LOVE & KILLer Is Dead: Eros and Thanatos in Grasshopper Manufacture’s latest game
(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)
The term, “Love & Kill” is a rather confounding, if grammatically correct, description of Killer Is Dead’s overall theme by its development team. On the surface, this is merely a fanciful description of how the game has Gigolo Missions where the player nominally seduces beautiful women (Love) and the much more violent and chaotic combat missions (Kill). On closer examination, the statement can also pertain to the respective motivations of the game’s protagonist and chief antagonist as well as how they tie into the “pleasure principle” and “death drive” theories of one Sigmund Freud.
Mondo is unique among Grasshopper Manufacture’s body of player characters as he is the least enamored with the violence he enacts. Travis Touchdown was passionate about combat, Garcia F. Hotspur genuinely enjoyed killing demons for a living, Juliet Starling went so far as to say that killing zombies aroused her, and most of the members of the Smith Syndicate would’ve been just fine killing for free if they weren’t stuck in somebody’s head. Mondo doesn’t really have much to say about all the destruction he wrecks, ironic given that he controls the best out of GM’s entire menagerie and thus has a much easier time doing it. When asked if he considered all the killing he does to be “ethical”, he reveals that he simply thinks of it all as being part of his job. This seeps into his interactions with whatever boss he encounters in the game; while his predecessors would goad and posture toward their stronger foes, producing some very memorable exchanges, Mondo is rather curt and to the point. He often regards his more verbose targets with a degree of contempt that borders on mockery, oftentimes uncaring or dismissive of the motives that have driven them to be dangers worthy of government-sanctioned assassinations.
What does Mondo love then? What does he want? He simply desires the intimate company of beautiful women. While sex and companionship have always pervaded Suda’s games, here it is Mondo’s primary goal, his core desire that even has him put the mystery of David out of his mind until it is right in his face. He doesn’t have any higher agenda besides satisfying his base needs. There’s no trying to make himself the best there is or him even entertaining the idea of impacting (or saving) the world around him. Mondo simply wants to eat perfectly cooked soft-boiled eggs and charm gorgeous socialites out of their clothes.
In a rare moment of lengthy, by his standards, conversation with Yakuza don, Hamada-Yama, Mondo mentions that he isn’t an executioner out of a strong desire to be one. Rather, his current vocation was chosen due to his waking up one day to find that he possessed both a penchant for armed combat and a deadly, bionic limb that protects him from Dark Matter contagion with no memory of his life before that point. Suda51 has repeatedly stated that he intended for Killer Is Dead to be a darker send-up to the James Bond films, and assumedly the amnesiac Mondo chose to reinvent himself along those lines as an enigmatic, sharply dressed ladykiller. This is rendered rather amusing in that he is a “man of mystery” who possesses such a mystique because he barely knows anything about himself apart from the desires of his taste buds and loins.
Unfortunately for Mondo, the desires of his would-be lady friends are nothing short of exquisite, with the presents used to curry their favor ranging from tens of thousands to over a million dollars in price (in contrast, a set of deluxe headphones has a far more realistic cost of a few hundred dollars). Thus, he requires a vocation that plays to his limited skill set and shells out a substantial amount of cash. A job at Bryan’s Execution Firm is a dead ringer for such a lofty position, paying Mondo large amounts of money to do something he is good at, if not particularly invested in personally. Contract killing is just a means of attaining the means to satisfy his carnal desires. To him, it really is just a job with which to pursue his pleasures and eliminate discomfort. We even see him reluctant to carry out his initiation into the Firm (by killing his predecessor) not out of any moral misgivings but because a beautiful girl is right there, in his arms, and whatever rituals or charms he employed in getting her there are at the cusp of coming to fruition.
This is acutely referenced in the game as your primary reward for performing a mission perfectly is a new set of lingerie, while fulfilling the secret bonus conditions will get you a new gift for Gigolo Missions. In addition, you get more money with which to purchase said lingerie and gifts, none of which are free. You could spend your currency on packages of Moon Ore (to purchase upgrades), Health Gems (to boost your health), and Blood Gems (to boost your blood meter), but these items can be found in abundance, for free, within assassination missions so there’s barely any incentive to buy these million dollar bundles. Costumes are also another avenue for expenditure, but there are so few, and all of them (apart from those that come complimentary with the Premium Edition of the game) cost so much that you’ll be lucky to buy any of them. All in all, the gifts and underwear, while by no means cheap, are the most affordable options in the games in-universe marketplace and this distinction could be a subtle nudge to the player that these are the products Mondo is inclined to buy.
