Tales From The Game Shelf: No More Heroes

When the Nintendo section started discussing the idea of talking about our favorite game stories, I immediately started brainstorming exactly which game I wanted to tackle. I’ve played a lot of games and for the longest time, plot was always a prime consideration into why I enjoyed them.

However, I’ve opted to tackle a game not exactly known for its plot but this game has personality in spades, and plays with your expectations at nearly every point. It’s these elements that make Goichi Suda’s No More Heroes a game worth talking about, and a great example of off-the-wall writing for a video game. Obviously, there are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t played this wonderful game yet, no better time than now.

When it hit North America in 2008, I snatched up a copy because I already had a soft spot for Goichi Suda, who I will now refer to by his common nickname Suda 51, stemming from Killer7, a game I considered for this article. However, Killer7 is just too hard to grasp. I’ve beaten the game several different times, and the story just defies all logic.

That’s not to say No More Heroes is some ideal walk in the park. Suda 51 is a flawed game designer, someone who tends to overlook certain flaws to better emphasize the parts of his games he considers to be important. As far as story is concerned, No More Heroes doesn’t have a rich plot, but it knows how to set itself up.

Travis Touchdown's motel room, which says as much about him as anything could.

Travis Touchdown’s motel room, which says as much about him as anything could.

The hero of No More Heroes, as you might expect, isn’t much of a hero. Travis Touchdown is a weird, almost average guy, living in a motel in the fictional city of Santa Destroy. He exemplifies an “otaku” lifestyle. For the player, we might feel like we can identify with him and his love for video games. A love which empties his wallet to the point where he decides to become an assassin and participate in increasingly violent battles. For those battles, Travis is handsomely rewarded, but he’s always drawn back into another fight, spending his hard earned murdering money on entry fees to the next fight.

In the strange, over the top violent world of No More Heroes, assassination is a rigid profession governed by the United Assassins Association, who assign rankings and set up fights between them. Travis gets entered into this by Sylvia Christel, a sultry blonde with a French accent and biting wit.

Travis catches onto the money sucking nature of the UAA, so he quickly decides to change the stakes. Should he become the #1 assassin, his reward is Sylvia. For whatever reason, Sylvia decides to egg Travis on, flirting with him over the course of the entire game – promising to have sex with him.

This relationship is incredibly strange, but it fills in a good portion of the plot – it gives Travis a reason to keep going, and it provides one of the late plot twists that keep the game’s finale a mystery as you approach it. Turns out, Sylvia and the UAA are a gigantic con, designed to swindle, and Travis is just a dimwitted target.

It’s proof at this point that No More Heroes is up to more than we first thought. The entire premise of the game is a fantasy – the extension of a common train of thought many people get when they play a video game – they imagine themselves in the hero’s position. No More Heroes shows the ridiculous side of that dream: Travis isn’t the kind of guy we want to be, and he ends up manipulated by the slight promise of a sexual relationship with Sylvia.

During all of this, Travis sees his humanity stretched to its limit as he battles other assassins, consistently forced into upping his brutality just to scrape out another win against increasingly powerful and sadistic killers. While this theme becomes more apparent in Desperate Struggle, the 2010 sequel to No More Heroes, it’s not hard to see how several of the battles affect Travis. As the player, we’re led to question – where is all of this going, and why?

In this world, you never stop fighting. This is life.

In this world, you never stop fighting. This is life.

About halfway through the game, we’re given a slight hint towards that question. Ready to battle Letz Shake, the fifth ranked assassin in the UAA, Travis is interrupted by a mystery man who slaughters Letz Shake with ease, robbing Travis of a fight. The man, who introduces himself as Henry, becomes an integral part of the plot, as hatred sparks between Travis and Henry right away. Of course, Suda 51 doesn’t bring the hate to a climax yet – rather, Henry disappears for the majority of the game. We’ve been promised a fight, that’s for sure, but we’re not too sure when we’re going to get it.

After battling his way into the #2 spot of the UAA, Travis is poised for the final battle. It’s around this time that he learns of Sylvia’s deception via her mother, who insists Travis be a real man and finish what he started.

Oh, if only that’s what we’re doing. Here’s what I love about No More Heroes. The game insists on denying your expectations, and the last chapter of the game basically beats any expectations to death and tells you to deal with it. You’re given so little information about Dark Star, the #1 ranked assassin, that there’s nothing the game can possibly subvert.

After a trek through the aptly named Forest of Bewilderment, Travis stands before the final hurdle before his prize. Except that his prize is gone, and there’s no real point to doing this. After all this build up, and all the crazed killers before him, Dark Star is clearly going to give Travis the fight of his life.

