(I recommend playing this before reading. Much of what makes this game effective is communicated through a series of pleasant surprises, and I would hate to spoil any of them.)
Tower of the Blood Lord is a hypertext game by Michael Lutz that appears, at first glance, to be a personable, straightforward parody of commercial military shooters, the most famous kind of gun game. Blood Lord’s mimicry is calculated and well-researched; it leaves no interface stone unturned. There are no graphics here, only words, but just like Call of Duty, the text consistently displays the distance, in meters, from your destination. There’s even a cutscene of sorts, which asks that you wait patiently as words appear at timed intervals. Blood Lord works as parody, but what makes it interesting is that it does not allow itself to be defined by the object it critiques. Its tracing of the gun-bro shooter formula is curious and sensitive. It explores, then explodes this formula in a fashion that is both personal and broadly perceptive.
To the extent that it draws inspiration from the Call of Duty franchise, Blood Lord reminds me of Spec Ops: The Line. I realize that in making this comparison I’m skirting dangerously close to apples-and-oranges territory. These works were created for different reasons under greatly different circumstances. Blood Lord is a small, personal text game made with a freeware toolkit called Twine. Spec Ops is a commercial shooter with explosions and twitch gunplay that wears its Heart of Darkness (via Apocalypse Now) references on its sleeve. In the case of Blood Lord, an artist created what he wanted. In the case of Spec Ops, a commercial publisher paid a good deal of money to make a game that, fingers crossed, would compete with Call of Duty; subsequently, a creative team spent a great deal of time and energy trying to turn Spec Ops into a sophisticated critique of war games.
Spec Ops has been called everything from a cheap farce to an important, mature work of art, and it has inspired the first (to my knowledge) book-length close reading of a single videogame. I’m not sure whether the volume of criticism Spec Ops has inspired suggests that we assume it is possible for a commercial game, produced under the conditions of the triple-A publishing model, to fulfill the promise of thoughtful, nuanced, even subversive critique, or if we just want this to be possible. Perhaps our longing for an expensive, smart shooter highlights an emptiness in our media consumption that is bigger than videogames. We’re not really looking for a commercial game that thoughtfully critiques war (we never really expected that) but one that thoughtfully critiques war as portrayed in videogames. This is probably a separate conversation.
Many of us want to believe that the media we consume can help us make real connections with other humans and change us in good and interesting ways. Blood Lord directly confronts this idealistic idea, while Spec Ops dutifully delivers an assembly line of familiar shooter tropes, framing them in an attempt to shame the player into thinking about the implications of virtual bullets. Daniel Golding writes that Bioshock: Infinite adopts “an aesthetics of ‘racism’ and ‘history’” in order to appear important and smart. Although Golding wrote favorably of Spec Ops, I borrow his phrase to suggest that Spec Ops makes a similar move in adopting an “aesthetics of critique” or an “aesthetics of meaningful violence.”
This aesthetics of critique is convention covered in fashionably subversive (and very expensive) wallpaper. In what might be its most subversive move, Spec Ops actually assuages our guilt over gliding through dull, derivative shooters! With a different coat of paint, this kind of game can help us feel more self-aware, more intellectual and help justify hours spent to the always-watching, ever-looming Dark Lord of High Culture. Spec Ops consistently deflects attention away from itself, towards the player, always outward, never inward. Spec Ops spends so much time trying to remind the player of her complicity, that it neglects to imagine what such a game could look like if it tried (or had the chance) to be something other than what it is.
Alternatively, Tower of the Blood Lord offers contrast and an escape from its portrayal of unimaginative escapism. Lutz frames Blood Lord as an account of “the time [he] played the first twenty minutes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” a description that might strike some as glib. Blood Lord’s ‘point,’ to some extent, is to point and say “look at how funny and artificial and perplexing this shooter-thing is when you examine the strange and confusing beauty of its component parts.” This, in itself, is a useful observation for a game to make, but Blood Lord moves past it to consider the implicit sense of identity that lies at the center of critique and informs our desire to find meaning in the artificial.
More committed to replicating its muse than it first appears, Blood Lord’s travelogue of a videogame military base is funny, but also imaginative, curious, often poetic. Blue hyperlinks represent every button on the player’s imagined controller. Appreciating that the game consistently provides access to all of these buttons leads to the surprising discovery that they genuinely affect progress. Because Blood Lord lacks conventional graphics, I wrongfully assumed the act of “crouching” was a textual illusion, included just for laughs. My assumption was that clicking “B” led to a dead-end link, which would encourage an imagined state of crouching, even though the game’s internal system would remain oblivious to any sense of crouching or standing. Turns out, I was truly crouched because crouching becomes necessary to move the narrative forward. This is one example of how the game presents what looks like a simulacrum of the surface-level, then surprises with its depth and commitment.
The perspective of the second person protagonist in Blood Lord is somewhere between player and fictional videogame character. The voice is not quite that of the imagined digital soldier but of an overly perceptive player attempting to maneuver, sometimes even inhabit that soldier, a persona that combines the player’s external position with her in-game self. This perspective considers the game as both illusion and reality. You observe a “sky.” Then, a “skybox.” Throughout the work, the relationship between player and puppet is puzzled over. By the end, the line (*chortles*) between them has been exploded or obfuscated.
Blood Lord‘s form encourages you to see the space you’re exploring and the buttons on your controller separately. It calls attention to the fact that the actions, or verbs, you are given in a videogame are irrelevant when divorced from their immediate context, but they’re always there anyway, like the opposite of phantom limbs. There’s this constant presence of a movement vocabulary that’s sometimes useful, but sometimes rendered entirely meaningless. All of the verbs are usually there, even though most games will take you places where you won’t need any of them.
Experiencing the predictable bombast of bloated gun games through the stripped down lens of a textual matrix is gratifying in itself. The tone of something like this is difficult to get right, but Blood Lord is so inquisitive in its dissection that it avoids coming across as hackneyed or heavy-handed. The surface level critique is sophisticated, and the eventual break from standard shooter vocabulary is nontrivial. The player is allowed to enjoy the fantasy of discovery, a fantasy often cultivated, unintentionally, by accidental glitches, systemic imperfections. This game celebrates the glitch by giving you something you weren’t looking for.
Blood Lord succeeds because it exists on its own terms. It thoughtfully considers the texture and architecture of the modern military shooter. It helps the player reimagine ‘Modern Warfare‘ as something else–something more meaningful. Blood Lord actually has something to say about the media we consume and the implications of consuming and creating more media. There’s a tangible nostalgia for unexplained videogame weirdness, and in many ways this game rejects the blasé faux-seriousness of ‘realistic’ shooters. Blood Lord has sincerity at its core, embedded in dry scrutiny. It creates boundaries in order to exploit and erase them. It presents a world soaked in blood, presumably spilled by a thousand groaning military shooters.