The interplay between sex and violence is also showcased in Scarlett’s various extra missions wherein Mondo must complete a series of tasks (some, more difficult than others) relating to combat in exchange for a modest amount of money and ‘Guts’. Guts (a word with connotations to both courage and organs) must usually be gathered in order to get Mondo to muster up the initiative to make a gesture of cheesy romance to a woman, implying that for all his swagger, he requires a fair degree of mental preparation all the same. Scarlett is different from the other ‘Mondo Girls’ (except, perhaps Betty) in that she doesn’t want gifts or small-talk; She wants the sight of intense, elegant violence, whether it be done by Mondo or to him. The term ‘Guts’ gains a new meaning in this context, a much more literal one at that. Thus, if Mondo wants to sleep with Scarlett, which he does, he needs to fight. Slashing, Punching, Grappling, and Shooting are once again rendered as mere tools to get Mondo what he really wants, and nothing more.
All this ties in to the pleasure principle outlined by famed psychologist, Sigmund Freud. Simply put, the theory suggests that man is driven to do things out of his search for pleasure and his wish to avoid pain. As mentioned above, most of Mondo’s actions can be tied to this idea, even his taking Mina into his home, a humane-looking act, was due to her being quite good at making soft-boiled eggs (pleasure) and her expertise in medicine (avoidance of pain). If it doesn’t pertain to those two goals, he doesn’t really bother with it, perhaps best exemplified as to how he was completely oblivious as to what Wires were in the middle of the narrative despite having killed dozens of them by that point. He’s a simple man, with simple pleasures, but his intense pursuit of them elevates his desires to near-Hedonism.
How then do you balance out a protagonist that barely wants anything? Create a nemesis that wants it all. Enter David, who makes his proper, grand entrance in the Episode 4; The numbering here couldn’t be more apt as the number 4 is considered to be a very unlucky digit in Japan (along with 9, as they both share a phonetic commonality with the Japanese word for “death). At first, David seems worthy of Mondo’s bile, dressing in a tacky, gold-blitzed long-coat and garish crown, espousing claims of godhood and kingship while tempting his would-be assassin with the prospect of global domination. If David seems to be rather cliché, then you’d be correct in that assumption, especially as his actual motives are quite simple and primordial. They just happen to involve total annihilation.
To properly examine David, we must turn our gaze to his cohorts, his accomplices, his goons, The Wires. Living creatures that have been corrupted by Dark Matter, they share several similarities with other expendable foes in Grasshopper Manufacture’s games, including the demons from “Shadows of the Damned” and the Heaven Smiles from Killer Is Dead’s spiritual precursor, “killer7”. While Mondo is constantly driven by his libido, the Wires (like their predecessors from the aforementioned games) are sexless beings lacking any visible genitalia under their armor, if any. The lack of sexual features and all that entails are most evident with Execution Targets, Giant Head and Dolly. Giant Head is an enormous, mutated giant. He is also a naked one. Despite being completely nude and the mightiest foe encountered in terms of sheer physical strength, his lower regions are completely bare save for a lone, green nub. This is especially significant once you learn that he used to be a normal human scientist. Becoming a Wire has effectively turned him into a titanic, cartoonish, infant eunuch whose only outlet for its impotent rage is destroying the place it was ‘born’. Then there is Giant Head’s ethereal counterpart, Dolly. In a stark departure from the other women in the game that Mondo encounters and sometimes sleeps with, Dolly is hardly sexualized as most of her body sans her face and arms is concealed by a baggy, crimson robe. Unlike the other more conservatively dressed woman in the game, Koharu, Dolly is never shot to entice or tease at the possibility of something ample and voluptuous being underneath her clothes. Erotic fantasies of that sort are all but quashed when one of her attacks during her first boss battle has you take on her first-person perspective. Said attack gives you a nice, long look at her slimy, chitin-plated arms which resemble those of Wires, making you realize that there’s probably nothing human about Dolly from the neck down.
