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

 
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Friday, Jul 24, 2009
A look at an experiment that makes death permanent in Far Cry 2.

“…meaning does not come from playing a game… it comes from playing WITH a game. It is the manipulation not only of the actors in the game that is meaningful, but the manipulation of the game itself.”
-Clint Hocking


Ben Abraham over at SLRC started an experiment with Far Cry 2 that has since been picked up and repeated by other bloggers. The experiment: Play Far Cry 2 on normal difficulty and stop when you die. You only have one life. Death is permanent.


Ben’s posts, and those by others who have taken up the experiment, read like a normal game of Far Cry 2. The introduction and the tutorial always play out the same, and while everyone’s first mission is different, what happens to them isn’t all that different than what happened to me when I played the game: They get in a shootout and kill a lot of people. That’s essentially every mission in Far Cry 2. So what makes this experiment so interesting? Why am I compelled to read each post, and why are others compelled to take up the challenge of Permanent Death? Clint Hocking, in his post about the experiment, suggests that people don’t actually care about the individual narratives being related to them, they don’t really care what happens to Ben Abraham or his avatar, they care about what can happen. “The reason I think people are paying attention is because Ben is playing with the game. He is manipulating the game itself…It is not the combination of Far Cry 2 + authored narrative irreversibility that is making the permadeath experiment meaningful to Ben and to others, it is the fact that he is able to manipulate the game to create this experiment that is bringing meaning.”


The result of the experiment is a new experience, one similar to what it would be otherwise, but given a deeper meaning due to the player’s own conscious manipulation of the game. By adding his own rules to the game, Ben ceases to be just a player. He’s now a director of his experience in addition to being an actor in it, and yet he’s still subservient to the whims of the emergent gameplay. His role as player is changed, but he’s still very much a player. He is, as Clint Hocking said, not just playing the game but playing with the game.


Adding a self-imposed permanent death to the game also gives us a unique look at the game’s themes of violence. Far Cry 2 stacks a lot of odds against the player: We’re up against respawning enemies at nearly every intersection of roads, a sickness that can incapacitate us in the middle of a fight, guns that jam, a limited amount of “health packs,” sparse save points, and a landscape filled with people whose only purpose is to kill us. Death is easy, yet because this is a video game death is also easy to ignore. The sparse save points may force us to replay certain sections of the game, but in the end, no matter what happens, we can always just reload a save. I’d wager that most gamers have come to see death in game as more of an annoyance than as something to be feared. So by making death permanent, it suddenly has relevance.


Ben’s thoughts during his first fight are telling, “I was still stepping out of the car when the first bullets started pinging off the bonnet. I remember thinking ‘this is it – my first firefight’ and the feeling of danger threatened to overwhelm me. Certainly, the mixture of exhilaration and jitters proved to pose more of a threat to my survival than did the enemy soldiers.” The encounters that were once annoying are now frightening. The level of violence in the game (which is actually quite normal for a FPS game) is more apparent than it was before, when we took our infinite live for granted.


But what’s more important thematically than the new found fear of death is that it doesn’t last. In Ben’s fourth post he writes, “I must admit that the fear of dying has more or less completely disappeared by this point. The worry and hesitancy with which I approached the earlier missions has atrophied to the point where I am confident enough to take out an assassination target head on, using explosives. I’m regularly flirting with danger now, and it remains to be seen whether I will get burnt.”


L.B. Jeffries, in an essay on Far Cry 2, explores how the player’s journey is similar to Kurtz’s experience in Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “When Marlow is puzzling over Kurtz’s descent into darkness, he attributes it to what the dangers of the wilderness brought out in him. Kurtz’s European education and refinement are cast aside in the Congo, leading him to discover that he was capable of things he didn’t know beforehand…In other words, by making the game design so brutally hostile, the game is putting you through the same experience as Kurtz.”


