So here’s a question for the ages: an airborne Viking ship sails over your head, pumping out the height of Scandinavian death-metal. Your boyfriend’s disembodied noggin, attached to your skirt by nothing but a tie, takes the opportunity to crack wise about the encroaching European doom-vessel, completely nonplussed by the pink, heart-encrusted chainsaw revving at your side.
All the while, you engage in casual conversation with your sister – over a distance of miles – as she infiltrates the ship’s hull; sniper rifle in hand.
How on earth did you get here?
Just in case you’re not following along, that cheery fellow in the image is Goichi Suda – otherwise known by the moniker ‘Suda 51’ – CEO and prominent creative at the Japan-based game development studio, Grasshopper Manufacture.
You may have caught onto the wave of hype surrounding his last project, the just-a-teensy-bit provocative Lollipop Chainsaw. The game, essentially a 3D re-imagining of the coin-hungry brawler genre, was released to a mixed reception earlier this year, and marks the second collaboration between Suda and acclaimed composer Akira Yamaoka (of Silent Hill fame). It’s Devil May Cry meets Streets of Rage, a blazing tribute to gaming’s younger days, punctuated with staccato doses of Vikings, punk-rockers, and cheese-metal. Oh, and ample servings of Toni Basil’s Hey Mickey, but I’ll skim over that one.
I had originally planned to write a review for Lollipop Chainsaw at the time of its release; however, when push came to shove, I only found myself able to write the words ‘hell yes’ ad-infinitum until passing out. As seems to be common with Suda’s games, the ‘Marmite effect’ is out in force with this one. If you hate Lollipop Chainsaw, you hate it; but for those lucky enough to buy into the dementia-soaked fever-dream that is a Suda 51 title, the love comes strong.
So strong, in fact, that I’m finding it hard to keep up any pretence of objectivity. I don’t think it’s a surprise to say that I’m drafted firmly into the ‘fan’ column. In spite of a few poor design decisions, I can only see the good in Lollipop Chainsaw, and as such, a review would be a waste. The end-result would either be a love-stained, hyperbole infused ramble about the ‘tasteful’ side of boob physics and zombie-based plotting, or a saddening display of rational thought, akin to my Shadows of the Damned review, for which I found myself unable to justify the square ‘5 out of 5’ that my heart had set upon.
Instead, I figured it might be worth trying to explain why I’m so partial to the kookiness inherent in the director’s titles; to get to the root of why I can’t see the forest beyond Suda’s oh-so-lovely trees.
So to begin with, it’s probably worth noting that I can’t think about Suda without thinking about David Lynch. Much like the acclaimed director, Suda is a surreal, visually-oriented lead with a no-holds-barred approach to the bizarre and, in many cases, the downright bad. As far as I see it, these ‘Lynchian’ qualities make up a large degree of the appeal in Suda’s game design.
In fact, in spite of thematic differences, I find it hard to separate David Lynch’s influential Eraserhead and Suda’s breakout success, Killer 7. Both works are visually distinct, creatively adventurous, and thoroughly surreal, but more than that, both are examples of the virtues of allowing an auteur to throw all pretence of marketability out of the window and simply do their thing.
Killer 7, like many of Suda’s games since, balked at any preconceived notions of how a game should be played or understood. In a medium that seemed fixated on the ideas of tactility and accessibility – a desire for instant gratification – Killer 7 failed to deliver, and intentionally, at that. Just as Eraserhead’s violent and cerebral tendencies acted in direct opposition of the accepted norms of late 70’s cinema, Killer 7 harshly resisted the trends of its generation of gaming, in a way that, arguably, has yet to be replicated since.
Oh, and I’m well aware that these comparisons may appear blasphemous to fans of both artists, so apologies in advance.
Strangely enough, if there’s one thing that I believe encapsulates the experience of Suda’s work, it’s the opening to Lynch’s seminal Twin Peaks. If you aren’t familiar with the sequence, click here and prepare to be underwhelmed. At first glance, the whole thing is a laborious trek into nothingness, full of static shots of trees and bushes with the occasional pornographic close-up of a bit of heavy machinery. Not to mention that soundtrack.
Yet in spite of its nightmarish premise, this sequence managed to burrow its way into the mind of everyone who watched the show. It sank itself deep into their subconscious and began to fiddle with their expectations; building thematic links with the town and its denizens as things progressed. Even new viewers, twenty years later, should find that the sequence quickly becomes worth much more than the sum of its parts. It’s simultaneously an exercise in tension and boredom, a familiar face to calm the viewer before an impending storm.
The way I see it, many of Suda’s works abuse this same magic, preying on the player’s discomfort and boredom in order to connect the player to a particular emotion or theme. Killer 7’s oft-maligned control scheme is a prime example of the ‘Twin Peaks approach’, slowing things down to a halt to force the viewer into an appreciation of the smaller details, a grounding from which to approach the rest of the game’s descent into the surreal. Everything plays into one cohesive whole, meaning that even the more laborious segments have something to say or prove when all is said and done. There’s a method to the madness, even though it’s not always readily apparent.
When it comes down to it, I’m led to categorise the two men together because of this madness, because they’re defined by an unrestricted creative vision, and turn to peculiar means in order to fulfil it. Neither of them is content to play by the rules, and it shows through in their work.
Of course, for the most part, the Lynch comparisons only extend to the feel of the work; taken at face value, Suda’s stories are a different beast altogether. When it comes to narrative, his approach to the bizarre and surreal is inimitable.
