I’ve recently played two games that feature a pair of nasty main characters — Kane & Lynch: Dead Men and the newer Army of Two.
EA Montreal’s Army of Two‘s protagonists, Elliot Salem and Tyson Rios, are mercenaries employed by a private military contractor. They go around the world shooting at people for money and generally seem to be having an unreasonably good time while they’re at it, as Tycho and Gabe recently and entirely correctly pointed out.
IO Interactive’s Kane & Lynch: Dead Men also features two main characters who are pretty awful human beings. Adam “Kane” Marcus is an absolutely ruthless professional criminal and James Seth Lynch is a mental case who obviously can’t really relate to other human beings, much less refrain from murdering them.
On the surface, these two pairs seem to have pretty much in common: they kill at the drop of the hat, they routinely engage in criminal and/or entirely immoral activities and are generally pretty much complete bastards. These are not nice people. But there’s a world of difference in how they are treated and portrayed in their respective games.
Murder-Happy Frat Boys
In Army of Two, Salem and Rios appear to be two essentially braindead assholes who are very good at their job, and unfortunately, that impression lasts. They obviously have a good time killing people, as evidenced by a great deal of macho posturing and trash talk, but moreover, their motives are entirely suspect; they’re not particularly concerned about the morality of their work. The game’s plot involves a conspiracy to keep conflicts going in order for the PMC they work for to increase their business, and the two characters do get caught in the middle of it, but the idea appears to be that the work itself isn’t immoral or otherwise problematic, it’s just that some guys in the business don’t happen to be honest enough.
It doesn’t help that the characters aren’t exactly beautiful and unique snowflakes. I had a lot of trouble even telling the two characters apart, except one of them whined about the conspiracy, and the other one kept telling him to shut up about it and keep shooting at people so they could make some more money. It was was just barely clear to me which one of these guys I was playing, and I never really cared at all.
The attitude the guys at EA Montreal have adopted is obviously one of complete obliviousness to the moral implications of their game. I’m not saying that it corrupts children everywhere or anything of the sort — frankly, I think that in order to really influence someone’s morality or conception of reality with a product, the product’s ideology needs to be even remotely comprehensible or enticing. Army of Two is to evaluation and discussion of value systems what vacuum is to atmosphere. MTV does a hell of a lot more harm than this game ever will with its all-consuming commitment to and reverence of absolutely shallow lifestyles, but that said, Army of Two probably fits perfectly as a component of those lifestyles.
This is a game in which two overgrown frat boys appear to never have any remorse about what they do, and the work itself is portrayed as having no real consequences; there’s a certain illusion of realism brought on by the fact that the game takes place in locations that have real-world relevance, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but as Salem and Rios go around gunning down evil terrorists it’s obvious that the veneer of realism is a thin one indeed. (Among other things, these escapades include tasteful scenes wherein the two stand back to back while shooting at the Muslim suicide bombers who attack them in waves). As if to drive the point of complete stupidity and frivolity home, the characters can actually run around with “pimped” weapons that are literally gold-plated and adorned with jewels.
Of course, it’s easy to say that it’s just entertainment and not to be taken seriously, and there’s something to that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not stupid to the point of being offensive. And yes, a case could be made that the characters’ indifference to the abomination of an existence they lead is a statement on the dehumanizing effects of violence that has been approved, sponsored and instigated by governments and corporations, but, frankly, thirty minutes of watching these two meatheads go around pounding their fists together and talking about how they need to go kill some more people so that one of them can lay another bet on the Cowboys makes it pretty obvious that either there is no such subtext or EA doesn’t have the skill to implement it.
Army of Two is a fairly disgusting game, and it’s not because the main characters are complete assholes, but because the game never acknowledges that they are anything but cool. They’re musclebound idiots, which doesn’t exactly make them a rarity in video games, but Army of Two takes it to a certain extreme.
Oh, the Humanity
Moving on to IO Interactive’s work, there’s Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. Kane and Lynch are monstrous human beings, absolutely, but in sharp contrast to Salem and Rios, they are still recognizably human. Kane is an emotional cripple who has been numbed by a lifetime of violent work and willfully discarded morality. Lynch is an ineffectively medicated and impulsive schizophrenic who can barely comprehend the world he’s in, and when he gets confused, people start dying. And unlike the pair in Army of Two, Kane and Lynch are extremely distinctive characters, not just featureless carbon copies of each other.
Over the years, Kane’s humanity has been stomped down to a point where other people mean nothing to him, and even his own life seems to be a necessary evil; he shows nothing but contempt for everyone and doesn’t seem to exclude himself from that group. He’s resigned to death and even seems to welcome it; if you take a shot at him, the instincts work just fine; the lizard brain works hard to keep him alive, but it’s obvious that his heart just isn’t in it. It’s not that he particularly wants to live; he just hasn’t found a way to die yet.