What I find so fascinating about the Permanent Death experiment is that it changes how this transformation occurs for anyone who takes up the challenge. Any fan of first-person shooters who starts a game of Far Cry 2 begins the game as The Jackal, the antagonist of the story. Not literally, but The Jackal, as an arms dealer, embodies a cavalier attitude towards death and violence, the same cavalier attitude all gamers feel for death and violence in games. Our journey through Africa is then meant to expose us for who we really are, that we are just as much the enemy as The Jackal is. But for those who take up the experiment, they begin from a different place. The permanence of death snaps them out of that cavalier attitude, and they begin the game as frightened people just struggling to stay alive. Their journey is then meant to change them, to turn them into merciless killers and then expose them for what they’ve become. By changing the rules of the game Ben Abraham hasn’t actually changed the game or its meaning, but how the two are experienced. The journey is different but the end is always the same. We all become The Jackal.


Tagged as: far cry 2
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jul 22, 2009
It wasn't the sights and sounds of Liberty City that mesmerized me; it was touching the city for the first time.

It was two related things that first drew me to the Grand Theft Auto series: music and nostalgia.


Nostalgia immediately gripped me when I first booted up Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (my first experience with a Rockstar game).  The blue field with the thick border that emulates a Commodore Vic 20 operating system immediately transported me back to the 1980s.  I was delighted by the sounds of the heavy tapping of a Vic 20-style keyboard and the words, “LOAD: VICE CITY,” followed by the command any computer geek from that decade knows well enough, “PRESS PLAY ON TAPE.”  It was as if I was sitting once again at ten-years-old before the television set, reaching out to press play on the only “floppy drive” that I knew how to load a game from, the Vic 20 tape deck.


The nostalgia for playing games in the 1980s was quickly replaced, though, by another set of positive memories.  I lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, quite near Miami, until I was five, and I visited grandparents in the city at least once a year for my entire childhood.  The box said Vice City, but it looked like Miami, felt like Miami, and the tunes playing on the radio, “Cars,” “Africa,””Kids in America,” all of these contributed to my familiarity with the setting, both place and time.  This was Southern Florida in the 1980s.  I knew it because I had seen and heard these things before.


Rockstar’s commitment to details often not considered by game designers in the early part of this decade is for me the real achievement of the Grand Theft Auto series.  Building a town and an era based on the foundations of the little details that you take for granted, architecture, weather patterns, and the music that accompany it, was a revelation for me in 2002 and represented the first time that I wanted to talk about a video game world, rather than simply a video game.


I had heard of this game called Grand Theft Auto III at the time, but it sounded fairly stupid, something about boosting cars and running over hookers—not really my idea of a proper game.  I was partial to puzzles and RPGs.  However, while I immediately went out to purchase a copy of GTA III after completing the main storyline of Vice City, it remained a pale shadow of the nostalgic experience of living in Vice City.  Had GTA III been my first Rockstar experience, it might have been my last.  The world of GTA III is interesting and immersive for a number of reasons but lacked the brilliance of Vice City‘s ability to wed what was so familiar in reality to me into a meaningful virtual experience just by creating the proper ambiance through artifacts of sight and sound.


San Andreas was likewise a positive experience for me of such a thoroughly living virtual reality.  The 1990s were years that I knew well, having attended college and grad school during this period of time.  I had some familiarity with Los Angeles and San Francisco (though, I had spent much more time in other areas of Southern California when I was a kid, like San Diego), and while rap wasn’t exactly a genre I knew especially well, taking on the role of a gangbanger in SoCal blasting Dre and Snoop seemed authentic.  The addition of the final missions in Los Santos that paralleled what I had seen myself on television of the LA riots just added to the sense that the state of San Andreas felt vividly alive, and if not an experience evocative of personal experience, at least one that had a kind of cultural historicity to it.  The music, major events, and clothing of the period all felt right, and once again, I felt like I had entered a very familiar and very real space due in large part to the nostalgia generated through music and style rather than mere exposition and plotting.


The reason that I bring up all of this navel gazing about my personal experiences with Rockstar’s worlds is that I recently completed playing Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars in addition to GTA IV and The Lost and the Damned.  While I enjoyed all three games and certainly applaud Rockstar’s continued commitment to the details of world building, I found myself disappointed with that element that had so transported me in my experiences with the earlier games in the series: the nostalgia and historicity evoked through music.  Actually, The Lost and the Damned has some extremely immersive ambiance like biker clubs blasting hardcore thrash that contributes to the expansion’s seeming versimilitude (in addition to what seems to me to be—though, I have to admit no real direct knowledge of the subculture – some fairly authentic representations of biker life).  Generally, though, GTA IV‘s soundtrack left me a little cold with few tunes that I knew well and thus nothing to anchor some sense of time and place in my experience of this new iteration of Liberty City. 


