SILENT HILL 2. RESIDENT EVIL 4. FINAL FANTASY VII. Video games are still in their infancy as an art form, but we are already starting to declare that certain experiences are canonical. These are the games that represented the artistic height of the medium, that rattled our senses and showed us what the art is capable of.
But like many popular art forms, video games are also a popularity contest. That is to say, the games that reach the most players, that make the most money and/or produce the most sequels are the games that tend to cement their place in history. And while many (and maybe even most) of these successful games deserve their placement in the canon, it behooves those of us who love this medium to stick up for the less financially successful titles that nevertheless represent a significant artistic achievement.
To that end I put it to you that BRüTAL LEGEND belongs in the history books, not as a technical milestone but as a distinctive, impressive accomplishment.
Those who remember BRüTAL LEGEND may remember that the game, developed Tim Schafer (GRIM FANDANGO, PSYCHONAUTS) and Double Fine, was reasonably well-reviewed upon its release. And it didn’t exactly “tank,” but plans for a sequel were almost immediately dropped after the game performed well under EA’s expectations. Fans of the game didn’t exactly rally around the downloadable and multiplayer content either, so BRüTAL LEGEND soon disappeared from the public consciousness. A memory, either pleasant or disappointing, to be filed away along with so many others.
To be fair, those who found themselves disappointed by BRüTAL LEGEND had their reasons. Gamers were told to expect a third-person action game and were instead given an experience that gradually evolves into the real-time strategy (RTS) genre over the course of the story; an unusual marriage of story development and gameplay mechanics may have been ahead of its time. (Or maybe not, since it’s a concept that still hasn’t taken hold: games are still usually one genre from beginning to end, for better or worse.)
But let’s back up a bit, because there is a decent chance that you haven’t played BRüTAL LEGEND, isn’t there?
BRüTAL LEGEND is the story of Eddie Riggs, voiced by (and partially modeled after) comedian Jack Black. Unlike many video game protagonists, who represent either a fantastical heroic ideal (or a mild-mannered individual on a steady path to that ideal), Eddie is a roadie. His entire job is to make other people look good. We meet up with Eddie on tour with the god awful nü metal band “Kabbage Boy,” yearning for the days when the music meant something.
Take a look at the game’s opening animation (which takes place after a live-action prologue starring Jack Black as himself, which already defied all expectations before the first cut scene):
Eddie is dragged into a fantasy world inspired by heavy metal album covers, where characters voiced by Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister and Lita Ford (who play, essentially, Robert E. Howard interpretations of themselves) are waging war against a gothic, sexually amorphous villain voiced by Tim Curry (THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW).
The game wears all of its heavy metal influences on its sleeve/jacket cover, from kill moves that literally melt someone’s face off to a soundtrack that features 107 metal songs from 75 different bands. A small sampling of those bands: Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Judas Priest, KMFDM, Anvil, Anthrax, Dokken, Ministry… yeah, BRüTAL LEGEND is legit.
As the game progresses, Eddie uses his newfound metal superpowers to raise an army against the evil Doviculus (Curry, who replaced Ronnie James Dio during the game’s production), and his glam metal henchman General Lionwhyte (voiced by Judas Priest’s lead singer, Rob Halford).
The novelty is that at the beginning of the game, Eddie roams the open world fighting demons by his lonesome. BRüTAL LEGEND begins as a straight-up third-person action game. But after Riggs teams up with heroes like The Kill Master (Lemmy Kilmister) and Fire Baron (Halford again), the action expands exponentially, so that Eddie not only fights but commands an army from the front lines. An individual story expands into an epic narrative, not just in concept but in execution, and the impact is impressive and overwhelming.
Too overwhelming, perhaps. Again, one of the biggest criticisms lobbed at BRüTAL LEGEND was that the shift in gameplay was jarring and, if nothing else, lacking in tutorials. That last part is fair, but those who were paying close attention to the way the game mechanics were introduced soon found themselves in living out a heavy metal BRAVEHEART with demons and roadsters laying waste to mighty hordes. Once the controls were understood, the chaos became an indelible part of BRüTAL LEGEND’s unique storytelling experience.
But yes, a few more tutorials couldn’t have hurt. It’s even fair to say that BRüTAL LEGEND has several noteworthy flaws. The lack of a jump function sometimes makes movement awkward, for example. And the open world is very sparsely populated, with very little to discover and very few missions that reward extensive exploration, leaving the parts of the game that aren’t intrinsically linked to the story feeling padded (or worse, a little pointless).
It would be nice to say that BRüTAL LEGEND’s story was perfect too, but it comes unusually close. The colorful characters are all memorable (whether or not you get the many heavy metal in-jokes, or recognize the cast) and are given great life by Tim Schafer, who was responsible for most of the dialogue. What’s more, those characters develop in non-linear ways, not just becoming better over time but sometimes making terrible choices. As Eddie’s story progresses he falls in love with a woman named Ophelia (voiced by Jennifer Hale), but when it appears that a traitor is in his midst he hastily blames her, sending Ophelia on a dark path set to the mournful tune of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mr. Crowley.”
Watch this scene unfold and consider that BRüTAL LEGEND has taken control away from the player not just to further the plot, but to wallow in the emotionally plight of a human being. Listen as the overture of “Mr. Crowley” leads her directly to, essentially, her suicide. Watch in horror as she instantly knows what it means to regret. And watch how succumbing to a pervasively dark worldview changes a person.
BRüTAL LEGEND knows when to slow down for emotional effect, but it doesn’t necessarily know the best time to pick up that pace. The climactic showdown with Doviculus is forced upon the player with relatively little dramatic build up, making the confrontation more academic than cathartic. We learn more about the villain’s backstory and Eddie’s own tragic family history, but it plays like a whole storytelling act of BRüTAL LEGEND was chopped from the game at the very last minute, forcing it to basically skip to the end instead of unfold naturally. It still “works,” it just doesn’t work as well as the rest of the nuanced storyline.
Perhaps BRüTAL LEGEND doesn’t deserve to be in the canon of all-time “classic” games, but what it definitely deserves is a cult. To put it in movie terms, it’s no PSYCHO but damn if it isn’t at least a MONSTER SQUAD. Tim Schafer and Double Fine took a colorful concept and wrapped it around a character who, by his very nature as a roadie, shouldn’t have been the protagonist of a video game. And they took that character and expanded his on ability to unite other people, to make them better, to organize an effort and achieve his personal ambitions via innovative gameplay mechanics, thrilling imagery and badass music.
BRüTAL LEGEND has earned its heavy metal umlaut. It has earned a place in the video game canon. It has earned a lot more respect than it currently receives. Throw up your horns in respect, damn it, and play the game if you haven’t already.