Through a screen, darkly: In praise of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
(Content warning: this article includes graphic discussion of real-life violent incidents in addition to the pretend videogame variety.)
Double click. Load Steam. Now buffering. Press enter. New game. Two men lie naked and covered in blood. A fluorescent light buzzes overhead. Exacto blade on flesh. “I’ll fucking kill you.”
A dingy, anonymous bathroom-cum-torture-chamber. Alleyways, malls, construction sites, skyscrapers, airports: killing fields. Bodies upon bodies. Soldiers, cops, mobsters, thugs in white undershirts, panicked civilians running for their lives.
Glitchy, noisy, blurry. Lo-fi, lo-res lowlifes. Nauseating camera shake. Explosions that tear apart the screen. Lights that overwhelm the lens.
This is a game about killing. A game about watching violence, committing violence, and the thin digital barrier between the two. A game about taking cover behind a fast food dining booth, a dozen cops spraying bullets your way, and hearing the sharp bark of a dog before being knocked to the ground and mauled to death, the screen bleached of color and the camera falling over. You’re dead; stop recording.
Welcome to Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days.
‘You need to believe’
“We want to create something very intense,” said game director Karsten Lund in a 2010 interview with Ray Carsillo of EGM. “And if you really want intensity you need to believe. And if you want to believe you need to make something that’s credible.”
Credibility is a difficult quality to capture in a shooter, especially in the modern, cover-based, third-person genre that Dog Days occupies. As virtual worlds and actions become more lifelike — more credible, if you will — it becomes harder to reconcile the protagonists of these games with the sheer amount of violence they commit. To wit: in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, Lara Croft’s first kill is in self-defense. She’s clearly traumatized in the ensuing cutscene. Then the player takes control, and Lara has no compunction about setting people on fire, stabbing them with ice picks, or shooting them at point-blank range.
This is hardly an original critique. Simon Parkin wrote last year that “this kind of observation has become so prevalent with regard to blockbuster games that even its mention in critical writing is now considered cliché.”
Yet the problem persists. Violence is at the center of almost every contemporary action game, yet very few of these games are actually about violence. Instead, violence is treated as another form of problem-solving and dressed up with pleasurable elements: well-rendered environments, likable protagonists who are always ready with a witty quip, and satisfying story arcs.
Dog Days has no such pleasures. You control unrepentant criminals who blunder into one nightmarish combat scenario after another. There’s a sequence in the game’s penultimate level that’s almost monochrome in its oppressive, machine room greyness. You kill a group of cops, then a group of soldiers. The lights go off and an alarm sounds. “C’mon you assholes,” Lynch mutters to himself. You hear the blare of the siren, the grinding of heavy machinery, the drone of the appliances you hide behind, and the din of gunfire. Metal ricochets off metal; bullets pierce flesh. You kill men with an industrial efficiency in this industrial setting. When everyone’s dead, the machines continue to hum.
As one writer put it, Dog Days strips away “all the paint and polish of the Shooter Machine to reveal the rusted machinery underneath.” It’s a game whose “only verb is kill.” It understands that shooters are about killing, that killing is ugly, and that when you get right down to it, simulating the killings of hundreds of people is an ugly thing indeed.
Real is ugly
Ugliness informs every aspect of Dog Days. The titular duo are physically repulsive: overweight, middle-aged men sporting, at best, questionable haircuts and fashion styles.
Their actions are ugly. The game’s narrative is an extended exercise in escalation. Kane is called to Shanghai to help Lynch with an arms deal, and almost immediately, the two inadvertantly kill the daughter of a powerful politician. They are then hunted by mobsters, police officers, their former associates, and the Chinese army. At no point do the pair observe that perhaps violence is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that responding to violence with even more violence results in a feedback loop. They instead do what shooter protagonists do: move forward, take cover, kill, repeat.
The act of killing is ugly. Cover is flimsy and can disintegrate. Enemies can soak up several magazines’ worth of bullets. Lynch can be knocked to the floor by particularly hard shots. The guns recoil dramatically and become useless past at a certain range. One piece notes that the game is “actively UnFun.”
And most of all, the game itself looks and sounds ugly. The central conceit of the game’s aesthetic is that an invisible third party is filming Kane and Lynch on a crappy lo-res camera. Neon signs bleed colored streaks across the screen. Headlights create those horrible vertical lens flares you only see on cheap video. Pressing the sprint button causes the camera to lurch violently, as if the operator is struggling to keep up. When the player character is shot, the screen glitches out and becomes corrupted with pixelated artifacts. Large explosions will blow out the footage entirely, resulting in a wash of digital and aural noise.
