Good Things About Bad Games: Kane & Lynch
By Barry White
In the first in a planned series of articles, Barry asks whether we overlooked one important aspect of the otherwise mediocre Kane & Lynch: Dead Men.
“I don’t have to listen to your shit. Lynch, snap out of it. Lynch, don’t kill the hostages.” – Lynch
Kane & Lynch: Dead Men: what Hitman developers Io Interactive did next, and what some regard as their great folly. After the release of the superlative Hitman: Blood Money, Io seemed to be at the top of their game, and the pre-release speculation and hype over their next project was roundly positive and anticipatory. No one was predicting the arrival of a decidedly average, flawed action game that would eventually attain a peak Metacritic score of only 67. What fame (or more appropriately, infamy) it achieved during its release was due to anything but the work Io Interactive had done on the game, and it has subsequently sunk mostly unsung, a mistake everyone would rather forget in the hope that Io get back to making Hitman games.
I’m not here to make any attempt to defend the game that was Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. It’s clunky, rough and buggy, and the title thoroughly deserves the middling scores it received on release. My problem, though, is that there’s one excellent aspect of Kane & Lynch that’s always totally forgotten about whenever people discuss the game. They focus on Gerstmann-gate or the pedigree of Io Interactive, and try vainly to figure out where they went wrong.
Bad games like this are usually wholly dismissed as just bad games. If the entire package fails, nobody ever seems to care if certain parts of it might actually have been brilliant, or interesting, or worth talking about. No one, in my experience, ever thinks or talks about Adam “Kane” Marcus and James Lynch. This duo is the one truly good thing about this bad game.
Kane and Lynch are how Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Murtagh would’ve turned out if writer Shane Black had made those characters criminals instead of cops and Smokin’ Aces’ Joe Carnahan had been around to direct.
The similarities between the two sets of characters and their relationships are striking. Kane and Murtagh are the straight men. Both spend most of their time trying keep their respective partners (who they’re forcibly paired with) in line, and they care inordinate amounts about their daughters. Both are clearly too old for this shit. Lynch and Riggs are highly unstable psychotics with bad haircuts, who can always be relied upon to drive the action and the story forward into unexpected places by just going berserk. Riggs will try to tear down a house with nothing but his pick-up truck. Lynch will start killing the hostages. If Riggs and Murtagh are the kings of the buddy movie, Kane and Lynch are their twisted gaming counterparts.
They take every part of that established cinematic template and pervert it. Riggs might be crazy, but he’s also a wise-cracking, tireless pursuer of justice. Lynch is just out and out nuts. Murtagh is the family man and hyper protective of his loving children. Kane’s family hate him enough to wish him dead and he’s obsessed with trying to reconcile with and protect a daughter he hasn’t seen for fourteen years. The relationship arc between the main characters in a buddy movie is supposed to start out frosty and begrudging, but become closer and closer as challenges and trials are overcome. With every new problem or situation, Kane comes closer to cutting Lynch lose. The two men are constantly at odds with one another for the entire story, with no possibility of reconciliation ever presented. The whole thing is an inspired piece of writing, taking a tried and tested framework and turning it on its head to produce something players probably won’t have seen before.
They are, uncharacteristically for game protagonists, utterly amoral, even evil. Games have their heroes and their anti-heroes; tough action men, honourable soldiers, flawed individuals with hearts of gold, rogues who are as likely to betray their friends as they are to do the right thing. Wherever our heroic avatars fall on the spectrum of good and evil, there always seems to be some little spark that allows us to relate to them in some way. This might not be too important a feature in something like Crysis, where the player character is, for all intents and purposes, anonymous and faceless, but in any game where an attempt is made to make an actual character out of the player’s avatar, this kind of work is key. Gears of War’s Marcus Fenix might look a bit like a serial rapist and spend all his time chainsawing things in half, but when he cracks a joke with a comrade or we see some semblance of emotion flash across his disfigured face during a cutscene, that’s a window for us to try connect to his character a little bit, however crudely fashioned it might be. Games that make the effort to connect you with your digital avatar on a level other than the press of a button or flick of the mouse are often the better for it.
But Kane and Lynch are extraordinary in that they fly completely in the face of what you’d expect from main characters in an action game. They’re absolute bastards, and totally unrepentant about that fact. Forget flawed heroes, anti-heroes, or whatever label you think you might want to apply – these characters have not a single redeeming nor admirable quality between them. Even something that seems overtly positive or good, like Kane’s protectiveness of his daughter, is in reality totally obsessive and in keeping with his destructive personality. There is nothing within these two men to like or to love or to respect. And that is what makes them unique and, if you’ll permit me to say, brilliant in the collective lineup of game protagonists through the ages. The developers, when writing the characters of Kane and Lynch, effectively created two people it was impossible not to dislike.
It’s an extraordinarily brave decision to make and it’s not without its potential pitfalls: a friend of mine recalls how he was unable to enjoy the game on any level simply because he hated the pair of them so much. That’s the big risk. And it’s a risk that’s not just brave within the context of games. In film (and Dead Men tries hard in other areas to emulate movies such as Michael Mann’s Heat) our heroes are usually heroic. The better heroes have their flaws, and may not always do the right thing, but in genres like action it’s always made very clear who the hero is. Never, ever, will you see protagonists with such wretched, wholly irredeemable personalities as the main focus as you do in this game. It would be like sticking up two fingers to the audience. It would be madness. But Kane & Lynch does it and, if I may adopt the vernacular of the game for a moment, it doesn’t give a fuck if you like it or not.
Does this mean we’re not able to connect to them in any way at all? Are we just detachedly piloting these two horrors toward their inevitable end while trying to enjoy some of the shooty bits along the way? Not necessarily, but the risk of player alienation is always there. Within the car crash that is Kane and Lynch’s relationship, the game is able to mine some nice veins of jet black humour that my poor soul is able to revel in, but it’s by no means a common taste. I laugh out loud when Lynch confusedly says something like “I was aiming for her leg”, but to the next person this is just another reason to dump the game and walk away in disgust. More than that, I find myself fascinated by these two characters and their interactions in the same way I’m fascinated by the great cinematic villains, like The Third Man’s Harry Lime. They all represent a totally uncompromised picture of the depths to which human beings can sink, and while it’s easy to be abhorred by their words and their deeds, it’s their overall integrity as fictional characters that appeals to me most.
All of which, if anything, makes the reality of the game’s mediocrity all the more painful and disappointing. You already have every reason not to play this game and, if the picture of the two men I’ve painted above is an unsettling one, you can go ahead and add one more to the list. But I still think it’s important not to forget about what Io Interactive managed to create here. They might have made a mess of everything else, but I’m not convinced that’s a good enough reason to overlook the one shining high point. They took a huge risk in fashioning the characters that they did, and in having the chutzpah to turn around to players and say “Why yes, you do have to assume the role of a violent traitor and a medicated psychopath. We’re going to make you murder cops, hostages and civilians, and neither character is going to get a happy ending.”
Kane and Lynch aren’t cool or clever, slick or sexy. They’re bad, bad men – and that’s what’s so damn good about them.