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

 
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Friday, Jul 31, 2009
A look at an experiment that makes a family of Sims homeless in The Sims 3.

The Sims 3, like all the Sim games and really anything by Will Wright, is a playground in which we can make our own stories. Sometimes we try to keep thing realistic, but the potential for insanity is never far away. The Sims has always been a great source for over-the-top melodrama befitting the worst daytime soap, but it’s also a source of far more serious stories.


One that stands out is the blog “Alice and Kev.” Alice and Kev are homeless Sims. Kev is described as “…mean-spirited, quick to anger, and inappropriate. He also dislikes children, and he’s insane. He’s basically the worst Dad in the world.” His daughter Alice “…has a kind heart, but suffers from clumsiness and low self-esteem.” Each blog post is a snapshot of their daily lives, and while some are humorous, there’s an undercurrent of sadness running through the entire blog. Reading about the hardships Alice faces while trying to go to school and dealing with a father who hates her is frighteningly realistic, and seeing the joy she gets out of simple things like a good meal and a bed are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Kev provides some comic relief with his haphazard attempts at love, but it’s also hard not to feel sorry for him when his attempts constantly fail, and the drama returns when he comes back “home” and takes his anger out on Alice. It’s a captivating story in its own right, but this premise has been done before with The Sims 2 and can be reproduced by anyone who has the game, what really makes “Alice and Kev” unique is its presentation.


Its blog reads like a documentary. Its creator, Robin Burkinshaw, takes himself out of the story as much as possible. He doesn’t mention himself in the writing unless he’s talking about a specific aspect of the game, such as personality traits or life goals. He doesn’t even exert much control over Alice and Kev, or at least that’s how it seems. Of course he must exert some control over them, and the fact that this story may be purposefully constructed is always in the back of the reader’s mind. At one point Kev starts walking and doesn’t stop, wandering the open land for a couple days before returning home. A commenter points out that Sims don’t normally do this, and it’s entirely possible that Robin made Kev go away so Alice could have a chance to bond with a neighbor. But exactly how much control Robin exerts over the Sims is irrelevant, it’s how much control he’s perceived to exert that matters. And since he doesn’t mention himself much in each post, his presence is easily forgotten.


By removing himself, the player, from the story, Robin has switched the focus to the characters. The blog becomes a story about the Sims, not of someone playing The Sims. This makes it more appealing because it seems as if this story doesn’t have an author. Even though it’s clearly a straight narrative, since the characters are the focus and the player is (almost) nowhere to be seen, events feel natural, spontaneous, and unpredictable. There’s an authenticity to their actions: Even though they may just be AI, the AI is making these decisions on its own. The possibilities of what these Sims might do, free from any player input, is just as fascinating as the actual story of their lives. 


The blog is on hiatus now, but there are more than enough posts already written to introduce new readers and make them care. No matter what comes next, “Alice and Kev” has proved itself to be a unique kind of story: Part game, part documentary, Robin has turned the open world of The Sims 3 into a directed social commentary. I don’t know when the posts will resume again, but I know I’ll be watching closely.


Tagged as: the sims 3
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Wednesday, Jul 29, 2009
Engaging a prostitute, stealing a car, and straight up murder are all forgivable offenses in the GTA universe.

This discussion does contain some spoilers about the plots of various games in the Grand Theft Auto series.


While a hue and cry arose over the drug dealing simulation that served as a secondary gameplay element in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, critics of the Grand Theft Auto series would likely be surprised by the series’s rather moralistic approach to the question of drug use and abuse.


Despite the fact that the games most popular setting, Liberty City, bears an appellation suggestive of a commitment to a libertine philosophy, when it comes to drugs, the Grand Theft Auto series has always had a very simple message: “Just Say No.”


Certainly, Chinatown Wars does feature a protagonist, Huang Lee, that largely depends on drugs as his primary source of income and the catalyst of the plot of Vice City is a drug deal gone wrong that that game’s protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, was involved with, but despite the fact that the main characters in these games are drug dealers, they are never users.


