Kaizen Game Works’ Paradise Killer has a lot of genre flavor: neo-noir mixed with psychedelic sci-fi, deep-fried in a vaporwave aesthetic. All of the neoclassical statues next to neon energy fountains gives the world of Paradise Killer a distinctly dreamlike feel that hints at a deeper thematic point: Paradise Killer’s story isn’t just about investigating a heinous murder, but also Francis Fukuyama’s concept of The End of History. Through the game’s timelessly-outdated aesthetics and its impossible-to-destroy oppressive regime, Paradise Killer presents a grim look at a world that is beyond saving, where justice and freedom are only individual and anecdotal.
Before we dive into Paradise Killer and the architecture of its failed oasis, I want to briefly unpack The End of History. Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History and The Last Man” puts forth a crystallized thesis on how neoliberal capitalism may have solidified itself as the endpoint of world ideology following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a major blow to Communism on the global scale: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such … That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Liberal democracy, in Fukuyama’s thinking, is the final manifestation of human governance, and now that we’re stuck in it, there’s no getting out — the institutional mechanisms of enforcing the status quo far outstrip even the most revolutionary effort to overthrow it. While many have rejected Fukuyama’s claim, and Fukuyama has since admitted his theory was flawed in light of recent events, the American political machine and the European Union seem to have followed his projections.
Now we can turn to Paradise Killer, wherein a different kind of history is ending, or has already ended. Paradise, or rather, the 24th iteration of paradise as designed by a council of essentially demi-Gods, is about to be destroyed. The island where the game takes place is this soon-to-be-obsolete Paradise. On the eve of the 25th Paradise’s unveiling, the entire council that runs this experiment has been murdered, setting the stage for the player, as exiled investigator Lady Love Dies, to investigate what the game calls The Crime To End All Crimes.
The island is littered with less than heavenly architecture: Skulls (both human and goat), Ruins, Pyramids, Tombs of dead Gods — nearly everywhere you go in Paradise, the aesthetic of death is inescapable. In a way, this is logical — death, in a sense, has to precede entry into paradise. Paradise Killer’s vaporwave design palette also informs its themes and world.
‘Vaporwave,’ a music and art style which grew popular on the internet in the early 2010s, is often atmospheric and ambient, instilling a sense of dreamlike unreality or vague nostalgia. It incorporates the technology and pop culture of the 1980s and ‘90s, pulling its sounds from elevator music, smooth jazz, advertisements and other sounds from that era. Visually, Vaporwave is often awash in pastels and bright colors, juxtaposing artifacts like Greek or Roman sculpture with modern technology — a juxtaposition that is prevalent in Paradise Killer. Vaporwave pulls its name for Vaporware, the technical term for products that are announced but never actually materialized, and undermines or subverts this nostalgia. For many adults today, the ‘90s were a decade of youth, when they didn’t know how the world worked or what it really was. Pre-9/11, Pre-2008 Financial Crisis, Pre-Adulthood, the ‘90s felt, to a naive mind, like an era of boundless possibility. A new millennium approached — a new iteration of paradise was surely on the other side of that milestone, right?
Likewise, salvation is always juuuust on the next island in Paradise Killer. The class analysis of Paradise is fairly straightforward — like in the real world, elites have built their paradise out of the bones of the disenfranchised. The rich and the powerful operate with impunity and live in luxury, reaping the fruits of others’ labor. And when there are periods of extreme upheaval and bloodshed, that blood doesn’t come from elite veins, but from the bodies of said mortals, in order to create the next Paradise. To paraphrase William Gibson, people in Paradise Killer do live in a sort of Heaven— it’s just not evenly distributed.
There is also the fact Paradise is cyclical — always being destroyed by demons, or poor management, or often both. This cycle of failure and renewal is in line with Fukuyama’s notion of the supposedly-unkillable capitalist liberal democracy. No matter how many economic meltdowns, or forever wars, or demonic invasions, the system in place will protect those in power and ensure that their way of living continues on perpetuating itself. All the mausoleums to dead deities prove that people in Paradise Killer are not letting their past failures die and rest — they seek to repeat themselves. History repeating as both tragedy and farce at the same time.
