Friday, 30 October 2020

I Want Your Love & I Want Your Revenge: No More Heroes Game Analysis

In honour of the first two No More Heroes games being ported to the Nintendo Switch this week, it seemed as good a time as any to reissue an analysis I wrote up many years ago of a game series inspired by such diverse sources as Alejandro Jodorowsky's abstract Western El Topo and the Brit Punk music movement of the '80s, filtered through the lens of geek and video game culture. No More Heroes is a satirical and often surreal gaming extravaganza which I urge everyone who hasn't already taken a trip to the superbly named town of Santa Destroy to pick up as soon as possible.

Until developer Goichi Suda makes a concrete statements on the matter (which he won't – Japanese modesty prevents it), no-one can say for certain what ideas were suplexing around in that brain of his during the creation of the No More Heroes series. Everything from here on in is speculation, but hopefully speculation informed enough to offer a new perspective on the games and enhance your enjoyment. I will deal with the themes running through both games, so be warned that SPOILERS abound.
Let's first consider Desperate Struggle, the second game in the series. The game's most prominent point of reference is Wim Wenders' 1984 film Paris, Texas. Suda has confirmed this to be an influence on the game, referenced in the scenes during which the player listens to a peep-show girl waxing lyrical about the game's various bosses - during the film's climax, the protagonist discovers his estranged wife working at a peepshow booth and takes her home after a visit. The protagonist in Wenders' film is also named Travis, though that's a reference which runs all the way back to Suda's preceding - and no less bonkers - game, killer7.

The plot of Paris, Texas bears some resemblance to that of Desperate Struggle: a wandering man named Travis is found in the desert by his brother (not called Henry, sadly) with no memory of where he has been for the past four years. Over time, Travis pieces his life back together and goes in search of the wife and child he left behind. The film treats the topic of drifters in American culture, who find themselves isolated and unable to settle in the modern world. It deals with the difficulty of making meaningful human connections and being able to come to terms with one's true identity. Desperate Struggle tackles those same ideas, but from a different angle. In order to get a grip on that perspective, we must look back to the original No More Heroes.

As with Paris, Texas, Suda made clear links between No More Heroes and a particular film which inspired it: in this case, Alejandro Jodorowsky's surrealist Western, El Topo. Jodorowsky's film concerns the eponymous assassin rescuing a young woman, Mara, from a villain and being challenged to prove himself the greatest gunman in the land by duelling with the four greatest gun masters. El Topo duels each and wins, before a female guide he takes on betrays him, filling him with bullets and riding away with Mara. After years in a comatose state between life and death, El Topo reawakens and becomes a monk, seeking to use his newfound empathy to help others. Unfortunately, his actions only lead to more death, including his own. The film is a pseudo-religious, acid-inflected reflection on American archetypes telling stories of spiritual and physical cycles of death and rebirth.

No More Heroes takes these themes and adapts them into video game form. The cowboy gunman is the quintessential figure of the American West just as Travis Touchdown represents the stereotypical figure of the gamer: emotionally and intellectually stunted, driven by an unfulfilled lust for sex and violence, an outcast from the world outside his front door. When Travis fights to get to Number One, he believes it will prove his worth and make Sylvia like him.

This 'battle' goes on in the video game world all the time: players start a new game as enthusiastic novices, fighting long and hard to achieve victory and complete the game, believing they earn their climactic triumph just as Travis is hoping for sexual ecstasy with Sylvia. The games industry is built on players,striving to prove themselves again and again to satisfy a lust for violence, death and triumph, only to inevitably start the cycle anew when the next game is released. Like El Topo, a cycle of acquiring skill, wisdom, death and rebirth.

Returning to Desperate Struggle, it has been suggested that revenge is the game's main theme. This is incorrect: revenge is the motivation. The game's theme is addiction. Remember Travis' representation as an obsessive gamer who became the Number One assassin in the previous game. When he reappears in Desperate Struggle, he is a very different man to the man at the beginning of No More Heroes. The evolution is there for all to see: at the beginning of the game, Travis had clear moral standards, most notably refusing to kill women. Yet by the end of the game, he was happy to decapitate Speed Buster, impale Bad Girl on his beam katana and slice Jeanne up into pieces.
Though he gains the knowledge that success as an assassin will only leave him lonely and unfulfilled - as per the opponents he encounters along the way - he shuts down this knowledge, and the morality that guided him at the start, because he has committed himself to achieving his goal. Even when given evidence that the assassin rankings are a con by Sylvia - a twist wilfully forgotten by Desperate Struggle - he ignores it because the path to the top, to gaming success, has become the defining factor in his self-image as a hero and a man. As Travis' relationship with his 'game' becomes increasingly obsessive, he transforms into the kind of cold-blooded killer he has repeatedly slaughtered to get to the top. It is only after his climactic fight with Henry that he accepts being trapped in a circle of bloodshed, with more and more people always out to get him and his fight ultimately futile, with the only option being to walk away.

This behaviour is not so unusual among gamers: how many of us have scaled the heights of a particular game and rather than having the expected everlasting joy, instead found that the game had become repetitive and having nowhere else to go but down, decided to take a break from playing? Yet, like Travis in Desperate Struggle, we always go back eventually, just to see if we're still as good as we remember or if some new challenger is ready to battle us for supremacy.


