Sunday, October 23, 2011

Video Games in TV: Killer Instinct

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV

No, not the video game. This comes from an obscure television series that I never even heard of until it was randomly referenced in a google hit. Killer Instinct is a typical crime drama that only lasted a single season. This seventh episode, "Game Over," follows the typical formula of "psychotic gamers start playing a violent video game for real," complete with the typical stereotyping I've come to expect from these kinds of episodes. 

This episode doesn't display a lot of actual gameplay footage that I can make fun of, but the way the cops perceive gamers is pathetic, and the way they handle the investigation is almost equally absurd. All of the dialogue reeks of nonsense, and it even goes for the "video game violence causes real world violence" angle, which only further inhibits my ability to take it seriously. So let's get into the specifics and have a good laugh, shall we?

"Game Over" opens with San Francisco Police Detective Ray Cavanaugh getting shot in the door of his own home. The title sequence plays out, and then it cuts to "36 hours earlier" at a crime scene where a woman in a red dress was murdered. Turns out the killer already processed the scene for the detectives, marking evidence, preserving the body, and setting up a bullet trajectory model.

The detectives lift a shoe print from the carpet and find a spot of paint that's used to coat the underside of boats. They go to a local marina to check lockers and find a pair of shoes matching the print they found, and even lift a hair follicle from a shirt. The DNA from the hair matches the DNA from another crime that Cavanaugh led. They start to realize that this guy named Kallick took the fall for the murder of Cami Deutsch and the actual killer is upset that someone else got the credit for it. 

Back at the headquarters, Cavanaugh discovers that the killer had been inside his office, so they start checking security cameras and trying to rule out everyone who was seen entering the building. One of the cops, Jack Hale, happens to stumble upon an off-brand GameCube controller in the evidence locker, which is when he finally gets the epiphany that these crimes are video game-related. Took them half of the episode to make the connection.

So then Hale and his partner go to something that looks like it's supposed to be a game store, but it's probably the most elaborate retail store I've ever seen. It almost resembles an arcade with how many demos they have set up. Except that the very first one we see is an FPS with a steering wheel set up right in front of it. 

Hale explains that the scenes remind him of footage from Murder One, a game where "players get missions and earn points for completing murders without getting busted." Sounds a lot like Hitman, and yet the footage and everything else looks more like Grand Theft Auto, with the character running around an urban city chased by cops. He approaches a little kid playing the game while noticing that it's rated "M." The kid's mom notices the guy's badge and asks him what he's doing, when he responds "watching this game where he earns strength points for having sex with hookers and cash points for carjacking." It's always points with these episodes, isn't it?

The mom gets pissed and starts to take the kid away, but Hale stops her and asks the kid to get him to the motorcycle shop mission. The mom is suddenly all compliant with her kid playing the violent game, even though the cop aint never explained that it's part of an investigation or why he needs to see this footage. He tells the kid to "make with the cheat codes" or "make up the cheat codes" (I can't tell which), and then the motorcycle shop level suddenly starts loading, like this kid has the cheat codes memorized to start every single level. 

They see a woman in the shop wearing a purple dress just like in the Deutsch murder that Kallick took the fall for. He asks the kid if there's a level that takes you to a townhouse by the water, and also finds out that the game teaches the player how to mark and collect forensic evidence at a crime scene. Which proves to Hale that their killer is obsessed with Murder One and is recreating scenes from the game. 

We then cut to Cavanaugh who's got some schmuck in for interrogation who I guess is supposed to represent the development team of Murder One, but they never give him a name or even a title. And of course he's a smug-looking 25 year old. He explains that Murder One is their best-selling game with hundreds of thousands of people playing it online. Cavanaugh opens up his interrogation asking "Is that profitable for you? Teaching kids to simulate murder?"

First of all Cavanaugh, the game is rated "M," it's not intended for children and it's not this guy's fault if kids are playing it. Second of all, why doesn't this guy have a lawyer with him? Why is he even at the police station in the interrogation room? Shouldn't you be like, meeting with this guy at his own convenience or talking to him on the phone? Why is he being treated like a criminal suspect here? 

