On August 17th, 2010, Square Enix and IO Interactive released cover-based third person shooter Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. Critical reception was initially mixed and the game was quickly forgotten, but in the intervening years critics have gone back to explore its tones, its visuals, its politics and its settings, reevaluating it as a cult classic. In retrospect, its aesthetics, urban spaces, and vision of video game violence still differentiate Kane & Lynch 2 from most video games in its genre.
No More Heroes
Kane & Lynch: Dead Men and Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days came out in a period when shooters, and video games in general, began to question the violence that had come to define them. BioShock, Nier, Hotline Miami, The Last of Us, Spec Ops: The Line and, later, Superhot all interrogated the role of violence in games in difference ways. “In a way, the characters and their actions represented the dark side of the players,” Kane & Lynch 2’s art director Rasmus Poulsen tells me via email. “What if the gamer really just wants to get perfect headshots and kill and destroy, and we remove the veneer of justice and heroism that games normally use as a vehicle to give players this fantasy?”
But all these games (even the mechanically mediocre Spec Ops: The Line) tried to have their cake and eat it too, critiquing violence while keeping it an entertaining activity. Neil Druckmann claims that Naughty Dog doesn’t “use the word ‘fun’” when talking about The Last of Us, but the puzzle-like sandbox arenas of The Last of Us: Part 2 are fun indeed — you can creatively choose how to kill your foes, and its homicides are elegantly designed, as easy as pushing a button.
In Kane & Lynch 2 murder is a chore. It’s messy, dirty, repetitive and unsatisfying, and gameplay mechanics don’t try to make violence desirable. Weapons are imprecise, even when carefully aimed, the explosive objects you throw always seem to land too far from their targets and the game can be frustratingly hard at higher difficulties. Its protagonists are villains without development, mechanical progression or redemption, because Kane and Lynch live in an endless present with no past and no future, where violence is bleak and pointless: civilians are common collateral damage in your gunfights and, at the end of it all, there’s neither glory or a sense of closure. Kane and Lynch are just trying to survive, and their survival has no meaning.
Kane & Lynch 2 is especially remembered for its art direction: it looks and sounds like an old YouTube video, like amateur found footage. Visuals are distorted by compression artifacts, lens flares cut the screen, explosions overload the microphone, loading screens show a buffering throbber, nudity and extreme violence are pixelated. “In our search for the new aesthetic we looked to the web, where videos of violence for instance usually had a poor MPEG quality to them,” Poulsen tells me. “Almost to the degree where if you saw a video of especially poor quality, you wondered what terrible thing was going to happen next. This gave the aesthetic a sense of impending doom. […] It was also a visual signature of content without a sender. Without a cause and without a story if you will. So this is how reality looks?”
The game, even during regular gameplay, looks like it’s filmed by an unseen cameraman who follows Kane and Lynch with a wobbling handheld camera. When the main characters die, and at the end of the game, the camera is knocked down as if the cameraman was shot in the crossfire. When you run, the filmmaker struggles to keep up with you, the camera shakes, the microphone is filled with the sound of rushing air. It’s nauseating. In Kane & Lynch 2 I’m both the player leading the characters and the public of their snuff movie, my voyeuristic desire driving the pornographic massacre. In an industry where video games look for photorealism, Kane & Lynch 2 still looks even more real than recent and more technically sophisticated works. Real violence is increasingly filmed through digital cameras, then it’s edited, censored and globally streamed and broadcasted through networks. That’s the only way the most privileged components of the public (and many video game players and developers) experience and understand violence.
Avoiding a traditional orchestral score, Kane & Lynch 2 sounds like the city itself is a band playing unstaged music. The game’s levels feature Dynamedion’s Mandarin nostalgic pop songs mixed with a multilayered noisy and industrial ambient soundscape composed by German musician Mona Mur, who called it “non-music.” It’s immersive and visceral.
“The total lack of normal non-diegetic music makes a significant difference to the whole feel of the game” Mona Mur tells me via email. “But it was not fully diegetic. We did use ‘real’ sounds from Shanghai (as the IO team spent a week filming and recording there) and of course some of these sounds (for instance streets and markets) built the basis of the distinctive layers. And I was totally free to also use many other different, artificial, musical sources, other field recordings, whatever I found fit. Some of these sound layers have undergone years of alterations migrating on my hard disks. They kind of live with me. You cannot merely generate fear, desperation, tension, drama without some real sacrifice.”
Poulsen says that Kane & Lynch 2’s Shanghai is “a nightmarish interpretation made with lots of love.” It’s a city of glaring neon signs, sleazy alleyways and trash-filled backyards, completely removed from the chic districts usually depicted in the media. Kane and Lynch crawls through the squalor of this hidden side of the metropolis: overcrowded apartment complexes and dreary sweatshops piled with beds, monochrome industrial areas and construction sites, signs of an ever-growing city where things and human beings are consumed and discarded. You can see Shanghai’s luxurious skyscrapers in the background, and they may look like a future promise of peace and wealth, but at the end of the game their presence turns out to be threatening and oppressive. The poor, marginalized population who lives in the underbelly of Shanghai should fear the businessmen lurking in those towers of glass.
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The New (Old) Aesthetic
If the first Kane & Lynch was closer to Michael Mann’s movie Heat, Dog Days recalls Mann’s 2006 reboot of Anthony Yerkovich’s television series Miami Vice. The two works share grainy digital, sometimes almost abstract, aesthetics, and similar themes: the inability to escape the relentless flux of time, the permeability between criminals and cops, between life and work, interior and exterior. Capital and goods seep through national borders, following capitalism in its search for new exploitable worlds, a search that often looks like a war. They are even written (and edited) in a similar way: they both begin with almost no introduction and they both end abruptly; their gunfights are equally chaotic, as if they were filmed by a war cameraman. Like Kane & Lynch 2, Miami Vice was not initially well received and then became a cult movie regarded as one of the finest works of the digital age.
But Kane & Lynch 2 somehow also predates the discussion about the “New Aesthetic,” a concept introduced by James Bridle in 2011. On a superficial level, ”New Aesthetic” just means that there is a new visual aesthetic influenced by the digital realm and influential on the physical realm, like sculptures and fashion trends that recall low-poly graphics and video games that look like YouTube videos. On a deeper level, Bridle meant that digital visualizations either are becoming the only representations available or they are believed to be the best ones, the most faithful. They are seen and trusted as substitutes of their real counterparts: “the map […] becomes the territory.” And since we increasingly imagine and shape our world through digital tools, reality itself begins to look like its digital visualizations. Bridle invites us to question these computational representations and visualizations, to understand their bias, the physical and digital power relationships they represent. He invites us to ask ourselves who’s behind the camera — and Kane & Lynch 2 is perhaps the best game to pose that same question yet.