Friday, May 1, 2009

Analysis: Conan, Jerks and You

Conan the barbarian is a jerk. A big jerk. And, he's perfect for video games. That means, of course, that jerks have a rightful and natural place in video games.

Previously, I had stated that Conan has a world view that would be consistent with that of Republican. This isn't to prove that all Republicans are jerks, as such a fact doesn't need proving since they prove it all by themselves - with pride, no less.

Instead, this is an analysis of "Conan" (2007), the video game as developed by Nihilistic Software and published by THQ, and the nature of barbarianism. Barbarians are a warrior culture who fear no fear as they face death on a daily basis; they are a culture that acknowledge strength and power over civility, rationality or the aestheticism of art. As life is cheap, so too is a barbarian's respect for other cultures, deeming civilized men as weak and two-faced. Barbarian culture is sexist and xenophobic; upon meeting you, Conan's first impressions are only whether he wanted to have sex with you or kill you.

Robert E. Howland's character is the anthesis of the modern day civilized man, a man constrained by the trappings of proper decorum and ettique who is bred to betray his natural primal sexual and violent urges. Conan is a man who is not afraid of death, and speaks his mind to expose the hypocracy of people who use language as a means of persuasion. However, Conan persuades people as well, but not through words but by savagery and brutality. Conan walks softly and carries a big, pointy stick.

The world the Conan lives in, Hyboria, is largely a lawless and intemperate land where the value of life and property is not respected. And while great cities and civilizations exist with their corresponding political and social systems, barbarians eschew this sophistication as shallow and unmeaningful as words and niceties have no place in a world you will be killed over your boots and armor.

In Hyboria, it makes sense to live and die by the sword as exerting power through force is the only way to exact any influence in this hard, unforgiving land. However, any commentary on the corruption and deceitfulness on civilization has to be taken cautiously from a barbarian who lives in a world where life is cheap and civilization isn't all that civilized.

Conan is a jerk, and it works for him because he lives in Hyboria. There, if you're not a jerk you're either exploited and dominated or dead. However, we don't live in Hyboria and in most places in the world life isn't cheap. The idea of relating to Conan from our perspective has to take in account his jerkness and the fact that someone like him does not fit into our modern civilized world.

Let's begin with that most barbaric of combat techniques, testicle kicking. Perhaps my vast video game wisdom is failing me, but I can't think of another ball kicking game at all. There probably has been, but it probably didn't follow-up on hitting the family jewels by splitting skulls in half. That Conan would use this as a regular move in his arsenal - called "Gemcutter" - just emphasizes his stature as a big jerk. Conan doesn't respect anyone, least of all his opponent. He'll kick you in the balls because it hurts, dammit.

That is being a jerk. Other video game protagonists when faced with even greater odds and even eviler evil have fought back proudly without any scrotum contact. Would Ryu Hayabusa kick you in the balls? Would Kratos kick you in the balls? Sure they wouldn't think twice about decaptitating the melon your hat sits on, but why would they need to kick you in the balls? Both of them are so bad-ass that they could tear you in half using their bare hands - literally (God of War) or zipline down active powerlines from tower to tower (Ninja Gaiden). They don't have to resort to that type of behavior.

People who do resort to that type of behavior here on planet Earth are practitioners of Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art used by their military. Less of a martial art than a survival skill, Krav Maga stresses neutralizer your opponent quickly by exploiting your enemy's weaknesses; this includes capping them in their genital stones. In fact, Krav Maga's status as a martial art comes into question when it is revealed there are no rules or regulations to this fighting style, nor is there a sport federation nor any official way to progress through training like the awarding of different colored belts.

It works. I tell you, kicking a guy in the balls will make him fall down. In fact, this is by far the most scientifically factual litmus test to see if someone is possessing of an x and y chromosone. But it begs the question, do you have to do it? Sure, if the circumstance is protecting yourself from Nazi youth as it was originally conceived as a defensive response, or if can repel an rapist as taught in self-defense courses. However, both these instances are a threat to life and is a survival skill and not an honorable method for similarly matched foes to test each other's skill. Is there a Krav Maga tournament where two opponents try to kick each other in the cojones? Would you ever see two ninjas put down their katanas to go on a sperm-sphere-busting red-letter-day blue-light-special hoe down?

