Disclosure: The author is friends with Treachery in Beatdown City’s developers, Nico Marcano and Shawn Alexander.
When “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” don’t you get tired of being nice? Don’t you just want to go apeshit?
There’s a satisfaction to putting your fist into someone. And not just anyone, but an existential threat. It’s been years since I’ve gotten embroiled in an honest-to-god brawl, but the last one I remember was a guy laying hands on his girlfriend outside of a bar. I put my hand on his shoulder and he turned and swung wildly. So I swung back. Mine connected. It went quick, thanks to some big-as-shit EMTs who ran over from across the street. Find a crew when you can if you want to win.
Before that it was bullies, prep school white kids who took karate, used slurs learned from parents and always wanted to try and jump me—at lunch, recess, before, between, and after class. You win some, you lose some, but you always make sure to hurt them as good as you got. Odds are rarely stacked in your favor if you’re on defense. But when you fuck up a racist, an abuser, or anyone threatening your safety and well-being? Feels great, man.
Stopping someone mid-slur and finishing their sentence with a satisfying clack of knuckles-on-jaw. The popping sound from putting a stranger’s drunk boyfriend’s arm into a position it was never intended to go in. The rush of a jock coming at you with an aluminum lacrosse stick and folding him up like a quilt in front of his friends who go from screaming “GET THE COMMIE!” to stunned silence. When you’re a short, fat, brown, asthmatic, visibly queer teen, few things are as satisfying as turning the tide on a mob of upperclassmen coming for you and having your English teacher cheer you on when you throw one of them into the others like a pro-bowler. Even the sting of ice on your swollen bruised knuckles after. Righteous violence feels incredible.
Yeah, I’ve been in some fights.
Violent games are often said to be cathartic, a release valve for stress. But so few have ever let me do violence to the truly deserving—people in positions of power. No matter how much Call of Duty wants to posture, you’re always the bully. The outsized “Good Guys.” Even in Dark Souls you’re really just beating up on people who’ve lost all hope, lashing out of instinct. What the shit is that?
You know who I want to fuck up? Like really take to the pavement and feel my swollen knuckles sink into his distended soft belly? Mike Bloomberg. Fuck that guy, right? Some people just need to catch hands.
Enter Treachery in Beatdown City’s Mike Moneybags.
I’m not there yet, but I’m building my way there. Lots of people need to break themselves on my hands first, well, not my hands—Lisa Santiago’s.
IRL, I have shit to consider. I’ve got arthritis in my knees, hands, hips. Most of the ligaments holding my ankles to my legs are shot. My shoulder pops when I shrug. I smoke. And I mean there’s the whole issue with how the cops are never going to be on my side, no matter how justified any fight I’d get in would be.
But Lisa Santiago is a fucking badass. She’s big tittied, brown, and JACKED. She is lifegoals. You remember that movie from the ‘90s, Sidekicks, where Jonathan Brandis (RIP) fantasized about Chuck Norris (fuck his conservative ass for real) being his Beatdown Buddy? That’s me and Lisa.
We started off wrecking the shit out of this aggro delinquent meathead in and out of the gym, and from there we punched and kicked our way across town straight messing up racists and gentrifying hipsters, rude shitheads with more money and privilege than common decency, and a whole lot of dirty cops.
Feels good, y’all.
Especially because Beatdown City is no mere brawler. It looks a lot like old school beat ‘em ups. But it has a strategic depth that fans of old school dense-as-fuck JRPGs will recognize and love. It gives what could have been a rote beat ‘em up a unique sense of tempo, a rhythm that feels good, feels like a real fight. Hectic intensity breaking off into deep breaths before resuming, split-second planning before explosive finishes.
But the thing about Treachery in Beatdown City that really matters to me? Who gets access to using violence.
Most games give you a stock white guy (the “progressive” ones give you a white woman, redheaded, sometimes with white girl dreadlocks). And it’s always in service to some form of cultural hegemony or a version of “Western” imperialism. Violence in games is great, when you are a member of the status quo going ripshit on anything that threatens the status quo.
Most videogames wouldn’t agree with you throwing a milkshake at notorious right-wing troll Andy Ngo. You couldn’t give a much needed roundhouse to all the Koch Brothers. And for the majority of violent videogames? Billionaires like Bloomberg are only bad when they’re batshit cartoon villains trying to do some sci-fi shit.