The addiction theme explains why Travis no longer travels around town or does ordinary jobs: in the original game, those moments provided a contrast between Travis the gamer and Travis the human being. But Travis is now all gamer, all addict. It's why he (literally) plays video games instead of going to work. As for the outside world, it's barely there. The only places he's interested in are those which enhance his playing experience – he has already reached his destination, so the journey (on his bike) ceases to be important.

In Desperate Struggle, Travis returns to Santa Destroy to fight the progeny of his first kill. We see that he is the same amoral killer we left at the end of No More Heroes when he expresses his annoyance that Skelter Helter is still alive despite his decapitation (“Can't you just die already?”). The fact that bosses have more regular names reflects how Travis is seeing them differently: they are no longer figures of god-like standing that he aspires to overcome. They are people whose mentality he understands because he has been where they are going. It is he who is now the legend and they who are challengers, the 'ordinary' people trying to walk the same path that he did during his freshman outing. 

All the bosses faced by characters other than Travis all have unusual names - Million Gunman, New Destroymen, Mimmy - similar to the bosses in the original game. These sections, Shinobu's in particular, emphasize Travis' gradual change into realising the importance of becoming a functioning, caring member of society again. Shinobu is following in her master's footsteps from the previous game, killing to prove her worth. Her finishing moves on her two bosses are especially gratuitous and unpleasant, demonstrating that she has yet to experience the epiphany that Travis is realising. Hence his being repelled by her when she tries to kiss him: she has come to represent something he wishes to forget about himself. 

Henry's story mirrors that of Travis' original journey: in the first game, his role was to show how Travis' rise to the top had failed to distinguish him as he'd hoped, but rather made him just part of another group. Hence Henry and Travis being twins: expert gamers are not special, amongst themselves they are identical. Perhaps in conquering the fantastical Mimmy, Henry mirrors Travis' realisations about the value of 'real' relationships with family and society by returning to the real world to help his brother.
Travis' nickname in Desperate Struggle ('The No More Hero') is also interesting: at first, 'The No More Hero' sounds incomprehensible, yet ties into the game's theme very easily. In the first game, the bosses were Travis' heroes (as Suda has stated) and Travis fought so that there should be no more of them but him. Yet it is he who begins Desperate Struggle as the hero, but now fighting to be rid of that title and its connotations. He is both seeking to be a 'hero' (aka assassin, gaming addict) no more, but also, in a human way (which the later assassins recognise and respect), he is a hero for having the strength of will to say 'no more' to the game.

The bosses' personalities are less significant this time around, hence them being given so much less development than in the original game. They merely represent other gamers whose addictions to the game are growing. We learn less about them because Travis no longer idolises them and has little interest in their backgrounds. As Travis moves higher up the ranks, his opponents become more melancholic, as their growing experience forces them to come to terms with the futility of their gaming live, as Travis has. At that point, their deaths become meaningful because Travis is seeing them not as bosses blocking his way, but as human beings again.

The final boss, Jasper Batt Jr., is a diminutive nerd who represents what Travis was at the start of the game – the cold blooded obsessive, surrounded by his fantasies (in this case, Batman rather than manga) who doesn't care about his victims as people – hence Bishop's murder. But where Batt Jr. can see only revenge and more killing as the solution, Travis has come to realise that the bloodshed must end somewhere, hence his fury towards Sylvia and her manipulations, vowing to bring the UAA (and therefore, the game) to an end, upon the death of assassin Alice. She gives Travis the ultimate reminder of the importance of family and empathy: Travis slaughtered her sister earlier in the game, yet she realises this was a consequence of the decisions they made and does not seek revenge. She fights him only out of obligation and to break free of the cycle of death she is locked into.

Sylvia in both games represents the developer, whispering promises of great climaxes in the gamer's ear in exchange for his participating in her bloody game. In No More Heroes, she found Travis increasingly attractive as he became more cold-hearted. In Desperate Struggle, as she realises that the game is coming to a close (what will she do when Travis has killed Batt Jr?), she looks to Travis for something real and we finally see (or rather, hear) the two make a physical connection, finally getting Travis his world-shaking climax – achieved courtesy of his increasing empathy rather than his skills at 'the game'.

At the game's close, when Sylvia runs away, for a time she relives her past glories for the seedy satisfaction of others rather than building a genuine new life for herself. When Travis comes to rescue her, she has to ask if what she is hearing is actually real. Her peep-shop joint is closing down and it is time to move on. At the time, Suda said that Desperate Struggle was to be the last of Travis Touchdown's stories. Could this be his meta-comment on sequels, on developers whoring themselves out on past glories instead of going after something new, a genuine passion? Ironic, considering No More Heroes 3 comes out on Switch next year.

In El Topo, the film does not finish when the assassin is betrayed: rather, it gives him the opportunity to meditate on his life and to fight for justice instead of egotism. At the end of the film, he choses to commit suicide for his terrible deeds and it is El Topo's children - and his dwarf girlfriend, natch - who ride off into the sunset in an echo of the opening shot, signalling the character's rebirth. Travis commits 'suicide' at the end of Desperate Struggle by choosing to bring his game to an end. Having already resurrected the character for Travis Strikes Again last year, it will be interesting to see where Suda can take Travis in No More Heroes 3 without simply retreading the past.


No comments: