Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Aug 21, 2009
Despite their apparent interest in the online space, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are shooting themselves in the foot.

I recently renewed my Xbox Live gold account, and I was reminded of the first time that I signed up for it just over a year ago. A friend came to visit and brought Battlefield: Bad Company, and convinced me to sign up for a gold account right then and there. It was easy but only because I already had a silver account and wireless adapter. Getting to that initial point required more effort and money than it was worth. In that short span of a year, online connectivity has become a major selling point for games and consoles. Nearly every new triple-A game has some form of online play, either competitive or cooperative, and even some multiplayer-only games have jumped from the PC to the consoles. The consoles themselves embrace the online world with a mix of downloadable games and community features. Yet, for all of this hype and support, there are many unnecessary hurdles a customer has to face before getting connected. Hurdles that can easily scare someone away, and that have consistently gone untended. Despite their apparent interest in the online space, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are shooting themselves in the foot.


Microsoft, arguably, has the most invested in its online offerings. There are many aspects of Live that make it an actual community and not just a mish-mash of anonymous people playing the same game. The party system and standard headset encourage communication among players, and the avatars give people a unique visual identity in addition to their chosen gamertag. Members can watch movies from Netflix, with more from Facebook, Twitter, and Last.fm coming in the fall. The “Summer of Arcade,” a five week period which highlights certain Xbox Live Arcade games, has become a yearly promotion, and 1 vs. 100 has emerged as a popular community game that appeals to gamers of every ilk. Yet entering this online world is costly. The hard drive, a necessity when it comes to downloadable games and content games, is prohibitively expensive, as is Microsoft’s official wireless adapter. Even then you only get a silver account, to get a gold account and actually play online with others you have to pay a yearly fee. There’s a workaround for people who don’t want to pay for the adapter, but with all the focus placed on Live and its features, people shouldn’t have to want a workaround.


Sony has invested just as much, if not more, with a couple ambitious projects. There’s Home, Sony’s attempt at social networking through games, and in what is perhaps the biggest thrust towards online gaming, the PSP Go will only play downloaded games. It’s easier to get online with the PlaySation 3 since the console comes with a hard drive and wi-fi built in, and the PlayStation Network has a good selection of games, movies, and re-releases of original PlayStation games. Sony even has its version of the “Summer of Arcade” titled “Spring Fever.” While Sony is risking a lot with its online features, support for these features is rare (with the exception of the PSP Go since it’s not out yet). Many gamers have forgotten about Home since there are never any major promotions or events to encourage people to visit. Original PlayStations games are rarely released, so Sony has failed to capitalize on gamer nostalgia in that regard. There’s no standard headset, making many multiplayer games oddly quiet. And the 20GB model (which, it should be noted, has since been discontinued) has no built-in wi-fi, so anyone unfortunate enough to buy that model has to figure out for themselves how to get online. Not an insurmountable problem, but one that shouldn’t exist considering how much Sony has invested online.


Nintendo is seen as having the least to offer online, and this holds true when compared to Microsoft and Sony. The biggest draw of the other consoles is their competitive multiplayer, something lacking on the Wii since most of Nintendo’s focus has gone into the Wii’s online stores: There’s WiiWare for small games made exclusively for the console, the Virtual Console for re-releases of older games, and DSiWare for games or applications made for the portable. The Wii also has built-in wi-fi, so getting connected is incredibly easy. There’s no standard headset, but since there are very few games that even offer online multiplayer, this isn’t as big of a problem as it is for the PlayStation 3. Yet even though Nintendo has a much narrower focus towards its online features, it still has its fair share of unreasonable issues. The Wii doesn’t store credit card or billing info, so you have to input that information every time you want to buy something, a repetitive task nearly unheard of in this age of online shopping. There are no demos, a fact made worse when you take into account the number of sub-par games released to the service. Friend Codes are a twelve digit code that identify you console, but they’re different for every game that uses Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection, so if you play multiple games online you have to keep a record of multiple Friend Codes. In addition, Nintendo doesn’t promote its online service at all. Microsoft has its “Summer of Arcade,” Sony has its Spring Fever,” but no downloadable game for WiiWare receives any promotion by Nintendo. It’s as if the service doesn’t exist.


