash game I've played reminded me of this.  
It's called One Chance, and the game will lock you out after you finish it, giving your decisions real meaning. 
http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/555181 

Posted by Pezen

I think where this (non-)game succeeds and fails is at the heart of the whole thing. It's a creation that reflects one person's idea of what something was through a song that sets the whole pace. I would consider the idea that the killings were probably a lot less melancholic and more stressful and brutal. The walking, as noted by some, is a bit of a chore and personally I figured I was the victim. So when I finally stopped and it told me to aim I realized who I was. As for things having to be fun or games because they're interactive, I personally don't think "games" have to be "fun", but they should be engaging and pique my interest in some way.

But at the same time, just because an interactive experience is about something tragic, doesn't mean it's free from criticism.

Posted by AxleBro

 this was really interesting for me. i shot into the air because i was all caught up in the music emotionally.
 

however the reviews on newgrounds made me realize how dumb so many people are. let me more or less  paste a good example:
 
0/10 "boreing"
 
"i dont get it sense all i do is hole space and we walk, when do i get to do anything. this is not even fun, 0/10"
 
another one was the dude asking how to shoot.
 
 it still baffles me that people are unable to understand stuff like this. how can one even function in society without any kind of comprehensive capabilities. even reading the comments here i see some people who just don't get it.

Posted by Guided_By_Tigers

  

Posted by RsistncE

Absolutely astounding that a simply pixel art "notgame" with a well selected music track can make more of an emotional impact than 99% of the stuff Hollywood puts out in the same category.

Posted by ProlificShadow

That was surprisingly powerful. People like  xzibition8612 are the reasons why we don't see more of this. It's sad really. 

Posted by TheHumanDove

What I found interesting was how most people that hated the game, shot the guy at the end.

Interesting indeed...