Anyway, it turns out that the game can easily be hacked to add explicit sex scenes (anybody fancy some hot coffee?), so the company ended up banning 70 players and deleting their characters from the server. This guy complains about how these modders got the game pulled from game store shelves all over the globe, costing him millions of dollars, so he went through all of the hassle to get them "dumped by their ISPs and put on the FBI hacker watch list." 

After talking like he had a personal grudge against these players and wanted to completely ruin them for the trouble they caused, he quickly defends them against suspicion of murder: "No way, these guys are gamers, not killers." As if gamers would never kill anyone. But then Cavanaugh gets totally pissed off and starts yelling at him: 
"Hey, they're on their computers 18 hours a day, ok, they're committing mayhem, murder, rape. Did it never occur to you that it might have some kind of effect on them? HEY, I'M TALKING TO YOU! You think that's ok? 'Oh I see a car, think I'll just steal that.' 'Someone pisses me off, I'll just stomp them into ground, and if he's a cop it means I'll just blow him away.'"
So it's nice of Cavanaugh to so easily stereotype these gamers that he knows nothing about. How does he know they spend 18 hours a day on the game? Not everyone is an obsessed psychopath who would jump to those kinds of conclusions about real life just because it's ok in the game. I just don't appreciate how this guy's so quick to jump on a moral soapbox and start preaching about his so-called causal "effects" of these violent video games. You're a cop solving a murder case, why are you suddenly going on a moral crusade in the middle of a discussion with an innocent guy? 

So they finally start to do something productive and ask him for the names of all the people he blacklisted. The guy asks if they can narrow it down any, so Cavanaugh describes the profile of their perp: "He's intelligent, he's egotistical, can't accept criticism, he's socially isolated, obsessive, withdrawn." And then the gamer guy responds "you just described them all, plus every other action game addict in the country." So now even the champion defender of the industry is stereotyping gamers. Wonderful. But I also want to know why he knows the psychological profiles of the gamers he blacklisted, those seem like more intimate details than he would ever be privy to.

So they get the full list and find out that "20 of the 70 are bay area." Isn't that statistically anomalous? In a game that's played by "hundreds of thousands of players online," how come more than 25% of the "hackers" are from the San Francisco bay area? Anyway, they conclude that their killer was obsessed with the game, saying that it was his whole life, and that once he got banned he started playing for real. Now he wants his "points" for the murder of Deutsch that the guy Kallick took the fall for. 

Cavanaugh gets a phone call from the perp, who says that "Life is like a video game, Ray, everybody's gotta die sometime." What kind of crappy analogy is that? The whole point of video games is that the hero usually survives through to the end. Even if the player "dies," it's only temporary because he's right back in the game. You can't even die in a lot of games, and you don't even have to die in the ones where you can. So what the heck is this guy talking about? Also, they make this gamer look like a criminal master mind with an elaborate secret lair. Is this for real?

The rest of the episode is kind of pointless. The perp loads a gun and flips a switch in his place, rigging it to self-destruct when the police force entry (like a true evil villain). He then sneaks into Cavanaugh's daughter's dorm room at a university and turns it into a bloody crime scene, leaving her untouched, but with a message that reads "Next round 100,000," because that's how many points murder is worth. They assume the perp is going after Cavanaugh because you get bonus points for killing cops, and arrive just in time to shoot the gamer before Cavanaugh gets shot.

The first half of the episode is just so boring, and the second half is almost offensive with its crude stereotypes. Like at least Law & Order: SVU was courteous enough to present both sides of the "video game violence begets real world violence" argument, so as to be fair to gamers, but Killer Instinct almost goes out of its way to be insulting. It's no wonder the show only lasted the one season.

This one's actually available for free on YouTube, so if you're feeling bold you can watch it yourself. I wouldn't recommend it. 

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