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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 thebigJ_A

The endings are definitely different. I shot in the air in mine, and it mention how lieutenants like me who refused to shoot were killed as well.

I shot in the air. It was a powerful, and strange, moment for me. My instinct as a gamer almost caused me to shoot the guy, but as he slowly sank to his knees, I realized I just couldn't. It was an evil thing to do, and I couldn't shoot an unarmed prisoner, even in a game. I was afraid I'd be stuck on that screen, but to my vast relief the game allowed me to shoot in the air. That relief crumbled when I realized what it represented. I'd have been killed for that act of mercy, and wouldn't have saved the prisoner.

Moving.

(Those "reviews" cause me to lose my faith in humanity, btw. Disgusting.)

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Posted by Geralt

Douches.....as far as the eye can see :1

Posted by ervonymous

Soul-searching is always a good thing even if this didn't do anything for me. Good ol' tarot cards.

Posted by Gold_Skulltulla

Really interesting read. I like the kinds of things Magnuson is interested in bringing up within games, but I don't feel like I had the emotional attachment to the figures that it seems like he was going for. I enjoyed the presentation and the pacing, but I never had that moment of suspension of disbelief where I actually felt invested. All told, it's still a decent hook for delving into some of the tragic history of Cambodia. Maybe it's worth noting that I chose the ambient music, and maybe the music track added that extra element that seemed lacking in my experience. Though, based on the selection between the two options, the Jonsi track seems like it would have come off as ham-fisted and cloying. Regardless, I hope to see more experiments in this vein and to hear about them on GB.

Posted by Stubert73

I still believe that video games could be one of the best ways to create empathy, and this experiment was a powerful example for me. Thanks for sharing. I would have never seen this otherwise.

Posted by TwoLines

Very interesting.  

What's fascinating, is that being a soldier and playing a game have something in common. 
You're given an order, you're expected to follow it through, failure is not an option.  

Also you, as a soldier or gamer, are devoid of symphaty at times. You don't feel connected to your actions. 
I'm not saying what you do in a video game you'd do in real life. 
I'm saying there is a connection. Our id is let loose, and terrible things happen.  
 
Even so, I knew what was going to happen, and I shot in the air. 
I think that hints at what kind of person you really are.

Posted by Quantical

Wow, thankyou for posting this Patrick, the music is beautiful in this.

Posted by ArchTeckGuru8

Reminds me of the Milgram Experiment: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

(not completely, just an abstract sense)

Posted by Deusoma
@ProlificShadow said:
That was surprisingly powerful. People like  xzibition8612 are the reasons why we don't see more of this. It's sad really. 
No, people like xzibition8612 are flies, buzzing annoyingly yet harmlessly in our ears. We don't see more of this because people don't create it. In my experience, the people who create things like this genuinely do not care what other people think of it. They merely wish to make a statement, not obsess over how people interpret that statement.
Edited by Phobos

 A citation of a comments section poster? Really? 
 
I mean, really?

Edited by vinsanityv22

I guess it's more interesting if you finish it. But I'm not gonna hold the Spacebar for two minutes or more just to shoot someone. If it's supposed to make someone "think" about their actions, I hope they think of this; "Man I just wasted some time there alright". :D  That nongame should be a whoooooole lot shorter. 
 
There's another "nongame" out there (I suppose there are many, thank you indie devs) about reflecting on the length of one's life where you walk a sprite through a montage from the left side of the screen to the right. As you do, he grows older and older and then he dies. That's it. It's much shorter, and therefore more playable and more effective at making it's point.
 
Nice song though.

Posted by Quantical

@vinsanityv22: so it didn't make you read up on Cambodia at all? Maybe you already did all that but this simple nongame actually made me think. Sorry you feel that way.

Posted by jfbguy

I liked the concept. I actually shot at the ground the first time, and it still read it as I shot him. So I quickly reloaded, got blown up by a mine, reloaded, and then shot into the air, to complete what I originally intended to do. I think the mine blows up if you never let go of the spacebar ever, kind of making it so the user doesn't just click away from the 'game'... interactive narrative. The ending reminded me of the board game Train. If you have never heard of it, you should read up on it. Very similar in concept.

Posted by the_ghost_baby

@vinsanityv22: IMO the author uses the length to try and create a connection between you, the killer, and the victim over time. When you get to the stage where you have to shoot I think you'd be more inclined to think about what decision you will make rather then if the game started at the execution. If that was the case and you hadn't heard the music or seen the background animations you probably wouldn't hesitate to kill him.

For those who are calling it boring I think your missing the point. It clearly says it is a "notgame" and unlike most games its main objective isn't to entertain but to get its message across.

Posted by YukoAsho

@the_ghost_baby


For those who are calling it boring I think your missing the point. It clearly says it is a "notgame" and unlike most games its main objective isn't to entertain but to get its message across.