Among all of its anachronistic visuals and spacey, elusive soundscapes, the sounds of Vaporwave can feel like music from another time, or another dimension — perhaps an alternative present, where the ‘90s never ended, or where technology and society and time progressed as our childhood selves hoped they would. In Paradise Killer, the game exists in what might be a similar kind of alternative present, a fantastical one, certainly but one that has, at some point, kicked off from our own history. All the goat skulls and glittering spires feel at the same time familiar and alien — a Windows screensaver made into a resting place for Gods.
Death, and the transitive act of dying, are part of how the game’s characters are on Paradise in the first place. Paradise Killer’s world is connected to our own — characters mention real world locations like Europe; Grand Marshal Akiko-14 is Romanian and swears in that language; Lydia Day Break, the taxi driver, is a former assassin from Kenya, and her husband Sam is from Turkey; Sam also happens to be a skeleton whose bones have turned red due to his profound love for his wife — another instance of death itself in a different permutation. All of these cultures and histories now only exist to serve Paradise, though. There is no Romanian, Turkish, or Kenyan architecture, or cultural representation, in the landscape. These characters’ aesthetic design differences have been reduced to just that — aesthetics, nothing more in the eyes of Paradise — a melting pot of an afterlife that has reduced all lived experience that isn’t approved by the powers-that-be into background noise.
However, these characters’ deaths and their means of arrival in Paradise is rarely from natural causes. Characters rarely just die, but instead are killed. The mortal citizens that dwell on Paradise are forcefully, violently taken from the world in order to populate it and give Paradise a workforce, and at the end of an island, they are all sacrificed to make the next one. Paradise is still violent, and cruel, and built on the backs of laboring individuals with no means of expressing their own wills — worked into the grave or sacrificed on the altar. In this frame, Death is a fail state. Despite the Council’s best efforts, and the best efforts of Paradise’s more zealous faithful, barely any of the Dead Gods they’ve sought to resurrect have come back — the only God that has been resurrected is, without getting into spoilers, barely helpful and hardly kind towards its worshippers.
This cycle of destruction and recreation is in the text itself — everyone in Paradise Killer is aware of the way their world is a boulder repeatedly rolled up a hill, awaiting the inevitable tumble back down. For example, Doctor Doom Jazz says that every time an island ends, he sinks his yacht so he can get a new one. The end of an island is so familiar to him and everyone else in Paradise that it no longer even registers as a failure so much as a routine, or even a holiday. Solving the mystery of who killed the Council does not stop the next island, nor does it change the balance of power in Paradise.
Paradise Killer’s cynicism regarding meaningful change is especially apparent in its protagonist, Lady Love Dies. The investigator, who’s been languishing in a lavish prison for three million days at the start of the game (consider how well the Council treats Lady Love Dies in contrast to mortal Henry Division, chained up on the edge of society). As a privileged elite, Lady Love Dies is given the authority to stop a killer, but not to stop the system that has curdled to the point of constant stagnation. The Council, as a neoliberal authority, is happy to empower its citizens so long as they pose no threat to the authority class itself. Lady Love Dies isn’t an arbiter of justice, like she so often claims, but rather an enforcer of order. The end of Paradise Killer is a restoration of a status quo — no different from neoliberals excited for Biden to become president so people can “go back to brunch.” Like any good noir, Paradise Killer knows your investigator is a small part in a bigger machine, and sadly there’s no way for Lady Love Dies to shoot down the architects of this corrupt world: they’ve already been killed, and will be replaced with a council pursuing the same goals.
The title Paradise Killer is actually very straightforward. This game isn’t just about the murders that happened on Paradise, but about the murder of Paradise as a concept. After witnessing the callousness of her world laid bare in all its jewel-tone apathy and casual slaughter, ”paradise” begins to feel like a dirty word. Was this supposed beacon of freedom and perfected living, after which no further history was supposedly needed, worth saving? Seeing what Lady Love Dies has seen, knowing what she now knows, how can she ever have any faith in the very philosophical concept of “paradise” ever again? How can we? Paradise Attempt #24 ended in failure, but not in revolutionary change. It’s a failure, but not a defeat, not anything the history books will remember, because of course we’ve already reached the End of History. You may solve a murder, but plenty of crimes still go without justice in Paradise.