As more focus is put into online features, it should be made easier to get online and access those features. But while each company has a lot to offer, they seem unwilling to support those offerings beyond simple marketing, and Nintendo doesn’t even that. I’m sure there are many people who have a 360 that uses the blades system. They’re the kind of people who only use their console one in a while, and have no desire to pay for all the peripherals needed to connect online, or compete with others not on the couch next to them. Convincing these people to get online will be difficult, if not impossible, if these hurdles remain.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009
Sometimes a game should focus on simply being what it is.

So, I’d heard some good things about Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood.  As a fan of the Western genre, I felt some desire to check it out, so I spent a few days with the game.  And, indeed, it is a pretty good game.  It is extremely pretty, handles some good standard Western themes (greed, revenge, struggles over domesticity and family) rather well, and has some good very good shooting mechanics.  The latter quality is to be expected, though, from an FPS.  After all, a shooter should be good at (if not exceptional at), well, shooting.


What had me baffled after my satisfactory encounter with Bound in Blood was why I hadn’t played the first Call of Juarez.  Well, I had played a bit of it, but by now, my experience was a hazy memory.  I knew I had rented it, and it was one of those games that I put in, played for an hour or two, and then had cursed the fact that I had paid for the 5-day rental instead of the 2-day.  But, all I really remembered was that I had thought that it was bad for some reason or other.


Having played through its prequel now, though, I decided to give the game another go (and even reluctantly went with the 5-day rental plan).  It took me only three days to complete the first gane, and I suffered for most of the 11 or so hours that it took me to get through it.


Unlike many of our expectations about film sequels, the fans of video games often do not necessarily have low expectations for sequels.  Very often improvements in graphics quality, new and improved mechanics, and overall higher production values for a game can mean that a sequel to a successful game title might in fact mean a better game than the first.  Certainly, the graphics, mechanics, plotting, and voice acting in Bound in Blood are all superior to the original Call of Juarez, which also certainly explains some of the pleasure that I found in the sequel as opposed to its predecessor.  However, a play through of the original also reminded me of why I had found the first game just kind of silly enough to turn off after just a few short hours.  Much of Call of Juarez is simply unconventional.  And not in a good way.


The most frustrating and, very simply put, outright wacky elements of Call of Juarez are largely found when playing the bits of the game dedicated to one of that title’s protagonists, Billy Candle.  Billy is an outcast Mexican-American orphan who is a bit of a thief, so in addition to wielding a six shooter in the game, he also does a lot of sneaking around and… jumping? 


Very early on in Call of Juarez, the player is introduced to Billy’s whip and trained to use it to snag overhanging branches to swing from cliff to cliff.  He also climbs around a lot.  Oh, and he has to jump… a lot.  I guess that locomotion is a fairly important detail in most video games, be it walking, running, driving, flying, or jumping.  Indeed, jumping is one of the staples of video gaming.  For example, you may have heard of a certain upwardly mobile plumber that has starred in a few games.  However, it is less of an essential staple in most FPS-style games.  While Mirror’s Edge attempted to make a go of hybridizing jumping mechanics with the first person perspective, its success in doing so is debatable.  Whether or not Mirror’s Edge was able to pull off the marriage of platforming with the FPS genre though, its efforts to do so are certainly a lot more successful in doing so than Call of Juarez was.  The inability to gauge distances easily without seeing your character on screen makes the large chunks of platforming in Call of Juarez... well… fall flat on their face. 


Part of the relative success of Mirror’s Edge at better platforming sequences, though, is clearly related to the focus and interest of the game and its designers.  It is a game about a parkour-style runner, and thus, a lot of effort went into working with this essential mechanic,a mechanic necessary to gameplay but also to the narrative of the game.  When one considers Call of Juarez, one wonders what exactly is the interest in wedding a Western narrative to platforming mechanics.  Doing a first person shooter that is a Western?  Makes sense.  As previously noted, an FPS is all about shooting mechanics.  Westerns are kind of interested in that kind of thing, too.  But, I don’t often see Clint Eastwood gingerly hopping from precarious perch to precarious perch in the Leone films.


