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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.

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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.


Powerful, right?

A photo snapped by Magnuson and his wife, while travelling through Cambodia this year.
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.
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.
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 CommentsRefresh
Avatar image for saltypancakes
Posted By SaltyPancakes

I didn't have the option to beat the stickman to death, just shoot him :(

Avatar image for buft
Posted By buft

that was an amazing experience, what a great song

Avatar image for xmp44x
Posted By xMP44x
@RelentlessKnight said:
Although I have to disagree with Magnuson, why make a (non) game about a extremely lethal topic?
Perhaps to show the lack of control felt by both parties? The person who was being led to his death didn't have much control over it: the only control that the shooter, who I'm assuming was meant to be a part of the Khmer Rouge, had was whether or not to shoot the person or fire into the sky. Personally, I made sure to play through three times to see what conclusions the game offered. My runs went with a shot into the sky, then the mine, and then the shooting. 
I'm assuming the shot into the sky and the mine show I'm maybe a decent person, because one was outside of my control and the shot into the sky might have saved the other guy's life, if this was a real world experience. I got a kind of satisfaction from the experience when I chose not to shoot the captive, for it felt more like how I would react in real life. Of course, by not killing the other guy you're sealing your own fate but at least it would have been a noble final act. Had the creator wanted to make the game feel more 'real' though, I would have suggested showing other captives and captors, to highlight the scale these events were happening on. It might not be feasible to do but perhaps it would be.... I don't develop Flash games. Or anything else in Flash, for that matter. 
The usage of stick characters was a nice touch, because it blurred out the lines of identity. You could have been anyone involved in the events and the prisoner could have been anyone either. By not explicitly telling me who was who, it felt more like you were doing a job and less like you were on a vendetta. After all, the members of the Khmer Rouge who perpetrated the crimes against humanity that they did weren't exactly concerned with the identity of the people who they were killing in their thousands. Some of the comments, even here on Giant Bomb, have been quite shocking to read. I did not expect people in this community to react with the same level of indifference to the game. Sure, it might not be the best ever example of making moral decisions in the world of gaming, but it was a touching one due to the fact it's not often we get moralistic decisions to make in historic situations. 
Thank you for sharing this game Patrick; I actually really enjoyed it. I'm a little surprised that some people didn't - maybe it appeals more to the people who enjoy history or something, I'm not sure. In any case, I also tried out both audio options. I preferred the music because it felt fitting with the situation, like music is composed for specific scenes in films. It managed to fit in really well, and I was impressed by the game. It just shows that graphics don't always make everything.
Avatar image for zagzagovich
Posted By zagzagovich

While I appreciate the educational nature of this I fail to see how the game's content is relevant to the topic it's supposed to educate us about. Not knowing anything about the game before playing it I assumed it was the obligatory "if you finish the objective you are a bad person" type of game, but being blown up by a mine along the way cut that part of the game too. If it weren't for actual text explaining the horrors of that regime I'd be left clueless or even slightly annoyed. I feel that if you want to make a point with your arty experiment you could at least make it reflect what you are trying to say, maybe a game mechanic that would create associations with the subject or something along these lines. You can't just repackage an old one you did with a Sigur Ros song and say it's about the Ukrainian purge. This way it actually seems exploitative and the constant links to your blog cement that feeling. It all translates to "HEY HERE IS A TEASER FOR A BAD THING THAT I LEARNED ABOUT ON MY VACATION! COME TO MY BLOG TO LEARN MORE ABOUT IT! THERE IS A PICTURE OF A SOLDIER BLUDGENING A BABY OVER A TREE!!!! CHECK IT OUT! I"M AN ARTIST!". Or at least that's how I felt about all of this.

Avatar image for werewolfguy
Posted By WerewolfGuy

I am a little dismayed that this is the game Patrick chose to write about. This is a nongame, is fairly short and shallow, and even if you like it it provides a brief experience and a brief feeling. There are plenty of actual games with at least some depth that challenge and expand what is possible in the medium. Particularly, Every Day The Same Dream, and pretty much everything by Molleindustria. Molleindustria is by far one of the most interesting and creative video game development companies out there right now, and I would have preferred if he gave them more recognition with an article than this guy, whose work I find generally one-note and simplistic in its minimalism(not to say I dislike it; I just find it it be less of an achievement within the medium).

Avatar image for subjugation
Posted By Subjugation

I think I would have felt more emotional impact if the game had better graphics. Before you dismiss this comment as graphics whoring, you have to admit that it is easier to connect to characters who appear more lifelike. Imagine how crazy this would be with modern graphics.