Drug usage in the GTA games is left largely to the minor characters, and most often, these secondary players in a GTA drama are made to look like fools.  In Vice City, Tommy Vercetti’s first underworld contact is the crooked lawyer and lunatic cokehead, Ken Rosenberg.  Rosenberg (a character likely inspired by David Kleinfeld from Carlito’s Way, a similarly coke addled, shady lawyer played by Sean Penn), is a less than competent, extremely neurotic compatriot of Vercetti’s.  Both Rosenberg’s ineffectuality and paranoia seems largely attributable to his coke habit.  Other “friends” of GTA protagonists that are featured as crazed by their dope habits include CJ Johnson’s hippie, peacenik pal, The Truth, from San Andreas.  While one of The Truth’s kooky conspiracy’s concerning alien technology being secreted away in a government facility does prove to have some veracity, nevertheless, The Truth’s role throughout the game is largely as comic relief.  He is a paranoid dude that hasn’t woken up from the marijuana haze of his hippie youth.  Neither of these characters’ problematic personalities probably even compare to the peyote induced stupidity of the members of the fictional band Love Fist in their appearance late in San Andreas.  From getting themselves lost in the Las Venturas desert to sleeping with a red neck gal infested with all manner of sexually transmitted diseases, these bozos clearly cannot handle their illicit substances.


However, it isn’t just intellectual retardation and generalized insanity that GTA typically associates with imbibing in pharmaceuticals.  Drug use is quite simply put, an easy enough marker for recognizing villainy.  This tendency is especially true and noticeable in San Andreas.  Part of what makes anti-hero CJ Johnson sympathetic and even potentially heroic in the game is his mission to clean up his hood, specifically by ridding it of the dealers that are enslaving his home.  An early cutscene in San Andreas introduces the player to one of CJ’s former Grove Street crew, a now rather broken down junkie named Big Bear.  Big Bear has been reduced through his drug dependency to slavery.  We find him cleaning the toilet of his dealer for the sake of protecting the source of his next fix.  Big Bear’s degradation inspires CJ’s commitment to “freeing” his people from this insidious chemical master in a that perhaps nods to Malcolm X’s opposition to drug use and observations about the effects of drug abuse on his community, specifically its tendency to become a new means of enslaving them.


If dope becomes an identifiable plague in CJ’s hood, his former friends that prove to be traitors to the Grove Street cause, Big Smoke and Ryder, are incarnations of that plague.  Big Smoke’s name has an obvious association with a chemical hobby while Ryder is almost never featured without a joint in his hand or a commentary on how he would rather be smoking.  As CJ discovers towards the close of the first act of San Andreas, Big Smoke and Ryder have betrayed Grove Street and are partly responsible for the invasion of dealers in the Los Santos neighborhood through their dealings with Grove Street outsiders.


San Andreas‘s main antagonist, the crooked cop Officer Tenpenny, likewise, is partially responsible for the surge in the drug trade in Los Santos.  He, too, is featured as a user in the game’s cutscenes; CJ watches him take a hit off a bong in a scene in which Tenpenny manipulates our beloved thug to do some dirty work for him.


The only time that CJ does get high in the game is accidental.  He does so as a result of torching a crop of marijuana in an attempt to dispose of evidence for The Truth when federal agents raid The Truth’s farm.  Appropriately enough given the negative connotations associated with being stoned in the GTAn series, this accidental high proves no end of trouble as CJ’s flight is impaired by a greenish haze and wavering camera.  The impaired gameplay itself indicates the problematic nature of being under the influence.


