April 7, 2015

Shank (2010)


developed by Klei Entertainment (Vancouver, BC, Canada)
first published by Electronic Arts, August 24, 2010, for Playstation 3 (August 25 for Xbox 360), $15
PC version first published by Electronic Arts, October 26, 2010, for Windows, $14.99
[trailer 1, trailer 2, trailer 3]
[original website]

Played to completion (of “Normal Mode”) in 5.5 hours, 3/30/15–4/7/15.

Sixth of the seven games in “Humble Indie Bundle 4″ purchased on Tuesday, December 13, 2011. This is the last of them that remained for me to play.

Here are my notes verbatim:

Quentin Tarantino was referring to schlock action movies of 30–40 years ago. These dudes are referring only to Quentin Tarantino, without understanding that the value is supposed to come from the milieu, the video store and the late-night TV. This is trash fantasy done without any apparent feeling for trash, which is a much grimmer thing than Kill Bill ever was.

“Over-the-top” is an interesting expression. Whose top?

Comic book artists like these guys, art-school whiz kids, clearly have a feeling for something, but what is the essence of the something? What is the thing they really know? It seems like they have an intuition for art, but maybe they just have an intuition for whatever life has thrown at them, what’s traumatized and transfixed them… and maybe we should hold up a sense of art as something bigger: not “what’s in your head and how does it go” but “what do you feel is good and how does it go?”

That’s the extent of what I wrote down. You can see how there’s material for spinning out an essay there, but boy, I sure don’t want to be the one to have to do it. This is how I always feel when I sit down to write these. Why can’t my notes be enough?

So, maybe they can. I announced as much a couple months ago. This sounds like a good scheme to me… except for the editing part.

The genre here is the “brawler” or “beat-em-up”: another one, like the vertical shooter, that was once a mainstay and is now a throwback. But unlike vertical shooters, I never really cared for beat-em-ups. I was sort of intrigued by what they looked like — those streets and alleyways of Double Dragon always seemed like streets of mystery, promising something special and unexpected just beyond the next scroll point — but in practice the emphasis on fight-fight-fight-fight-fighting was of no interest to me. If you didn’t think punching was awesome, there simply wasn’t enough to get you through. I never cared about memorizing all of my tough dude’s “moves,” never actually wanted to try my mettle against the next crew of two small bad guys and one giant one, or the next one, or the next one, or the one who throws the steel barrels, or whatever. All I wanted was to find out what was going to be in the background art when you got around the next corner, and once I got the gist — it’s basically all the same — I wrote off the genre.

So Shank is the first one of these games I’ve ever sat with and pushed through to the end. I think it probably wasn’t a great choice, because it seemed awfully shallow to me, and watching other people playing it on Youtube I get the same impression. You just keep hitting the different weapon buttons and keep killing people. The more you master the controls, the more effective you’re able to be, but being ineffective is fine too, because all the game really cares about is looking slick like a comic book, which it does. It was like moving my thumbs and watching an incredibly repetitive murder cartoon on Adult Swim, for 5 hours.

Since it really is explicitly a cartoon, with a fair amount of out-and-out non-interactive cartoon in it, here at least was an opportunity for the developers to load up a game with some wild and colorful writing. They could have gone the full Tarantino and had Shank go off on tangents about Chinese food, or whatever. They could have made it like a really entertaining episode of, you know, a real show! But no. It only looks like a cartoon. The stuff that actually goes on is just some horseshit that fell out when they shook their comic books.

Their idea of content is: “over the top,” which, as I said, is no sort of standard at all. Duuuude he just blew that guy’s head up by putting a grenade in his mouth!

Wow, astounding. Unthinkable. Saucy. Sick. You name it.

Here, on the DeviantArt page (!) of one of the lead developers, is a recent drawing he did of Skeletor. You know, from He-Man. As one of the commenters says: “YES!!!! This is exactly how Skeletor should look!”

