Kagero: Deception II

We like to think that it’s only in the last decade or so that critical games really started to take off, but that’s simply not true. The growth of gaming in the 1990s also meant growth for these kinds of critical games. Tecmo’s Deception series, with their cat-and-mouse trap-based gameplay, have always been strongly critical of how we play games. Kagero: Deception II is particularly noteworthy. It’s the kind of game that asks how responsible we are for what we do in games, and whether it’s right for us to identify with them in the way we do.

Although we could say the same of the first game, Deception II makes its arguments far more forcefully. Tecmo’s Deception: Invitation to Darkness had something of a personal redemption narrative as the protagonist tried to hold onto his humanity, even while his actions contradicted it. Although the game questioned that redemption narrative through its gameplay, the protagonist’s role was nonetheless favorable to the player. The constant first person perspective and the protagonist’s fight for his humanity meant the player could slip into the story and still retain some shred of moral dignity.

PSOGL009The sequel, on the other hand, violently cuts off any such opportunities with its silent protagonist. It’s an oft-played trope, yes, but it’s key to understanding Kagero’s critiques. Where other games frame the player’s relationship to their silent protagonist as one of embodiment, this game explicitly frames the relationship as one of ownership. It’s how the game begins: you’re asked to “name her” like one might name a slave. Yet while she’s incapable of speech, she’s not incapable of thought. Millenia (her default name) expresses herself all the time throughout the story. The camera frequently closes in on her face to show her questioning what people tell her. She reluctantly makes little movements to react to whatever somebody says to her, including what you as the player make her say. You could even go so far as to interpret the game’s stiff tank controls as Millenia resisting your orders.

Thus the game allows you to distance yourself from any wrongdoing, but only by committing greater crimes in the process. Although you didn’t personally murder anybody, you did directly order somebody else to do so. And while this potentially unwilling party is unable to disobey your commands, you’re always free to stop giving them, or to let your victims escape with their lives. So what does it say that you don’t? Keep in mind that the game has made few modifications to the silent protagonist template. All it’s done is let that template run its course, and reveal the inhumanity that underpins it. And it only gets worse when you consider Millenia’s identity. She’s not an adult with a mind of her own, like Deception’s hero. She’s a young girl; somebody we’re trained to read as vulnerable and weak. It’s easy to see a contrast between that and the cruel actions she takes in the game, but there’s more going on. Not only does her identity deny the player the feeling of power that they’d normally get from playing a game like this, but it also makes what they do to her that much worse.

Likewise, the plot leaves the player no option to but to accept this kind of relationship. Kagero’s story is a bleak and nihilistic one that covers the political conspiracies between the Timenoids, an immortal race that rules over mankind, and their human subjects who revolt against them. With its shady manipulation and abundance of violent deeds, the story strongly mirrors what you do in the game. More importantly, though, the Timenoids’ relationships with Millenia strongly mirror those the player has with her. Every character surrounding Millenia, like her mother, the King, or the King’s Priest, see her as a pawn in their schemes. They don’t care about her well being, but only about what she can do for them. The only characters who don’t see Millenia like this are Millenia herself and her victims.

PSOGL079So at best, the player is just a pawn within this greater scheme, and at worst, they’re participating in and actively benefiting from these harmful systems. And the player can’t hope to escape this kind of identification, either. Ignoring the fact that there aren’t alternate ways to identify with the story, the human/Timenoid conflict links violence to power and renders said relationship natural to the world. Like a lot of games, Deception II leaves the player no way to avert the violence that comprises the game. Unlike a lot of other games, though, this does not mean the game construes this relationship as right. If anything, it has to accept all that as natural if it hopes to do anything with it.

At this point, I should probably stress that narrative isn’t the only way the game probes these kinds of questions. In fact, I should probably explain what kind of game this is at this point. Deception II is broken up into chapters, each one placing you and Millenia with a large mansion. Your job is to kill anybody who enters said mansion by strategically setting traps, using Millenia to lure invaders into them, and then activating them at just the right time. You often combine traps with each other and with environmental features (open fireplace, spike trap, etc.) to deal more damage. It’s a long, deliberate process, yet one the game consistently rewards for pulling off. Each successful trap briefly stops time and zooms the camera in on your victim each time, like a slow motion replay. The game really wants you to see your victim suffering in the trap. Get that same victim into another trap soon enough after, and the numbers on screen celebrate your success, telling you how much damage you’ve inflicted and how you pulled it off.

Looking at the trap system and how the game represents it, it’s easy to think that the game wants you to enjoy the carnage. After all, the results screen following each encounter says “perfect genocide” with the same tone that it says “no damage bonus.” In fact, I can imagine somebody arguing that the game requires a level of enjoyment if its criticisms are to hold any weight. But personally, I see more subtle critiques within these systems. Although combos and scores uncritically cheer the violence on, the environments certainly don’t. The mansions are made up of tight hallways where you can’t set or activate traps, and wide open rooms that offer no hiding spots but plenty of dead ends. All the while, knights and sorcerers and thieves etc. are chasing Millenia down in the hopes of killing her. If not for the gameplay systems, one could easily mistake Deception II’s settings for something out of Resident Evil.

PSOGL070This is no accident. The level design undermines feelings of power in the same way that the player’s relationship to Millenia undermines hopes of moral redemption. The same mansion that can kill victims can also kill the person managing those traps if you’re clumsy enough. And you will be, seeing how surprisingly easy it is to get caught in your own traps. In addition, while the people inside the mansion can harm Millenia with both weapons and traps (albeit only indirectly with traps), she only has the traps to defend herself with. If anything, she’s less powerful than the prey she must kill. So while the systems encourage you to enjoy the cruelty on display, they also conspire with the environments to make that much more difficult. You’re simply too vulnerable within these environments to see violence as worth enjoying. With cruelty harder to relish, you’re left only with the consequences of what you’ve done.

Carolyn Petit recently wrote that games can’t be truly critical of violence because they always render it enjoyable and effective. It’s a view that I can’t agree with. It invalidates whatever context surrounds the gameplay and holds our emotional reaction to games as the absolute end. No game demonstrates any of these points better than Kagero: Deception II. While it’s just as violent as, say, Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen, one would be remiss to say the two games depict violence in the same light. Kagero is a game of dualities, all of them specifically constructed to question how you engage with the game. It distances you from your crimes, but in such a way that you’re forced to confront them. And while the game is perfectly happy giving you power and control, it only does so in a way that brings vulnerability and helplessness. While the game still makes it easy for a lot of players to enjoy the violence, Deception II still stands as one of gaming’s earliest and more powerful critiques of how we engage with the medium.

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