THE COMPELLING BUT EXTREMELY CONTROVERSIAL SUPER COLUMBINE MASSACRE RPG!

SUPER COLUMBINE MASSACRE RPG!

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Pros: I love the game’s look and chiptune sound; thought-provoking; very playable

Cons: Controversial and difficult subject matter; some flaws with regard to the game’s design

Indisputably one of the most controversial video games ever made, standing at the head of a class that also includes the likes of Night TrapMortal Kombat, and Grand Theft Auto among many others, the 2005 freeware PC game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (or SCMRPG!) allows a player to experience the infamous school shooting directly from the perspective of the people who committed the crime. Developed by indie game programmer Danny Ledonne using the game development program RPG Maker 2000 (which allows a programmer to plug his own scenario and characters into a sort of pre-existing, Super NES-like role-playing game “shell”), the game begins at 7:05 AM on the morning of April 20, 1999 as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold prepare for the event that would shake a nation and world.

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SCMRPG! has the look of a Super NES game.

In the opening stages of this game, the player must go through the motions of preparing for the assault by planting propane explosives in the cafeteria and finally, enter the school building with a historically accurate assortment of guns blazing in an effort to kill as many unarmed and utterly helpless students and teachers as possible. This scenario is made all the more disturbing and surreal by the fact that the game plays out using somewhat gory but very cartoony 16-bit SNES graphics (think of something along the lines of Chrono Trigger). Incorporating established events from the day of the assault (including the much-discussed and controversial moment when one young girl is asked if she believes in God before being shot), the backgrounds used during this opening sequence are photographs showing actual locations in and around Columbine High School and the whole segment replicates fairly well the sort of “turkey shoot” that Klebold and Harris would have encountered.

Basically, this is your typical role-playing game, in which the player can either pursue or ignore non-playable character “enemies,” which in this case are the various (stereotypical) students and faculty of Columbine High. Whenever the player does contact an “enemy,” a basic back-and-forth battle (in which a player can utilize weapons, issue taunts, or use various items) commences. The “school shooting” sequence is relatively open-ended – you can kill as many or as few students as you want while negotiating the school’s hallways and rooms – but ends when the player initiates Harris’ and Klebold’s suicide in the library. At this point, SCMRPG! abandons the fact-based section of its gameplay and enters into a fantasy afterlife sequence in which “demon gods” Harris and Klebold traverse hell while battling characters from the Doom series of video games. This section is infinitely more difficult than the opening school shooting sequence (mainly because the enemies in hell can fight back and inflict damage on the playable characters), and the goal is to negotiate the maze, locate weapons, and finally trigger a showdown with Satan himself.

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Though the subject matter is very difficult, the  game certainly has a satirical feel to it at times.

From the description, this game sounds positively reprehensible and quite possibly tasteless, but there is a method to this game’s madness – at least to a point. In many ways, SCMRPG! exists on a level with the work of renegade author/musician Peter Sotos, who attempts (in as disturbing, uncomfortable a manner as possible) to recreate for the reader/listener the experience of actually being a serial killer or pedophile. While many feature films use these types of scenarios as their basis (and several were made in the wake of the Columbine shootings that attempted to explain how and why this event occurred), few if any give the viewer a true insight into how the human beings responsible for such heinous acts as this operate. Ledonne, on the other hand, has utilized actual dialogue and thoughts pulled from the diaries and videos made by Harris and Klebold as well as telling bits of movie dialogue, literary works, and song lyrics to create about as realistic, authentic, and somewhat harrowing a portrait of the killers as would be possible.

A player really does gain significant insight into the mindset of the killers prior to them killing twelve fellow students and a teacher before ending their own lives, and it’s easy to see that Ledonne did his research prior to the making of this game. Several flashback sequences detail significant events in the young lives of Klebold and Harris, illustrating their human side and revealing incidents that led them down a path to murder. The way the game itself plays also goes a long way in allowing a player insight into the event: the tense opening sequence (in which a player has to avoid sweeping cameras and fellow students on his way to the plant a pair of large explosives) is not entirely difficult, but can be frustrating. Thus, by the time he actually does enter the school building solely for the purpose of killing people, there is a legitimate sense of excitement. This feeling of release quickly erodes however, when it becomes apparent that none of the students a player is gunning down (who are given generic descriptors – “church girls,” jocks, preps, little kids, and “pretty girls” to name a few) stand any chance of fighting back. After a few turns of reducing fellow students and teachers to smeared bloodstains on the floor, SCMRPG! becomes tedious – and maybe that’s part of the point, suggesting that even for the mentally disturbed people who would commit such an act in the first place, the “ultimate thrill” provided only lasts for so long.

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Turn-based battle sequences pit “The Trenchcoat Mafia” against the world.  Notice the real-life backgrounds taken from inside Columbine High.

