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Katana Zero and the metalanguage of violence

Katana Zero narrative design deals with heavy matters, and puts you in decisions that say a lot about your values and your ethics.

I discovered Katana Zero a few years ago, back when it hadn’t an official name. The gameplay interested me, and since then I followed Askiisoft in the development of this product. Finally, in April 2019, I bought the Nintendo Switch version.

Pixel art animations and exceptional soundtrack, fluid controls, and frenetic pace. These qualities alone highlight a good game, but that’s not what really got me.

Katana Zero can be considered a game focused on speedruns, it does not have to go much beyond mechanics, but it has a narrative that deals with heavy matters, and puts you in decisions that say a lot about your values and your ethics. One of the main themes of the game is violence, and it uses various metalinguistic features to present facets of this discussion.

Violence in games by itself is a rich and recurring subject, and there are a lot of research results out there like this one and that. One of the conclusions is that there is no evidence linking an increase in aggressiveness with the use of violent games, in addition to natural situations that occur in competitive situations. And games are recognized for helping relieve the stresses of everyday life by acting as escape valves.

The metalanguage

There are some spoilers here. The basis of the story is the NULL program to create super soldiers with the drug Chronos, which allows a distortion of time and is the narrative justification for the concept of lives or attempts of the player. The main character is one of these super-soldiers, dehumanized and baptized as Zero, who attends therapy to deal with what appears to be a post-traumatic disorder while acting as a commissioned killer and in the breeze of Chronos. The drug is a gameplay feature itself. Did you try the stage and die? Alright, Chronos takes you to the beginning of the level again and allows you to retry. As many times you want. And here comes one of the strongest narrative points: Zero is an addict, and needs Chronos to stay alive. But you, as a player, use the power of Chronos to advance through the phases. You need it too. As you advance through the game, the difficulty curve brings a more precise and challenging level design while increasing the types and amount of enemies. To finish Katana Zero, you learn to kill more and better.

The game questions the killing, but it’s not really a counter-argument. It helps you realize that you do not mind killing again and again. It is very close to what happens with the trolley problem because it shows that as long as you do not evoke ethics, killing is just a logical solution. This type of questioning is quite common during gameplay. It may seem shallow and silly, but the power of immersion and player agency provided by the games is staggering.

Masks and People

There are three characters that made me finish the game at least three times: Comedy, Tragedy, and Girl. Comedy and Tragedy are characters hard to understand in the context of the game, appear suddenly, affects fate, and have enigmatic dialogues. The Girl appears smoothly in the narrative but punctuates the experience in such a way that brings lightness to the experience amidst the mass executions that you perform.

Only the second time I played I noticed how the Girl represents an inner child, a remnant of innocence. Zero was trained as a child as a killer in the NULL program and was chosen for lack of remorse when killing. But … is not that what we learned in our first games? And that’s where a part of us gets really good: in defeating the enemies, killing them, to achieve our goals. We do not care, killing is just pushing a button, and Katana Zero smashes it in our face. When we deal with the Girl, it is the contact with our innocence. And the main tool at our disposal to exert this interaction is an excellent game dialog system.

The dialog system is simple. Basically, while the NPC talks, a time bar fills up. It has a point that represents the end of NPC’s speech, from which other response options appear. If you press the button before that point, you stop the speech with a standard response. And even in that Katana Zero incorporates its main theme, because interrupting someone’s speech is an act of violence.

The dialogues with the Girl present options that allow dealing with latent violence. They allow a reflection on limits, points that we will only really consider when we assist children and realize how much violence can affect them. But we all have an inner child, and what Katana Zero does is remind us of that.

One of the heaviest moments of the game is very close to the end, when the game requires me to kill a character. The available phrase on the screen is harsh. But hell, it’s just pixels on a screen, why can not I press the button?! And the game reinforces the message, warns that this decision is important, that would solve a huge problem. But even so, the call to action can cross all the barriers and directly hit my ethical values.

Addictions

I’ll play Katana Zero from start to end for the third time. And maybe other times. Many times as needed to calm these worries that the game has left. Maybe I’m sensitive to the subject because it’s something that I’ve been questioning for a while already. But as a developer, I can no longer accept that so much violence is needed in our games. Why do we have to consider violence as the main answer for conflict in our games? What message do we leave for the future?

There is a lot of discussion about this topic yet. And I cannot be arrogant and suggest simplistic solutions. What is within my reach is to guide my work against the trivialization of violence and to foment discussions on the subject. But I want to play more Katana Zero, and that means experiencing all this slaughter again. It’s a form of guilty pleasure that makes that kid inside me get scared.

Thanks to Luiggi Refatti and Michele Pandini for the support. You can find a portuguese version here: https://medium.com/@jpnogueira/katana-zero-e-a-metalinguagem-da-viol%C3%AAncia-6a18e94d7a2a?postPublishedType=repub

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