I can't speak for others, but I personally don't see where entertainment and cultural edification have to be mutually exclusive.  Great dramatic films such as Downfall and Jin-Roh have been tragic and left lasting impressions, but were still entertaining to watch for those inclined to drama.  As Pezen said, they don't have to be "fun" in the classical sense, but if something isn't engaging, than the author has lost the audience.
Posted by MutieMoe

I do get what the game tries to convey, but I think the presentation is maybe too retro especially if it is supposed to take a jab at modern shooters like Call of Duty. This is what the people in evil mirrorverse played along Custer's Revenge instead of Duck Hunt.

Posted by punpun

... huh

Posted by sixstringguy

needs a mode 7 flying section. Otherwise very powerful.

Posted by Hagane

The way he stumbles forward after you push him when he gets tired made me feel strange.

Posted by makari

@TheHumanDove said:

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

Interesting indeed...

And all the people that did would be dead. Perhaps it's a dark sociopathic comedy about him wanting all the naive, sheltered and pretentious people in the world to die? Art'n'stuff.

Posted by Khann

Sorry, I care about the horrible, horrible things happening in the world, but this pretentious rubbish is ridiculous.

Posted by Cobra_Lionfist

It's all well and good that he wants to bring Cambodia to people's attention but the actual game is extremely shallow and simplistic, the music is bad and the whole thing is so predictable and unsubtle it just seems insulting. If he really cared about Cambodia why didn't he put in the effort to make something great, instead of making something that could be coded in a couple hours, and judging by the shot of his other "game" reusing art assets. If someone makes a movie or writes a book about a serious issue they usually make sure it's a good book or movie, people don't just assume it's good because of what it's about.

Posted by Rek503

I thought the only option was to shoot him. It blew my mind that you could have an option where you didn't shoot him, and I actually feel genuinely bad that I didn't even think for a second that I could just fire in the air.

Posted by SonicFire

I don't think that the game accomplishes its objective where cambodia is concerned, but it does represent the spectrum an emotion of interactive media.

But face it, you can put ANYthing to a melancholy Jonsi track and make it seem quite poignant

Edited by Rhombus_Of_Terror

I played it as I read the article, I only saw in hindsight that it is only an interactive educational tool to describe a brief point in Cambodia's history. Any association with the word "game" would allow the player to think there is some kind of reward - reward not being points or exp but rather it being narrative - for completing it.

People's approach to this medium in particular could inherently change their experience with said medium. Selecting the ambient sounds option in "The Killer" instead of having music in my opinion holds your attention differently as the silence between the two "characters" is ever more present and you question what is going on until you make that final decision, thus "The Killer" reveals it's true purpose as explained above.

This kind of stuff is indeed a refreshing approach to an interactive experience it can never be called a game / nongame. However, it can stand alongside games of rich narrative as the control scheme would be remarkably similar. Heavy Rain is one of the more mainstream titles to come close to this.

Posted by Tesla

How do I shoot my gun?

Posted by Lunar_Aura

Let's all create some achievements for this game! :)

Posted by supercubedude

When's "The Killer DX" due out?

Posted by LackingSaint

To be honest, it's this kind of bland, long-winded, hamfisted work that makes people think games can never truly be an emotionally resonant artform. I held the spacebar for 10 minutes before shooting up into the air and getting a paragraph of information about an event the game itself gave no real resonance towards; to me this seems like the equivalent of making a movie that is an hour-and-a-half close up of a flower and then somebody steps on the flower at the end. It's sending a message, but it's sending it in an incredibly banal, uninteresting way. 
 
I really WANTED to enjoy this notgame, i'm all for expanding the medium to be more than lazy Call of Duty clones, but having a product like this, that tries so hard to be subversive, just doesn't feel right.

Posted by WickedFather

I thought I was the man at the front at first and thought sod it, I'm going to dawdle to piss the guy off.  I then stopped with the front guy over flowers and the river, same with the guard wondering if anything would happen.  When we got to the fields I didn't want to shoot the guy so shot at the flowers.  My aim was bad.

Posted by Gustav

While I love the site, I never thought GB would "be the type/have the guts" to cover this game, AWESOME! 
 
Thanks for a great article and for questioning whether games only could or should be the interactive equivalent of hollywood blockbuster action movies.

Posted by Tally_Pants

that was a eerily emotional experience, simple yet powerful!

Posted by LongMasterWolf

The Killer is really interesting, I am going to be teaching the Holocaust this semester and I am going to have my students play this game. Or rather notgame.

Edited by Winsord

Pretty neat experience, especially without having read anything from this article before playing it. You can definitely see the extremities in reactions though; people who get it and are intrigued the whole way through, and the people who are easily bored and distracted who retain nothing from the experience. I ended up turning around and shooting the opposite direction. Even with no attachment to any characters through character development, without it looking realistic; it's a game, a medium in which you almost never actually think with depth about your objectives in goals, instead you just fulfill them without thought and consideration. Though everything says I should have behaved otherwise, I somehow made an emotional connection (a rare thing for me and novels, games, movies, etc.) and found myself unable to take the fake life of the prisoner in front of me; I'd rather take my own.

