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Years Later, Why Klei Returned to Shank

How the action game's portrayal of sensitive subjects didn't sit well with the studio, so they went back.

Klei Entertainment shipped Shank in August 2010 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, followed by a PC release in October. Few took notice when the developer returned to Shank in October 2012--yes, more than two years later--to patch a few gameplay tweaks and implement some story changes, as well.

People are touchy about their stories. Just look at any discussion about George Lucas's decision to mess with the original Star Wars movies, or how quickly Steven Spielberg backed away from returning to his own classics, following an avalanche of criticism regarding E.T.’s “updates.”

Shank was a violent, adult game with a cartoonish visual style.
Shank was a violent, adult game with a cartoonish visual style.

“The newly refined cutscenes are much tighter, with improved audio and visuals,” read a detailed patch note on Klei’s forums, describing the PC and Mac-only update. “We made these changes based on internal discussions about keeping the purpose and essence of the story, and editing to make the character motivations more in line with what we feel is right as creators.”

Klei did not disclose what the studio had decided to change, only that it changed some cutscenes. Only one person in that thread took note, months later, and he wasn’t very happy.

“To be honest, I still do not understand, why you need to cut custscenes for no reason ?” said user JohnSmirnov. “Seriously, instead of making it more interesting and etc, you just made a lot of plot holes. I think in this case, PS3 and Xbox360 owners are the luckiest, cause they got full and interesting cutscenes. While PC owners got it cut and believe me, I am not the only one who thinks that this is stupid and pointless and etc. Seriously guys, no offense, but you made it worse, not better.”

And that was that.

So far as I can tell, it was a dead issue. Klei made its changes, and the world moved on, even if there wasn’t a public discourse about what prompted Klei to make them. We were talking Shank 2 at that point.

But like most of the world, I browse Reddit occasionally, one of many places I visit to see what people are talking about at the moment, and last week raised my eyebrow at one thread, which specified the changes.

“[Spoilers] Steam version of Shank has been heavily edited, kind of "censored". Is this acceptable?”

The user who started the thread, FLD108, outlined one of the cutscene that underwent post-release revision:

“More than half the opening cutscene is missing. Originally, Shank walks into a bar, speaks briefly to the bartender and we see a flashback before the bartender orders some goons to attack Shank. Shank disarms and kills a bunch of them, acquiring his trademark dual pistols and chainsaw in the process. But if you were to play the Steam version of the game now, that last part would be gone entirely. The conversation is shortened, the flashback is essentially gone and so is the entire fight scene.

Now, I can't help but wonder why this happened. And here's the part where it doesn't quite make sense. The flashback, I have an easier time imagining why they would remove it. The character in it outright states that he's going to rape Shank's girlfriend. I guess I can see how they might regret including something like that in retrospect. But why remove the entire fight scene that follows? It's certainly not because of the violence and blood because the game is still full of it. But if it's not about the violence, then this next bit doesn't really make sense either.”

That's not just a small tweak.

I shot an email to Klei founder Jamie Cheng, and he was immediately honest about the studio's motivations.

“The game was…[pause]…what came out, in the end, was our first pass,” said Cheng. “That's what Shank [was] when you played it. I'm proud of it. It's a decent game, and all sorts of things. But there were flaws. What we did was that we went back and we improved the controls and we also thought about how the story was, and we listened to feedback. I get why some people call it censorship. I think that's a negative connotation word, and so I wouldn't use it that way because I don't see it as that. I see it as we took feedback, and we agreed to it. It was not ‘oh my god, people are hating on us, so we must change it.’ We took feedback, said ‘oay, I understand what you're talking about, I've thought it through, and I've decided that, yes, you have a good point, and we're going to make some edits, based on that feedback.’”

Sensitive to the accusations of censorship, Cheng promised an option for Steam owners to sync the original cutscenes, should they wish to do so. There is no timetable on when that might be available but it'll happen.

When Shank shipped, the studio was completely wiped.

“We were so burnt out on Shank--so burnt out,” said Cheng.

Klei had moved onto its next projects, but months later, Shank was still on its mind. Some player feedback about the story hadn’t sat well, and unlike future games like Mark of the Ninja, Klei didn't widely playtest for Shank. Klei had hoped Shank’s story would provide proper motivation for the player, a reason to slay his enemies. Instead, for many, it was the total opposite, and Shank was not the likable character Klei envisioned. Though Cheng describes Shank as grindhouse, that didn't excuse what he saw as a mistake.

“When you have a story, you're trying to say something. If I say apple and you heard orange, then I'd be like 'hey, maybe I should have said apple in a better way.'"

“Now, the scenes [that] were there, pushed it in a direction [that], to a lot of people, actually made the protagonist less likable,” he said. “It actually made Shank less likable, and they didn't connect with him because of that. It did the opposite of what we wanted to do, and so what I'm saying is that you can write it better, we can actually do a better job in that genre.”

To Klei, crafting a story for a game is no less iterative than refining gameplay.

“When you have a story, you're trying to say something,” he said. “If it says something completely different to two different people, then you've kind of failed because you're trying to say something. [laughs] If I say apple and you heard orange, then I'd be like 'hey, maybe I should have said apple in a better way.'"

Even though assigning developers to make new changes to Shank was a financial burden on the developer without much obvious upside, Cheng saw it as the right thing to do. It’s the same reason he took the accusations of censorship to heart, and will provide users with an option to flip the switch on the cutscenes at their discretion. He doesn't want to bury Shank's past. To him, it’s all about listening to the audience.

“I see it all as a journey,” he said. “Our game making is a journey. We are all better game developers now for that experience. We tried to put some of that back in, but I can't change Shank entirely. So it's not really a done project, you know what I mean? If I build Shank again now, it would be a totally different project. Completely different.“

Patrick Klepek on Google+