Also, I didn't know you could release spacebar at any time to stop walking. I was waiting for a prompt and finally stopped at the fields. Some kind of indication that you can stop whenever would be good.

Avatar image for dingofighter
Posted By Dingofighter

I get the feeling this would actually have the potential to be really emotional if it was put at the end of a real game, and for the ending sequence you get to play as the killer of the main character you've been playing as the whole time.

The fact that you have spent that much time with the character before this long, final march would make the final decision much harder, I think.

Though I guess you need to have some incentive to actually shoot the main character then as well.

Also, I feel like I missed out on a big part of this "nongame" by dying from a mine before actually getting to the field...

Avatar image for gbrading
Edited By gbrading

Interesting. When it said walk to the fields I knew instinctively it was about the The Killing Fields and the Cambodian genocide.
The other non-game which I enjoyed was Every Day the Same Dream. Depressing in many ways, but very thought-provoking. Certainly a more fully rounded game than this one.

Avatar image for little_socrates
Posted By Little_Socrates

I'm still of the opinion that you can make a poignant art statement and still have the journey be entertaining. Take the dim statements about the American Dream in books like The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath, or the statements about racism and insanity in Heart of Darkness (or its film adaptation Apocalypse Now.) Those journeys are still absolutely entertaining, as are the ones that Cole Phelps, John Marston, Tim, and the perhaps less-artful Amnesia: The Dark Descent and create powerfully "un-fun" experiences and artful messages.

Making a statement through games, books, and film that is not entertaining and serves to make a point is still art. Just don't expect it to be very meaningful art if you can't make it either wide-reaching or appealing to the general human condition. For example, some of the most famous photos of America's Great Depression did appeal to the general American self-sympathy of the time or an inherent desire to know that, well, maybe some people really are worse off. Making an unpleasant statement about the recovery from a horrific event affecting a small(er) portion of the world is still a valid goal, but the way film and books generally approach this idea is by making the experience entertaining through well-executed prose, dialogue, or occasional moments of levity that contrast the work's darkest moments.

I find this work, I suppose, more akin to paintings or photographs intended for artistic value. However, this particular work is overtly blunt in its execution, a particular style I've never supported as it's akin to a speech made through pictures rather than artfully crafted series of metaphors. That's probably due to my background as a writer, but I just find a lack of subtlety to be unpleasant and, more to the point, to be equitable to a lack of artfulness.

Avatar image for foxmulder
Posted By foxmulder

I DID THE RIGHT THING!! I let the pixel dude go! I do not support pixel people genocide!

Avatar image for mistermouse
Posted By MisterMouse

Great article as usual. I played the game and decided eventually to stop and shoot up in the air, I understood at that point where it was going.

Avatar image for sirdesmond
Posted By sirdesmond

I really like projects and "games" like this. I hope we see this field of interactive experiences that seems to bridge the gap between art, entertainment, education, and so many other things continue to grow.

Interactivity is capable of making great moments that much more emotional, shocking, involved, etc. and I hope we can keep seeing things like this in the future.

Avatar image for mrmazz
Posted By MrMazz

I quit reading and played the game. At first I didn't think I was the killer I saw hit space and both walked and than I stopped and the sprite with the gun stopped that made me feel a little bad. I have no reason to kill that sprite. Never ran into a mine though i shot up ito the air.

Avatar image for 1p
Posted By 1p

Hey Patrick, thanks for writing pieces like this. You have been adding an interesting new facet to the site.

Avatar image for sionweeks
Posted By sionweeks

Fucking love Jonsi. Was so surprised and happy to hear that song in there.

Avatar image for younglink

WOW, you do walk for a looooong freakin time. Then i couldnt do it, i shot in the air. Must have had an impact, i didnt want to shoot the guy. Good article Patrick!

Avatar image for jacksukeru
Posted By jacksukeru

I played this game the last time someone linked it, music was nice but from the outset I was expecting it to rope me into some kind of impossible choice, if I were to be given one at all, something that immediately put me off.

I guess I appreciated the ambiguity of the final choice and could very well see how someone, who didn't give the whole affair much thought, would just line up the sight and pull the trigger, and that's interesting in itself. At the same time, as I pointed the crosshair upwards, I knew that this was a game and that it in turn knew every possible outcome of this choice. If it didn't want me to win, then I wouldn't.

Then again, it turned out it was never about winning, it was actually very specifically about being in a very possible no-winning situation.

I still wanted to win, and I spite the game, and the world, for not allowing me.

Avatar image for iamleg10n
Posted By iamLEG10N

K, now that's just weird... my name is Jordan Magnusson.

