Arrest of a stone Budha lies.
It’s not immediately apparent nor is the revelation striking in nature but the lie or, rather, the absence of telling permeates each frame. Flair is the primary mode of conveyance here ; the charm of retro games meets the stylishness of a John Woo flick. Hitman is searching for an answer in 70s France. Take the dread of Slavic game-design and watch it morph into high-concept Japanese anime. You’re fast and lucky enough so you don’t plan your actions too far. You kill with one shot and you never miss. It’s the kind of nihilistic manifesto videogames have become so good at over the years, where killing turns into an operation of existantial purge. What’s the point of moving forward when death is so clearly in sight ? We’ve all seen this story – this swan song – a million times. This virtual entrapment. This game, played repeteadly in front of us, by us. In a sense, even before us. You know from minute one, nested in this “fausse” Notre-Dame with a gun to the priest’s temple, how it all ends. Killer is Dead.
But let us rewind nonetheless. What is Arrest of a stone Budha about ? Like I said, it’s explicity about the back of the box : An assassin and a city and a question. There’s no point in really teasing it any further ; it’s the story of a man searching for meaning in-between the killings that punctuate his life. Though perhaps we can see it in reverse ; actually, let’s look at it this way. It’s the story of a man actively searching for meaning within the killings themselves. Cheers to the hitmen, we’ve solved ludonarrative dissonance yet again. So every time a job is done he sits on a bench with his friend, his contractor – his lover ? -, the lines are blurred anyway. And then comes a question. “When’s the next assignment ?” It’s a one-way conversation between the world and his shadow. “Lanky got killed.” No response – none that matters anyway. He mutters another few words as Erik Satie‘s Gnossienne plays in the background. If it wasn’t evident enough beforehand, I’ll reiterate for good measure ; Arrest of a stone Budha is not just moody, it’s bleak.
“Just find something okay ?“
Now you roam the streets from dusk till dawn. Light a cigarette on your way to the movies. Or scratch that, turn around and booze yourself into altering the very soundscape of the game in some Parisian cafe. It’s the other side of the experience : Call it daily-reality simulator. Shenmue impersonator. A performative exercice in living stuck inside a death loop. From the graveyard to the bar and back again, the only certainty is our forward movement in time. Somedays it’s a storm, somedays a mere wandering. Until you reach the date that’s been circled in red above your bed. This 7th of November 1976. The day you chose to die.
The body count of Budha is thankfully ridiculous. Every gunfight acts as the missing link in a series of finales that keep on stacking upon one another. At times it’s exhausting, an impossible march where enemies keep pouring out of each side of the screen until we either make an escape or join the growing pile ourselves. But one does not rush to the finishing line here – the death drive must be consumed and soaked-in through accumulation. There’s no denying the scene is absurd – but contemplate it long enough and it forces a certain kind of empathy upon you. The relentlessness with which Budha forces you to slog through murderous armies demands a pause, a constant inhabitance in this body of labour – it’s one kill to a thousand, all located at the source of your character. Breathe in, then dance. This is By Yeo at his best : Beauty by blunt force ; a trauma that outlasts the bang of the iron. If Arrest of a stone Budha was to be shrunk down to its most basic elements, it would be a matter of binaries. Left or Right. Whisky or murder. Which direction spares us a bullet and which one keeps the killer going for another day ? Bullseye or bust. An affair of life and death in the plural – or rather of exquisite repetition, of withstanding this dying in service of something. I noted earlier that the gunfights of Arrest of a stone Budha were a unique gesture of pedestrian violence ; looking back on it, I think a better term would be “limping”. Failure is inevitable, the game makes sure of that (the further you move through a shooting gallery, the more accurate the goons around you become and sometimes a cruel trick is pulled on you ; just as you’re about to walk out of the frame, you meet your fate at the end of a barrel summoned by off-screen depths). Weapons are made irrelevant by their empty magazines, so the only way to procure yourself another is to wrestle one away from your agressors. This in turn requires a closer approach, leaving you vulnerable to the pace of the game’s incessant happening. There is always something, both wonderfully intricate and brutally evident, going on in those exchanges of bullets – dodged shots followed by a collective charge, a scope adjusting its aim with your skull. Out of fire and out of time. The key here is to embrace how perpetual the collapse is in hindsight. You get good at it eventually – it’s still just a videogame after all. But the feeling never really goes away. Miss the coup de théâtre and another swiftly comes your way. Now your move friendo ; you have to, keep walking. Shooting. Doing. Something’s got to give, so even when it means nothing a choice must be made. Hell or high water.
Every assassination attempt begins with Budha at a standstill. Tinted windows for a stray car. A restaurant table whose dishes are getting cold. The killer and the target. Hold [R] to aim your weapon ; press [X] to shoot – and then the music starts.
“I’ve got to get the hell out of here.“
In Arrest of a stone Budha, every assassination attempt culminates in a single frame of grotesque still life. The pure and quiet spectacle of sidescrolling generation. Stop, start ; and suddenly, a wave of videogame. It’s something along the lines of :
A parking lot, overflowing.
Mobsters by the dozen, all converging
On this single point in time
And space, where you lie.
A forest shootout leaving
“I have a train to take.“
To nowhere, in particular.
To a room with a view,
To a rooftop, another
Man is sitting at a bus stop with
Ten corpses down.
In the streets of Arrest of a stone Budha, I always stroll with my hands in my pockets. It’s not really about the style, it’s a performance. I am comfortably away from the simulacra but I wish to engage, to blend-in. At night, the edges of my screen become vectors of paranoïa ; silhouettes in trench coat walk past me quickly and I come to fear their passage. They’re just bots – pallid imitations of behaviour – but my violent strides have produced this strange overlapping motion where I am, simultaneously, above and beneath. My rampage invades every spaces of the city – I do not wish to shoot yet I’m afraid of the non-players still. They share my proximity for a fleeting second before disappearing again, never interacting, never harming my player-character in any way. By now it must be glaringly obvious that I do not see them ; what does it take to press the trigger ? Nothing more – and nothing less – than a corridor to dwell in the levels where I can properly identify and recognize better.
This is a story of the meaningless decisions that animate everyday life.
This is a tale about choosing to be someone else, even if it’s just for the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.
A lie on a respirator.
A fantasy fed one day at a time, until the date is reached. Until it’s impossible to go on anymore.
7th of November.
You’re alone in your room. I am alone in mine. You hold the first button to aim.
Then I press [X] to shoot.
Or maybe not. Maybe both decisions are taken at the same time.
Maybe in the end we keep on dancing.
In this life or the next.