Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. His written offerings can be found on Pixels or Death and Medium Difficulty.
Given that Goichi Suda so thoroughly and openly engages in reflexive gaming commentary within his many eclectic works, the generally negative reception with Grasshopper Manufacture’s latest effort Killer Is Dead arrives as a genuine shock. Much of the gaming world’s aversion towards the game stems from its so-called “Gigolo mode,” a minigame that finds its protagonist ogling a potential romantic flame for the promise of sex and a weapon upgrade. Some critics have charged this segment as misogynist, often with reductive analysis that eschews examination below surface level. Obviously, representing sex in games remains a serious issue that the medium has frequently struggled with. However, simply writing off the Gigolo mode as sexist neglects the cultural context and the critical subtext from a game developer with a history of raising shrewd gender commentary and poking fun at deplorable portrayals of women in videogames. That’s not to say the Gigolo segments are completely faultless; a number of burdens weigh down this aspect of the game, but Killer Is Dead is smarter and more insightful than people believe it to be. The playfully subversive Gigolo mode entertains both a rich commentary on gaze theory and a stylistic excess that evokes Brechtian distanciation. Not quite a straightforward facsimile of a sexist dating simulator or eroge (an erotic game), Killer Is Dead’s Gigolo mode represents an absurd tongue-in-cheek ridiculing of these genres.
Killer Is Dead goes about addressing the issue of gender and sexual content in its Gigolo mode via mimicking the dubious sexual content of existing videogames but with a satirically exaggerated, self-deprecating quality. Mondo Zappa, the game’s James Bond-esque hitman protagonist, plays a game of courting with one of the so-called “Mondo girls” in the hopes of ending the night in a romantic tryst. The game tasks the player with raising Mondo’s “guts” by sneaking glances at his date; raise the meter high enough, and Mondo can surprise her with a present. The end of a successful date presents a cut-scene with sensual moaning and lingerie bearing with additional scenes unlocking later in the game. Should Mondo’s date catch the player in the middle of the gaze, the player runs the risk of compromising the mood and failing the challenge with a slap to the face. All this is done with an exaggeratedly tongue-in-cheek, self-mocking tone; Mondo flourishes his cheesy gesture of love with a dramatically stylized pose and the characters spew out campy, over-embellished lines. The game evokes everything from dating sims, erotic visual novels, and even the sex scenes of Western titles like Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto, albeit in a manner that evokes humorous parody to rob the seriousness of these games’ male-centric sexuality.
Towards A Brechtian Cognizance
Comparing Killer Is Dead to the problematic tone and politics of the aforementioned genres and titles certainly arouses the sentiment that it reinforces harmful derogatory representations of gender and sexuality (in hyper-sexualizing its women and rendering them objects of sexual possession under male characters), but it’s important to make careful distinctions with Suda’s conscious self-commentary. Suda’s openly reflexive approach to videogames establishes an intelligent self-discourse, and Killer Is Dead’s frequent acknowledgment of itself as a game welcomingly opens room for satire and commentary. The exaggeratedly silly tone of the Gigolo mode indicates an abstraction of sexuality necessary to distance its content from the developers themselves, marking a latent distrust of its own representation. This distancing effect distinctly evokes the dramatic techniques of playwright Bertolt Brecht, an academic primarily interested in calling attention to the absurdism of stylized content to foreground its own playful farce. Brecht argues that excessive stylization and exaggeration breaks the spectator’s immersion from the spectacle, thus allowing for an enhanced audience awareness of a greater social and political milieu behind the artifice. In his critical writing “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre,” he argues for the significance of extravagant stylization and absurdity of content, maintaining, “The intention was that a certain unreality, irrationality and lack of seriousness should be introduced at the right moment, and so strike with a double meaning… Fun, in other words, not only as form but as subject-matter. At least, enjoyment was meant to be the object of the inquiry even if the inquiry was intended to be an object of enjoyment” (36).
In the aesthetic strategies of Killer Is Dead’s Gigolo mode, Goichi Suda channels a similarly playful farce that works in the register of social and political commentary. The excessive stylization and over-embellished performances of this segment break audience immersion purposefully. This detachment serves as a means to stir a grander awareness of the game’s farce and to provoke the player’s engagement in this segment on an intellectual level, coercing a recognition of the gender politics at play. The game’s repeated aesthetic strategies of discontinuity, reflexive fourth-wall breaking, etc. produce an active and participatory player not so dissimilar from the audiences of Brechtian theater. Brecht explains the effect of this emotional detachment, stating, “Once illusion is sacrificed to free discussion, and once the spectator, instead of being enabled to have an experience, is forced as it were to cast his vote; then a change has been launched which goes far beyond formal matters and begins for the first time to affect the theatre’s social function” (39). Killer Is Dead’s conscious awareness of its gameplay as something problematic forces a political consciousness into the player instead of lulling the players into its motions. The quickly paced, absurdly schematized Gigolo mode provides a reflexive, even surreal moment that drives players to arrive at a critical mindset. In this way, the form itself melds into content, in which stylization becomes part and parcel with the substance of the game.