Likewise, the Nintendo DS’s limitations in being able to provide a full array of “real” songs to listen to while cruising the Liberty City streets bummed me out a bit.  I admire the way that Rockstar chose to feature a few radio stations that produce something sounding like techno or rock music admirable.  The near .wav quality of the tunes is mildly evocative (and kind of cute in a retro kind of way) but lacks the nostalgic power of actual familiarity with the sounds of an actual car stereo.


Nevertheless, Chinatown Wars still hooked me a great deal, and it was certainly a sense of immersion that I felt in the top down, slightly more cartoonish DS world that in part was responsible for this.  I had to think a bit more, though, about what was producing this immersion in a hand held version of GTA to figure out why I found this new game so compelling.


On reflection, I believe what it was was Rockstar’s smart use of the technology at hand.  While the radio was disappointing to me, Rockstar’s clever near parody of its own radio stations was smart.  However, what really dragged me into this experience of GTA was less related to setting and ambiance provoked by sight and sound and more related to the additional sensory experience that Nintendo products have recently focused on providing.  It wasn’t the sights and sounds of Liberty City that mesmerized me; it was touching the city for the first time.


In the opening sequence of Chinatown Wars, the game’s protagonist, Huang, is grazed by a bullet.  Thinking Huang dead, a couple of thugs dump him in a car, which they then proceed to drive off a dock in order to dispose of the body.  Witnessing these events from overhead on one screen and looking at Huang’s dazed responses on the other for those moments, the perspective then changes to what is probably the most overtly immersive points of view that a game can provide, a first person view of the interior of the car.  You, as Huang, look out of the windshield of the car at the rising bubbles in the ocean as the car sinks towards Davy Jones’s Locker, and you are instructed to break the glass using the DS’s stylus.  Tapping at the window and seeing spider webs of glass appear exactly at the spot that you tap, feels forceful.  When the glass explodes, that force feels altogether real and relieving.  You have just physically altered a car in Liberty City.  It “feels” just right.


Throughout the DS experience, the game offers these momentary breaks in the standard action that allow you to “feel out” what you are doing in the city from moving quantities of drugs between a lockbox and a car trunk to smashing a padlock off of a gate.  More significantly, though, for the first time in a GTA game, I legitimately felt like I was boosting a car because the stylus allowed me to unscrew the plate on a steering column with quick circular motions and—better still – had me twisting together two wires to actually hotwire the thing.


Like my familiarity with the sights of the city being emulated by Vice City and the sounds coming from my speaker, I have stripped wires and spliced them together before (maybe not on a car, but speaker wires for sure).  The twisting motion required by the use of the stylus was a familiar one, and like when the other sensory details that helped more fully immerse me in GTA experiences of the past, this near tactile experience generated these seemingly familiar sensory connections to a world. Basically, it made the world come alive under my fingers.


Immersion seems to me to be one of Rockstar’s fortes in game design and adding the ability to experience the world through physical force seems an appropriate one in a game committed to exploring violence and physical violation.  In some sense, evoking a Miami reminiscent of the era that produced Al Pacino’s turn as Scarface (as Vice City does) is impressive but that was already achieved in the medium of film.  Rockstar has expanded its capacity to provide immersion through a sense that other media rarely get to involve their audience in (but video games through their interactivity can) and one ever so appropriate to the crime genre—the actual feel of getting your hands dirty.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Jul 21, 2009
The thing about a video game is that, unlike a classic film or song, certain portions of it age differently.
From Capcom, box art

From Capcom, box art


As the Film Industry continues to bank on remakes and converting popular stories into film, consumers are beginning to question their relationship with media that is essentially a remake of an old one that they have already seen. What makes a remake good or bad? This question becomes even more interesting once you apply it to video games because even the definition of the remaking process comes into question. A movie is remade by giving it a new script and a new visual look. A video game is remade by doing both of those things but also overhauling the interface and game design to fit modern sensibilities. Take a game like Metroid Prime, which is essentially Super Metroid except in 3-D. That statement applies to the aesthetics, but does it also apply to the game design and technology? It’s a totally different game. Core elements like types of weapons or old maneuvers like the double-jump remain; stuff that doesn’t work in 3-D like the Hyper Run ability are abandoned. The concept of remakes becomes murky for games because there are so many different elements to consider. If a developer just releases new content but no new game design elements, then it’s considered an expansion pack. If they change the game design but keep the same plot, it’s a patch. What is the point of even remaking a game when conceptually its sequels, expansions, and patches could all be considered the same thing?