That isn’t to say that there is no logic whatsoever to making Billy into a character that has to make quick and unusual escapes.  As I mentioned, he is a bit of a thief.  However, as both a gamer and an avid fan of the Western genre, it certainly was a surprise to me to find myself hopping around Mario-style in a game that advertised itself as a Western.  Part of my initial irritation at the game may be related to simple expectation, that this was not the game that I expected to play given the literary or cinematic genre category that it falls into (I would also be very surprised by witnessing torture porn gore in a light romantic comedy or a lot of skin in a children’s movie). 


But, given the focus of the genre itself, it seems that not a great deal of energy went into developing these, the worst parts of the mechanics of Call of Juarez.  For example, witness the way that Billy’s shadow hangs stiffly in the air when he swings from a tree branch.  It is as if no thought was given to animating poor Billy when he hangs from his whip because the player cannot see him and because swinging is such a minor element by comparison to the other FPS-related mechanics in the game. 


By the way, it is those mechanics, the shooting mechanics, that Bound in Blood does very, very well.  Improved concentration modes (when you get to slow down the pace of the game in order to gun down a room full of enemies because you are: just that fast), floating targeting reticles that snap to targets when blazing away with two guns, and increased accuracy with the slower but harder hitting rifles all make Bound in Blood‘s gun play that much more authentic in feel and that much more fun to experience, which is kind of what I expect in a genre associated with… gun play. 


Now, I don’t want to say that innovation isn’t nice sometimes (Sukiyaki Western Django is an often weird but interesting film for example), but I do want to say that sometimes a game should focus on simply being what it is.  There is a pleasure to be taken in conventionality when it is done very well, and it is often done better when the dominant experiences in a game are focused on at the exclusion of curious odds and ends that don’t necessarily suit the genre or, more specifically, the way that the gameplay complements that genre.  Bound in Blood does include some light swinging and sneaking elements (I suppose as a nod to the conventions of its predecessor).  However, these moments are blessedly brief.  Most of the impact of the new game lies in its adherence to the conventional elements of the Western.  The game is more an homage to the gun fight than scattered pieces of game play mechanisms that are all underwhelmingly accomplished.  Given the pride that the game takes in accomplishing what it is and doing it very well, I have to prefer the more conventional vision of the Western in this case.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009
A brief synopsis of the ideas set out in Unit Operations.

Of the several books Ian Bogost has produced so far as a video game academic, Unit Operations remains probably one of his densest and hardest to follow. There are a lot of reasons for this. For starters, it’s not so much about video games as it is a philosophy of how numerous forms of media can be interpreted like a computer program. The first 45 pages of the book don’t really even address games, instead creating a large philosophical foundation for how literature, film, and video games work like a unit operation. The book’s focus narrows to video games eventually because as an artistic medium, their unit operations are very obvious. It’s much easier to convince someone that Grand Theft Auto III’s narrative revolves around mathematical abstractions then it is to say Hamlet revolves around them. Everything from Derrida or Aarseth to T.S. Eliot’s notion of objective correlation between elements is brought into this analysis. As Bogost himself notes at the start of the text, the educational background required to fully grasp all of these elements is not only large, it’s contradictory. People with engineering degrees tend to have trouble with abstract thinking (but that’s the rule!) and people with liberal arts backgrounds tend to have trouble with objective thinking (but that’s not fair!).


It’s hard to pin down a specific definition to the concept of unit operations because Bogost ends up comparing it to so many different things. If you were an English Major, I’d tell you that essentially it’s an archetype. If you were a computer programmer, I’d say it’s a way of organizing a program’s functions. Bogost writes, “A unit operation may be observed in any artifact, or any portion of any artifact, rather arbitrarily. I insist on this broader understanding of unit operations to allow its logic to resonate across expressive forms, from literature to film to software to video games.” (14) I’m going to break down the definition of unit operations into two areas: literature and computer programming and then explain how Bogost applies that to video games.


First, Bogost compares a Baudelaire poem with a Bukowski poem. Both poems are about seeing a beautiful stranger on the street and the depressing realization that you will never see them again. He explains, “the figure that fascinates has become an effective unit operation, a tool for engaging modern life. It would be overzealous to equate this figure that fascinates with a software subsystem. [. . . instead] Bukowski’s poem relies on a consolidated version of Baudelaire’s figure, that it enacts this figure by playing by its rules.” (80) Bogost eventually acknowledges that this works a lot like an archetype. In this case, the character from either poem is defined by several rules. They are a beautiful stranger on a crowded city street, and the user will never see them again. That’s the archetype/reoccurring event that constitutes a pattern.


From nicholasgoodman.com

From nicholasgoodman.com


Unlike two similar poems, which are using the same abstract concept to communicate a feeling, a computer program communicates through the manner in which the programmer is organizing its various subroutines. Bogost writes, “Pattern creation or recognition systems…usually take the form of unit operations that perform one kind of action on data, resulting in some judgment about its worthiness as a particular pattern.” (29) I don’t have a sufficient background in computer programming to grasp all of this so I got some help from one of his grad students, Simon Ferrari. I’m going to just post a trimmed version of his explanation:


When you get into the computer science background assumed in Unit Operations, it’s talking about object-oriented programming (OOP). Like a lot of things we study in digital media programs, OOP goes back to Xerox PARC. Alan Kay’s team created this language called Smalltalk, based on the idea of “classes” that had been established earlier on. Data is encapsulated into a series of independently functioning units. I had to take a programming class to really understand what this means. First you declare a class, which is kind of like an archetype or a Platonic idea: it has a name and a set of generic traits and behaviors (this is the “constructor”). From a class you can propagate objects, individual working units which inherit characteristics from their parent class (and can also bequeath characteristics to another generation of objects, called their “children”). The big move here, the important one for Bogost, is that classes and objects in OOP also contain their own functions—if you’re a member of the class “gameJournalist,” then the action “interview” is already built into your code. This means that once you declare a few objects, you don’t necessarily need to have other, system-level functions running to get them to interact. This paradigm wasn’t very popular until the 90’s, but you can see why it caught on once programming came out of the nerd ghetto: it’s a lot more human than a series of subroutines.


To iterate this point, Bogost uses the example of a computer program tracking the background data of potential terrorists. What does it mean if a person is 70% likely to be a terrorist to a security guard deciding whether or not to search them? The program has created an abstraction because, like the poems, there are elements of uncertainty and mystery created by finite rules.


How this idea ties into video games is that a unit operation can be analyzed distinctly to gauge what the message of a video game can be. Bogost explains that computational systems “rely on unit operations as their primary mode of representation, and thus unit operations have a special role in how works like videogames function.”(65) In literature and film, unit operations are present but not nearly as central as a computer program. To make this point Bogost explains that games are organized by their technological capacities rather than their IP or even controls. We define a game by what the software allows us to do in it. This is distinct from film or books, which divide themselves by the story. He writes, “First-person shooter game engines construe entire gameplay behaviors, facilitating functional interactions divorced from individual games. Genres structure a creative approach to narrative; they describe a kind of story…game engines differ from genres in that they abstract such material [guns, villain, etc.] requirements as their primary – perhaps their only – formal constituent.” (57)


From Grand Theft Auto III

From Grand Theft Auto III


How does this work in application? Essentially, a video game asks a player to make sense of a bunch of data patterns or abstractions. Put Bogost’s way, “Video games require players to create a subjective understanding of the synthesis of one or more unit operations. Games demand that players be capable of making this synthesis palpable in their own experience.” (123) Understanding how this then leads to the creation of a message as concrete as a poem depends on two statements Bogost makes:


1) Unit Operations are biased. They always show a way of things working that are limited by human thought.


2) Unit Operations and Subjectivity have a dialogue which is simulation fever that occurs on the outside, in the viewer, not intrinsic to the game. (133)


Number two is the big one here. Subjectivity is where you, the individual, come into the equation. A video game player interacting with a large series of unit operations is generating an experience that is not intrinsic to the game. Or, put another way, that’s the key ingredient for something being a message instead of a sport. The message of a game is basically its depiction of reality (the simulation) and the subjectivity is our reaction to it based on our individual experiences.


From compsimgames.com

From compsimgames.com


Bogost outlines a couple of different types of simulation response or fever for a player. “Simulation resignation”, he says, “implies the blind acceptance of the limited results of a simulation, because the system doesn’t allow any other model of the source system.” “Simulation denial” implies the rejection of simulations because they offer only a simplified representation of the source system. Bogost contends, “A simulation is the gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity.” (107) Here is where Derrida’s contention that “the only way to preserve work in an archive is to expose that work to its possible deconstruction” becomes key to unit operations. The way a simulation can communicate an idea with us is by the player being aware of its limitations and recognizing what the system is trying to communicate as a whole through its limited depiction of reality (109).


How does one apply this to video game criticism? Bogost talks about Greg Costikyan’s reaction to September 12, which is a game about bombing Iraq. The player shoots a missile that moves very slowly at a terrorist, often hitting civilians instead. The surviving civilians go on to become terrorists themselves. Costikyan, who lives right near where the World Trade Center used to be, wrote a scathing critique of the game’s political message. To summarize, the game isn’t realistic and doesn’t factor in numerous complexities about 9/11. Bogost says that this is a prime example of simulation fever or someone having a strong reaction to a depiction of reality in the game. (132) Another example is Grand Theft Auto, which makes us aware of our desire to misbehave and break the rules because our reality varies from the projected one. I can run around smashing cars and shooting civilians, which is obviously not realistic. The difference between reality and the simulation makes me aware of the game’s discrepancies and thus how I would behave in a modified reality. Bogost notes, “The reviewer who insists that once you play GTA ‘you can’t go back’ suggests that the game successfully draws attention to the player’s relationship to potential delinquency.” (168)


This is important to video game criticism simply because the concept of unit operations neutralizes a lot of the value arguments people still make to this day. A linear game is just one that is more biased than an emergent game. Both are just techniques for communicating with the player. The game’s message, the simulation fever, is still extrinsic to the system. Or as Bogost notes, “The type, and not the degree, of emergence is the deciding factor in the expressive potential of a complex system.” (151) Given the finite nature of such expression in any simulation, Bogost’s ultimate contention is that the player’s meaning is still going to come from where the simulation ends and reality begins.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Friday, Aug 14, 2009
A look at two parodic flash games and what they reveal about the mechanics they parody.

Parodies by their very nature give us a different perspective on things. Whether it be a plot, genre, or game mechanic, we see a different side of things when they’re viewed through the lens of humor. There are two recent flash games in particular that, while making fun of popular game mechanics, give us a unique look at the roots of those mechanics and why they’re so popular.


Upgrade Complete is a game that makes you upgrade everything. To begin the game, we have to buy a shop menu screen, but since we don’t have any money in the beginning we have to accept a loan from the developer. Then we have to buy the preloader to actually load the game and menu buttons to actually play it. The game itself is a 2-D top-down flying shooter. We can buy missiles and lasers and guns (all upgradeable of course) to help against the waves of enemies, or we can use the money we earn to buy and upgrade a logo, copyright info, the graphics, or a game over screen.


Achievement Unlocked is game that’s all about unlocking achievements. The game itself is mostly a platformer: there’s a single screen filled with blocks, jump pads, and spikes, all traditionally found in some form or another in platformers. But Achievement Unlocked is really more of a puzzle game, since our only goal is to figure out how to get all 99 achievements. It begins easily enough, giving us achievements for preloading the game, watching the sponsor screen, and pretty much rewarding every other simple action we could make: moving left, moving right, jumping, dying, etc. Everything nets us an achievement; we’re even given infinite lives so the game doesn’t end until we either give up or get every achievement.


Some time ago, Mitch Krpata from Insult Swordfighting tried to come up with new ways to describe gamers’ play styles, rather than use the inadequate “casual” and “hardcore.” One such descriptor was the Completist gamer: “A Completist may be less interested in maximizing his ability to play a game, and more interested in making sure he doesn’t miss anything…The reward is having no mountains left to climb.”


The Completist gamer is just a subset of the larger category of Skill Players according to Krpata, but given the popularity of achievements, I wonder just how “sub” that subset is. Gamers are completist by nature; we’ve been trained to be that way and are continually encouraged to keep it up. Whether it be finding all the collectibles in a game or just trying to beat it, both actions require us to complete a game to a certain degree. Especially in this day of constant hype for new releases, we’re encouraged even more to complete one game so that we can hurry to the next.


In a broader sense, Upgrade Complete and Achievement Unlocked are not just parodies of the mechanics that they’re named after but of our attitudes towards games. These are collect-a-thons in their purest form. Achievements and upgrades are just an evolution of the stars in Super Mario 64 or the puzzle pieces in Banjo-Kazooie. Achievement Unlocked is, arguably, the better parody because it portrays achievements as the old-school collectible they are, while also embracing those roots. When we play it, we’re having fun collecting even as we realize we’re the butt of the joke. Upgrade Complete on the other hand has a message at the end telling us to rate a game more on how fun it is than how complex its upgrade system is. Yet the game is fun solely because of its absurdly comprehensive upgrade system. It undermines its own message. The best parodies embrace what they make fun of, and Achievement Unlocked plays straight to our completist, collectible-loving nature. The fact that I used a FAQ to make sure that I collected all the achievements says it all.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Aug 12, 2009
Because our medium allows for participation in building characters and shaping plot rather than the pure voyeurism enforced by storytelling media like film or literature, gamers are sometimes offended by scripted scenes and enforced choices that occur in "their" storyline.

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the curiously moralistic approach that Grand Theft Auto games take towards drug use.  In response, my colleague L.B. Jeffries pointed out that, perhaps, Rockstar doesn’t find drug usage as an activity for the player to be all that reasonable.  While Jeffries point seemed to be that GTA‘s grotesque nature as a game that allows us to do things that we normally wouldn’t think of doing (stealing cars and murdering innocents) is in direct contrast with the realistic notion that drug usage is something that the average person with a moral compass might still plausibly do, nevertheless, his point got me thinking about the “active” nature of the crimes committed by the player in GTA as opposed to the passive presentations of the protagonists of these games.


There is a bit of a disconnect in any open world game between choices that the player makes as he or she inhabits a character and the choices that that character makes in the storyline that evolves in the plot of the game.  While there are many examples of such problems, I remember reading a message from a GTA player in a forum once that reported that that player always drove as carefully as possible when playing Vice City while his kids were in the room because he didn’t want them to see him casually mowing over innocent bystanders.  Such a player choice is obviously fairly antithetical to the decisions made by Tommy Vercetti throughout the game as he destroys the lives and properties of many innocents that get in his way on his way to becoming a criminal overlord.  The morality of the character in essence changed when actively being directed by the player from what is was when being passively viewed through cutscenes.


Such disconnects, though, might serve an interesting purpose in this particular series, however, since the activities that a player can engage in might make the character that they are playing extremely unsympathetic, and thus, undesirable characters to want to play as again.  What I mean by this might be clarified by my recent experiences reviewing another open world game, Prototype.  Unlike many other reviewers as my review indicates, I actually liked a fair amount of a number of the elements presented in Prototype.  However, one thing that I really didn’t like was the protagonist, Alex Mercer.  I had trouble with the game initially because of this general dislike.  Largely, I was a bit disgusted with the choices that I had to actively pursue in order to “be” Alex.  Since the character in that game feeds off of others as a means of fueling his superhuman powers and maintaining his own health, I was brutally murdering just about anyone that was close at hand.  To make matters worse, as I passively witnessed the way that Radical Entertainment chose to portray this character in cutscenes, I didn’t feel any better about Alex.  He seemed like a man largely indifferent to others.  As a rather stoic personality in the Clint Eastwood vein (but lacking some of the clever one liners of an Eastwood cowboy), he also lacked any recognizable personality traits that might make up for this heartlessness.  He wasn’t funny or charming or really anything more than a moody, brooding bastard occasionally growling out “tough” (but unspired) one liners.  My general distaste for Alex and the ferocity of the brutal killings that I was participating in by “being” him almost led me to turn off the game early on.