Really the only deserving violence you can usually do in games is on Nazis—and they’re always fangless paper doll versions of actual Nazis. Wolfenstein: The New Colossus didn’t even let me merc a bunch of dopey Klansmen.
Fuck that. Let me pop off!
Sure, Lisa Santiago’s dad is a cop. Bruce Maxwell is a stock broker. And that one dude I threw down with was just mad because I didn’t want to buy his mixtape. But these are genre conventions that Treachery in Beatdown City plays with because it’s tonally somewhere between ‘90s Cracked magazine and Double Dragon. A space where ninjas have kidnapped the president—Orama, not “Ronnie.”
It’s not trying for some vision of a perfect fantasy of leftist politics. Its sense of civility stops at “please stop fucking with me or I’ll beat your ass.”
And quite frankly, if you’re black or brown, not a cis dude, queer, and/or poor—an entire system, and the people who have bought into that system, are always absolutely fucking with you.
Beatdown City is fun, funny, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its message is that there are genuinely shitty people in your city and it’d be real nice to drop their asses on the curb like trash.
You might not be able to always throw down in real life. You might not get to throw down in most videogames. Todd Howard won’t even let you really kill Ulfric Stormcloak, who is notably racist, until the very end of a tedious questline. And Skyrim is a game with a literal Murder Faction.
But Beatdown City says “You see that racist? You can wreck his shit.”
Which is exactly what I need right now.
When Animal Crossing is making me indulge in the nature of capitalism and colonialism, when England is showing me just how rent-free it’s living in my head as I attempt to cultivate the perfect stonewalled garden with imported plants, and Final Fantasy VII’s remake decided that “What if your revolutionary heroes didn’t actually do the real violence and have to grapple with that?”, Beatdown City is standing shoulder to shoulder with me and saying “Wouldn’t it be great to beat the everloving shit out of some racists?”
And, yes. Yes it would.
As the coronavirus pandemic hit the US with a ferocity only matched by the worthlessness of our federal government, I was making a grocery run a few blocks from my apartment in Chinatown. I heard some random white dude shouting “THEY HAVE CORONAVIRUS! IT’S THEM! THEY SPREAD IT!” I heard the young woman behind me stocking the outside shelves scream back, “Shut the fuck up!”
I pulled my headphones down around my neck, and stopped. Making a judgment call. Do I have to regulate? Does this need my intervention? What are the consequences if I do? He was a very normal looking white guy, and I am a very queer Native trans woman. Who are the cops going to side with? What happens to my partner if I get arrested? Will I be lucky enough to just get arrested? These are the thoughts that spin through your mind in the handful of seconds before you have to decide to act.
And that’s when I heard a heavy, wet, impact sound. She had thrown a durian—a whole ass durian—right at him. It exploded, hitting him in the head and shoulder. He shouted some more racist bullshit and ran off, covered in gooey pulp.
I don’t know what I’d have done if she hadn’t, or if that had escalated. But I cheered for her, and felt a little guilty that I hadn’t just tackled that piece of shit myself.
There are many kinds of violence—the kinds states do when they defund social programs, redline, or disproportionately imprison and extrajudicially murder BIPOC. There’s emotional violence like gaslighting. Environmental violence, like when Nestlé steals water or oil pipelines are destructively erected. Intimate partner violence. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. But all violence, all real violence, the kind that destroys lives and communities, comes from a position of authority, control, from a position of power.
You can’t reason from a position of powerlessness. You can’t just electoral politics your way out of oppressive systems, and it’s not always safe or prudent to physically respond to abusers with your own violence.
But sometimes, in real life, that’s the only response. Sometimes you have to bring your fists and bodies and lay it on the line.
Treachery in Beatdown City isn’t concerned with the questions of prudence. It doesn’t care about “civility” or want its players to worry about the millions of considerations they have to do when confronted with the impulse to put a boot into Mike Bloomberg or any other shitfaced racist’s neck. The developers are as tired of those considerations in their own daily lives as they are of gunning-down unspecified brown people in an unspecified foreign country in Tom Clancy games.
Beatdown City is a reprieve from having to make those judgment calls. From having to worry about if spitting fire at a cop is going to end up getting you and everyone around you killed.
It’s a catharsis for everyone who has to deal with this shit daily. A place to unapologetically throw hands at all the people who need to catch them. It’s a power fantasy for everyone left out of the normal videogame power fantasy.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.