Avatar image for screamingfist
Posted By ScreamingFist

Great article Patrick as usual. I stopped reading to go "experience" it first and I found it really interesting. I hope to see some more of these "notgames" in the future. Oh and I shot that mofo in his face........then I felt bad once the end blurb came up.

Avatar image for beaudacious
Posted By Beaudacious

Artsy egotistical people, creating abstract content in an effort to selflessly educate the world in its wrong doings? Sigh this postmodernist generation is such a sad era, everyone is Picasso, everyone is mother Teressa
,everyone is Plato, and everyone thinks their voice deserves to be heard.
Put down the art history text book, and have an original idea before you die.

Avatar image for dynamitekyle
Posted By Dynamitekyle
Avatar image for fateofnever
Posted By FateOfNever

I played the game twice.. and both times was killed by a mine.  The first time I just chose not to participate to see if it did anything as a result.  It didn't, so I eventually decided "fine, since that's apparently not an option, I'll walk" ...and then a mine killed us both.  Second time I just decided to walk from the start, and I walked a lot farther.  and then a mine killed us both again.  If I play it again and a mine kills me yet again, then screw this.  The only thing this is teaching me or making me think about is that mines are bad, which I already know.

Avatar image for captaintightpants
Posted By CaptainTightPants

I feel like this not game, emotional experience flash thing has been done a lot better before ( Every Day The Same Dream for example). Maybe its the fact that I already know about these and many other tragedies, but this had zero impact on me (The information in the end being really the only thing I cared about). I am open to these kinds of things but yeah... nothing.

Avatar image for nosnitsttam
Posted By smatticus

i played it, i could have done without the looping music though. 

Avatar image for scodiac
Posted By Scodiac

That was really interesting. Jonsi's song really brought emotion out of the experience. Him and Sigur Ros make amazing music. Experience or game, whatever it is it got me to think about and research the troubled past and current state of Cambodia for a while. Pretty powerful stuff.  

Avatar image for krampus
Posted By Krampus

I feel like it accomplished what it set out to do.  It was depressing and made me think, "Shit please don't make me kill this person" even tho it was like looking at a pitfall spin off.  I'm glad I took this experience and could give a shit why people don't like it.

Avatar image for alphazro
Posted By AlphaZro

first off, great article. Thank you Patrick for once again giving me a reason to visit the site besides awesome, funny content. Secondly, this is a interesting concept, not all games have to be entertaining, not all games have to about plots 7 thru 10, and sometimes it takes one simple concept to realize what kind of people we are.

Avatar image for kyle
Posted By Kyle

Interesting. I am glad to see Patrick producing this kind of content for Giant Bomb.

Avatar image for yyninja
Posted By yyninja

I felt this game was really confusing without knowing the background behind it. I definitely would have liked a better set up other than two pixelated dudes walking for 5 minutes.
I shot the sky, let the guy go and watched the epilogue. Was it worth it? Not for me.
I don't need to play a game about the massacres in Cambodia and would've learned more about the issue in that 5 minute period by googling about it rather than playing this non-game. 

Avatar image for breadfan
Posted By breadfan

Patrick's articles are always interesting reads.

I had never heard of this 'game' before and going into it blind, with no prior knowledge definitely impacted how I 'played' it. Without knowing the circumstances that lead up to my character marching an unarmed man through the wilderness, I began to think. Who am I? and Why am I doing this?

After eventually finding out the theme of the game, well, I felt kind of dirty. I'm probably looking too much into this small piece of interactive narration too much, but it did have an impact on me. I've taken plenty of history courses throughout my college education and from what I've learned, stuff like this isn't all that uncommon. Stuff like this does happen and all it takes is people to follow along and do nothing, as they might as well be holding down the space bar on their keyboard.

/Rant over.

Avatar image for n7
Posted By N7

That was a pretty neat little experiment. Kudos.

Avatar image for lifestrike
Posted By Lifestrike

Ugh. Spare me of this.

Avatar image for ahoodedfigure
Posted By ahoodedfigure

I know it's easy to kick an experiment like this, but I don't see the point in limiting expression because it clashes with what we come into games for. Since I never really had preconceived notions about video games (they were becoming popular when I first learned about them in the seventies), I'm happy people continue to experiment with these sorts of things, whether or not people want to call them games.
That particular Gametrekking should have had a fourth result, since it allowed the reticule to go anywhere: I killed myself (or, at least I tried to), thereby inadvertently escaping punishment and letting him go free, as well as removing myself from this situation I was pressed into continuing. What I'm happy for, though, is that they at least let things go different ways. Some of these experiments force a single, inevitable action which, although it CAN be powerful, often makes our interaction superfluous. At least this one, if we manage to survive, gave us a choice. Another event I can think of is that the victim hits a mine, divesting us of the responsibility of killing them (or perhaps that opens a few branches, one where the victim dies, another where they live and are in pain, which branches into us killing them or leaving them there).  
Really cool project. Thanks for writing about it.