As much as I could praise this game for its playability and realistic but grim portrait of Klebold and Harris as human beings, SCMRPG! does have some obvious problems. I can understand the need or desire for game designer Ledonne to incorporate the second half of the game which takes place after the deaths of Harris and Klebold essentially to prove his abilities as a game designer, but it must be said that this entire section seems rather pointless with a tone that just seems “off.” Sure, it’s clever that Ledonne satirizes Doom – the very video game that various media sources and authority figures blamed for the Columbine shootings – in a game about the incident, but it eventually simply becomes a chore to get through SCMRPG!. The addition of an “auto play” function, that literally does all the work for the player by automatically fighting the battles, suggests that even the game’s designer figured that some people might be turned off by the dull, monotonous nature of the game down the stretch, and the only reason to keep playing at a certain point is to hit the end screen and declare that one has beaten it. The ending itself is pretty mediocre at best, and weak attempts at “humor” during the “hell section” fail to really inject much life into the painful dungeon crawling. It’s really kind of a bummer that the second half of this game is so mediocre and therefore disappointing since the first half (and honestly, the game overall) does a fine job of questioning and realizing the motives and mindset of the killers.

Since this game came out, much has been said about its motivations. Ledonne claims that he made the game as a form of coping with the Columbine shootings in his own mind. He was in the public education system when the shootings happened – as was I – and I can respect Ledonne’s choice to make something of this nature as an artistic statement. Surely, this game does deal with a difficult subject and does so in an eye-opening manner, but video games have come a long way since the 1970s, and sometimes the medium needs to be challenged and expanded upon. I also very much follow Ledonne’s statement about how this game was conceived to deal with the realization that he could have turned out like Harris and Klebold had situations in his own life turned out differently – circa 1999 and since, I’ve found myself pondering those exact same notions from time to time.

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Cut-scenes and flasbhacks work to ensure a player gains  insight into the mindset of Harris and Klebold.

I think the (almost universally negative) public reaction to SCMRPG! says about all one needs to know about how the video game industry as a whole is viewed by the established order. Let’s not forget that, despite the fact that feature films continue to get more and more violent and provocative with each passing year, video games are the first thing blamed whenever someone (especially a young person) goes on a shooting spree – the National Rifle Association, for instance, has been insistent in directing the blame for shooting incidents on the video game industry to the point of utter redundancy. Fifteen years removed from the Columbine massacre (and in the wake of dozens of similar incidents), I think that we as a society need to acknowledge that violent video games aren’t the root cause of any of these incidents. Or, if we are to conclude that violent media is the fundamental reason why normal folks suddenly “lose it” and decide to murder a bunch of innocent people, surely movies, television, printed media, and music would deserve as much blame as video games. Honestly, I don’t particularly buy any argument about media being solely responsible for every Columbine-like scenario, and actually find these insinuations preposterous, indicative of the fact that America as a society always has to have an obvious scapegoat to explain things in a tidy manner. A more rational explanation would suggest that a “perfect storm” of life experience, mental instability, and media influences causes a hypothetical powder keg to explode leading to these unfortunate events.

In utilizing the very video game format largely held to blame for the incident in the first place, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! forces the player to embody the obvious bad guy and in doing so, is probably one of the most thought-provoking and revealing examinations of the Columbine incident that’s yet been created – this in my opinion is much more hard-hitting and provocative for instance than Gus Van Sant’s highly-acclaimed 2003 film Elephant. I’ve read several books about the Columbine shooting, and Danny Ledonne’s game hits most of the major points of discussion, ultimately demanding a player to examine his own ideas about who really is to blame for the shooting or these types of incidents in general. I came away with the understanding that there were MANY root causes that led to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killing 13 persons and themselves in 1999, but also got the idea that there wasn’t really much that could have been done to stop the incident from happening. Hindsight is 20/20, and much like TSA full-body scans and constant video surveillance are unlikely to stop all airplane terrorism or marathon bombing incidents, at a certain point I think we have to acknowledge that sometimes, in spite of the best laid plans and all sorts of “preventative measures”, (pardon the French) shit just happens.

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The game started to lose me during its increasingly tedious second half taking place in hell.

Perhaps one of the most important questions raised in the wake of SCMRPG! is the one that asks why more video games can’t challenge their audience the way this one does. Certainly, most games are designed for amusement purposes, but what really separates them from other modern art forms that can be much more than simple entertainment? Undoubtedly, not everyone would want to play Super Columbine Massacre RPG! just for its subject matter alone, but I’d be lying if I said this game was a complete waste. If nothing else, it is designed extremely well, it is impressively researched, and it is executed admirably, with slick chiptune renditions of some of the 1990s best alt-rock, including songs by Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Nirvana, Rammstein, Radiohead, and The Smashing Pumpkins. I’d also have to commend this uncompromising game for asking the hard questions of its players. Despite its substantial flaws, I’d recommend it.

Final note: though not rated by the ESRB, this game includes harsh, four letter profanity and violence. SCMRPG! presents nothing when compared to the outrageous levels of blood and gore featured in many of today’s video games, but in terms of its disturbing subject matter and real-life context, it’s pretty intense.

Trailer:

The game can be downloaded for free .

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