Shank is a simple revenge story. The player controls a guy named Shank who, well, shanks and shoots and chops lots and lots of enemies. It is mass carnage as only video games can do–there is basically no consequence for player death, and the enemies die quietly and without a fuss. A world of obstacles dressed as military, guards, and prostitutes to be eliminated–welcome to video games.
But I’m not performing a longform critique of Shank. Instead, I want to hone in on some elements of the first third of the game. As per usual for revenge narratives, Shank moves through each declared enemy one-by-one, eliminating them and then quickly moving onto the next flashback-clarified target.
The first target is a luchador named The Butcher. Initially it is assumed that he is merely named that; his profession, after all, is a wrestler, not as a cutter of meat. But as I made my way though the second level of the game, I came upon this:
Of course, hanging meat on a train isn’t that weird. It isn’t the strangest thing I have ever seen in a game, certainly, but it wasn’t great. I avoid that kind of thing. Whatever, I finished the level.
Then I met The Butcher.
And I will be damned if he isn’t an actual butcher. I started wondering: what kind of person becomes a butcher? Obviously, the game is using some shorthand here. By showing us that The Butcher is, in fact, a butcher we learn that he’s an evil person. His handling of the life-become-meat is a signal to how he would handle us, the player, if he got his hands on us. A bloody apron is a warning to players–here there be a huge asshole who doesn’t mind murdering animals.
Why does the shorthand work, though? It certainly plays on a double consciousness on the part of the audience and the developers–we know, instinctively, that a person who kills, skins, and reduces an animal to mere meat is a bad dude. But this isn’t a plea for veganism, nor is it a message of nonviolence toward other beings. Lets not forget that the player has had to kill hundreds of humans and a few dogs to get here.
The image of The Butcher forces us to doublethink about meat: on one hand, the act of killing animals is bad; on the other, the meat that the player consumes can’t be this meat. The imagery forces a disconnection between personal eating practices and the system that is being demo’d on the screen.
Side note: did you know that Saint Sir Thomas More, in his Utopia, forced criminals into slavery after too many offenses. Did you know that those slaves had to provide the animal slaughter services for the island of Utopia? Food for thought.
The solidification of the player’s two minds about animal slaughter comes after the battle against The Butcher. Shank takes the chains that hold the animal bodies and chokes The Butcher to death with them–his throat is severed by the tension of the chains. He hangs from them as he bleeds. Shank exits stage right.
The butcher is turned into meat, into a mere object that fulfills a function. Or has that already happened the moment we disavow the system of meat production in the form of scapegoating the figure of the butcher? After all, the sticker does the work; you have nothing to do with it.