Interestingly, GTA‘s prohibition against drug use does not apply to legal drugs.  Alcohol abuse is entirely permissible in GTA IV.  While driving drunk is a possibility for Niko Bellic, it is a choice that can be avoided as Niko can do the responsible thing and take a cab following a night of binge drinking or otherwise suffer from ill effects similar to the accidental impairment of CJ Johnson.  That Niko does have this choice, though, may be related to the fact that drinking can have positive effects in this game and that legal drug use is treated in a more evenhanded fashion.  As one of numerous activities that can be selected from when Niko dates or builds relationships with his friends, drunkenness provides a for a kind of bonding experience between Niko and his chosen drinking buddy.  Like all social activities in GTA IV, drinking is a way of provoking dialogues that further reveal the personalities that he interacts with.  In particular, the dialogues that Niko takes part in with his drunken friends are especially illuminating about who these people really are as the drunken dialogues are completely uninhibited reflections of these individuals’ ids (for instance, note that the stool pigeon, Michelle, most overtly spills about her duplicitous nature when she gets smashed).


However, corruption, betrayal, and foolishness are the consequences of illegal drug abuse in what is otherwise a series of games that encourages the most illicit and questionable behaviors from its protagonists.  Engaging a prostitute, stealing a car, and straight up murder are all forgivable offenses in the GTA universe.  They are the cost of doing business.  But the protagonists’ bodies are generally treated as if they are a temple as the main characters may serve as distributors of drugs but never as users of these products.  In this emphasis on self restraint as a moral virtue, GTA may be reflecting a growing brand of moralism that focuses less on how the individual treats others as it does on how the individual treats him- or herself.  The “bad guys” in our culture are those that cannot control themselves: the tobacco user, the overeater.  Though, this emphasis on making sure that the individual does no harm to the self may reflect a belief that less evilly intended individual choices may have negative consequences on community.  We fear the perils of second hand smoke and the rising cost of health care for the obese maybe more often than we do the people directly or intentionally doing harm to someone else.  Thou Shalt Kill, Thou Shalt Steal, Thou Shalt Generally Interfere With the Life, Health, and Well Being of Others, these are the libertine commandments of Grand Theft Auto.  But when it comes to protecting the long term well being of the main character himself, the GTA games eschew the liberty of jacking up yourself for a clear imperative: Thou Shalt Deal, But Thou Shalt Not Use.


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Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009
A breakdown of the pros and cons of the two most popular exercise games for the Wii.
http://i.ehow.com

http://i.ehow.com


We all know what you’re wondering about these two games. Which is better at making that number on the scale go down? Out of the three articles I’ve read comparing the differences between Wii Fit and EA Active, the weirdest idea they’ve seized on is the PR meme that EA Active is a ‘Western’ game. To paraphrase, thanks to its sweat inducing exercises it can satisfy our cultural expectations for exercise far better than the stretches and few exercises of Wii Fit. An easier distinction is a mechanical one between the two games: the Wii Fit knows its limits. I’ve played both games (my unflattering Wii Fit review) and despite the extra sweat EA Active gives me, it’s still inferior to the Wii Fit. Obviously a lot of this boils down to my personal opinion, to give a “Western” review neither has made me lose weight, but mechanically EA Active just reaches beyond what the motion controls can really do.


From EA Active

From EA Active


Let’s start with the basic comparison. EA Active generates the majority of its calorie burn by running in place mixed with physical motions that provide a mild workout. By and far the largest edge EA Active has over Wii Fit is the pre-arranged workout program so that you’re not always clicking around different exercises. It’s also cheaper and refrains from calling you fat any time you weigh yourself. Its biggest problem is that it relies almost exclusively on the motion controls for all its exercises and it’s very, very picky about how you use them. This is due to a technical limitation of the Wiimote: it cannot detect where the device is located in relation to its previous location, just its current position. Angling the device, shaking it, or aiming at the screen can all be picked up but just raising it up and down or left to right won’t be sensed. The consequence is that you have to very precisely angle the remote for each step in a workout. A shoulder raise means starting with the Wiimote pointed down. Raise arm and angle to show that you’ve moved, then point the Wiimote upwards once you’re fully extended.