Much like No More Heroes, I’m building to an impossible climax. Cue the record scratching sound effect because this is when things get crazy. Dark Star begins to lecture Travis and pulls out one of the oldest cliches in the book – revealing himself as Travis’s father. Of course, we’ve all seen Star Wars, and Dark Star fits the Darth Vader role – Suda keeps this joke short as the previously unseen Jeane appears, kills Dark Star, and derides Travis for even thinking his words could be true.

Jeane’s appearance and the ensuing madness is where No More Heroes had me absolutely floored. Like Travis, I had no idea what was going on, and I felt like everything I’d been working towards had just disappeared in a puff of smoke. However, now that I think about it what was I working for? What exactly did it mean for Dark Star to not be the final boss – was it disappointing, or unexpected?

Unseen up until now, Jeane is a driving factor in the story arc of No More Heroes.

Unseen up until now, Jeane is a driving factor in the story arc of No More Heroes.

I’m really unsure how to answer that question, even a whole eight years later. The appearance of Jeane doesn’t rob us of any satisfaction, as who was Dark Star to us? Nobody. Jeane, as the game quickly details in one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen in a game, is Travis’s former lover and half-sister and also the murderer of Travis’s parents. I can’t possibly explain the whole speech, and in game, it’s delivered in fast forward just to further play with our minds. Here’s the whole thing, slowed down to make Jeane’s dialogue clear.

All of a sudden, the plot of No More Heroes has morphed into a story about revenge and redemption. Without ever knowing he was moving towards this moment, Travis comes face to face with the reason for all his trauma, a trauma we didn’t know about, but one definitely responsible for shaping his life up to this point. In a world where violence seems to be the norm and we’re expected to shrug it off, the deaths of Travis’s parents is one of the few moments where violence is serious, not just strange and over the top.

Travis defeats Jeane because he has to – this isn’t about being #1 anymore, this is about revenge. Revenge is something we consider more important than the original motive of sex, although how many of us will live through an epic tale of revenge in our lifetimes? Getting laid is a much more reasonable goal, but as a video game plot, it sounds ridiculous, so Suda does a last second turn onto a new road. This isn’t really a twist, because we never knew where we were truly going – we just had an idea of how we were getting there.

It’s not over with Jeane, as the game’s true ending tries to wrap up one loose end. Remember when I mentioned Henry earlier in the article? Well, he shows up to save Travis from a would be attacker (remember, Travis is now the #1 assassin under the UAA, even if the organization’s legitimacy is questionable – he’s a hot target) and then challenges him to a duel in the motel’s parking lot.

I’ve always enjoyed the choice of setting the game’s final battle in a very neutral, unimpressive location – but let’s look at it a bit. The motel, aptly named the NO MORE HEROES Motel, is the apex of this weird and crazy universe. It’s the single point where the hero is most comfortable, because the rest of this world is insane, and even when he starts to revel in the violence, Travis doesn’t leave it unaffected.

Henry, as the game suggests early on as being most like Travis (they both wield beam katanas, although Henry’s is styled like a European sword), provides the toughest and longest battle in the game, but eventually you’ll pull through. Here we are: it’s the end of No More Heroes. Time to wrap everything up, right?

You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Just when No More Heroes builds to another climax, the plot is brought back to collapse and leave the player in the rubble, and the final scene with Henry delivers rapid fire bombshells and closes the whole game out on a simultaneous low and high note, leaving us with an experience we won’t forget.

I’ll sum up what happens as best I can: Travis and Henry take their fight to the streets of Santa Destroy, Henry reveals that not only is he Travis’s twin brother, but that Sylvia is Henry’s wife of ten years. Travis (and the player) don’t know what to do with this information, it comes so late that it barely changes anything – it leaves us on the floor, wondering what it all possibly means. Travis doesn’t even know how to proceed, and now the fourth wall is the target of the game.

Travis asks how they’re going to wrap this all up, to which Henry scoffs at him – he’s not the protagonist, why should he care? And really, why should we, as the player, care about a wrap up? As the game finally careens off to its final destination, I knew right away that it didn’t matter where it ended up. You’ve probably heard the trite phrase about how it’s the journey that matters, not the destination?

No More Heroes is that journey, as it’s truly one of the few games that really surprised me at every step of the way – it’s not the deepest game or the most intelligent, but it does what it does in a way I truly love. No More Heroes is about a sort of anti-climax, those moments where nothing can possibly happen to satisfy its build – and then something happens, and it satisfies you anyway because really, what were you expecting in the first place?

Let us here at the Leviathyn know your favourite game story in the comments below, because let’s face it, we’re curious. We want to know what you’re thinking, and if you need an incentive, how about a chance for a free game code for Double Fine’s The Cave on PS3? Comment, and you can be entered to win that very prize. We’ll be announcing a winner next week, so get your entry in.