And yet it’s obvious — and it’s to IO’s credit that they don’t make a big deal of this — that there’s just enough of Kane’s humanity left to make him despise himself. He knows that saving his daughter isn’t going to make up for anything, but he has nothing else in his life. It’s the only thing that makes him feel even remotely human again — and yet, his willingness to sacrifice anything and anyone to help her only adds to his list of sins. His drive to help her makes him an even worse human being than he was before; he’s a man who has been on the road to hell for most of his life, and now, when he’s nearing the end of his journey, he decides to pave the rest of the way with good intentions.
Lynch, on the other hand, is sick. That’s not to say that he’s a victim or morally inculpable; clearly, even when he’s not delusional, the man has terrible urges and extremely poor impulse control, and he’s not hampered by excess morality. Kane rarely bothers to justify what he does, but Lynch is constantly finding excuses for his deeds. Kane has no illusions about what he is, whereas Lynch considers himself an okay guy — maybe he has some problems, sure, but he’s just ended up in difficult situations through no real fault of his own. It’s never that he’s a socially inept and insane bastard who cannot address his problems and frustrations with anything other than violence; it’s always someone else’s fault.
Lynch guns down civilians in cold blood and finds ways to blame it on them. He murdered his own wife and insists that it was probably someone else. He expresses disdain for Kane’s immorality while following his lead almost like a big child; Kane, at least, seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and for all his grumbling and occasional posturing, Lynch is a follower, not a leader; he seems almost terrified of being out there on his own. The game doesn’t really address this, but I could easily believe that in Kane, Lynch sees a kindred spirit of some kind; a man so far removed from humanity that, compared to him, Lynch seems normal.
And the game is unforgiving about all of that. It doesn’t pretend that these guys are heroes; it’s obvious that they are monsters and that what they do has terrible consequences for their fellow human beings, ranging from the unconscious civilians in the bank they are robbing in the beginning of the game (whom Lynch guns down in cold blood when he gets it in his head that they are turning into cops), to the kidnapping Kane organizes (which results in a heavy civilian body count), to Kane’s revenge on his enemies and his attempt to rescue his daughter (during which Kane shows his willingness to sacrifice his allies’ lives), and eventually culminating with Kane’s final decision (which, depending on the player’s choice, either involves him leaving his allies behind to die or seeing his daughter dead).
And that’s relevant, goddammit. I’m not going to claim that it’s the most profound thing anyone’s ever experienced, but there are clear and strong indications of intelligence behind Kane & Lynch. The guys at IO Interactive have thought about this shit, and they are making a statement about a dog-eat-dog world. I’m not going to pretend that it’s a terribly penetrating, unique or enlightening observation, but it’s certainly valid, and they’re smart enough to not get heavy-handed about it; they let the characters speak for themselves. Kane and Lynch are horrible and genuinely scary people, but despite all this, they still resonate on a human level. They may not be like anyone we actually know, but at least to me, they’re recognizable. I can relate to them on a level other than disgust.
Side by Side
Perhaps the crucial difference between the two games could be best summarized in like this: Kane & Lynch never gets cute about itself. It takes itself utterly seriously. The ugly shit isn’t there for shock value; it’s there because it’s what the story is about, and because it’s about something significant. Army of Two, on the other hand, is ridiculously far removed from that state of affairs; it doesn’t even acknowledge — or comprehend? — that it’s about something ugly. It’s the game equivalent of an SUV owner who may be vaguely aware that his choice of vehicle might be controversial, but doesn’t really understand why, so he makes cute little jokes about the whole thing and honestly just doesn’t understand why other people think he’s a kind of a dick.
Of course, purely in terms of gameplay the whole thing turns upside down. Army of Two may be stupid to the point of being disgusting, but if you approach it purely as a tactical exercise, it’s a pretty fun game to play. The co-op elements are well-implemented throughout the game and a lot of fun, and the game manages to offer fairly unique-feeling gameplay experiences. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at ignoring the kind of crap Army of Two shovels out with two hands; I didn’t actually complete the game, and I have very little interest in ever doing so, no matter how much fun the action may be.
Conversely, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men is a a pretty awful game; I completed it because I loved the characters and the absolutely unforgiving and unflinching storyline, but I can’t say that I enjoyed the actual progression through the game all that much. A lot of the level design is very good, but the piss-poor AI, the flawed cover system, the clumsy controls and other issues make the experience pretty exasperating. I hear the PC version is a lot more playable than the Xbox 360 version. It certainly couldn’t be much worse. It’s a shame.
Still, shitty gameplay or not, I very much preferred Kane & Lynch to Army of Two, and I suspect that when I think back on the experience a few years from now, I’ll think of the former very fondly and have trouble remembering what the latter was actually about, except that it was really dumb. Only one of these games is memorable. Only one of them has character. That’s not enough to make it a great game, not with all of the flaws that come with the package, but at least it’s interesting instead of reprehensible; you get something other than a vague feeling of filthiness out of playing it.
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