Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.
Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.
Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five)
My favorite painter is Edvard Munch. You probably know him by his exaggeratedly famous piece, The Scream. It’s an extremely touching work, and probably one of the most important paintings of both the im- and the ex-pressionist art movements. Munch was, unfortunately, a deeply troubled man. He suffered from depression, anxiety, and probably some other undiagnosed mental illnesses. Apart from that, he lived a life close to death, growing up in a tuberculosis-ridden Norway. He could never truly escape her embrace, his whole body of work filled with dark and morose (although equally beautiful and poignant) paintings.
Nowadays, The Scream is no longer viewed with the same serious air as it once did. People find it cartoonish, in part because of excessive exposure.
It’s parodied everywhere, from The Simpsons to Junji Ito, and it doesn’t have the easier-to-digest qualities of something like the Mona Lisa (probably the first piece of art anyone thinks of when asked about famous paintings). It’s definitely possible for someone to look at The Scream and understand that it’s a horrible crystallization of someone who suffers deeply from his own existence — I thought it was really scary when I was a kid! — but it’s much more understandable if someone, at a glance, could only find it weird, even if they feel a bit unsettled by it.
I had the privilege of visiting Munch’s museum in Oslo and was ludically surprised to see that they only showed The Scream in 20-minute sessions, in a dark room. There were 3 versions of it (the museum itself has 8 versions — Munch liked to iterate on the same idea repeatedly), and they would show only one at any given time. The museum staff explained: it’s an old painting, and leaving it exposed to light for too long can be damaging. It then created a fun dynamic where every 20 minutes people can go to the darkened room to see a different version of The Scream, leave to see other works, then go back. Although it didn’t stop some from taking selfies humorously making the 😱 face in front of the painting, the rarity of the glimpses and the concept of overexposure being damaging surely created a respectful atmosphere.
The mere act of existing in a natural state could hurt it, and being able to understand how that same concept was probably the reason it was created in the first place allowed people to leave the present memetic nature of the image and find themselves in the past, maybe, understanding the despair it originally meant to convey.
Wanted: Dead has come unstuck in time.
It comes to the present, leaves us to the past, shows us glimpses of the future, all at a moment’s notice, with no kind of warning. It’s probably deliberate, of course (we’ll never know, and don’t trust anyone who says they know), but it’s jarring, contradictory, amazing, and has a lot of fun with it.
Developers Soleil created the game, in part, as an homage to the 6th generation of consoles (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox) and its plethora of strange action games. It clearly remembers Devil May Cry, but it also remembers, even more fondly, quasi-forgotten games like Samurai Western and the delightfully weird anime-remake-retelling-sequel to Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, Seven Samurai 20XX.
Wanted: Dead does not try to hide any of its inspirations, but their own limited cultural direct influences naturally keep them hidden.
The game is going to be compared to juggernauts like Bayonetta, Metal Gear Rising, Sekiro. These games, themselves, results of those stranger games of gone ages and are also very non-conventional in their own ways, although, because of repeated exposition, seen as perfectly normal (or, worst-case scenario, “meme-y”) video-game monoliths. Their game design is picked apart with careful devotion, showing the utmost deliberacy that their intricate systems have, how cool, demanding, and empowering they are. YouTube channels of professional musicians analyzing their soundtrack with shocked thumbnails and “IS THAT BACH?” in colorful letters. Its politics are re-contextualized depending on what is happening in the United States of America in any given year.
None of the characters in Wanted: Dead are even native English speakers. The voice actors are similarly taken from a variety of places, and are unknown (apart from Stefanie Joosten, who plays Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and is a war veteran gone cook gone cop in this game, singing numerous songs of the soundtrack). They all speak English, tongue-in-cheekily, as they stumble with intonation. Even the mute member of our squad uses the English version of sign language.
In that world, everyone speaks English. In the small slice of that world that we see in the game, no one has English as their mother tongue.
Language is a commodity — you only need to learn the one that everyone uses, the one that your boss asks you to, or the one that the nanomachines are made to translate.
Although the story takes place mostly in 2022, its cyberpunkness is a little beyond ours (just a little): meat is grown in labs, people have artificial limbs, there are some androids running around and trying to find meaning in their lives, and criminals are gathered up, brainwashed, and repurposed as police officers.
China is the world’s superpower and the place where the game’s events unfold, but there are almost no Chinese characters in the story. The map is not the territory, as they say.
The entire planet is now a boiling pot — but a very American boiling pot, seasoned with their language. Characters talk about Joaquin Phoenix’s movies (a lot of male nudity on them, they note) and play 16-bit Japanese shoot ‘em-ups during their resting time. The Karaoke opens up with 99 Luftballons (the original, German version).
Any language other than English is purely for entertainment.
Wanted: Dead’s anachronistic nature is so intertwined in all of its systems that it demands us to think about time.
It’s not just the It Follows-y way that the plot plays with different time periods mashed together, it also understands that mashing time together means mashing space together as well. The creative team and voice actors comprise people from all over the world. It evokes old games in its gameplay, checkpoint system, skill tree and enemy encounters as much as it shows some innovative technology in lighting and design. It’s both a non-stop, twitchy, hard-as-nails action game with parries, a soft “rally” system, and a rhythm game with ramen eating systems, karaoke, and claw machines. The main character uses a pistol, an assault rifle and a katana… which she finds as a museum piece in a “Japanese Garden” environment in a Chinese technology conglomerate, where employees use “zen philosophy” to improve their productivity.
