“In a funny way, it’s like the folks at Devolver Digital never really left the ‘90s,” says Scott Alexander, the writer for Shadow Warrior 2 from Flying Wild Hog. As I effortlessly spin in a circle, decapitating a dozen enemies around me and coating myself in thick, red blood while playing a demo build of the upcoming action game, I can certainly see that sentiment.
In 2016, the aforementioned game publisher’s biggest upcoming launch is about a vulgar, douchebag ninja named Lo Wang that cuts, shoots, and swears his way through pools of blood and body parts on a conquest to defeat demons and evildoers. They’re the same publisher that revived the Serious Sam franchise, popularized Hotline Miami’s retro-brutality, and just released Mother Russia Bleeds, a side-scrolling brawler that’s so gory, it features blood in its very title.
“Some games play very fast and loose with the concept of reality,” explains Alexander. “Violence in games is an interesting narrative problem. It’s such a big part of most games — kill or be killed. All shooters mostly boil down to a game of cops and robbers. You can only keep it compelling by killing a lot of people. But that being said, it’s still really weird. The main character in most games is just a mass murderer.”
In the case of Shadow Warrior 2, overt and gratuitous violence is a big part of the game. If you take a moment to peruse the game’s Steam page, for example, you’ll notice things like a “Brutal Damage System” listed as an actual feature in the game. Clearly, it doesn’t shy away from violence.
With an assortment of weapons, such as the newly announced chainsaw katana, Shadow Warrior 2 features more ways to dismember enemies than you could ever dream of. It’s a bit ridiculous, but the tone and characters fit the setting.
“If you have a character that acts like an asshole, you’ve got to make him an asshole,” laughs Alexander. “So what we did is we put another character into the game that’s a bit like the conscience of the player. She calls him out on his bullshit a lot. Having just one foil character to play off of to tell a story with actual change, games can do that incredibly well. It’s just such a rich medium for storytelling.”
Bringing in someone like Alexander to take the setting, the lore, the characters, and adapt them for a modern audience is important. That lack of care and self-awareness is a big part of why reboots like DOOM succeeded where reboots like Duke Nukem Forever failed.
Fans of the original mid-‘90s Shadow Warrior may not remember, but it was actually quite racist and insensitive.
“If you put that same script out today, as-is, you would get crucified,” says Alexander. “It wasn’t really what I’d call overt racism, it was cultural appropriation as racism. It was mostly implicit, bad representations of Asian culture, that sort of thing. All mediums have issues like that from the past.”
In fact, looking back, you won’t find a lot of commentary around that game regarding how racist it was. Society has changed over time, and it’s become more common to be sensitive to cultural sensitivities and we’ve — just generally, as Alexander puts it — become “better humans” as a result.
In a way, as society and fans of video games have grown and matured, so too has the medium. A few decades ago, “shoot those pixels before they destroy your pixels” was perfectly adequate, and while that’s still at the heart of most violent shooters like Shadow Warrior 2, there’s more to it than that.
Full voice acting, plots with actual meaning, cutscenes, and content that exists to drive a story forward are all relatively modern advancements for video games. Alexander aims to keep pushing them forward, even in the blood-soaked script of Shadow Warrior 2.
“The funny thing as a writer in a game like this is that I know some people skip every cutscene and don’t come for the story at all,” admits Alexander. “There are multiple layers of narrative, such as the main questline being one version, then side quests have more detail, and then there are hundreds of lore items you can find if you want. If you like to collect shit, you can collect all the things and never read them. Or do read them. Whatever you’d like.”
Anyone that plays a game published by Devolver Digital will fully understand the sentiment that the company never really left the ‘90s. Rather than leaving the decade behind, the venerable publisher has instead chosen to slowly reinvent it while updating the themes that made the time so iconic. In a way, Shadow Warrior 2 is just the latest project in that crusade.
“Entertainment is fundamentally democratic,” says Alexander. “You vote with your dollars about whether you want something or not and it sure looks like we enjoy the shooting and killing and hurting. We tried to inject some humor and some drama into a relatively serious story and we think people are going to come away happy.”
Shadow Warrior 2 releases on PC this October 13 — less than one month away. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions are slated for early 2017.