The hype surrounding Kane & Lynch: Dead Men got me genuinly excited, and while the game had an interesting story, intriguing characters and inspired set pieces, its gameplay mechanics were average at best and derivative at worst. I found myself annoyed at times and I really had to trudge through some of the later levels to see the story play out. Put simply: it wasn't fun. And as an esteemed cohort of mine said: "A game with bad gameplay and a good story will get trumped by a game with good gameplay and a bad story". However, Kane & Lynch's narrative does present a few interesting traits, a few of which I'm going to delve into here.
The game's protagonist, Kane, is a morally reprehensible criminal. You essentially play as the bad guy, accompanied by another one. Both Kane and Lynch see no problem in murdering scores of innocent people if such acts will net them what they desire. The first guy you kill in the game is a cop (and the next 40 guys are as well). Kane’s desire to get back at those who've wronged him is cancelled out by his own wrongdoings. But ironically enough, Kane's attitude and background act as a moral justification for all the people he kills, albeit on the opposite end of the moral spectrum and only within the game world.
In most games, we play protagonists who are righteous individuals taking morally upstanding actions in the name of a worthy cause. More often than not, the enemies in games with such protagonists are not human. They are either aliens (Halo) or converted or former humans (Dead Space, Half-Life 2, pretty much every zombie game) and therefore dehumanised. Their deaths do not affect the player's moral compass in a "fire-Goddamnit-that's-not-Johnson-anymore!" way. In games where the majority of enemies are human, it is often made explicit that they all subscribe to some form of evil, which justifies their deaths at the hands of the player. This is the case in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and its sequel. But that is not enough when looking at its protagonist, Nathan Drake.
Kane’s character is an unconventional but very effective solution to the problem presented by Drake, who represents something of a narrative dissonance in my opinion. He is shown killing a considerable amount of people and then wittily hamming it up with the plucky blonde in cut-scenes. Admittedly, everyone he kills is out to kill him too, but even with a plea of self-defence, murder is not an act to be taken lightly. Drake’s character seems too jocular when confronted with such situations. This is even touched upon by Uncharted 2's villain, Zoran Lazarevic, who falls back on a (very clichéd) line when faced down by Drake: "You think I am a monster. But you're no different from me, Drake. How many men have you killed? How many - just today?".
The flipside is that, as opposed to Kane, Drake is someone we can relate to. He is portrayed as a likable everyman thrust into unconventional situations, which justifies his actions (up to a point). He might still be a thief who's mostly in it for his own gain, but in both the games he stars in, his ultimate goal is to safeguard humanity from a great evil. Kane, on the other hand, is difficult to relate to. He antagonises everybody he encounters and betrays them when it suits his goal, which is to save his daughter's life. While this goal is admirable in and of itself, it does not outweigh the suffering he causes in order to achieve it. This tells me that the ending where Kane abandons his men in order to safely extract his daughter is the canonical one, since it seems implausible that he would risk the very thing he has finally accomplished only for a misguided attempt at redemption.
IO Interactive has apparently come to the same conclusion, as the sequel they are currently developing (Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days) flows from the ending where Lynch is left to burn by Kane. In addition, their roles will be switched, with Lynch as the character controlled by the player. This makes me curious about how they'll implement his background into the gameplay mechanics, seeing as how Lynch, much like Kane, is imbued with an unconventional justification for all the people he kills. His mental instability causes him to experience outbursts of violence over which he has no control. In Kane & Lynch's cooperative mode, this was represented by Lynch seeing innocent civilians as police officers trying to shoot him, giving him no alternative but to return fire. This was a very inspired design decision which wonderfully merged story and gameplay at a fundamental level. And in a way it makes Lynch less of a bad guy than Kane, because Kane can't ascribe his crimes to a medical condition, but only to his own greed.
Welcome to Playthroughline, a personal blog focused on the implementation of stories in games. In addition to general musings about narrative design, you’ll also find a collection of scripts that basically do for videogames what The Editing Room does for movies.