Backlog: Shank

I often choose games that I know will not require me to think much. When I finally get home for the night, often in the early am, I want to do something that is not school related and often, though not always, this means looking at my Steam list and trying to pick a game where I can play for a hour or two and not be confronted with mechanics or story that is overly complicated. In other words, I am looking for stupid fun. And it was that criteria that brought me to Shank.

I’m going to even try to explain the plot because, honestly, I didn’t care about it. I think it has something to do with revenge — and that translates into killing every single person you meet — and trying to find a single person who killed a woman. Or something. I’m not sure on that. It seems as if Shank — yes, it’s actually his name — has problems with his memory and it is only after killing the latest boss of a level that the he has a moment of clarity and realizes, no, he must kill another person in addition to those he has already up to this point. If it wasn’t obvious to you, I have a problem with this approach to trying to tell a story now.

I’m not going to lie and say that there wasn’t a time when I didn’t like games like this. I grew up on games like Double Dragon and Battletoads (and even the combined game Battletoads & Double Dragon). I have punched and kicked my way through hundreds if not thousands of people across games within this genre. I have taken up the task of beating up countless people in order to get to a boss who often blinks constantly during the fight (think arcade games like X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). I know how these games work. I understand the techniques of breaking the animation cycles using the edge of the screen and of memorizing enemy patterns. I’ve played this type of game before.

Given that history, I still have two central problems when coming back to games like this: realism and tropes. For NES and even the early arcade games, I could forgive the violence. After all, it was part of the story. What was TMNT about if not the turtles beating up foot soldiers? (They were literally called the Foot Clan.) And the X-Men fought mostly robots. It could be excused. Neither group is fighting people per se. It could be rationalized away. Even later series like Streets of Rage had types and palette swaps. Shank though has names. The enemies have names. All of them. It’s unnerving.

In what I can only imagine was an attempt to breathe some life into the constant fighting, the designers gave each enemy, including even the dogs, names. In trying to kill soldier number 234 in level 4, I have to content with the fact that his name is Bob or Sam. I don’t want to question the underlining assumption of the game that all these people are “bad guys”. I am already wary of having to mow down these guys — and later girls — at every turn. I move right just a little and I must kill more people. It’s at the height of absurdity already with me having to murder what must be the entire contents of these small desert towns each level. If I must then consider if I am knocking off some son, father, mother or daughter in these places, Shank moves from Questionable Methods to Serial Killer. That’s bad.

There is this bleed over period in movie and game history. Right around the late eighties and into the early nineties, there are movies that feature a single, often male, hero who must fight people for… some reason. Maybe a girl was kidnapped. Or killed. Maybe the environment? Doesn’t really matter. It was the height of taking the Western trope of Lone Hero (often, yes, scarred by his physical and emotional past) and making him fight out his problems. In the late sixties, it was guns (in the U.S.) and swords (in Japan). Two different genres emerging at the same time and, by the late eighties, seeing a bit of a crossover between them. Sometimes the hero had a gun (and fists) and maybe he had a sword. Then, of course, they merged and we get the action hero of today, both guns and a sword — for, you know, two types of combat I guess? (In games, think Dante of Devil May Cry and, in movies, Alice of the Resident Evil series.)

This is the world of Shank. He had both swords (first shanks, then bladed weaponry) and, of course, guns. It’s no longer just a matter of honor and fighting with mostly fists (like Double Dragon) or even shooting his way through enemies. It’s a place of combos and of trying to mix up the fighting styles, a mashup of two different traditions (and genres). And that’s the problem for me. Because not only am I killing named people, I’m trying to do with both swords and guns. It’s not just Western justice or even Ronin redemption, it’s mindless murder in order to get to a boss who I must then, yes, also kill. And it’s all based in some revenge.

If the point of the game is to make me question this type of marriage between story and fighting, it’s succeeded. I’m thinking about why it’s even necessary that I cut down every person I met and use the guns as a way to clear the path. I’m looking at the style and presentation (which use Western motifs and imagery frequently) and wondering if the thematic underpinning of Honor or even a Code of Living that was part of the movies that influenced this game genre was lost along the way. This isn’t using blood to wash blood away, it’s just bodies being stacked up.

If the world of Shank is one of Might is Right, and he is fighting within it, in what way will he ever win? Perhaps it’s just because I’ve gotten older and the sort of “Let’s fight against the world!” idea has definitely lost its luster for me, but I can’t help but to think about the end game — literally — of this type of behavior. If the problem is that everyone is killing everyone else, isn’t Shank, you know, doomed to always fight? The again, this is a genre who title says it all: beat ’em up. I guess, if I continue to do that, I should win. Right?