What does seem weird to me though is that the people who don't get it, almost always seem angry about it (there are exceptions). Some view it as shallow and pretentious sure, but those emotions could very well reflect themselves. A large portion of its effect on you is from what you end up thinking about during the mundane walk. If you simply were bored and really only thought about how you couldn't wait for it to end or started doing something else, then it obviously failed to work for you. I'm not saying it's amazing or a huge step in games, but I do think people are way too quick to pass it off as pretentious. The comments which state that the game is, "boring", "bad" and "too simple" are quite amusing to me though, as it's made very clear that some people certainly aren't grasping the intended effect of this game. If it's different and I don't get it, it must be pretentious!

Posted by mutha3

Klepek, for the most part, I appreciate your contributions to the site a lot, but--
 
 
this article is one of the most navelgazing things I have ever laid eyes on.

Posted by redlitez76

cambodia has a horrible past , but if we don't learn from the past we are doomed to repeat it. btw I fired on the person.

Posted by creiij

Well, I killed him, because it's a stickfigure. I would not kill someone in real life, unless they threaten my wife, daughter or my other family and there were no other way to save them. 

Posted by Kaineda77

Patrick, you really introduced a new flavor to this side that I didn't even know was missing. It always seemed to me that Giantbomb takes games seriously in one way and and people like Michael Abbott take them serious in another way. With your addition, the worlds have begun to collide.

Posted by Kaineda77

@ztiworoh: I second all of that.

Posted by Icemael
@Khann said:

Sorry, I care about the horrible, horrible things happening in the world, but this pretentious rubbish is ridiculous.

This, without the "I care" part. It's a shallow, boring, ugly waste of time. And I can't believe how many are buying this "notgame" crap. It just means "shitty video game", people. Actual good developers (or even bad developers who at least have a love for and a decent understanding of the art form) don't need to make up laughable, paper-thin excuses like "it's not a video game, it's an interactive experience".
Posted by soupbones

You can't jump?! Lame.

Posted by CaptainCody
@Icemael said:
@Khann said:

Sorry, I care about the horrible, horrible things happening in the world, but this pretentious rubbish is ridiculous.

This, without the "I care" part. It's a shallow, boring, ugly waste of time. And I can't believe how many are buying this "notgame" crap. It just means "shitty video game", people. Actual good developers (or even bad developers who at least have a love for and a decent understanding of the art form) don't need to make up laughable, paper-thin excuses like "it's not a video game, it's an interactive experience".

It IS posted on Newgrounds, so at least it makes sense as to why people are delusional.
Posted by BBQBram

@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"

I think the experience could have been way better as well but really, shut up. You don't get to decide what the purpose of a medium is - there is simply the endless possibilities of games and whatever people want to create or experience. You probably think you've got a rational argument somewhere in there. Look again.

Also great job with the stereotyping. You know that works both ways right?

Edited by fishless

Too easy. And needs a level-up system that unlocks more weapons. :)  
 
Also - How do you get the good ending? 

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Posted by MutieMoe

Only way to win the game is not to play it, and this whole Kobayashi Maru setup makes want to cheat somehow.

Posted by Fjordson
@Khann said:

Sorry, I care about the horrible, horrible things happening in the world, but this pretentious rubbish is ridiculous.

Yep. Pretty much.
Edited by Do_The_Manta_Ray

I believe my feelings can be summed up pretty decently by what happened to my own play-through of this so-called "non-game." I got to the end, aimed at the prisoner, then aimed at any other given point, and fired: and the man still died. A bug? Probably. But it spoke in volumes for me. "Whatever choice I make, it's inconsequential, as long as I'm playing a non-game/game."

I have very conflicting emotions regarding that game. While I'm definitely sure that is exactly what it was meant to trigger, I'm afraid I'm not experiencing what the maker of this here "non-game" wanted me to.

I feel disappointed. I feel cheated. I feel disgusted at the idea that the maker can make a little flash game that requires no input whatsoever to explain one of the greater crises that is happening around the world today. I laugh and piss at his naivity at the belief that as long as he can bring this knowledge to anyone, anywhere through any means, that's going to make a difference. And I feel simply sad that it was a song that drove him to do this. A song, to speak for how many dying people?

Lovely. In a way, this really does symbolize the issue behind the issue far greater than his game ever could. These sort of horrible things happen all over the world, and a majority of them not directly-inflicted by these horrors simply do not care.

I can respect the attempt at drawing people's attention to an issue, but what I can't respect is him doing it for the wrong reasons. You want to contribute? You want to help? Help a charity organization. Donate, or volunteer.

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'd like to thank Patrick for bringing this non-game to our attention. While I personally didn't enjoy it's crudeness, it's something different, and definitely worth a good discussion.

Posted by Spike94
@fishless said:

                Too easy. And needs a level-up system that unlocks more weapons. :)   Also - How do you get the good ending? 
           

Just fire up in the sky. I fired just about directly above me, but I don't think it matters. Just as long as you fire in the sky and not at the guy.
Posted by vinster345

Good music, interesting concept, but I think ultimately flawed by its pacing.

Posted by fishless
@Spike94:  It was a joke.  I don't think there really is a good ending. I got all three and the ending was never good. Did you watch through to the end credits?
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