From buymusichere.net, cover art

From buymusichere.net, cover art


With remakes it’s a question of what should be changed, why it should be changed, and then how to go about doing that. With music, most remakes are simply considered covers. An artist will take an old song and add their own unique take. There are the classic examples like Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” but modern examples like Alanis Morissette’s cover of “My Humps,” the Gourds’ version of “Gin & Juice,” or a Youtube fan video of Modest Mouse’s “Baby Blue Sedan,” all set a single standard for a musical remake. You have to do something new with a familiar song that’s equally if not more appealing than the original. In some of those examples, the song was getting old and unfamiliar to the current generation. In others, it was simply a very different take on the material. Determining the quality of a musical remake is dependent on whether or not the new version brings something new to the table.


From hotmoviesale, box art

From hotmoviesale, box art


In film, the standard also factors use of new cinema technology like CGI. Films have never been a bastion for totally unique stories. Most early films were based on theater or literature. Remakes came into existence almost as soon as there was an excuse to start making them. Once sound could be added to film, Hollywood went back and turned numerous popular silent films into “talkies.” The arrival of color meant that the same classics would again need the same treatment. Often the scripts and actors would be different, but the core story and even title would remain the same. CGI and modern special effects bring about this need for changing the past once again, a remake of Jason and the Argonauts today can achieve the visuals that its script envisions much more readily than the original could. New technology allows a classic film to have a new visual appeal for today’s generation because it’s the way they’re used to films looking. With technology, the visual experience is constantly improving so that a new way of seeing a story is always being achieved.


From gog.com, banner of website

From gog.com, banner of website


In video games, these two dual standards of technology and newness can be seen in many popular remakes. Metroid: Zero Mission or the Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube do a good job of fulfilling both the importance of improving the visuals but also making sure that this makes the game new in its own way. They are graphically superior, deviate from the original game at certain points, and their designs have been overhauled to fit modern sensibilities. That’s the third element that a video game must contend with in a remake: the design itself. Zero Mission features a guide system for its map to make things easier and uses controls that differ from the original NES version to accommodate the Gameboy Advance. Resident Evil for the Gamecube improves its script, voice acting, and pacing to create a superior retelling of the original experience. A kombo article outlining their Top Ten Remakes argues similar merits. The Prince of Persia remake is basically the same game but with better graphics, time trials, and way points. Tomb Raider Anniversary has superior graphics, better movement controls, and yet recreates many of the old levels while adding new ones. All of the originals were good games in their time but our expectations for what video game experiences should be like has changed significantly since then. The thing about a video game is that unlike a classic film or song, certain portions of it age differently. No one is particularly keen on playing a game with archaic movement controls because developers have perfected moving in 3-D environments. It’s just a trial and error process to go from using a D-pad to get around in Tomb Raider to moving via dual-anlaog. Aesthetic or plot differences can make a video game remake necessary like a film or song, but they also have to factor in someone being unused to the design. It’s not just not thinking that they’re pretty enough that becomes an issue; it’s that younger audiences might not even understand how to play it.