That’s about the size of it. What does this “should” mean, exactly? I don’t know, and the commenter doesn’t know, and the artist doesn’t know, but whatever it is, that’s the name of this game. When Shank cuts off a Mexican wrestler’s head with a chainsaw, it looks exactly like it should look! Therefore this game is exactly like it should be!

I use the word “pornographic” a lot for this kind of thing, because I tend to think of the pornographic element as a convenient key to recognizing it for what it is. This same guy has some ideas about thighs that sure don’t come from art school anatomy class; they come from the deep prerational part of the brain that stores up images, and nurtures them, and distorts them, and invests them with power. The culture at large isn’t very comfortable with this image-hoarding part of the mind, but we’re at least willing to recognize its influence on sex, the last approved haven for irrationality. Yet it seems like now, in the era of Dan Savage, even the weirdest fetishes are supposed to get names and bumper stickers and Wikipedia articles and conventions and come out into the light of the social and the rational. Which surely has to wring all meaning out of them, right? I can’t imagine that all those furries are really and truly tapping into their spookiest private inner energies when they’re in Pittsburgh attending Anthrocon 2014, “with a fursuit parade of 1,326 and an economic impact of $6.2 million.” They’re just trudging their way through one more alienating social construction.

What I’m saying is: the culture at large is basically willing to recognize the role of the image-hoarding part of the mind on sex, but even there, it doesn’t want to face up to the fact that there’s no catching it in a rational bottle. The internet proudly trumpets to us that obscure fetishes aren’t dirty anymore!… and yet unnamed, unnameable fetishes still are. We’re all still expected to be ashamed of our images that have no names. So we end up with a very repressed, restricted sense of how our images relate to the conscious world.

That’s where the comic book dudes come in: they’re people who know how to tap into their image-centers and show exactly how things “should look,” but all they’ve got in there is Shank and Skeletor and “Slave Leia”: thirdhand caricatures of fear and lust and power that managed to slip into their spiritual life before social puberty finally and utterly slammed the door on unabashed emotional experience.

This is all very discursively to say that the art and animation of this game is done with true artistic skill and intuition, but within bounds that are to me depressingly narrow. Even mere pulp-enthusiasm is, for me, too big and three-dimensional an emotion to fit through this needle’s-eye of a worldview.

It sure does perfectly and exactly look like a Cartoon Network show that looks like someone’s fetish of a comic book that looks like someone’s fetish of a Quentin Tarantino movie that looks like his fetish of an old exploitation action movie that was made as a fetish of someone’s festering resentments. And I don’t think that’s true of any other game. So yes!!! Kick-ass!!! You did it!!! Great Skeletor, too!

“Revenge is a dish best served cold!” “Revenge is sweet!” “Revenge is mine!”

Y’all should know that in the course of playing, I got 100 chainsaw kills, which unlocked the “Grindhouse” achievement, which unlocked the “Grindhouse Shank” costume with the hockey mask!

I don’t know, maybe I’m being too cynical, maybe it’s all in some kind of good fun. But I am solemnly committed never to say “well, maybe I’m just too old to get it.” Maybe I’m just too sad or scared on a given day, sure, but one is never too old to know whether something is good. This has fancy pro-style animation but clearly isn’t very good. Review complete.

I’m including a whole bunch of the credits because it’s hard to tell how the power breaks down here. This one is sort of a notch higher in scale than the last few Humble Indie games we’ve seen here. Still a small developer, but one with the support of a big powerful publisher.

Created by Jeff Agala, Jamie Cheng
Aaron Bouthillier: lead animator
Meghan Shaw: lead environment artist
Daniel Yu: design and storyboards
Alex Colbert, Chris Costa, Kevin Forbes, Ju-Lian Kwan: programmers
Marcus Lo: game designer
Chris Worboys: junior designer
Gary Lam: design director
Marianne Krawczyk: writer
Vincent DeVera, Jason Garner: music

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