While Wires are capable of modestly complex battle tactics and handling tools, their function is simple, to destroy, and failing that, to die. Kill or be killed is the mission statement behind their entire existence, and Wires damaging or even killing their fellow abominations in their attempts to murder you is not an uncommon sight. Theirs is a dance macabre, devoid of all passion and pretense as they are engulfed with a desire to remove whatever hapless foes who present themselves from the realm of the living. Even when they dodge, take cover or back away, it’s incredibly aggressive as they never retreat and only do those evasive actions to better outflank you. A Wire’s morbid existence comes full circle once it dies as ideally, for it, the resulting Dark Matter explosion will infect whatever killed it (provided the individual is close enough and is completely unprotected), turning whoever slew them into a Wire themselves over time. In particular, none of the Execution Targets seem particularly upset when Mondo manages to kill them and at worst, express disappointment with their unfortunate demises stopping them from continuing their insane rampages.
Individuals that retain a semblance of self after becoming Wires exhibit incredibly sociopathic tendencies including a tremendous lack of empathy and a bloated sense of self importance. The former quality is most evident in Mondo’s ‘conversation’ with billionaire musician, Victor. Unlike some of the more humanoid Wires that make up the assassination targets, Victor seems initially incapable of speech, much like the rest of the lesser Wires. Some quick thinking by Mondo allows him to decipher what Victor is saying by using a pair of Sonic Cloud Inc.’s headphones, but that’s where the understanding promptly ends. The talk starts off badly, with Mondo having come into the tail-end of Victor’s speech while the mad CEO has obliviously droned on for several seconds. Despite explaining their motives to one another, they seem to be having two completely different conversations. Victor appears to find nothing wrong with either stealing Jubilee’s ears/hearing/talent or wishing to deafen the world with his malefic melodies. Mondo retorts that his logic makes no sense and that what he did and is in the process of doing is wrong. Voices are raised, tensions increase, insults are made until Victor, who’s been speaking nihilist gibberish for most of this exchange, states the obvious, “Our opinions are very different on this, aren’t they?” At this point, Mondo agrees and suggests that they settle the matter with violence since debate has been shown to be useless in this situation.
Complimenting this warped perspective on the matters of ethics and propriety is the individual’s tendency to place him or herself in a noble light despite their committing of various atrocious acts. This manifests as a type of pronounced, faux-altruism in comparison to Mondo’s understated selfishness. Victor thinks that engulfing the world in cacophony of evil is an act of ‘good’ that will result in the world being purified; Hamada-Yama has decided to romanticize his necessary demise by framing it as a final duel between a Tiger & Dragon, fully embracing the Yakuza conceit of being equivalent to Samurai; ‘Tommy’, perhaps the most honest in his catastrophic ambitions, still sees his act of vengeance as justifiable and righteous; Alice goes so far as to create an identity separate from her actual one, that of Alisa, the ‘good’ sister that wishes to help her poor, mad, wayward sibling. In effect, they all attempt to be the protagonist of some admirable enterprise when they’re all just varying shades of insane, egotistical and psychotic.
David embodies the grotesque peculiarities in his fellow Wires to their fullest. The manner in which he does so is highly reminiscent of Sigmund Freud’s ‘death drive’ theory which is concerned with the individual’s propensity for death, self-destruction and the desire to return to an inorganic state. This may seem strange as David is dressed in a rather revealing outfit while Mondo looks like he’s on his way to a funeral and the fact that while David is a highly emotive fellow, Mondo can be said to be rather dour. There’s the possibility that this is all an act to put those around him at ease as sociopaths are wont to do, but it’s possible that it’s indicative of the man David used to be.
The genesis of Freud’s ‘death drive’ theory began when he noticed that patients who had experienced trauma tended to stubbornly hold on to or even emulate the memory of the violence inflicted upon them. Such masochistic obsession lay in stark contrast to the pleasure principle which would in theory, incline them against such reminiscing and reenactments. Memory is perhaps the greatest weapon in David’s arsenal and the basis for his claims to omnipotence. While Mondo knows next to nothing and remembers even less, David knows exactly what’s going on and remembers everything. One can attribute his comprehensive knowledge to his murky alliance with Dolly, the probable cause of everyone forgetting who David was before he took over the Moon. That said, David’s abilities as a Wire are probably the result of his being heavily exposed to Dark Matter during his stint as an Executioner. During his brief return to the office, he expresses visible distress at being there, stating that he’s “got a lot of bad memories” pertaining to that location. In spite of his discomfort with the circumstances that turned him into a Wire, David’s master plan is really just a reenactment of the tragedy that spawned him albeit on a planetary scale. He likens his grand scheme, and by extension his fall from grace, as a sun being thrown into a black hole and plans to do the same to the Earth by creating “an even stronger black hole”. David’s affiliation with death is made even more obvious by the fact that it hinges on getting Mondo strong enough to kill him. After all, as Tokio showed us at the start of the game, the so-called King of the Moon is rather hard to kill.
