It’s no surprise that JFK Reloaded offended so many, but maybe the modern world needs more like it in order to encourage learning and preserve common sense, argues Matt Gardner.
The time was right to finally complete this retrospective. I started writing about JFK Reloaded a few months ago but put it on the backburner, long before hearing the news that the previously-classified and highly controversial John F Kennedy assassination files would finally be released to the public. In a typical show of magnanimity, self-declared humblest man in the world and, coincidentally, impressively consistent liar and wanton narcissist, Donald Trump, somehow took credit for letting the data release happen, despite it being on the cards for 50 years.
Yet 13 years ago, a game was trying to prove that the much-known original findings from the Warren Commission were correct – and that even though I’m sure the latest info is still interesting, it’s not going to be revelatory.
That said, JFK Reloaded was barely a game. But when is a game not a game? It seems to be a question we ask ourselves a lot more regularly nowadays, especially with the ever-growing popularity of “art/experience” games like Gone Home, Proteus, Three Fourths Home and Dear Esther. All four, I think, are excellent – and they scratch an itch that standard genres of gaming often barely touch. Similarly, a lot of gamers hate these interactive stories for the same reason; they just don’t fulfil the urges that led them to pick up a controller in the first place. I understand that, too.
Way back in 2005, JFK Reloaded also never fully felt like a game. It might not have helped that it was marketed as a combination of interactive history and skilled competition, or that the average playthrough was around a minute. Still, I don’t think anyone would have described it as an “art” game. As an experiential game, though, it became one of the most loathed, notorious creations of a generation, even courting the disgust of JFK’s brother, Ted Kennedy. Then again, if some game developer made a game about a possible Soviet sympathiser braining one of my loved ones in front of thousands of people, I imagine I’d take umbrage, too.
Developer and publisher
While it sounds like a Serious Sam mod where a resurrected US president is the protagonist, JFK Reloaded was frighteningly simple: you were thrown into a pseudo-historic, meticulously researched and surprisingly well-presented account of John F Kennedy’s assassination on Dealey Plaza as per the lone gunman theory, with the chance to live it again and again and again.
Oh, and you were Lee Harvey Oswald.
When I was 18, at a time of need, I discovered the game completely by chance. With few morals and a big student loan, how could I resist its sub-$6 price tag, especially when the pound-to-dollar ratio was nearly two to one?
Back then, I was coming to the end of my first year at university. My class had been divided into random teams to explore the accuracy of a semi-fictionalised historical film of our choice. Thing was, I didn’t know anything about this. Instructions were sent via the university’s intranet-based email system – something outdated, even at the time.
In my absence, my team chose Oliver Stone’s JFK. Seven weeks later, after getting a phone call from the university’s comically flustered departmental receptionist, I realised I had a lot of catching up to do, and that I was apparently an arsehole for causing issues for a group that never contacted me through normal channels, or even followed up their first email.
And shit the bed, the presentation was in six days. I was given the “simple” task of disproving the film’s take on the single bullet theory, which I would soon learn was questionably debunked by Stone for the sake of making his film exciting. Through his dramatic account, he implied there was more than one shooter on November 22nd, 1963 – Grassy Knoll, and all that bollocks. Obviously, I didn’t know anything about this at the time because I’d not seen JFK, nor had I any idea what the single bullet theory was.
I needed information, and fast. I wasn’t a particularly quick reader, and I didn’t want to spend nights in the university library four miles away. I needed the internet, even though it was… well, a bit shit.
Denial of service
It was April 2005. The internet was still, in many ways, in its infancy. What would be a semi-effortless task today was less so back then, because:
- Wikipedia had just 438,000 barely-regulated and poorly-cited articles at the start of that year; at the time of writing this, it’s 5,499,408.
- Google only barely had half of the search engine market share, proving that as people were still using Yahoo! and MSN Search, it clearly wasn’t that good.
- YouTube literally just opened; it uploaded its first-ever video one day before I bought JFK Reloaded. No, really, I’m not even kidding:
Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist in the UK, either. I was either going to have to get on the bus and go to the library – and I really, really hated the library – or rely on algorithmically average search engines to unearth a specialist website or two. What would pop up in an Ask Jeeves search? Maybe AltaVista was the gateway I needed? I just needed to start somewhere.
Within minutes, I uncovered many, many communities dedicated to conspiracy theories. This was hardly surprising; 13 years ago, these ideas were still relatively limited to the 9/11 attacks in the collective public consciousness. Yet that huge terror attack, probably unsurprisingly, combined with the anonymous nature of the internet to exponentially escalate revisionist history. Your everymen were suddenly self-declared experts in the burning temperature of jet fuel, or fancied themselves as air crash investigators, or were overnight building regulation moguls.
But even with all of their pseudo-scientific bluster, they were still furthering completely outlandish views with scant evidence. I shit you not, here are three things I still remember seeing across those pages while looking for how JFK definitely factually died:
- Lyndon B Johnson was behind the assassination, because he was banging Jackie O and wanted JFK out of the picture;
- It was the Russians, because “of course it was the Russians”. Nothing like that would ever happen now (SATIRE KLAXON); and
- It was faked, and the whole top-of-JFK’s-head-exploding thing was just advanced special effects.
The last one was too interesting to ignore, and I got seriously excited at the idea of seeing some evidence. I headed to Google, mistyped “JFK Exploded”, and low and behold…
“Did you mean: JFK Reloaded?”
And there it was: the game was the top result. Traffic Games decided the climate was right to put conspiracies to bed and help people make more reasonable judgements in the most direct way possible: by making them kill JFK themselves.
How could I pass on this opportunity to combine my love of gaming with the laziest way to get through my freshman group presentation my irrepressible desire to learn – especially as it meant I’d avoid a load of nutters along the way?
The aim of the game
Within minutes of buying the game, there I was, on the Texas Book Depository’s sixth floor, with a high-powered rifle and over 30 bullets. Almost immediately, the president’s motorcade appeared from around a corner. What do I do?
Well, with your actions as Oswald, you had to match the findings of the Warren Commission. To be totally accurate, you only had three bullets to play with, and they had to be fired in this order:
- The first shot missed, but hit the car;
- The second hit JFK through the back and out of his throat, going onto hit Governor Connally sat in front of him; and
- The third went straight into the back of JFK’s head.
Imbued with confidence that I’d “do the right thing” (so to speak), I shot the president as soon as the car finished turning the first corner – about 20 seconds too early – then, realising my error and wanting to make the most of it, unloaded two or three more into the car for good measure. Then I just started picking away at the motorcade. This was my interpretation of history, after all, and in this personal take on events, anyone unfortunate enough to get inside the crosshairs was obliterated. In 2005, I was clearly more Charles Whitman than Lee Harvey Oswald.
Then, as the screen faded to black, the experience was over. I’d learned nothing. I felt a bit empty. Then, just to rub salt into the wound, the game threw it in my face. I got a score card, marked out of a whopping 1,000, telling me how accurate the events of the day were when compared to real life. I managed minus points, only getting muted applause for killing JFK and injuring the Governor, but plenty of subtractions for the later transpirations.
Here’s a playthrough of someone who got a bit closer, to give you an idea of just how simple the JFK Reloaded experience was:
Whoever got closest to the 1,000-point “accurate” playthrough won a cash prize. The eventual victor earned just over $10,000 with a score of just 782, but when you consider the physics engine simply wasn’t up to scratch, it’s probably no surprise they didn’t get closer.
Comedy from tragedy
As I started actually reading real books on the JFK thing, supported and directed by relatively scant entries in Wikipedia, I found myself starting to understand the issues at stake – the entry holes of bullets, the supposed lack of straight line between the exit wound of JFK and the entry wound from the same bullet on Governor Connally – and it all started to come together. The most notable thing – that JFK was sat on an elevated bench seat behind Connally – was something I noticed from the game itself, and went on to disprove one of Stone’s points incredibly quickly.
Put simply, JFK Reloaded taught me about positioning, trajectories, timings, everything. I felt like a true part of the crime, but still as some kind of bystander. Despite, you know, killing him a good few dozens of times (and thousands of other digital well-wishers).
I got all the notes I needed from the game within around four hours. I even got screenshots – yes, I was going to present my very own assassination on JFK to my lecturer in order to prove the single-bullet theory was indeed correct – then settled down for the night.
But before that, I had a quick look in the settings for extra information that might help my studies. There was nothing, but I did happen upon this option…
JFK Reloaded had a fun button. Now, it was already pretty wacky; you only had to shoot a bus driver, or a motorcycle cop, to have vehicles crashing into one another and general madness. Something else that was darkly funny, from a development perspective at the very least, was only happened upon after a successful headshot on JFK. It resulted in a largely accurate skull-flap gore effect – the weird, disgusting humour coming from the fact it was the only optional extra the developers made to character bodies. They had a Skull Physics Engineer.
Now, the physics weren’t all that great already, but with Chaotic mode engaged, scenes from this video were commonplace. Here, you realised that yeah, Ted Kennedy might’ve had a point about the more trivial aspects of Brother Murder Simulator.
Piecing together the findings
After nearly missing the deadline because I kept trying to get the funniest replays in full-blown madness mode, the game spearheaded me into an assault on Stone’s JFK. In what seemed like minutes, I’d managed to break down all the key facts of the case into a few slides, and disassemble Kevin Costner’s speech line by line.
Then, the presentation came and went. Shortly after the project drew to a close, I realised that JFK’s assassination was, at the time, one of only a few things I’d really thrown myself into learning everything about. JFK Reloaded helped stoke the fires of passion to research one of the most controversial and mind-bending historical happenings of all time, and this continued long after my piece to lecturers was over.
Yet the opportunity to share my thoughts and discuss the situation didn’t happen again until around three years later, on a football forum. The moderator piped up with a relatively slapdash YouTube video that agreed with all that Stone had put forward in his film, with a couple of extra curveballs thrown in for good measure. I carefully picked points from my findings – JFK’s seat position; the flattened bullets; JFK’s jacket being bunched; but it was to no avail.
He just replied: “Well, you’re still wrong, as the video disproves you.” A few people nodded alongside him. But it didn’t. It didn’t go into anything about trajectories, and actually said the seats were the same height. But they weren’t. It was as if reading 200 words of (incredibly well-researched and factually unwavering) counterpoints couldn’t rival some early-30s bloke in a basement narrating the Zapruder film for five minutes; university education meant nothing to him.
It was the first instance I’d really come across online where someone was so staunch in their beliefs that they couldn’t back down, discuss, and simply admit they were wrong – or didn’t have the facts to hand.
Now, of course, that’s just the way things are.
The post-truth age
Despite the JFK papers being the most recent focus for conspiracy theorists, the likes of InfoWars – run by the Sandy Hook-denying, professional quack-drug peddling “performance artist” Alex Jones – have really pushed alternative viewpoints on history as par for the course. From contrails and Flat Earth to even the recent Vegas shootings, people seem to go out of their way to prescribe a different, often inhumane take on things.
Bolstered by a US president who calls real things fake and fake things real (and is proud of it, to the point of seemingly claiming to coin the word “fake”), this new group of people is growing rapidly – people who don’t like to be challenged by simple logic, but instead would much rather live in a bubble of anger and hatred, supported by other people who are keen to do more harm than good to their children, their country, or even the entire planet.
Yet more often than not, it’s these same people who are often so outraged by video games being “violent” and “disgusting”, or believe they have nothing but a “debasing” effect on our society. These are usually the same people who rallied against JFK Reloaded (though I’ll accept Ted Kennedy’s anger), or the airport massacre in the “No Russian” mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (ironically, about a false flag operation).
Sure, elements of MW2’s outing were perfect marketing fodder, and obviously horrifying, as you were forced to slaughter innocents standing in queues at an airport – yet it served a purpose for the narrative of the game. Simply hearing about a terrorist rampage from Price and Soap wouldn’t give you the true pit-of-despair, gut-wrenching feeling you needed to understand the fallout of these actions – and it effectively sparked events for another game and a half, and the entire series was better for it.
Similarly, violent games such as Call of Duty: World at War, The Last of Us and BioShock – once you simply peer past the gore – are capable of teaching us history, emotional understanding, and incredibly complex yet satisfying narratives that movies, mini-series and even books simply can’t replicate.
The issue was much the same for JFK Reloaded. In 2005, I thought books were boring, historically grounded films were a slog, and lectures were a means to an end. But put me into the spot where JFK died, let me interact with the environment (even if that was via a rifle), and learn the events of the day for myself? That’s just the ticket.
A more truthful future
If anything, JFK Reloaded proves that we ought to make games about more historical events of importance or controversy, docile or violent. Whether that’s being a member of the crowd for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech or a member of the crowd during the ill-fated white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, there’s plenty to be learned. Even just using the abundance of footage and witness accounts can be enough, as JFK Reloaded proved. Only then can you really understand what went on.
Even if it just shuts up one publicity-seeking, second-guessing nobody who felt the need to make up their own story about the events of a particular day in question, it would be great – however much controversy the gaming re-enactment in question stirs.
What better way to present the facts than to put people directly in the situation? With the incredible storytelling and graphics now available to even those developing games in their bedrooms, isn’t the best way to teach those who forego emotion and humanity by putting them in the situation they deny or reimagine?
Whatever your view, you’ll get a better idea of where you stand by playing JFK Reloaded. If you want to kill a US president, you still can – just head over to FilePlanet or one of the many other abandonware resources and grab it for yourself. It’s not bad, for free.
I got a 70 for the presentation, by the way.
- The chance to cause uncomfortably hilarious carnage by shooting drivers, motorcyclists, anyone really
- An attention to detail that extended to being able to blow JFK’s crown open
- Actual, genuine attempts to show how the whole assassination went off, as per Warren Commission findings
- Poor AI often makes the experience an absolute shit-show in all the best ways
- You’re still killing a president, and a nice one at that
- You literally only point and click – there’s no other movement
- Chaos mode engages within seconds of firing the first shot, turning a “serious” game into a calamitous rampage of freaked-out NPCs
- Had all of four audio tracks, and none of them were particularly inspiring
As with countless “art” and “experience” games that have hit the market in the last few years, JFK Reloaded didn’t need great graphics or a mind-blowing narrative to work. You became one of the most infamous men in the world, and you relived reviled actions again and again. Games pushing the envelope in this manner are far from disgusting – they may be necessary to keep us in check.