When The Silver Case cuts to a shot of the Moon, usually at the end of each level, it appears as a cool but benevolent onlooker. The title of the game’s first chapter, “Lunatics”, becomes a double entendre. Perpetually in conflict—killing one another on behalf of rival institutions and ideas—the characters in The Silver Case are nevertheless unified by the Moon. At the end of each day it watches over them all.
Throughout its work, Grasshopper Manufacture struggles with people. How The Silver Case details both specific crimes and the bureaucracies charged with investigating them betrays an infatuation with human experience not found in the studio’s later exploitation games—by Lollipop Chainsaw and Let It Die, the developers have either given up on the rigors of our lives or become jaded to the point of nihilism. Just like how, as The Silver Case progresses, the Moon takes on different, gradually more ominous hues, Grasshopper, as it has produced more games, seems to have become first angrier at people and then dejected. In Killer7, one of the studio’s subsequent major works, blood and death are much more commonplace than in The Silver Case: rather than spiritually unite characters, the Moon appears to precede each sequence of mass-murder.
Killer7’s characters’ suits and affectations suggest an interest in style rather than substance. Its deliberately convoluted, sometimes gaseous plot and many wonderful abstractions belie the presence of a single, encompassing truth. But still Killer7 has a heart. As its protagonists are murdered one-by-one, we cannot help but mourn them. And when Garcian is revealed to be a puppet of Harman and Kun-Lan, duelling gods who fight, endlessly, in service to their own egos, he seems suddenly similar to the put-upon police officers of The Silver Case, misused by the institutions that claim to protect them. At the end of Michigan: Report from Hell, after learning his employer, a huge corporation called Zaka, is responsible for creating and leaking deadly viruses, the protagonist is unceremoniously assassinated. Travis Touchdown, of the next Grasshopper staple No More Heroes, is manipulated also by a self-interested, higher power: after fighting and killing through the ranks of the United Assassin’s Association, he discovers the Association doesn’t actually exist, and has been fabricated completely by a con-artist named Sylvia.
Since all these characters, ultimately and to varying extents, are defrauded or destroyed by organisations, it’s tempting to call Grasshoper’s earlier games adolescent or cynical. The mathematical way in which the city in The Silver Case is laid out—lettered districts contain numbered wards—implies a dehumanising totalitarianism which we automatically distrust. Harman’s base of operations in Killer7, a lame trailer, also containing his assistant Samantha, who flips between eerie subservience and fiery rage, implies God is exaggerated and two-faced. When even the supernaturally cool Killer7 are helpless against the system, it impresses a belief common among angry teenagers that wealth and power crush nonconformity. But the fact we remain, despite some of these games’ inevitable endings, allied with the individual characters and not the organisations is precisely what saves them from irrelevance. In Grasshopper’s earlier work, and before games like Haze, BioShock and Spec Ops: The Line, we are told to question instruction and admire individuality, to like the people even if we disagree or find repellent what they are being made to do. The Killer7 may murder for money, but their distinct personalities and attractiveness, contrasted with the shadiness and uncertainty surrounding the orders they receive, suggests we should root for people, not ideas.
Which is why the misanthropy or, more specifically, misogyny of Grasshopper’s later games is so striking. Paula, the driving love interest of Shadows of the Damned, is also the subject of a rap by ostensibly the game’s most endearing character; it’s a contradiction, telling of how barely Grasshopper seems to regard its leading lady, when as well as beautiful, angelic and worth journeying into Hell to rescue, she’s also described as a “bitch” whom the villain has kidnapped to help scratch his “itch.” Killer Is Dead seems similarly content to use its characters for any and whatever purpose. In one scene, women are—perhaps in the most literal sense of the term possible—eye candy, since points are awarded for glaring at their legs and cleavage. In other scenes, they are innocent pixies, kidnap victims, bitchy traitors and grotesque monsters. If they were all given more screen time, or allowed a humanising moment each, one might argue the women in Killer Is Dead are varied, and by extension complex, above some of their contemporaries. But it uses them fleetingly and to appeal only to its assumed audience’s superficial instincts. Feel sorry for them, be grossed out by them, be scared of them, lust after them—these are the only feelings Killer Is Dead wants us to have about its women.
Lollipop Chainsaw, released a year prior, is somewhat more covert: despite its pornographically proportioned protagonist, her skimpy clothes and humiliating lines like “Agnes used to be hot, but now she has an intestine coming out her vagina,” Grasshopper and writer James Gunn seem to almost anticipate the revisionist reviews, and keep reminding us they have a woman as their lead, she’s likeable and she’s dressing and doing things her own way. But Juliet Starling is an insipid materialist. Like Bayonetta, who is designed to appeal—albeit via the smuggle-through-customs language of women’s agency—to male dominatrix fantasies, she wears a cheerleader outfit quite literally placed on her by men. And so her enemies’ jeers, “slut,” “fucking bitch,” “stupid cooze,” seem not like barked encouragement to go and fight sexism, but genuinely disdainful: when Lollipop Chainsaw bullies Juliet, another of Grasshopper’s superficial characters, it encourages us to laugh along.
The doubtfulness with which Grasshopper Manufacture once appraised systems, of any kind, seems to have evolved—or rather devolved—into encompassing, people-hating nihilism. If The Silver Case, quite nobly, started on bureaucracy and Shadows of the Damned, Lollipop Chainsaw and Killer Is Dead moved onto women, by Let It Die, Grasshopper concludes that everyone’s lives are meaningless and we’re all not to be trusted. The very title suggests having given up; the game’s mechanics, whereby you die repeatedly, replace yourself using another generic body, stored inside a giant freezer like meat, and then go and kill your former self, who has since turned into a monster, suggests we’re disposable, similar and, in our final and definitive form, duplicitous. In its 18 years since releasing The Silver Case, Grasshopper appears to have stopped caring about its characters. Like David, the maniacal villain of Killer Is Dead, it seemingly wants to get away from people—to observe from the Moon.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed and find more of his work at bulletpointsmonthly.com.