From monsterlandtoys.com, movie poster

From monsterlandtoys.com, movie poster


Yet no matter what the medium that the remake is being created for, there is another factor that goes beyond just modernizing the presentation or giving a unique interpretation of an old tune. You have to offer something to fans already familiar with the old version. One of the best examples of someone whose work has been remade countless times over is William Shakespeare. The way those plays continue to stay relevant today is the fact that their scripts can remain the same but totally change by adjusting the context. An essay praising the culture of remakes mentions Orson Welles. Before he made Citizen Kane, he put on, “a 1936 Macbeth showing the absurdity of segregation by offering an all-black cast before a backdrop of Haitian voodoo; Julius Caesar reimagined in 1937 as a warning about the rise of fascism, the noble Romans clad in Mussolini-style military uniforms.” Welles gave a new twist on these plays because, by changing their context, the entire meaning becomes both relevant and more insightful to modern problems. A blog comparing failed film remakes makes the distinction between the Matthew Broderick version of Godzilla and the 1990s remake of The Brady Bunch. The Godzilla movie fails because it tries to be the 1970s version of Godzilla instead of just distilling the essence of it. The The Brady Bunch film succeeded because it offered something to the fans: the movie places the 1970’s values of that family in contrast to the 1990’s as a kind of touching satire. What distinguishes the good remake is that its new version still has something for people who are already familiar with it.


Depending on how cynical you want to be about this topic, it can be argued that everything is just a remake of some other story, game, or song. Gears of War is just Space Invaders in 3-D. The Star Trek remake is just The Iliad in space. Every advance that is celebrated in popular culture is a product of something original being built on top of something familiar. A remake is just being honest about its origins.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Jul 17, 2009
These old games represent the eventual result of certain modern trends in gaming.

I started my gaming with the Playstation and Nintendo 64, so I completely missed the “golden age” of adventure games. I have a few memories of laughing at Sam and Max Hit the Road, and I vaguely remember enjoying one of the King’s Quest games, but that’s about it. Until recently. I was happy to find Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis as an unlockable bonus in the newest Indy game, and I bought the updated Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars after hearing such good things about. After playing both, I am now unabashedly in love with the genre. As I look back at my time with both games, I realized that these old games represent the eventual result of certain modern trends in gaming.


A Focus on Memorable Stories and Characters
As games have become more cinematic, more emphasis has been placed on story and characters. Every game wants to tell a good story now, and often the story for a AAA game is hyped up just as much as the graphics or controls. This focus on story and characters is a staple of all the old adventure games. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis is remembered because it captures the fun peril of the movies, and many titles from LucasArts are loved for their humor and characters.


Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars is no exception. Some of the most memorable moments come from interacting with other characters. From the snooty sounding British woman who’s only too willing to stick it to “The Man,” to the Middle Eastern boy whose wealth of knowledge comes from memorizing Trivial Pursuit cards, to the American tourist who thinks he’s a spy, everyone we can talk to has a distinct personality. These are not nameless townsfolk who only have a couple sentences worth of dialogue; we can carry on a full and unique conversation with each person we come across. As for the story, it starts off as a murder mystery and slowly grows into a global conspiracy. The ever-growing scope means there are always new twists being introduced, and the mystery plot, with its focus on discovering leads and solving puzzles, makes for an addicting game. Which leads into my next point.


The Games are Driven by Story Not Action
Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka, the founders of BioWare, had a recent interview with gameindustry.biz in which they said, “We talk a certain amount internally about whether you need to have combat as part of the experience…Certainly the core gaming experience, folks that are used to playing games over the last ten years, they want to have those battle moments, and the fighting. But there are different audiences that would maybe just enjoy the story.” Combat is the chief method of interaction in games: These “battle moments,” these short action sequences that test our skill, are strung together one after another until there are enough to keep a player busy for 8-12 hours. This makes for a compelling game since there’s always a new obstacle to overcome, but it’s not very conducive to storytelling, and to hear Greg and Ray talk of it, it sounds like there’s never been an alternative.


Adventure games, almost universally, are driven by story and not “battle moments.” Many adventure games do have combat, but these moments are not the focus of the game. It could be argued that this genre is driven by puzzles instead of story, but players usually get frustrated if the puzzles don’t make sense within the context of the game. The best adventure games integrate their puzzles naturally into the story.


In Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, the story is already tailor-made for some abstract puzzles. As a simple mystery the story works well with the gameplay, tracking down leads and asking the right questions to the right people, but it works better as a grand mystery since unraveling a centuries old secret often requires solving some ancient puzzle. The puzzles in Broken Sword compliment the story as each solution revels more of the plot, which leads to another puzzle, and so on. As the player finds clues he’s driven to continue playing, to unravel just a little bit more. The story compels us forwards, and the puzzles add challenge and interactivity to what would otherwise be a movie or novel.


