GTAIV as a Serious Game

•October 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I know this is very late and untimely, and I haven’t written or posted anything on here for several months, but I feel I have to share a few quick thoughts about Grand Theft Auto IV. My roommate with the X-Box 360 has returned from vacation and I’m stealing time to play it whenever I can. As much fun as the game is, I can’t help thinking that it’s a failure.

If the pre- and concurrent release hype was to believed, GTAIV was the videogame equivalent of The Godfather. Obviously I’m not the first blogger to point out that this isn’t the case. GTAIV isn’t an “art” game for the same reason Max Payne isn’t art cinema—it panders to audience and genre expectations. No matter how many human touches Rockstar imbued GTAIV with—Niko’s stooped frame, his perpetually droopy-eyed and exhausted face, some surprisingly affecting voice acting—the game is still enslaved by its mechanics. I can imagine the conversation between Rockstar and their target audience:

Rockstar: We’re going to make a game that makes the player question their own violence and think about the ethics behind their avatar’s action.

Audience: Cool! I still get to murder prostitutes and blow shit up with a rocket launcher, right?

Rockstar: Yes.

Audience: Awesome, broseph. Throw me another Bud Light!

The range of ethical perspectives on display in GTAIV is necessarily limited because the game forces you to perform criminal acts. Now, if the developers had given the player a choice in how they choose to pursue Niko’s American Dream, that would be a bit more interesting. Allow me to play game designer.

The fighting-crashing-shooting-exploding gameplay mechanics could remain basically unchanged, instead of winning by progressing more or less linearly through a series of missions, the player could win by accumulating enough money to make a life for himself, or maybe by keeping up a modest but livable level of income for a number of months. Money could be earned either from working for thugs, assassinations, running drugs, etc., or through driving a cab, working at a newspaper stand, or selling hotdogs. This would lend the player’s decision to turn to crime some weight—it’s not required, it’s a choice. Now I know this completely misses the point of the GTA experience, but it would be interesting, and it would lend the game some stronger “serious” cred. Also it would probably be incredibly boring (most game-players, however well intentioned, would probably want to turn to crime after five hours of preparing and selling hotdogs). Just random thoughts—I might post more on this game after I finish it.


A Grown-Up Story?

•August 3, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I picked up the remake of Final Fantasy IV for the DS and I’ve been enjoying it. It’s a nice repackaged bit of childhood nostalgia, and I think it’s a great way to introduce people to the roots of a great series—FFIV was when Final Fantasy really came into its own. Curious to hear what the press thought of the game, I read a few reviews, and stumbled onto RPGFan’s (IMHO) overly harsh review that contained this somewhat bewildering passage:

FFIV uses a polished in-game engine for cutscenes, which is not bad but underwhelming. The resolution and detail are average for DS. Stylistically I found myself even less impressed. The characters looked cleaner and more mature back on the SNES. The blocky, disproportioned, childlike models do not suit the game’s mature story.

Mature story? Uh, isn’t this the same game where one of the characters throws himself off an airship with a giant bomb strapped to his chest to sacrifice himself for the good of the party? Isn’t this the same game where characters previously thought dead return with lame excuses (“You thought I blew up, but I was okay!”) until the threat of death itself becomes laughable? You spoony bard? Final Fantasy IV is about as mature a story as your typical kid’s movie. It’s a cartoon, drawn in very broad strokes, and yet this game is still held up as a shining example of RPG narrative. Some reviews even credit it with being the greatest story ever told in an RPG. Why? Is it the nostalgia factor? Is it the fact that it’s the first videogame that attempted a story of this magnitude? Sure it’s good, it’s entertaining, it’s fun, but it’s not well written, well plotted, or even groundbreaking.

In my opinion, FFIV DS actually improves on the story quite a bit. The script is a vast improvement over any previous translation, and extra scenes have been added that attempt to explain some of the more nonsensical moments. I even like the voice acting—sure it’s cheesy, but the whole game lays the melodrama on pretty thick, so it fits. The 3D cut-scenes are often quite well done, RPGFan’s review be damned. Early on, in the classic scene where Rosa visits Cecil in his tower, the camera pans into the room to reveal him sitting on the bed, one leg crooked and one dangling. He’s staring out the window at the two moons in the sky. This is not a moment that the SNES was technically capable of achieving, and I don’t think it’s really one that the developers would have thought to include. The original version feels like the story is flying by the seat of its pants most of the time, like the writers are just looking for the next cool villain to introduce or character to kill off (only to revive them later, psych!). The DS version attempts to take the game’s messy, illogical, ridiculous story and invest it with some real emotion. Taking the time to explore Cecil’s moral predicament really brings out his feelings of confusion and invests his doomed attempt at redemption (the delivery of the ring) in an interesting light.

Despite the improvements, it’s still pretty pulpy. When RPG fans hold up this story as the greatest every RPG story, the rest of the world says “Really? That’s the best the genre can do?” In a genre where both narrative and gameplay conventions have gone stagnant, maybe it’s time to forget the glory days of the past and start work on something brand new.

Revisiting the Classics

•June 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This month The Escapist has an excellent article, “Excellence Never Goes out of Date” by Rob Zacny, in which he argues that the medium of videogames is suffering because of its inability to access and appreciate its past. I really recommend you read the article, as its interesting and well-informed, and throws out what I think is a very good idea to get gamers to buy back into the classics. Indulge me while I block quote the last paragraph or so:

There are many reasons to doubt that more than a handful of diehard fans would pay to play a 13-year-old game in its original state. To share classic games with people who have never seen or played them before, the games would benefit from a little more graphical polish and, more importantly, supplementary content aimed at the passionate gamer.

Most serious gamers would probably appreciate a “collector’s edition” approaches to re-releases and remakes. Limited edition releases of Blizzard titles include books of design notes and concept art. And with The Orange Box Valve has proved that in-game commentary tracks are not only possible, but also enjoyable and informative. The importance of these extras is not that most people use them, but that they give the few who become creators, critics and enthusiasts the opportunity to explore the medium on a deeper level. We’re the ones who will shape gaming’s future – it’s only fair that we’re granted access to the lessons and achievements of its past.

Good call, Zacny! This is important because, as Steve Gaynor said in his interview with Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer (which Zacny has also beat me to the punch in quoting), “It does the medium injustice if you put all this work and time, instead of attempting to express something unique and personal to yourself through interactivity, you’re expressing the experience of playing another video game that you like, or was profitable.”

The gamers I know are adults with work to do, kids to take care of, social engagements to keep. They are also very intelligent gamers, steeped in the canon, always on the lookout for games that are original, intelligent, or forward-thinking. We just don’t have time to play another game that only apes other games. Maybe this is why the gamers I know who treat games as a medium worthy of critical thought tend to gravitate to more original visions, like Okami, Shadow of the Colossus, or No More Heroes, all games that draw more inspiration from art, mythology, literature, and pop culture than from recent videogames. In this way I think these games closely resemble classic games. Think of Miyamoto claiming that The Legend of Zelda was inspired by the expansive feeling of wonder he got from exploring the fields, woods and caves near the city of Kyoto when he was a boy, or the detailed sci-fi world imagined by the creators of Spacewar!. Zacny’s got more good points in his article than I do on this blog post, so go and give him a read.

The Birth of SNL

•June 29, 2008 • 1 Comment

To honor George Carlin, NBC just rebroadcast the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, which, with the exception of musical guest Billy Preston’s timeless “Nothing from Nothing,” has not aged very well. Carlin, reigned in by the newly loosened but relatively tight (for today at least) television censorship, flails around in painful one-offs that still manage to elicit giggles and claps. Have people’s tastes in humor changed this much over the last thirty years? I listened to Carlin’s infamous “seven words” stand-up a few days ago and it was hilarious, but his several monologues on SNL were cringe-inducing, as were most of the sketches. Andy Kaufman was cringe-inducing in a good way, using a slot on the fledgling SNL to practice some weird and experimental comedy.

But even though the show sucked, it was still exciting to watch, probably because it allows you to witness the birth of an American comedic institution. Sure Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd bumble their way through too-little-rehearsed sketches, sure the weekend update needs work, sure there’s a mystifying segment with the Muppets and many of the jokes don’t make a lot of sense, but it’s SNL for God’s sakes. It went on to change the face of popular comedy, and that kept me watching.

Also, sorry for the lack of updates. Summer means work and studying for grad school tests, so I’m pretty busy. Want to remember Carlin at his best? Stay away from SNL and watch this instead.

Flame wars and hypocrisy: More on Resident Evil 5

•June 8, 2008 • 4 Comments

I know I’m pretty late in coming to this conversation, but I was just reading more about N’Gai Croal’s comments on the Resident Evil 5 trailer, and some responses to it, and I feel like I have to put my oar in. MTV Multiplayer has a great interview with Croal on race in games that focuses particularly on the RE5 trailer. I think he concisely sums up my objections with the trailer when he says “This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can’t pretend otherwise.” Obviously—anyone who’s read some critical race theory or any intelligent writing on portrayals of race in popular culture can attest to this. Croal should be commended on calling a videogame developer on its careless and damaging BS.

And then there are some responses to the commentary like Timothy W. Young’s article “The Color of a Game; A Commentary on Resident Evil [sic]” for My Wii News. I feel compelled to respond. I want to preface this by saying that I’m a big Resident Evil fan too, and have been since the inception of the series. I loved RE4 and I think it’s great that Capcom is keeping a similar gameplay vibe in RE5. I’ll even say that I’m looking forward to playing Resident Evil 5, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve used racially-charged imagery responsibly. I want to look at these three quotes from Young’s article in order because I think that they represent three (problematic) arguments I read repeated in the endless comments and talkbacks on these posts.

So let’s start off with this quote from Young’s article:

“Capcom (a Japanese company) isn’t making a game for white Americans to play so that they can expel the fears that they have towards “the black man” by mowing down mindless legions of them. I say mindless, but if they are anything like the Spaniards in RE4, they will be anything but mindless. Just thinking about it makes me conjure up feelings of how I longed for rows of dumb zombies in previous games of the series. Sorry, for the digression. I’ll get back to my point now – you can’t honestly believe that Capcom’s goal was to produce racist propaganda.”

I agree: no, you can’t. Many gamers who respond negatively to the criticism of RE5’s trailer seem to think that the critics are implying that Capcom is a racist company who has deliberately created a racist product for some nefarious agenda. I’m sure Capcom’s intentions were golden but these gamers don’t seem to consider the idea that intentionally or unintentionally, Capcom is propagating racist imagery—here I’ll point you back to the MTV Multiplayer interview with N’Gai Croal, who talks about how the Africans in the trailer are “othered.” Intentions aren’t the issue. Young presents a slightly more reasonable argument when he backs off the “You idiots are saying that Capcom is deliberately racist” line in the next paragraph:

“Ok, then it was Capcom who, instead of being out-right racist, was instead insensitive. How dare Capcom show African villagers in an African village. Hell, take the image of Chris Redfield walking through the village, replace him with *insert famous white celebrity here* and you have a common occurrence on television.”

As Croal points out in his interview, it’s not an issue of putting a white man in an African village. It’s not really even an issue of having a white man killing black people. It’s an issue of how these Africans are presented: wild-eyed, violent, lurking in the shadows. As for his argument that we often see white male celebrities in a similar setting, he’s half right. Yes, we’ve seen Brad Pitt strolling through an African village, but we haven’t seen Brad Pitt haunted by othered black specters, giving and receiving violence to black stereotypes.

Another choice quote from the Young article:

“The moment we, as gamers, start attacking games, is when Jack Thompson and the other pinheads start winning. Just pick up the controller and play the game.”

Yeah everybody, “just pick up the controller and play the game.” Don’t think, don’t question, don’t try to be reasonable or foster intelligent discourse, just “play the game.” This binary thinking—you’re either a gamer who’s with us, or you’re an anti-gamer with Jack Thompson—is damaging: it doesn’t allow for multiple perspectives, it squashes critical thought and insults and chides the voices of those who attempt to present a thoughtful perspective. Here’s a similar quote:

“Of course, now I must ask myself the question as to whether or not I am a racist because I enjoyed the trailer. I also enjoyed Black Hawk Down and Schindler’s List. Maybe I am a racist after all. Or maybe, just maybe, I can take a form of media entertainment for exactly what it is: entertainment.”