Avatar image for vaiz
Posted By vaiz

The first time, I shot the dude. The second time, I did not shoot the dude, purely to see if not shooting the dude was a viable ending. Didn't much affect me, because it's a game. Or a nongame as the case may be. I have a very thick wall in my mind separating a pixel art guy shooting another pixel art guy with a pixel gun and an actual killing. Were you to put me in a field in reality with a gun and another human being, would I be able to shoot them? No, of course not, but that has no bearing on this experience at all, or vise verse. I dunno, maybe I'm just not artsy enough for this shit.

Avatar image for thephantomnaut
Posted By ThePhantomnaut

Jonsi did the music? Oh Sigur Ros! Cool!

Avatar image for spicyrichter
Posted By SpicyRichter

Ugh, the framrate sucks!

Avatar image for vilhelmnielsen
Posted By vilhelmnielsen

Tried it after your last mention of it. Death by mine. I don't think I've felt that empty after a game ever. Very effective.

Avatar image for theht
Posted By TheHT

I was listening to Hengilás before playing. Weirded me out a bit lol. Pretty neat little thing.

Avatar image for wickedcestus
Posted By WickedCestus

Every Day The Same Dream is good; The Killer just seems like a good idea without a very good execution. But maybe I'm just saying that because I hit the mine and didn't have to make any sort of choice.

Avatar image for justin258
Posted By Justin258

Holy shit... 
By that I mean this has convinced me of the whole "games as art" thing. That's quite a feat. 
I do still believe that Call of Duty has its place. It's the same place that Michael Bay movies have in cinema - stupid fun. And there isn't anything wrong with that, it exists for a reason. 
But I think that ideas like this need to be expanded more. I've been on the fence for arty video games for a long time, but this is a good example of that. Well, arty interactive experiences, I guess. That term sucks, though. Anyway, I hope these kinds of ideas get expanded on, but not in the "great graphics and powerful narrative" way. This has simplistic graphics by today's standards, even by the standards a decade ago. But man, this has a lot of impact and a whole lot of that is in its simplicity. I think its lack of narrative expands on the whole simplicity thing. This really is powerful. 
Also, to that user that said that bullshit about not caring what happens in Cambodia - fuck him, he's a fucking waste of space. 
No, wait, I don't want to insult people that are wastes of space like that.That guy is somehow less than that.

Avatar image for jimmdogg
Posted By jimmdogg

When you unlock the AK-47 the game gets a lot easier. I am 5th prestige already.

Avatar image for bonbolapti
Posted By bonbolapti

I don't know if it's the music, holding down the space bar or the stick men but I'm incredibly disconnected from the message it's trying to convey. 
Also.. there was a point where I wasn't sure which character I was supposed to be.

Avatar image for darkivn
Posted By darkivn

You know, Newgrounds is FILLED to the brim with "thoughtful" and "touching" and "powerful" flash notgames made by truly inspired and talented people .... this is not one of them.
Really not sure why you'd chose to post quite so lengthy about it.

Avatar image for mordi
Posted By mordi

cactus did something similar a few years ago.

If you like these kind of games you should check out

Avatar image for pop
Posted By Pop

kind of weird how something so simple can have such a strong impact, the song the mood it goes so well together. IMPRESSIVE!

Avatar image for blackout62
Posted By Blackout62

Umm, I walked so long I actually wanted to shoot the guy in the end. I think I missed the point.

Avatar image for max_hydrogen
Posted By Max_Hydrogen

Sounds like a lot of bullshit.

Instead of asking: "Are video games art...?" or "Is this a video game...?" We should probably ask ourselves: "Is this article video game news..."?

The correct answer is: No.

Avatar image for prestonhedges
Posted By prestonhedges

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.

Lots of people travel and then put their experiences into the video game they're making. You don't need a buzzword for it.
Also, hitting a button to kill an imaginary computer person has absolutely no impact on me. And the pixel art doesn't help either. If you can't draw gritty realism, then what are you doing trying to portray it? It's not dissonance, it's clear laziness. Better luck next time.
Avatar image for landon
Posted By Landon

I played this game months ago. Usually I am impressed by the art games Newgrounds usually makes, but this isn't one of them. It takes so freaking long to get to the fields you'll either end up thinking you're not doing something right or the game is just endless. I also thought the attempt at inspirational music came off more cheesy than anything else.