One of death metal’s most distinctive traits is its thorough acceptance of death. In fact, it’s the genre’s aesthetic backbone. Metal refuses to compromise on the topic of death or make it more palatable via metaphor. It’s raw, blunt, and confrontational on the matter. At times, a given metal work may celebrate death, finding an aesthetic joy in all its morbid details. However, the bare minimum for the genre is simply an acknowledgement that death exists in the world and no further attempt to mask that truth.
This approach is especially relevant to understanding Shadow Man. That isn’t to say it’s the only approach worth considering. Released in 1999 for every major platform, the game exists at the intersection of several contemporary trends: the various approaches to exploration 3D games (Soul Reaver, shooters, platformers) were exploring at the time; the grimdark masculinist fantasies that dominated the comic book scene; and a pastiche of various pop culture (action movie) icons for good measure. As important as this information is to understanding Shadow Man, facts like these cannot establish a character for the game. Moreover, we should be careful not to reduce the game’s character to these facts.
Considering these facts alongside the game’s relationship with death proves more fruitful. Its stance on the matter comes from an intimate awareness of everything that death could ever pose. At the same time, though, Shadow Man always risks lapsing into a nihilist search for power through which it can assert control over (and therefore deny) death. It’s somewhere between Shadow of the Colossus and Blackthorne. Shadow Man struggles to maintain a balance, and while that struggle produces several contradictions, it also leads us through some of the game’s most rewarding moments.
It may help to begin with the game’s contradictions, given how numerous and immediate many of them are. Across space and time, a mysterious entity known simply as Legion is gathering the world’s greatest killers (Jack the Ripper being the first) to construct the Asylum. With it, Legion can unleash the forces of Deadside into the world and usher in the Apocalypse. In the present day, the Asylum is almost complete and the End Times are imminent. Protagonist and eponymous Shadow Man Michael LeRoi must travel through the world of Deadside to put an end to Legion’s plans. In more practical terms, LeRoi accomplishes this goal by collecting the Dark Souls scattered across Deadside and whatever tools he needs to do so: Gads to reach areas that were previously inaccessible, the Baton to warp between shrines he’s already accessed,the Engineer’s Key to activate doors and machinery, etc. Encounters with various serial killers outside Deadside theoretically focus the game, but these moments are too rare to achieve such an effect.
Restricting ourselves to this initial image, Shadow Man’s defining characteristic isn’t its death-infused atmosphere, but its frustrating tendency to gloss over major concepts as quickly as it invokes them. Voodoo motifs adorn the game’s beginning moments, but said motifs are only a vehicle for exploring the macabre; a vehicle the game quickly abandons and rarely revisits once it’s gotten all the use it can from those motifs. Likewise, although the action’s brief visits to the American South entail a direct confrontation of American racism, they also entail a convenient dismissal of that same racism. The South is exoticized, its racism stemming not from a wider history or culture, but from an inherently violent backwater nature that we’re meant to accept at face value.
In fact, the only thing Shadow Man maintains a consistent level of interest in appears to be the fantasy that so many of these concepts intersect with and support. It’s the fantasy of an individual who epitomizes power and control: control over one’s self to suppress any and all weakness, emotional expression, anything that might threaten one’s hold on reality; control over others and the world around you through raw physical strength; and control that can only be won through hardship. It’s a self-justifying ideal that only sees no reason to change a world (or figure) that forces one to experience those hardships, but actively works toward and celebrates such a world. What better place to realize one’s ideal than in a world forged by pain? Assuming our first reaction to this image isn’t skepticism, then we acknowledge that image as both depicting hard truth others might ignore and as depicting a faux-rebellious ideal we identify with and desire.
In this regard, the game is somewhat consistent, but consistency alone is a poor metric for judging Shadow Man. Despite whatever internal coherence it enables, the power fantasy describe leaves the game wanting for imagination. Having barred itself from acknowledging more than a narrow range of emotions, all we’re left with is the fact of a given action. Play is business-like. Movement feels stiff and the range of possible actions in the world feels limited. Shooting exists less as an integral part of the game and more as a cool action; a tool you can use to rid the world of pests and maybe feel a bit of elation from having done so. We see, then, that Shadow Man’s fantasy is not only unimaginative but highly destructive as well. However, I’ve detailed the specifics of that destructive nature previously in Blackthorne. Suffice it to say that Shadow Man follows a similar path.
