A few years ago I was privileged to see a special exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago called "Seurat and the Making of La Grande Jatte." This collection brought together 45 of Seurat's paintings and drawings, all related to his famous masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Created over a 2-year period--and ranging from crayon sketches to oil paintings on small wood panels to nearly full-size paintings--the exhibition shows how Seurat worked out the details and techniques that ultimately found their way into the finished work. Each little sketch functions like an early draft, and proceeding through the exhibition it's possible to see Seurat working through each one, retaining some ideas and discarding others for the final painting.
Is there a video game connection here? But of course. You may purchase this painting to decorate your home in Animal Crossing: Wild World. How about that?! Worth the trip, wasn't it?
Actually, a more significant connection exists related to process, and it came to mind as I was playing Suda Goichi's Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked. This game, a licensed property based on an anime TV show, was clearly a job-for-hire gig taken on by Grasshopper, but it bears the unmistakable signature of Suda 51. Most importantly, one can easily see the early design motifs, signature visual flourishes, and clever combat mechanics, all of which found their way into Suda's masterpiece No More Heroes. Yes, I've decided to stick with that masterpiece moniker.
Cultural relevance quibblers, please don't worry. I'm not attempting to compare a silly little video game to one of the world's great works of art. We know our place here in the ghetto. Video games are for kids and "man-teens sitting before their kiddy consoles like huge manatees." I'm interested in the creative process here, so indulge me for a few more paragraphs, and I'll be out of your hair.
Like Seurat's preliminary sketches, Suda's ideas in Samurai Champloo are good, but not great; interesting, but not quite compelling. They serve their functions, but they don't quite coalesce, nor do they exhibit the refinement and finely tuned execution of their later versions. Most significantly, they show evidence of an artist experimenting with innovative ideas, within genre parameters, but pushing hard at all the borders. They are, in a sense, only a means to an end.
Certainly, Killer 7 can also be seen as a precursor to NMH, and its hyper-violent postmodern aesthetic can found all over Santa Destroy, but Killer 7 is a significantly darker, more demented experience than NMH. Sylvia may invite you to "the garden of madness" in NMH, but Killer 7 actually takes you there. Furthermore, Killer 7's on-rails action and shooting gallery mechanic are a long way from NMH's active battle system of timed button presses and gesture-based kills. This extraordinarily well-executed system had its origins in Samurai Champloo, not Killer 7 [see note below]
Moreover, playing NMH simply feels more like Samurai Champloo than Killer 7. This is all very subjective, of course, but it seems clear from interviews that Suda intended NMH to be more fun than his previous effort - exuberant and precocious (ala Samurai Champloo), not pitch-black and delirious (ala Killer 7).
It has a strong director, the increasingly notorious Suda 51 (mostly known for last year's stylish & divisive Killer7), who wildly compensates for an unremarkable hack-'n-slash adaptation involving two samurais, plucked from the titular anime... How does he do this? By painting over the game with abrasive aural and visual elements; essentially scribbling all over the standards that come with an adaptation.
Scribbling is an apt metaphor as it suggests a rather disjointed effort to squeeze unique stylistic touches into the margins of a pre-existing structure. These samurai must fight, and Suda clearly devotes most of his effort to creating a unique combat system. But he must also adhere to the familiar arc of the anime narrative, which seems to tie him down a bit. It's a fairly obvious extrapolation to see how these elements reappear in NMH, unfettered and more effective, as a modern assassin free of the anime samurai baggage, operating in a game-tailored environment that itself functions as a riff on video game design cliches. One can almost feel Suda stretching his muscles.
Nearly all the roots of NMH's brilliant sword (er, lightsaber, er, Katana) fighting system can be found in Samurai Champloo--timed combos, hypermode invincibility, slice and dice kills-- but unlike in NMH the pieces don't quite add up to a satisfying whole. Combat quickly becomes repetitive, and it lacks the intuitive, tactile feel of its successor. As a first draft, it's remarkably good, but the final draft version in NMH is tighter, more polished and more fun...thanks to lessons learned in Samurai Champloo.
Likewise, Suda's irrepressibly ludicrous sense of humor runs rampant throughout Samurai Champloo, but for the most part it seems like a dress rehearsal for the big show to come. Suda enjoys unveiling kooky, unlikely bosses who turn out to be prodigious killing machines. His best villain in Samurai Champloo is a Hungarian aristocrat wearing a Beijing Opera wig and pantaloons. Suitably ridiculous, to be sure, but this one-dimensional character wouldn't crack the top ten in NMH's gallery of boss assassins.
Twisted, but oddly sympathetic characters like Dr. Peace, Shinobu, and Holly Summers are nowhere to be found in Samurai Champloo, but you can see their outlines if you look for them. Somewhere between Samurai Champloo and NMH, Suda discovered empathy. Interestingly, the character of Garcian Smith in Killer 7 seems to me an effort to test the capacity of a video game to elicit empathy in ways unique to the medium...but that's another essay.
My real interest here is studying the journey - tracing the footsteps to better understand an artist's movement from one idea or technique to the next. In that Chicago gallery I was able to walk my way through Seurat's mind, tracing the evolution that produced something very powerful and good. I consider this a worthwhile and valuable effort, and it's one we can apply with equally useful results to a video game like No More Heroes. Suda did not produce that work all in one piece. It emerged from a process, and if we're willing to make the effort, we can come to know and understand much about that process, enhancing our appreciation of an artist's work.
Rather than margin scribbles, No More Heroes provides a blank canvas for Suda's broad and bold strokes, and, to extend the metaphor, Samurai Champloo served as a valuable early rendering. Like Seurat, Suda's work is clearly an extension of himself, and it's quite possible--even useful--to track the ongoing evolution of this work. Unfortunately, Seurat died at the age of 31 and never sold a single painting in his lifetime. Happily, Suda is going strong at 40 with several projects in the pipeline for multiple systems. And he can occasionally be found wearing a lucha libre mask.
Note: Thanks to Steve Gaynor for originally suggesting to me that Grasshopper saw Samurai Champloo as an opportunity to prototype their swordfighting mechanics. Given that NMH was originally slated as a PS2 game, this makes perfect sense to me.
Also, I'm eager to further trace Suda's work back to games like Michigan, The Silver Case, and Flower Sun and Rain, but these were never released in the U.S. Suda announced at last year's GDC that several remakes were underway for the DS, but no dates have been confirmed.