Another feature of the death drive theory is how it pertains to society. To wit, culture is a societal manifestation of the superego with which to control and have agency over man’s aggressive instincts. It is by no means a perfect or permanent solution, and the resulting uneasiness of such a fragile arrangement was believed by Freud to be the root of ‘the suffering of civilized man’. An even darker observation by Freud stipulated that societies become stronger once they take all that pent-up aggression and direct it to other groups. David’s corruption had turned him into an outcast, a Wire, a status that makes him liable for termination at the hands of other Executioners. However, with his newfound power he has managed to stage a mostly successful coup on the Dark Side of the Moon, toppling its government and putting himself in a position well outside the legal jurisdiction of his home country and the Earth in general. Despite this victory, David’s lethal impulses remain and with the Moon conquered, there really is only one immediate target present, home. The similarities he shares with his fellow Wires are brought up again by virtue of his ultimate plan to take over the world being eerily reminiscent to Victor’s, though unlike his fellow madman he doesn’t need to create much malice to get the job done. In fact, there’s a sizable amount of it stored on the Moon, amassed from the deaths of countless sinners and beasts. All David needs to do to tap into that veritable ocean of bedlam is the right man to uncork it.
Ultimately, David considers one of the lesser benefits of his actions to be completely altruistic. He simply wishes to give Mondo the Moon. David has no use for it once he has the Earth so it might as well go to one who’s actually enamored with the thing. Of course, being who he is, his method of doing so is still rife with mayhem as his polite inquiries to Moon River’s location is followed by the revelation that he needs to kill her to properly hand over the Moon to Mondo. When Mondo refuses, David instantly assumes that rather than his refusal being due to finding the arrangement immoral, his brother simply wants more out of their ‘deal’. Megalomaniacal and murderous as he might be, David’s ambitions are grand in scale and he simply can’t fathom Mondo’s smaller desires for beautiful women and soft-boiled eggs, finding them quaint and vaguely amusing.
As David’s plans are the cusp of coming to fruition, Mondo’s ordeals peak. Haunted, exhausted and furious, Mondo is desperate to take back control of his life. His mostly restored memories have made his world larger but have also made it that much more complicated. David has been a thorn in his side since he failed to kill him the first time around and has been the source of his recent woes. The ever self-indulgent Mondo has but one solution for removing his plight, the same one he applies to whatever he can’t understand or tolerate, to kill the object of his ire.
Despite learning how he and David are linked, Mondo aims to make this episode of fratricide as cold and impersonal as all the assassination missions he has done his best not to be emotionally invested in. He actually contracts himself to kill David, making it so that he is once again acting at the behest of a client who may as well be anonymous. His personal vendetta is thus contextualized as being part of his job, folded into a train of thought that makes sense. David laments Mondo’s impatience, which will play a key role in the finale, but sincerely smiles once Mondo concedes to not have their final battleground be the Bryan Execution Firm.
The final level of the game is a dark reprise of the fourth with stronger enemies, the set collapsing from being engorged with Dark Matter, and a very different chemistry between its two chief combatants. Early in their fight, Mondo claims to have remembered something; David asks what it is, hopeful that he and his brother are finally on the same page. Mondo simply says that he remembered that David “always talked to much”, prompting a furious David to begin assaulting him with his bare fists. This statement adds a new dimension to Mondo’s preferred method of Execution; decapitation would not only kill David, but sever his vocal chords in the process as well, shutting him up once and for all. Mondo makes the cut, but he’s only strong enough to bring David’s plan to its next stage. The ensuing explosion of Dark Matter destroys the all ready weakened mechanisms holding all of the Moon’s malice in check. David undergoes an abominable metamorphosis, incorporating his royal vestments into his deadly new body. Mondo undergoes a lesser and more understated transformation, still retaining his sense of self thanks to Musselback. Meanwhile, vast quantities of Dark Matter hurtle toward the Earth, poised to ‘purify’ the planet once they strike.