The only difference between the two is that where Blackthorne’s power fantasy is downright repugnant, Shadow Man’s evokes pity rather than disgust. Its errors are too numerous, too obvious for the latter to manifest in any real capacity. Some of these errors are mundane; the game concessions (medical kits hidden in steel barrels that are strewn about a prison) provide an example of that.
Other errors are more frequent and therefore more damaging. The game opens with Moonlight Sonata playing as Jack the Ripper narrates his situation. Before his encounter with Legion, we see him characterized as an enlightened (and relatively sane) intellectual who, despite caring for his victims dearly, ended up killing them anyway in his quest for otherworldly knowledge. In fact, his agreement with Legion begins as a Faustian bargain for that very knowledge. Such a characterization might have functioned as a reasonably intelligent critique of 19th century rationalism if not for:
- Souls (and any concepts related to them) being intellectually/scientifically discredited by the time Jack the Ripper would have begun studying them.
- The historical Jack the Ripper refuting Shadow Man’s interpretation of him.
- The game’s overly wrought presentation.
With this information in mind, Shadow Man’s intellectual pretenses and attempts at pathos inevitably collapse into melodrama. The game’s lack of self awareness regarding this issue only furthers that collapse. Moreover, the cracks spread from the peripheries and toward Shadow Man’s core. Its ideal of the world weary anti-hero who can handle anything becomes not an object of admiration, but one of ridicule. We laugh because Shadow Man’s failure to embody that ideal reveals the impotence that it was always trying to hide; that it’s not aware is no longer hidden.
That being said, for all the legitimate problems with the game this perspective highlights, I again hesitate to reduce the game to only this description. True, much of the game’s humor derives from botched attempts at drama, but just as much comes from an honest (if at times stilted) engagement with humor. Jaunty and some of the serial killers (like the Lizard King) provide great examples of that. More to the point, much of the game doesn’t fit into a Blackthorne-esque fantasy. Michael LeRoi may spend most of the game accruing more power to exercise over others, but he’s also one of handful of black video game characters to candidly express emotional vulnerability. In addition, the copious amounts of dead space between plot events focuses our attention on Deadside itself, a world that engages with pain and suffering beyond whatever strength they grant us. Clearly, something is going on with Shadow Man that a straightforward genre approach fails to account for.
That something is precisely what the death metal approach can account for. Suffering and pain become, if not the game’s thematic material, then at least the backbone of its aesthetic approach. It takes such a great interest in the two that it devotes every curve of the architecture, every dingy, muddy texture, every moment of flowery prose, every element of play to giving those two concepts as strong a presence as it possibly can. True, that level of overperformance often leads Shadow Man into melodrama, but it also leads the game into a more complicated engagement with death than it initially appears capable of. Through its genuine sense of humor, Shadow Man considers death as something more than an irreversible moment of loss. Through its spaces existing not as an eerie presence but just a presence, the game strips death of its morbidity to render it a neutral fact of life.
And through its characters and those same spaces’ aimless nature, the game construes death as less a moment of loss and more a great unknowable concept we might experience through loss. This is clearest with Michael LeRoi, who, despite having the power of the underworld at his command, knows very little about death and its mysteries. He requires guidance from Jaunty and Nettie on Deadside concepts that are obvious to us as players, like what Dark Souls are and what they do.
LeRoi’s position, then, alludes to the contrast between the finality death connotes and the lack of finality in our search for answers regarding it. This naturally drives us (through Michael LeRoi) on a search for closure. Yet given the nature of Shadow Man’s world, it can only lead us through those losses and hardships that the cast can’t recover from or move beyond. We see this in the characters’ backstories, like Michael LeRoi having lost all his family long before the story’s beginning. We see it in the visuals, whether through the ugly brown/yellow color scheme or the desolate composition.
Most of all, we see it in our relationship with Deadside. If pressed to briefly summarize Deadside, I’d characterize it as feeling like Gruntilda’s Lair, but stripped of the fantastic realms that focus it into something understandable. The closest thing to a unifying force for Deadside is the use of imaginative abstraction to render emotions like pain and suffering bare, but even this leaves us wanting. Some locations are defined not by the emotions they depict, but the real-life facilities they evoke: factories, insane asylums (though oddly just a subset of the larger Asylum), sewage plants, etc. And what are we to make of the Shadowgates, the game’s weakly stated gating tool? Each of these design elements speaks to a purpose we know exists in the world, but Shadow Man isn’t forthcoming on answers about what that purpose is. Its nature being self-justifying, the game refuses to share that justification with others.
