Much like No Country for Old Men, Mulholland Drive, and black coffee, No More Heroes completely flew over my head the first time I experienced it. Travis was a perv. His world was defined by senseless violence. And the game itself was decent at best. Why was everyone so enthralled by this? It took a few years - and this excellent breakdown by 0verhype - for Suda51's genius to finally click, but when it finally did it was a true oh-now-it-all-makes-sense sort of moment.
But even before I put the No More Heroes puzzle together, one scene always stuck out in my mind. It's the conversation Travis has with Dr. Peace right before they fight. Travis is competing in a sort of assassin's tournament, and Dr. Peace is his next opponent. At the time, I wasn't sure why, but after digging a little deeper and rewatching the scene about a dozen times, I think I have the answer. It's very genuine, which is a rarity in a game built around violence and parody.
We find Dr. Peace singing his heart out to an empty baseball stadium. The heartfelt performance is a side few likely ever seen, yet he choose to show it to Travis, his would-be killer. Travis, of course, responds with sarcastic applause and irony, referring to Peace as "old man." Undeterred, Peace strikes up a conversation about having dinner with his estranged daughter for the first time in 10 years - another personal detail - but his opponent can barely feign interest. However, the tone changes when Travis asks:
"And the food? Good?"
It's obvious Travis doesn't give two shits about whether or not this old man enjoyed his last meal. He wants to get this over with and start killing. As a killer himself, Peace picks up on this and takes the opportunity to steer the conversation in a new direction. His roundabout response starts with:
"Unfortunately, the atmosphere was a facade. Not once did my own daughter look me in the eye. Oh, the food? Tasted like blood..."
Travis lights up like a Christmas tree when he hears this; it's music to his ears. Now the old man is speaking his language and the two have something to bond over: murder.
"You're a junkie for blood, old man."
Dr. Peace admits to this, and why wouldn't he? He is a killer. Travis is a killer. It's in their blood and there's no denying it. Best to tear down the facade and embrace - in these final moments - who they truly are. Peace even hints at this with the line, "There's only one way to live." The two expose themselves as monsters, and find in the other a kindred spirit. Peace confirms this, stating:
"People like us... we're sharks attracted to blood. You smelled blood too, didn't you? Isn't that why you're here?"
Travis readily agrees. He's no longer hiding behind sarcastic quips or rhetorical question. Peace has stripped away his irony and exposed him as the murderer he is. Who they both are. With smiles on their faces, Travis and Peace both confirm how much they enjoy the act of killing, of "fighting your own kind" as Travis puts it. A mutual respect is formed between them, maybe even friendship.
And then a few minutes later Travis spills Peace's guts all over the pitcher's mound. Such is life for two assassins. As Peace expires, Travis' tells him "It's open mic night in Hell, old man. Sing all your want down there." While this may read like a sarcastic jab at Peace's love of karaoke, its delivery invokes sincerity on Travis' part. Dr. Peace's days as a killer are over; he can now move on. When Sylvia arrives to congratulate Travis on his win, the assassin sulks out of the stadium. His friend is dead.
Ultimately, Dr. Peace is able to form a more honest relationship with a fellow killer than he is his own family. What I think he was trying to tell Travis - and, by extension, the player - is that one day we're all going to end up six-feet under. Don't waste it hiding behind some facade or by viewing life with detached irony. Be honest with yourself. After all, "There's only one way to live."