Mondo still refuses to question what’s happening. After all, questions are what got him into his current predicament in the first place. Instead, he persists in trying to kill and mock David. On his end, David has finally attained the divinity he has sought, but can’t help but teeter toward self-destruction as the battle goes on. It’s worth noting that David is seemingly impervious to harm requiring a large number of attacks until he is even remotely vulnerable. However, his attempts to trample Mondo with a deadly charge can be dodged, countered and exploited to harm him directly. As Mondo continues to damage his new form, David grows increasingly desperate, smacking Mondo to different floating pieces of debris, but the change of scenery barely inconveniences the assassin and David’s ascension is cut short as Mondo mortally wounds his radiant, angelic form.
In reply, David undergoes yet another transformation, regressing into his former incarnation as an Executioner. His immaculate suit, kempt hair and identical version of Mondo’s katana bring into question how much of Mondo’s current persona was of his own devising. The last phase of this fight is less flashy than the others, with David utilizing Mondo’s moves (or perhaps they were David’s at first?) against him. However, as the player can attest, Mondo’s moves are very, very effective. David is at his most aggressive and maniacal, there is no breathing room or significant pause in his assault. Similar to the lesser Wires he commanded and created; it’s kill or be killed with no quarter in between. Despite lacking energy beams, monstrous insects, waves of sound, gargantuan limbs, clones, or tattoo tigers, it is a particularly viable stratagem. Indeed, while Mondo looked outwardly pristine in the cutscenes following his defeating of most bosses, he is visibly damaged after he vanquishes David for the last time, sporting several lacerations on his flesh and clothing from the battle.
Impaled and at death’s door, David attempts to praise Mondo for his victory but Mondo is having none of it, opting to further insult his dying sibling. But David still has one last trick up his sleeve; He still understands what’s going on and mocks Mondo for his ignorance. Once more, perhaps for the last time, Mondo chooses not to inquire about the lore his world is built around, and beheads his hated foe. Torrents of dark matter are still surging to the Earth and as the dust clears the Moons in David’s eyes transfer to Mondo’s and with them, a grave epiphany. Mondo cuts Musselback, the device protecting him from Dark Matter infection, off of himself. Far from being silenced, David’s final message seems to have finally reached Mondo’s ears and he even posthumously welcomes him to the darkness.
There’s no implicit, stated reason as to why Mondo did what he did. Perhaps he realized what would happen if the waves of Dark Matter struck the Earth and decided to take it all into himself. Maybe the malice released from David’s body was just a little too much for him to handle. Or maybe the Moon itself pushed him to do it. One could also assume that the motive doesn’t really matter. In a story where a man butchers armies to fund an amorous encounter and lunatics prey on the innocent out of a deranged sense of charity, Killer Is Dead seems more concerned with the actions committed and the resulting consequences rather than motivations that can turn out petty and absurd in the grander scheme of things. Oddly fitting as its protagonist is the kind of man who seldom tries to explain himself.
Regardless, whatever Mondo did seems to have spared the world from being consumed by the Dark Matter it produced at the cost of rendering the Moon a permanent shade of blood-red. Moon River, the deposed ruler of the satellite, doesn’t appear too pleased with this development and neither is Mika, who silently sobs alone in Mondo’s now empty room. Moon River returns to the Bryan Execution Firm to enlist its services once again. This time, she has a new target for them to execute, Mondo Zappa. Mondo is then shown on the surface of the Moon, putting the mansion that served as David’s base of operations as well as the repository for Earth’s Dark matter back together with the aid of powerful darkness-tinged telekinesis that precludes the need to even lift a finger for it to work. It’s ambiguous as to whether he’s re-installing the machinery needed to contain the world’s evil or if he simply intends to continue where David left off. I would be remiss not to mention another of Freud’s principles, the pleasure principle’s original counterpart before the controversial death drive gained widespread confidence. I am of course, talking about the Reality Principle; the ability of the mind to recognize the realities of the external world, how to taper its want for pleasure according to those realities, and finding a compromise that achieves satisfaction within those constraints. If this is what Mondo is acting upon, it’s possible that he’s grown out of his selfish tendencies toward more reasonable and perhaps even good ones. Whatever the case, Mondo’s ambitions have unquestionably grown to larger ones that could be benevolent or malefic. The fact that Moon River’s charms alone would be insufficient incentives for relinquishing his ambiguous position as “Moon King” shows that he has grown beyond his desires for immediate carnal satisfaction. That’s a start in some direction at least.