From EA Active

From EA Active


This becomes a problem for two reasons. First, in order to create some kind of resistance to all this moving the game comes with a band that you have to keep looped into your hands for certain exercises. Holding a Wiimote while carefully angling it AND keeping the band in your hand is less than ideal. Often the game won’t sense a motion and will patiently wait for you to do something that you’ve already physically done before making you do the entire exercise all over again. You end up pointing the Wiimote around while struggling to keep your grip on the giant rubber band you’re standing on. If you’re like me, you’ll also get disappointed very quickly with how weak (and easily broken) the rubberband that the games come with is in terms of traction. Upgrading to a stronger and more resistant band is not something I’d recommend though. While fidgeting with my Wiimote position my grip slipped on the stronger band and it knocked the living s*** out of me.


In contrast, the Wii Fit is a lot of stretching and mostly inadequate strength exercises mixed with ineffective organization. Unlike EA Active which tries to not rely on the Balance Board, Wii Fit uses it extensively. The game is able to quasi-follow player motion with the balance sensor so that your position is, if not perfect, at least in the right ballpark. And that’s about it. The thing that Nintendo grasps about their console and peripherals is not making them uncomfortable to use. Yoga stretches work well and several of the strength exercises are good. Of particular merit are the push-ups and ab exercises, which EA Active completely lacks. Although it’ understandable that EA Active doesn’t have yoga poses, not having any stretches whatsoever is irresponsible. If using one of these things is the only exercise a person has gotten in years, they are going to need to learn proper stretching. The problem with Wii Fit is that you can’t effectively link any of this stuff together. My Wii Fit workout consists of clicking on each Yoga and strength exercise once until I hit the thirty minute score. Compared to EA Active, which repeats each workout and ups the reps, Wii Fit is wildly ineffective.


There is also the question of the BMI system. Wii Fit will weigh you and inflate your Mii to match your body. This is a bit depressing and it gets worse as the weeks go by and you realize that losing weight is not as easy as it seems. Every week that little white board will ask you why you haven’t lost weight and you’re forced to remember the food, the beer, the skipping exercises, and all that sitting around as well. EA Active completely removes this feature and instead just tells you how awesome you are all the time. The fact that my avatar in EA Active is a fit looking guy no matter what further removes any actual reflection of how healthy I am. Say what you want about insulting video games, but at least the Wii Fit is being honest with you and helping to raise awareness about your health in the long term.


From Wii Fit

From Wii Fit


Neither game particularly gets their fitness trainers right. Wii Fit makes you interact with a squeaking white board while EA Active mixes real-life videos with avatars. Although the Wii Fit girl is actually really pleasant to hear and work with, the game insists the male instructor randomly take over workouts. This could be a personal thing, but I find the male instructor in Wii Fit to be creepy in a “Let me watch you work out” kind of way. EA Active is odd in that you spend most of the exercise routine staring at your avatar instead of the instructor. Instead of the balance board’s dots and meters to show you where the game thinks you’re positioned, your avatar acts as the feedback. The problem is that this isn’t particularly precise. I can see exactly how off I am with the bars and graphs of the Wii Fit, but the avatar in EA Active just reflects that I’m not doing it right without showing me why.


In the end, the problem with either game’s workout is the same. No weight means no proper resistance which leaves you with stretching or moving in place. Realizing this, Nintendo made Wii Fit into a Yoga game with a few decent strength exercises that comfortably stays within the boundaries of the technology. EA Active instead tries to use a rubber band that can work around the Wiimote to solve the resistance problem with mixed results. You can’t really get a good resistance with the band going because of all the crap you’re holding, so most of the exercises are little better than lifting your arms up and down anyways. The ones that make you sweat mostly consist of running or jumping in place, which almost always ends with you wondering why you don’t just go outside. What EA Active fixes about Wii Fit, the ability to combine exercises so you actually get a decent workout, will supposedly be solved by Wii Fit Plus. If someone wanted to beat out either game, they’d need to a release a Wiimote with attachable weights to get a real advantage.


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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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