Controversy, while usually reserved for more mainstream titles such as Grand Theft Auto, isn’t completely unknown to the RPG world. Recently Fallout 3 garnered some attention, of the negative sort of course, for in-game drug use, as did Mass Effect for its “sex scene.” However, by far the most controversial RPG out there is one most of us have probably never played, one created not by a big game company for profit but by an aspiring filmmaker using an RPG maker software for the sake of social commentary.
In 2005 an indie game with the controversial (and to many, offensive) title of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! caused a media frenzy. It was condemned by some as a sick joke and money-making scheme, and by others, lauded as a serious attempt to use the video game medium to engange with social issues. It also resurrected the debate about whether violent video games and music can cause real-world violence, a debate which had been at the centre of the aftermath of the Columbine shootings six years earlier.
|It’s not here for the graphics.|
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was created by filmmaker Danny Ledonne in 2005, a solo project cobbled together from the materials offered by RPG Maker 2000 and publicly-available media such as photos of the two Columbine shooters. It’s nothing fancy to look at, 2-D sprites harking back to the SNES era. It could be a twisted version of Earthbound. The “game” (I use the term loosely as it normally implies something created for purposes of amusement) follows Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold the shooters responsible for the death of twelve and injury of twenty-one students and teachers at Columbine High School in 1999. It begins the morning of the shooting as Harris and Klebold make their preparations. It includes cut scenes and flashbacks that give a glimpse of the bullying and the sense of alienation experienced by the two teens and their twisted rationale for the shootings. Players must then act out the massacre, which plays out like an RPG with students cast as typical RPG enemies with HP who dole out experience points when they are killed, allowing Harris and Klebold to level up. Once the massacre is complete the gunmen kill themselves after which the game shifts dramatically as it follows Harris and Klebold on their journey through hell wherein they get to live out their favourite video game Doom and eventually battle Satan.
The game was meticulously researched. Most of the dialogue is taken from transcripts of the incident and material gleaned from Harris and Klebold’s writings and videos. The weapons in their in-game arsenal are the ones the real gunmen used. Though violent in terms of content, the game is by no means gory. The only graphic image is a picture of the bodies of the two gunmen, though that is disturbing enough and a far cry from the type of gore encountered in Doom and its type. Images of the surviving students are also used in a montage, suggesting the real-world consequences of the gunmen’s acts… which players have just carried out.
|The source of all evil. Obviously.|
As you might expect, reactions varied greatly, and one might suggest that some people missed the point. The controversy crescendoed in 2006 when the game was nominated for an award at the Guerilla Gamemaker Competition. Sponsors threatened to back out and lawsuits were waved about so that the organizers of the competition finally pulled the game from the lineup. At which point half the games nominated were pulled by their creators as a form of protest and USC Interactive Media Division pulled its sponsorship.
There’s no really good way to wrap this up, frankly. Whatever Super Columbine Massacre RPG!’s merits or failures as a video game, it makes a serious effort to engage with society and the media about a serious issue, something which very few games have ever tried to do. For anyone curious, Wired did a long and thoughtful review of the game. It’s certainly worth a read.