Its title alone is provoking waves of outrage: "Super Columbine Massacre RPG."
It is a video game — a role-playing game, to be exact — and it is about the Columbine High School shooting. So why does a victim of the shooting think it's worth playing? And what did the person who made this game really have in mind when he was creating it?
"You read 'video game' and 'Columbine,' and you think it's got to be awful," said Richard Castaldo, a 24-year-old former Columbine student who was shot several times and left paralyzed from the waist down in the 1999 massacre. Indeed, the recent publicity for the 1-year-old free PC game has elicited widespread condemnation.
The New York Post called it a "twisted game" and cited the widow of a teacher killed that day who was too distraught at the news of the game to express anything more than sheer shock.
An editorial in the Denver Post concluded: "Mocking what happened that unusually gorgeous spring day shows a lack of humanity. The senseless and brutal killings of 13 innocents wasn't a game; it was reality. And we must never forget that, or those who died that day."
But Castaldo has a more measured response. "I was like, 'Yeah this is shocking, this is f---ing weird,' " he said. "[But] I guess I might as well play it to see what this thing actually is."
A serious console gamer who usually has little patience for PC games, Castaldo downloaded "SCMRPG" to his computer and tried playing through it. "You assume you go around just killing kids, but if you actually take the time and play it, you can see at least he was trying [to make] sort of a documentary in video game form," he said.
The game was created by Danny Ledonne, a 24-year-old from Alamosa, Colorado, who runs a film production company and considers a documentary about zoos to be one of his best short films. He says he had been thinking about Columbine for years and that his own difficult time in high school had once caused him to relate to the likes of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before the shooting itself shook him out of that mindset. "By seeing them do what they did and seeing the real consequences from [Columbine], I was able to process that no, in fact, that isn't something that I ought to do and I really need to find some other ways of dealing with my issues or this would happen to me."
The game depicts the events of April 20, 1999, starting players as Harris wakes up to an alarm clock and thought-balloon notions of the terrible plan he and Klebold will enact. Like an old early-'90s "Final Fantasy" game for Super Nintendo, Harris and the other people in the game are depicted as simple, cartoonish sprites. And like a "Final Fantasy"-style game, much of the gameplay involves walking around, exploring and reading dialogue.
In one spot, Harris can examine a Marilyn Manson record, cuing text that reads "You found a Marilyn Manson CD! The lyrics are sure to inspire impulsive aggression and rage." Turning on the stereo plays a version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Klebold joins and the scene shifts to the school. Players have to plant bombs in the cafeteria and watch a scene in which the shooters somberly discuss their despairs and frustrations. And then the players are expected to shoot students in the turn-based style of those "Final Fantasy" games. The graphics remain cartoonish. The dialogue is sarcastic, calling the two "brave boys." Eventually the player must trigger their suicides. That much of the game lasts about 20 minutes.
"I didn't think it was that horrible," Castaldo said. "[Ledonne was] kind of trying to shed some light on what happened." Castaldo had posted similar sentiments on the gaming blog Kotaku. His measured response didn't sit well with everyone. "One guy e-mailed me and called me an a--hole."
Castaldo wasn't sold on the entire game. "After you kill somebody it seems like it glorifies things," he said. He was bothered by a particular sentence — "Another victory for the trench-coat mafia" — that appears onscreen after a student is shot. "I thought that was over the line."
Ledonne started developing the game on his own in November 2004 with a program called "RPG Maker." He released it anonymously as a downloadable computer game in early 2005. "Most people would gravitate toward [making] a first-person shooter," he said. "But I feel doing that would actually play into the hands of my critics and would also fail to provide the kind of substance that I think a role-playing game has."
It took a year for the game to get noticed in a big way, which happened after the fallout of a May 16 article by Rocky Mountain News reporter Brian Crecente, who has led national coverage about the game. Even as the mid-May Electronics Entertainment Expo absorbed much media attention, "Super Columbine Massacre RPG" was fast becoming a sensation, making international headlines and scoring tens of thousands of downloads. Two weeks ago, Ledonne was outed as the game's creator, and some of the hurt and rage elicited by the very idea of a Columbine game started flowing his way. "People are very angry," he said. He's gotten threats and said he's notified the police.
Ledonne said he made the game to make people think and to challenge people to think about why Columbine happened. "I like situations where the audience doesn't quite know what to feel," he said. "This game certainly does, I feel, hit on moments that ask for your empathy, others that ask for your remorse or disgust, some that might make you laugh or smirk."
Asked if anything in the game upset him when he replayed it, he cited the shooters' experiences. "When I was building a scene and Eric was in a locker room and jocks walk up to him and start throwing him into a locker and beating him up, that hit a moment of real sensitivity. It was kind of sad and uncomfortable to watch."
Ledonne freely admits that his focus while making the game was Harris and Klebold — not the victims themselves. "You don't see the likenesses and you don't get any of the names of victims," he said. "I felt that was not only out of respect — because really, the shooting itself wasn't about killing these specific kids. It was really about angry malevolent destruction."
Some of the ideas Ledonne's game provokes are unsettling even to those willing to give "Super Columbine Massacre RPG" a chance. An atheist, Ledonne decided to send Harris and Klebold's characters to hell following their suicide. There they can essentially fight characters from the game "Doom."
"If anything, the game says, 'Yeah, if there is a hell, Eric and Dylan might be there, and if they're there, they might actually be having a lot of fun because they are re-enacting their favorite video game all the time." Farce ensues as the boys are led past an island of "lost souls" that includes video game characters and John Lennon, and then find themselves in a confrontation with the version of Satan depicted in "South Park."
Castaldo says he played well into the hell part but is now stuck and trying to reach the end of the game. He appreciates Ledonne's overall effort to explore the shooters' motivation, though he thinks some of the explanations ring hollow. "I think it could be kind of important to know what led up to it," he said. "It wasn't like them being bullied to some degree. That's a pretty lame excuse to say the least."
Ledonne works a part-time job for an after-school computer course with teenagers and said he's counseled troubled kids who have expressed an interest in the Columbine shooters. "It actually might shock people to know that I work with kids every day," he said. "But I feel like that's how I can attest to the fact that [this interest] is still going on. It isn't going away and it's going to continue to in some ways worsen until we can look at the real cultural issues behind these events."
For some, his game may inspire that. For others, it will prolong a heartache that is difficult to put to rest.