Everything that is extremely topical is accompanied by something that doesn’t exist, either anymore or yet. It’s also, therefore, really hard to understand the point from a limited perspective in time (or space!). The game’s hardest challenge is how to approach it, where to draw lines, and how to determine an orientation for analysis. It’s wrong judging it by today’s standards because, although it just came out in 2023, it’s clearly a glimpse of time span that is not the present — however, it’s impossible to judge it by old standards as well because the way video-games are so deeply related to technology and hardware makes it impossible to exist anywhere but now. It’s similarly impossible to judge it by its future presence, because even though I’m sure it will be a beloved cult classic “weirdo-watchlist” (playlist?) hard-reaching piece in a couple of years, that will depend mostly on a cultural authority that is decided by algorithms and machine learning making the right YouTube video appear in your feed
Being conscious of that, the game brings up the anthropic principle in one of its many downtime cut-scenes. Stefanie Joosten’s character, the cop who doesn’t actually go out in the field, but also the only one who uses a standard police uniform, talks briefly about it, to the confusion of the other present characters (“we broke her”, one of them says). This, on a macro-level, is a philosophy that deals with the fact that for the universe to exist, something that understands it must exist, too. A kind of parasitic relationship between observing beings and observed principles. Cogito ergo mundus talis est.
The only way that the game can make sense is if someone outside of it can understand all of those different moving parts as a cohesive whole — a cohesive whole that only exists because its approach is to make it look not cohesive at all.
A couple of scenes later, our mute character glances briefly at our main character, and a full subbed sentence appears on the screen because she understood exactly what he wanted to say. She replies to him, and a bad guy asks, “How the hell are you two communicating?” To which she responds, with her lovely German accent, “Advanced telepathy.” It’s snarky, but it’s also not beyond the realm of possibilities the game has brought up so far. The actual answer is: it was subbed, the player understood it, and that’s enough. The anthropic principle is, consequently, proven.
That is also the only cutscene in the present timeline stylized as anime, a style the game has so far saved only for flashbacks that show a younger Hannah Stone (our main character), when she was struggling with both tuberculosis and addiction, and dealing with all the money problems that come when you’re sick in both body and mind.
Understanding The Scream in a deeper way depends on a lot of context that is not given just by the piece itself. It can evoke a myriad of emotions, but time can change that. It can become funny if, for some reason, an ad uses it with upbeat music, and it can become traumatic if it’s used in a heavy movie scene.
Learning about Munch’s personal life, his other pieces, his illnesses, and the artistic movements brewing up in the world can also change the way we look at it, creating a bubble around the piece, and protecting it from the time-insensitive ways that can rewrite history and art. It is a choice you need to make, of course.
Knowledge can make everything timeless.
Slaughterhouse-Five, one of the best books ever written, tells the story of a soldier, Billy Pilgrim, existing beyond history. Fighting in the Second World War, getting married, dying, being born, but never chronologically, because he never knows what part of his own life he will need to live at any given time. It’s a heavy tale about war and finitude, about death and lack of humanity, and it’s also light and fun and makes us think everything can be a little better if we want it to. In English, the book opens its second chapter with the quote at the start of this article, but I prefer the Brazilian Portuguese version: “Billy Pilgrim soltou-se no tempo”, which would be something closer to “Billy Pilgrim has freed himself in time.” Time, in this context, is a kind of prison — an anthropocentric concept that can also just tunnel our vision.
Wanted: Dead is not timeless. It’s here, now, and it depends on a lot of different “times” to exist. It depends on your time, because it’s hard and unfair, and its checkpoints are really far from each other. It depends on our time because its politics can be read as very topical, uncannily so, in amazing ways. It depends on the characters’ time because they can spend just as many hours between two checkpoints at the fourth level as they can spend trying to fish for a cat statue in the crane game. It depends on meta-textual time because the skills you slowly unlock are clearly meant to be used from the start of the game, but it doesn’t allow you to change difficulties in New Game +.
No, it’s not timeless — it’s beyond time. Wanted: Dead is post-time. Time is used to make itself bigger, better, and smarter. It also uses time to scale down and show that hey, this is not AAA, so don’t expect that much from us. It strips itself of time to have fun with its own references, and it makes time the most important thing ever because it talks about AI existentialism in the context of retaining memories (and not data). It’s not afraid to have “old-fashioned” or “gamey” level design, and it doesn’t let the ludical nature of mechanics impede the times it takes itself extremely seriously.
It’s short, hard, unfair, weird, apparently it crashes a lot, but it’s also the most interesting game I played since 2019’s Death Stranding (and for a lot of the same reasons, too).
For Wanted: Dead, time is a suggestion. A lens. Something that can make you give up on it (because you need to repeat a lot of checkpoints), and that can make you give it a chance ("it's short, so let's see what it's about").
At the same time, it hides nothing. It’s not ashamed of anything. It’s so sure of itself — to the point of having a whole YouTube series focused on a minor character’s cooking show, just because they could do it — that I can only trust it, and play, read, write, and like it on its own terms. I hope this is a game for you as well. It would love to be. Whenever you’re ready for it, it will also be ready for you.
That’s the good thing about not existing in time — you never grow old, and when you do, it’s just a matter of reloading a checkpoint. They’re so far apart from each other, anyway.
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