Being evil is not the same as being a jerk. Being evil means you actively wish harm to others; being a jerk means you are selfish and just don't care. Several video games have allowed the player the option of trifling with good and bad decision-making; urban crime games have allowed players to play as a thug and perpetrate malfeasances upon innocent civilians. However, Conan goes that extra yard in "great moments in being a jerkwad" by giving a linear game about a disrespectful hero who has the option of dispatching foes with a boot to the gonads; in Conan, you can be a jerk while you are being a hero.

That's what bothers me most about this game - jerkness is celebrated. Jerkness has always been in videogames (eg. Jackass and Crusty Demons), but being a jerk has been equated with being a hero.

Conan is no hero; he's a selfish prick. He goes on a quest to vanquish the evil sorcerer Graven to re-claim his lost armor. Conan doesn't do this to aid A'Kanna, the pirate queen to seeks to aid her people who are suffering because of the Black Death (some kind of sickness denoted by black figures wearing a gimp suit); instead, he's just thinking of himself. It can't be more emphasized that the person who started all of this in the first place - the one who freed the trapped Graven and released the Black Death - is Conan himself; we see this in the very beginning of the game as a tutorial when he went looting tombs in search of treasure (By Crom!). Conan never shows any remorse at the suffering he has wrought upon Hyboria, and likewise never tries to redeem himself; that A'Kanna's need for vengeance against Graven and Conan's quest to reclaim his armor should dovetail is just a coincidence.

It goes on: Conan is a clumsy brute who brakes everything he touches. He smashes used wine jars instead of lightly putting them back down. Not content to loot treasure chests, Conan also has the indignity to burn down the huts of his opponents. You can tell Conan has passed through an area from all the dismembered limbs and blood carpetting the ground and well as entire villages razed to ashes. Freeing chained, nude women fit into Conan's world perfectly; having no ability or influence, women are just objects to rewards for those who can prove themselves "manly" enough.

That's the barbarians' code: to have no honor. Conan is a guy who will rape and pillage your village, and then blame you for having your village there in the first place. I mean, don't you know he's a barbarian? What's your problem?

This all likely goes without saying. I mean, a "barbarian" is an insult to call someone; Bone Crusher says the word as the demeaning slur it is by adding a few more consonents than what is written. However, "Conan" is also a fun, kick-ass game that fits into the genre just about perfectly. See, a barbarian is a character who does anything he wants and puts his survival above all else; that type of character is a boon to script writers of video games who have traditionally had to explain characters with motives. Well, not anymore. With Conan, you just have to provide a dangerous environment with similar lethal enemies and show some boobies from time to time. The common, insipid barbarian doesn't care, and neither does the common, lethargic video gamer. A perfect fit.

The question you, the video gamer, need to ask yourself is, "If Conan is a jerk, and jerks are perfect for video games, am I then a jerk?"

If you need further guidance, ask your local ninjitsu authority.

"Conan" Review


+ funday bloody funday; good thing they don't have many carpets in Hyboria because the cleaning bills would be astronomical
+ inventive moves; "there's a trick I've been learning to do with a knife"
+ jubblies galore; the game represents the barbarian would view perfectly by featuring the breasts of the same nakkid woman model over and over again
+ decent voiceacting; lines all delivered with aplomb, including the slave girl's "Take me and crush me with your love!" - though I did keep getting Conan confused with Hellboy talking to Selma Blair


- Conan is a jerk; this game isn't a story in heroism as it is an exercise to allow assholes to expand to proportions
- cheap-ass boss battles; I didn't master all the moves of my sword-styles to finish the game as a platformer with an end boss whose so cheap he doesn't know what time it is at night because won't buy a watch to replace his sundial
- Let Crom judge the story! - the narrator of the story is one of the supporting characters, but not the main one? Why does she keep talking from his perspective and never from her own? Damn pirates..
- Die, you scurvy coders! - a buggy game is okay, but a buggy game that doesn't trip essential cutscenes during boss battle is inexcusable.
- essentially a poor God of War rip-off; everything from the camera to the combat to the platforming to the puzzling to the same lame-ass bad-assness is taken - poorly - from "Kratos' Family Trouble"; this game could have been "great" (*cough*) if it had copied from "God of Sulking" better
- decent music score kept fading in and out at strange times
- sometimes the next goal is not presented properly; this may be a sign of poor design, or of Conan's inability to follow proper decorum and manners

Played to completion on Hard mode on the Xbox 360.
Rated 2 out of three stars.

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