No wonder, then, that the world feels desolate the game has abandoned us to it. It lacks the understated guidance that contemporary games like Symphony of the Night had mastered. Instead, progress through Deadside feels arbitrary, winding, self-indulgent, and aimless; a slog from Dark Soul to Dark Soul, encounter to encounter, with tying each moment together into an easily-understood structure. A non-linear play-style like this may fit the game’s narrative – the world’s winding nature and tendency to loop back on itself mirroring the non-linear experience of a traumatic memory – but it’s difficult to tell to what extent, if any, such a design choice was intentional.
How, then, is one meant to navigate such a world? Part of that entails exposing one’s self to memories of death and the pain associated with it. A major part of navigating Deadside is using LeRoi’s teddy bear to invoke memories of his dead brother Luke and warp to previously visited areas within this realm of the dead. In other words, he can only navigate this world by making immediate a traumatic pain he’s been feeling since childhood. Yet this approach has its limits. Some areas ask too much of LeRoi and effectively stop his progress in its tracks. To conquer these areas, he must learn to endure even more pain. By (permanently) opening new wounds on his body, each new power LeRoi obtains allows him to do just that: wounds on his arms that allow his hands to touch open flame, and a wound on his back to let him walk across those flames. Presumably, the pain never goes away (as his wounds never heal); it just becomes second nature to him.
Not only does this comprise a much larger portion of the game than simply enduring what you’re currently able to, but on Shadow Man’s part, it also entails an incredibly honest reflection regarding its central fantasy. At the bare minimum the game recognizes parts of that fantasy as necessary to LeRoi’s survival. There’s just no other way he can navigate Deadside without gaining the power to shrug off what the world throws at him. However, the game makes no attempts to romanticize this ability to endure pain. If anything, his inability to completely overcome those feelings and Deadside’s habit of exposing him to even greater torment in proportion to his ability to handle it – in other words, the utter lack of finality to LeRoi’s search for power – emphasizes the futility of the protagonist’s sacrifices.
Shadow Man correctly recognizes the masculinist power fantasy for the hollow, self-destructive delusion that it is. It refuses to let LeRoi sacrifice his own humanity for such an empty ideal, and it isn’t afraid to illustrate the negative consequences of making such a sacrifice. His character arc is essentially a tension between “succumbing to Asylum’s dark allure” by obtaining powers fueled by the lingering hatred of the damned and remaining focused enough on his goal not to give into those powers completely. Always at risk of being overwhelmed, he finds himself lacking at least some of the control this fantasy would otherwise promise him.
For as much strain as this puts on LeRoi, his position is preferable to that of the antagonists. Where the hero struggles to resist the power Deadside offers, the villains giddily accept it, preaching about how strong they’re going to be once the End Times come. In the present, not much of that strength is apparent. They’ve sacrificed their sanity (and with it, control over their own impulses) and they die fairly easily. In fact, Jack the Ripper’s journal implies that he’s aware of the gravity of his crimes, but, unwilling to do the work of atoning for them, convinces himself he can’t and instead retreats into his own Apocalyptic imagination. Nor are any of the serial killers particularly sympathetic. Their initial and shallow desire for power, their failure to embody that power, and their ignorance of ever having failed all ensure that they don’t even register as pitiful. To us, they only appear as a wasted existence; one that can no longer be fixed.
I should admit that the picture I’ve presented of the game thus far is somewhat dishonest. Shadow Man isn’t as complicated as I’ve made it out to be, although it is multifaceted. In any case, what we’re left with is a game that’s shot through with more ambiguity than its circumstances initially suggest. Its unstable meanings stem from its both being bound to its original historical context and simultaneously exceeding that context; from its being a disinterested action game and a more genial acceptance of death’s role in life. Given this, it’s hard to tell whether Shadow Man could more easily pursue the latter if not for the former, or if this would even be desirable. Better to accept the game we’re given, ambiguities and all.