Destabilizing Visual Pleasure
Killer Is Dead presents a noteworthy experiment in allowing the player to exert control over the gaze function and the ideological complications that accompany it. Originating in the realm of film theory and feminist critique from Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), Mulvey explains the central tension of the gaze: “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (837). Killer Is Dead’s Gigolo mode actively installs the player as the observer, literally offering the role of the male gaze as something to be played. Given Suda’s proclivity for hyper-stylized violence in previous offerings, the use of a reticle in this mode is particularly interesting grounds for commentary both as a symbol of violence (in the aim of a gun) and a voyeuristic aspect (in the viewfinder of a camera). Suda further demonstrates this voyeuristic aspect in the camera-esque flash effects that accompany each successful gaze. Thus, the women of the Gigolo mode become erotic objects for male-centric visual pleasure, both for Mondo as a character and for the audience playing the game. The fundamental caveat of this concept lies in Mulvey’s recognition that this can only be “made possible through the processes set in motion by structuring the film around a main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify” (838). Because the male character serves as the bearer of the gaze for the audience, he needs to be identifiable and sympathetic. However, when considering the profound distancing effect of the Gigolo mode via its excessive stylization (bordering on the Brechtian), Mondo becomes a distant character to the point of humorous parody. Goichi Suda turns the game’s ostensible fetishistic scopophilia into absurdist farce, forcing the players into a voyeuristic schema that parodies and questions its own underpinnings.
In short, the minigame presents something so extravagant and hyperbolic as to openly divulge its satirical nature, often to the point of self-mocking ridicule. This non-serious tone notwithstanding, the Gigolo mode offers more intellectual substance to the gaze theory beyond surface critique. Interestingly enough, the gaze here is plural; the Gigolo mode involves a reciprocal game of gazes in which Mondo’s date has an agency in her vision as well. When staring long enough, Mondo’s date reflects the gaze right back at the player, one imbued with a degree of power that can weaken the player’s “guts” level. It’s an interesting dynamic at play – the female character can also block your vision, thus subverting the power relations between the observer and the object of the gaze. The women here have a sense of agency as adult characters that readily anticipate sex and serve as the judge in the relationship, awaiting Mondo to entice them and garner approval rather than function as a passive object to be seduced. Her ability to look back – directly at the player even, as you assume Mondo’s subjective point-of-view – suggests a kind of contemptuous self-mocking of the player’s active spectatorship by way of duplication. Psychoanalyst and critical theorist Jacques Lacan argues in “Some Reflections on the Ego” that the object of a gaze loses agency upon realization that they are the object of a gaze, arousing a kind of libidinal tension (7). In the case of Killer Is Dead, the women of the Gigolo missions gain autonomy when they catch your gaze, playfully subverting the power dynamic and parodying a faulty history of the genre – a kind of mirror to the gamer’s face to reflect upon the questions and contexts that such a minigame engages.
Titillation & Self-Ridicule
The game offers minimal titillation during the Gigolo gameplay, and the ensuing cut-scene lacks nudity altogether (one no worse than that of Mass Effect). As a kind of dark interpretation of the James Bond persona, these sex scenes actually fit neatly into the narrative context of the Mondo Zappa character. Obviously, some problems linger with the Gigolo missions that slightly dent the power of its satire. The cut scenes frequently lack the subversively goofy and playful tone of the Gigolo gameplay necessary to undermine its sexual content. While titillation is kept minimal due to a lack of truly explicit sexual imagery, players are still rewarded with a little cheesecake pinup in a tone that’s too self-serious given the goofiness of the build-up leading up to it. Additionally, should a player unlock the “Gigolo glasses” after completing optional side challenges, X-ray vision is temporarily granted during the Gigolo gameplay to view your date’s lingerie (though it also has the practical purpose of telling the player what presents the girl wishes to ease the entire process). This bonus runs the risk of problematizing the Gigolo mode, but it ultimately remains a moment of extreme self-criticism in its frantically hyperbolic quality – complete with sped-up electronic music, a silly pink color filter, campy flash effects, etc. During these few seconds when Mondo dons the glasses, the women lack the agency to block your vision, but the increased embellishment and exaggeration robs the moment of transgression and aligns the player in a hyper-aware, critical mindset. Here, the game codes its goofy, hyperbolic quality as a necessary element to call attention to Mondo’s perversions in a gesture of self-ridiculing parody.
Goichi Suda isn’t misled so easily by exploitative pursuits in the hopes for easy titillation and enjoyment. Suda has always been self-aware and self-critical, especially with games like Lollipop Chainsaw, and yes, Killer Is Dead. Finally, let’s not overlook the fact that the rest of the game includes characterized women outside of the Gigolo mode, both protagonist and antagonist: from your business-savvy, Shiva the Destroyer-esque superior Vivienne Squall to the elegant and mysterious femme fatale Moon River. The Gigolo mode in Killer Is Dead remains incessantly silly as it presses the limits of tastefulness and morality, but this moment endures as a minigame worth examining. Suda’s perceptive engagement with gaze theory and cultural context by way of a surprisingly fun parody welcomes audiences to jeer at the exaggerated farce he puts forward. Its creator, an accomplished image-maker who is always cognizant of the gaming culture he hails from, pushes the boundary in order to advance discussion and point out the existing flaws from a tradition of sexism in gaming. Whether or not the commentary is worth this kind of gameplay remains open to discussion, but critics must dig deeper below the surface to unearth this rich parody and gaze criticism underneath something so seemingly absurd.
Brecht, Bertolt. “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre.” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. John Willett, ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.
Lacan, Jacques. “Some Reflections on the Ego.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 34. (1953): 11-17.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.