No Death
As games focus more on story, death becomes an impediment to the experience because when the player dies there’s no more story to tell. But when the latest Prince of Persia removed death completely, it was derided by many as being too easy and too short. From that controversy it would seem like gamers still want the possibility of failure. But Prince of Persia was driven by those same old “battle moments.” Sometimes we were battling an enemy, other times the environment, but we were always fighting against some skill-based challenge the game threw at us. By removing death, the possibility of failure, from a game driven by this competition, success became inevitable and therefore worthless.
 
On the other hand, the removal of death in Broken Sword is hardly noticeable. It was only when I was about 10 hours in, and the main character was being held at gunpoint, did I realize I had not yet died in the game. Not only had I not died, but I had never even been in situation where death was possible. Because the game was driven by story and not combat, death would only interfere with the pacing, so it became unnecessary.


Lack of death is, unfortunately, not part of all adventure games, but when the player is allowed to die in such a game it only proves how disruptive death is to the overall experience. I died quite a few times in Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis whenever I was forced to fight guards. Since death wasn’t possible for much of a game, I took a laissez-faire approach to saving, so when death was unexpectedly introduced I ended up having to replay large portions of the game again. It’s always frustrating when a game teaches us to play one way, and then punishes us for playing that way. It’s telling that death was only possible during these moments of combat. Whenever a game resorts to challenges of skill, death/failure must be possible even if it impedes the story. So in a game like the Fate of Atlantis, and other adventure games, and any story driven game, it’s better when those moments are simply removed altogether.


It’s fitting that the adventure genre has seen a recent resurgence. From the popularity of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games, to Telltale Games’ episodic adventures, to the release of the updated The Secret of Monkey Island, to the re-release of many old LucasArts adventure games on Steam, it’s clear that this genre is far from dead. Their user interfaces may be antiquated, their graphics may be terrible, but since these games are driven by their puzzles and stories, they become timeless in a way no shooter can ever be.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.

Max Payne is looking pretty bad lately.


Of course, Max hasn’t lead the easiest life, but Rockstar’s latest screen shots of the two-fisted gunman indicate that some of that hard living is legitimately beginning to show.  Max is getting balder, bigger, and less beautiful by the moment.


It isn’t as if Max needs to be pretty.  What hard boiled hero has ever been able to lay claim to that particular attribute?  But, given that Max’s image is one that could at least theoretically be saved from the ravages of time (since rendered images don’t tend to suffer the ill effects of wrinkeles and weight gain), Rockstar’s choice to go ahead and allow time to leave its mark on their anti-hero is an interesting one.  It is also a choice that lacks a great many precedents in the medium of video games.


Certainly, Hideo Kojima also chose to age the hero of the Metal Gear Solid series.  Like Max, Snake in his last foray into the stealth action genre looked much the worse for wear as he confronted both a new global threat but also had to contend with his own mortality.


These couple of examples, though, tend to fly in the face of conventional serializing in the video game industry.  Most heroes and anti-heroes that get the opportunity to appear in multiple titles have a tendency to perhaps “evolve” in appearance, but they rarely do more than receive an update to their look rather than begin to look their age.  Instead, characters like Lara Croft and Mario are treated as icons, images that are recognizable and emblematic of whatever they are intended to heroically represent—be that sexy, empowered femininity or working class sticktuitiveness.


In considering the aging of characters in serial formats, it occurred to me that this same tendency to age some characters and to leave timelessly iconic other kinds of characters is also a tendency in comic books.  While I am being gravely reductionist in this observation, there has always seemed to me to be a general tendency to approach the handling of the aging super hero in two different ways by the two major comic book publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics.


The staple DC characters, who generally are much older than those belonging to Marvel, are usually represented in a timeless fashion.  Bruce Wayne, while having existed since 1939, remains (barring out of continuity material, like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight) seemingly forever trapped in some late-30s to late 40s version of himself.  Superman and Wonder Woman, who resemble minor deities in some way anyway, likewise remain perpetually beautiful despite similar post-World War II origins and despite their stories in serial form running regularly every month for nearly 70 years.