Ferocious and brutal behavior is not a strange idea to any fan of the GTA series, and yet, characters like CJ and Niko remain generally well liked.  Much of their likability depends not on player generated choices (after all, GTA allows the player some pretty grotesque choices throughout the game and does make murder and theft requisite activities if the player wants to complete the major story arc of any of the games) but instead on reshaping how the player views the character through the passively viewed sections of these games’ plots.


To return to my discussion of drug usage for a moment, San Andreas contains a passively received anti-drug theme by pitting the player against bad guys that represent drug usage, like Big Smoke, in the story missions and showing CJ turning down Officer Tenpenny’s offer of a hit from a bong in one scene.  The player is never asked if he or she would like CJ to turn down that hit or if he or she wants to free CJ’s hood from the tyranny of dope dealers.  Playing the story requires such decisions be made for us and also reshapes our views of CJ in light of other more reprehensible choices that the player might make at other times in the game.  CJ’s decisions to protect his family are not ours, but they make him seem much more human and humane than our other decisions may have made him seem.  A strung out pothead like the game’s Ryder is somewhat hard to like, but CJ depite his criminal behaviors at least evidences some self restraint, making him appear a bit more noble than his fellow thugs.  Additionally, CJ is often funny and almost inevitably charming whether we as the player guiding him are or not either of those things.  A little humor and charm go a long way in making a criminal and anti-hero likable.  Just ask Han Solo.


With the upgraded combat mechanics of the game, Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the more effective killers in the series’s history, and GTA IV may be the most murderous game in the series with many more missions oriented towards assassination than the other criminal activities of prior games.  Nevertheless, Niko is a very sympathetic character because players are witness to his intentions in making himself over into an assassin through the cutscenes.  Of particular note is Niko’s murder of the minor mobster, Vlad.  Because Niko’s motivation and his relationship to his victim is spelled out so clearly in the mission in which the player is required to kill Vlad (as seen in previous scenes, Vlad has been a jerk to Niko throughout their prior interactions, and he is screwing Niko’s cousin Roman’s girlfriend), offing Vlad becomes an action that may not be pretty but is at least comprehensible and seemingly not the act of a sociopath.  Niko isn’t killing Vlad as casually and indifferently as he might when you are playing him and simply running down a jaywalker, he has a legitimate beef with him and a beef that reveals his concern for a loved one.


Admittedly, the story missions in GTA IV do allow the player to make some moral choices that effect the plot (most notably, decisions that concern killing or sparing several individuals).  However, these moments tend to be fraught with more ambiguity than the Vlad episode (should Niko get revenge against a guy who betrayed he and his fellow soldiers years and years ago?), and they are once again offset by our knowledge of the scripted elements of Niko’s character.  And once again, they are also offset by the personality that Niko derives from scripted experiences like when he goes bowling or drinking with friends that indicate a bit of a sense of humor and a humble kind of charm (I defy anyone not to crack a grin, the first time that they hear Niko declare to a bowling buddy “I may not be great at life, but I bowl like an angel!”).


I think that because our medium allows for participation in building characters and shaping plot rather than the pure voyeurism enforced by storytelling media like film or literature, gamers are sometimes offended by scripted scenes and enforced choices that occur in “their” storyline (I’m looking at you Bioshock and Prince of Persia).  Nevertheless, what the lovable thugs of GTA demonstrate is that sometimes a little scripting goes a long way in simply making our “selves” into someone that we can actually like.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.