From the faux-macho guile of No More Heroes’ Travis Touchdown to a pairing as grossly unpalatable as Lollipop Chainsaw’s Juliet and Nick, Suda’s visions are, more often than not, completely unfathomable in any other capacity. Suda’s brand of surreal isn’t bred of logic, but chaos, which perhaps explains why, for any perceived failings, his games will always receive acclaim for their batshit insane premises.
The only downside to this approach, of course, is that this ‘chaos’ can lead into some fairly risqué characters and situations. Just look at the whole ‘sexism’ debate that recently emerged around Lollipop Chainsaw’s protagonist, Juliet Starling.
Don’t worry, I won’t get too bogged down in the whole gender debate that Lollipop Chainsaw spawned, chiefly because I think there’s more than enough (great) coverage out there dealing with that particular issue. Though I do think her hyper-sexuality is the result of intentions far removed from sexism. Amongst other factors, we need to consider that a lot of Lollipop Chainsaw – from its Miyagi-esque sensei character through to the garish button prompts and gigantic floating coinage – is a pastiche of the average, pulpy videogame of yore, and as such, Juliet needs to be viewed as the all-too-obvious videogame spoof that she is.
It’s this aspect of Juliet that symbolises one of Suda’s most divisive traits: he’s one of the few prominent directors in gaming unafraid to embrace the medium’s past, warts and all. After approximately 35 years of videogames, we’ve reached a point where there are thousands of adults out there who can extol the virtues of kicking turtle shells and ingesting mysterious wall-chicken with a straight face. Suda unashamedly caters to this crowd, well-versed in the idea that surreal videogame logic doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In any other medium, picking up a floating eye-ball and feeding it to a door would be a profound philosophical statement. In videogaming, it’s just another step towards a poorly-timed dick-joke.
Suda embraces the stupidity that permeates videogaming to its core and adapts it into a badge of honour. His games aren’t afraid to annoy you with ‘videogamey’ bullshit – heck, No More Heroes is a game comprised of it. Juliet Starling is a call-back to the old frontier of gaming, an anything-goes time that, as her decapitated boyfriend Nick is keen to point out again and again, was abjectly ridiculous, but a hell of a lot of fun.
Suda knows exactly how to tap into the mind of the average gamer in order to engineer experiences that are simultaneously nostalgic and self-deprecating. The man is the gaming industries’ very own Trojan horse, a thinking man disguised as a non-thinker; raising thumbs, questions and erections alike.
But does this approach justify characters like Lollipop Chainsaw‘s Juliet? Well, I’ll leave that for others to decide, although I will admit that things can occasionally get a bit iffy. Suda’s work has been known to bridge into the crass and the shameless, but once again, what’s crucial is his handling of these elements. For Suda and Grasshopper, the occasional dip into the ‘un-PC’ isn’t a selling point (I’m looking at you, Randy Pitchford), but merely a by-product of a larger work ethic; the desire to make games that are different, games that are surreal and self-aware.
As Suda puts it, they aim to make ‘punk’ games.
This idea of ‘punk’ is probably the thing that makes Suda stand out, and the umbrella under which his ‘Lynchian’ and self-aware tendencies reside. He’s collaborated with The Damned, Jimmy Urine, and named an entire franchise based on his love of The Stranglers, all out of their shared desires ‘to do what other people are not doing’.
Suda’s approach to game design borrows heavily from the ‘do it yourself’ ideals of the movement, and his frequent fourth-wall breaking taps into the kind of anarchic energy emblematic of punk’s short time in the limelight. In Grasshopper he’s created a ‘punk’ studio, one that can operate in complete chaos, a collection of innovators that can exercise complete creative control over any given work, for better or worse.
While critics like Gamespot’s Brendan Sinclair may bring up valid points when they suggest that Grasshopper’s ‘”on-message” PR handling’ falls short of the punk movement’s ideological stances, it’s worth remembering that Suda never gave any suggestion that he was going to bring down the system. Suda’s ‘punk’ isn’t one bred of social discontent, but simply a desire to be different. What he lacks in dyed-to-the-roots punk credibility, he more than makes up for in sheer creative punk spirit, as even the smallest glance at Grasshopper’s work should prove.
Perhaps this ‘punk’ spirit can explain the surreal and the nonsensical, the dark and the offensive. Perhaps it can explain why Suda’s games don’t actually make sense; why most of his games devolve into fragmented, chaotic affairs in which tributes to The Evil Dead hold as much stock as major story beats. Michael Thomsen hits the nail on the head in a piece over on Kill Screen, claiming that in any Suda title, ‘what matters is not the meaning but the depth and urgency of the experience’. Suda crafts intentionally contradictory experiences, bred not of traditional thematic ‘meaning’, but instead, gatherings of thoughts and emotions. His work is an assembly of experiences, a collection of microcosmic thoughts and ideas bound under the same creative vision.
Suda 51’s punk ideals allow him to do what he wants to do. He realises that a game can be much more than the sum of its parts – that you can still find fulfilment in something – even if it has no meaning beyond the director’s creative impulses. Like Lynch, he realises that he can bore you to tears, if just to give contrast to the ‘depth and urgency’ of an upcoming crescendo. He’s willing to make games that know they’re games, to poke fun at both himself and his peers. He’s daring to be different, if just to see where videogames can and can’t go; what he should and shouldn’t do.
Suda 51 may appear discordant with the rest of the industry, but that’s his biggest strength, and the exact reason why I’ll continue to support him. Lollipop Chainsaw is running pretty cheap these days, maybe you could support him, too.