Many Marvel characters (at least around their point of origin, the early 1960s) tend to have experienced slightly different relationships to Father Time.  Spider-Man’s stories began with a Peter Parker still awkwardly attempting to navigate the hallways of his high school.  But Spidey’s continued adventures over the next couple of decades are backgrounded by a clear progression in time: Peter’s graduation, his entry into college, and even his eventual marriage (which, as I understand it was annulled through the intervention of a demonic deus ex machina, which may undermine my point a bit—Spidey seems to have stabilized like Bruce Wayne at some perpetual near middle age at some point fairly recently).  In other words, though, generally speaking following Spider-Man’s progress as a character over the decades also allowed readers to watch the effects of time on his alter ego, leaving Spidey less like an immortal icon and something more like a relatable human being.


It seems to me that DC’s lack of the representation of aging in their characters and Marvel’s tendency to allow characters like the Fantastic Four to age at least a bit (the marriage of Reed and Sue Richards and the eventual transformation of the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman are likewise emblematic of a maturation process in their characters) are related in some sense to the philosophies that each company has in regards to their characters.  DC Comics is generally interested in a romantic vision of a hero that is indeed iconic and timeless, representing larger principles like truth, justice, and the American Way, while Marvel is generally interested in more realistic and flawed characters that struggle with life in ways recognizable and comprehensible (once again, I realize that this is a broad characterization, and I can certainly think of exceptions in both comic book lines to these ideas, but my claim is one that I think is generally reasonable in considering the two companies’ approaches but simply not one without exception).


Returning to video game characters then, one might consider in this context the interests of game designers in keeping Lara and Mario ageless while allowing other characters like Max and Snake to indicate noticeable changes in their appearance as time and their series move forward.  Certainly, Lara Croft, like many larger than life representations of femininity in the arts, is almost unable to be aged.  Sex symbols are ruined in a culture that views “women of a certain age” as undesirable.  Lara, however, is in part intended to represent an iconic form of beauty that parallels this ideal notion of youthful beauty.  Likewise, Mario as a working class hero would suffer from being rendered in a geriatric form.  No one wants an arthritic plumber to look at that busted sink, we need someone strong and vital to do such dirty jobs (oh, and to kick turtles).  In that sense games in the Tomb Raider series and the countless titles bearing Mario’s names are ones interested in ideal heroes that represent ideals big, broad, and timeless.


However, Max and Snake occupy game worlds eminently more wed to time as they deal with personal, social, and political issues bound to the periods that they emerge from.  Unlike the explorer interested in antiquities whose adventures give nods to history but stand outside those actual historical events or the plumber who explores completely fantastical settings that are bound to no recognizable time, like mushroom kingdoms and even outer space, Max and Snake find themselves in much grimmer, grimier, and decaying worlds that clearly cannot escape the history crumbling around them.  As a result, characters like Max and Snake, despite their often extraordinary circumstance, still come off as characters that are a little bit more familiar and understandable to us, who as mortals and not gods likewise have to come to grips with time and history.


Rockstar has generally been good at creating these sorts of realistic mythologies (which sounds like an oxymoron, but I think a still reasonable description of the kind of fantastic but still historically and politically grounded worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series).  Recurring minor characters in the Grand Theft Auto games have allowed Rockstar to show that time operates in the worlds that they build.  From the balder and paunchier Ken Rosenberg appearing in the 1990s in San Andreas formerly as a slightly more vital, if completely neurotic coke head in the 1980s in Vice City to witnessing the dismemberment of Phil Cassidy in Vice City having only known him as an armless vet in the later decade represented in GTA III, GTA characters bear witness to the consequences of time on their characters and create a more realistic sense of who characters are as people, not emblems, than, perhaps, other gaming worlds often do.


This generally bodes well for Rockstar’s approach to a well seasoned Max Payne as he is a character that seems well suited to a more realistic sensibility.  Despite the bullet time balletics that are the hallmark of the series, Max is a character evocative of both sympathy and disdain.  He is not a character that represents or allows for simplistic and one dimensioanl analysis.  Such complicated heroes should be allowed to age less than gracefully and having complicated characters that can age may indicate that video game narratives could be growing up a bit themselves.


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