This is an obvious variation on the “it’s just a game” argument, and this is harmful. For starters, Young’s assertion that entertainment can’t be racist because it’s just entertainment doesn’t make much sense. “Hey, it’s just a movie,” you could imagine some early-twentieth-century equivalent of Young saying in defense of The Birth of a Nation. Entertainment has power precisely because it’s entertainment—we’re told not to question it, that it’s an escape, that reading too much into it is overanalyzing. Well wake up and smell the racism: if the RE5 trailer is (I assume unintentionally) echoing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a work of fiction that epitomized an era of imagery that degraded and dehumanized Africans, should we ignore it because it’s mere entertainment?

Which brings me to my second problem with the “it’s just a game” argument. What I find interesting about the “it’s just a game” argument is that it’s used by the same people who want videogames to be considered an art form like cinema or music, but when somebody tries to complicate their understanding of the issues surrounding the medium they immediately try to downplay the negative effects by claiming that “it’s just a game.” They want it both ways. Hell, I’m guilty of this too; here I am writing this borderline-rant about an insensitive videogame trailer and the discourse surrounding it, yet any time my girlfriend questions my love for violent games like GTA or Half-Life 2, I respond with “Hey, lighten up, it’s just a game. I’m just blowing off steam.” The it’s just a game argument is one of the issues that’s derailing intelligent videogame criticism. How can people treat videogames like intelligent art worthy of analysis if videogamers only do some of the time?

So what do you all think? The Resident Evil 5 trailer has really stirred up some interesting stuff in the discourse around videogames and videogame criticism. Agree? Disagree? Check out N’Gai Croal’s interview and Young’s article, then tell me what you think.

I wanna hold your hand: Dino Run

•June 5, 2008 • 1 Comment

Pixeljam’s Dino Run, in all its pixelated, low-rent glory, offers something I’m finding less and less in big mainstream titles: compelling gameplay. It’s simple: you control a dinosaur running for his (her?) life from a life-obliterating wall of death caused by a meteor impact. You collect eggs to try to save your species, eat smaller dinos, upgrade your stats, but mostly you just run. The wall of death is so terrifying—when you lag behind the music is replaced by a bass rumble, everything goes dark, the earth shakes, and trees and rocks rain down from the oncoming shockwave—that it’s all the motivation a player needs to run.

This also gives an interesting twist to the usual relationships found with NPCs in a sidescrolling game. Instead of being enemies who try to impede the player’s progress, they’re other dinosaurs and creatures running for their lives—you’re all on the same sinking boat. As I played through Dino Run, I actually felt a little sorry for the other animals. The animation helps here: the stegosaurus running as fast as it can on its tiny legs, the triceratops bucking its head in fear, and the snake crawling fast for its hole in the ground all add to the atmosphere of panic. When a flaming chunk of rock fell out of the sky and sent a stegosaurus tumbling down the mountain to its death, I actually felt kind of sad; he was my comrade in a race for safety.

Of course, the game also rewards you for eating smaller creatures, so my empathy was tempered with a survivalist drive to come out on top, and the larger dinosaurs can get in your way and crush the precious eggs under their feet, but the refiguring of sidescrolling NPCs from standard bad guys to be jumped on, evaded or mowed down to other panicked survivors running for the hills gives Dino Run an interesting charisma.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for links to all entries.

A new Resident Evil 5 trailer, a new controversy

•May 31, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Post-colonial theorists go nuts! Capcom has dug themselves into an even deeper hole with the new Resident Evil 5 trailer. Now we have the white-cop-killing-African-villagers imagery along with some good old-fashioned verbal devaluing of a people and their culture. Allow me to quote Chris Redfield, who solemnly builds a bridge back to nineteenth century race relations:

I knew it from the moment I arrived. There’s no reason here, no humanity. Everywhere I look I find vacant stares. All I see is death.

Hey, that sounds familiar. Ever read Heart of Darkness? Well unless Capcom is remaking Heart of Darkness with zombies (which would be awesome!), I can’t help but take this as pretty offensive. That said, the trailer isn’t the game—sure the trailer might be in poor taste, but maybe the actual game will treat the subject with a little more intelligence. We’ll at least have more of a context to understand Chris Redfield’s comments. What do others think?