By evoking the lo-fi aesthetic of internet videos, the developers ground Dog Days in the real world. The unimaginable violence of shooters is filtered through the familiar look and sound of YouTube. In fact, the game’s UI deliberately mimics video sharing sites. Before each level is a “buffering” screen, complete with a spinning circular icon, as if the player were streaming Kane and Lynch’s exploits.
The player’s role as observer is made explicit by Lund, who made it clear that the player is “running behind these guys with a cheap cellphone camera.” There’s a point in the game where an enemy puts his hand towards the screen and yells, “Put that thing down!” in Chinese, and at the very end the camera drops to the ground, as if the operator was shot.
But if the player is passively observing Kane and Lynch through the lens of a cellphone camera, they are also actively controlling Kane and Lynch. After all, the player is the one moving them around and pulling the trigger. Miguel Penabella writes that the game “asks the player to control two characters simultaneously: a third-person view of Lynch and an implied first-person view of the unseen camera operator, both movements tethered to one another.”
In other words, the game explicitly connects the viewer with the subject, shattering the digital screen that divides the two. Observing violence and enacting violence are two sides of the same coin.
In real life
There are more opportunities than ever to observe violence. With relative ease, you can find videos of terror attacks, executions, and beheadings. You can watch a man shoot his colleagues on live television. You can watch the man’s POV video of the killing, captured on a camera phone held in one hand while he fires his gun with the other. This footage is real.
Real has a “very distinct visual signature,” Lund said. You see it every day on YouTube: video blogs, recordings of elementary school concerts, and homemade snuff videos. This dissonance between the mundane and the horrific is addressed in the fiction film Afterschool, about an isolated, internet-obsessed high schooler. It opens with a montage of actual internet videos — a dad playing with a baby, a streetfight, a cat playing a piano, Saddam Hussein’s hanging.
“I imagine one big grab bag and you can stick your hand in and pull out a cute kitten or you can pull out cell phone footage of Saddam hanging,” director Antonio Campos said in a 2010 interview with film site Electric Sheep. “The fact that they all exist side by side changes their significance and how people can perceive them.”
There’s one video in particular that encapsulates this unnerving juxtaposition. It’s filmed from the driver’s seat of a car. You can hear an ad for a checking account. “You’ll automatically be entered to win a trip to paradise when you visit your favorite Numerica branch,” says the radio announcer, as an unarmed man — 35-year-old Antonio Zambrano-Montes — runs across an intersection, turns around, puts his hands up, and is shot dead by police officers.
The New York Times has a whole page of these videos. There are too many of them. They’re pulled from dashboard cameras, police officer body cameras, and the iPhones of passersby. They invariably take place in mundane settings: classrooms, suburban subdivisions, public parks. The victims are invariably people of color. They are arrested, choked, shot, killed.
There’s one that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in Chicago, the one that wasn’t released until over a year after his death. It’s unnervingly quiet. All you can hear is a mess of audio glitches and a high-pitched whistling, like a tea kettle. The lights smear colored streaks across the screen. There are those vertical lens flares you only see on cheap video. There are small puffs of white smoke from the 16 bullets that hit McDonald. He twitches for a bit. Then he doesn’t.
It’s ridiculous to compare videos of actual people dying to a commercial product that simulates death. It’s disrespectful; grotesque. Possibly offensive.
So here’s what I will say: in the six years since the release of Dog Days, the aesthetic of “real” has gone mainstream. Real is on your phone, your Facebook feed, your TV. It’s every new video of police brutality. It’s those blurry, shaky, lo-res videos that loop over and over on cable news every time there’s a new terror attack. It’s the same footage of the same bombs going off, the same shots fired, the same people dying a thousand deaths — a mass of pixels, noise, and bodies.
Dog Days understands how fucked up this is. It understands the queasy intimacy of watching violence on a screen, that violence creates a unholy trinity between actor, spectator, and victim. It understands that screens are not barriers. They’re mirrors.
The opening shot of Kane & Lynch 2 is of a camcorder. Kane and Lynch are framed by the viewfinder. You see them naked and covered in blood. You hear the buzz of fluorescent light, the sound of exacto blade of flesh. A screen within a screen: a series of funhouse mirrors. Violence and pain and misery, refracted and reflected.
You shouldn’t look. You can’t look away.