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

 
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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009
Solving the mysteries of Assassin's Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.

One might observe that the opening few hours of Assassin’s Creed II resemble the pacing of a story told in a still life painting (that is: going nowhere fast).  Blessedly once the player has a larger sense of the picture of the game as its vistas and views unfold, it becomes a canvas much much more vividly alive.


While this metaphor between painting and game might seem just a cute criticism, it is also a rather appropriate one for a game that is set in one of the most fruitful eras and locations for painting in Western history, the Italian Renaissance.  Also, it is notably a game particularly focused on vision and seeing as the game’s protagonist, Ezio, is an assassin who can only get his bearings in the world by scaling buildings to overlook the places in which he will be hunting his prey.  This need translates into one of the major objectives in gameplay. Unlike other open world games, which usually feature a fairly clear sense of the layout of the place that the main character will be residing in through a map in both compass form and/or accessible through a pause menu, both Assassin’s Creed games require the player to uncover the details of such maps by reaching perches noted on a map that is otherwise obscured by a fog of war.  The fog of war is removed when the player figures out how to reach a perch and presses a “sychronization” button that results in a long sweeping camera pan around the city revealing its heights and depths to the player on the main screen but also as it clears away the obscurity of the mini-map.


Renaissance painters are frequently cited as the chief developers of the landscape painting in the history of art, so this camera pan, which has qualities of the landscape painting (revealing the immensity and grandeur of size of human surroundings) seems particularly fitting for this second game in the series.  After all, it is set within this time period. 


The Healing of a Madman

The Healing of a Madman (1494), Vittore Carpaccio

While one might note that landscape painting very often revels in showing the small stature of humanity in relation to their surroundings, art critics have noted the complicated relationship between landscapes and human beings especially as they relate to human power and authority.  The central thesis of Kenneth Robert Olwig’s Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic is that in landscape painting the viewer discovers that “our environment, conceived of as landscape scenery, is fundamentally linked to our political landscape.” Olwig’s observations concerning the landscape painting that developed during the Renaissance is especially indicative of this correlation between nature and the political.  For instance, he describes the world controlled by a Renaissance prince in terms of how it is viewed as landscape by such a ruler:
One characteristic of that world is that it was observed at neither ground level nor from a vertical point infinitely above, but somewhere in between—a compromise, as it were, between the vertical and the horizontal.  From the vertical axis were taken such elements as pagan gods and goddesses floating in the sky and tableaux showing the unvarying cycle of the season; from the horizontal axis, pastoral landscapes of Virgilian inspiration opening out to the horizon, that is, reaching deep into the recesses of an elongated stage.  The potentate viewed the entire spectacle from a well-placed, elevated seat.  HE was the force that made it all happen and now he could see it all—an essentially harmonious universe—going through its paces before his commanding eye.
Interestingly, in Assassin’s Creed 2 such tableaux’s become the object of Ezio’s studied eye and not that of a Renaissance potentate.  Having to crawl up the walls of Venetian churches or bell towers in Florence, Ezio finds himself at the “top of the world” to study and map the region and its doing.  That so much of Renaissance Italy’s heights are marked by churches and the like, though, is indicative of Olwig’s thesis.  As much of the game suggests, most of the powerful men of this period were directly or indirectly related to the church, and thus, the “elevated seat” of rulers could often be mapped to the elevated steeples and bell towers of the churches of the area and the men who control the knowledge of the world and cosmos that occupy those spaces and would normally then “control” those heights.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558), Pieter the Elder Bruegel

That Ezio climbs to these heights himself is indicative of his character as assassin and general troublemaker.  In attempting to figure out his bearings and to suss out the mysteries that underlie the landscapes (both their physical space but also the political realities that the cities represent and that he will involve himself in) before him, Ezio takes it upon himself to share the perspective of the vertical and horizontal worlds controlled by his opposition.  That Ezio is capable of surviving on the rooftops is suggestive of his challenge of those normally “seated” there to view the spectacle.  He wants to be able to view this spectacle too.  He may be able to wrest control of the heights, or at least, do so long enough in game terms to understand the lay of the land beneath him, what treasures and objectives that it holds (again, in game terms, since the mini-map provides information on collectibles and mission starting points).  In this sense, the game mechanic of revealing maps by climbing towers in order to understand how to proceed next is emblematic of the narrative, as those physical spaces represent the political world that Ezio needs to map and wreak havoc upon.

Thus, landscapes serve both the interests of this political narrative as well as the interests of uncovering the mysteries of power in the game.  Ezio is constantly trying to see the order of the conspiracies that underlie the hidden power structures that have embedded themselves into the landscape.  Be it in unraveling the mysteries of the Codex or by locating the glyphs that also mark the heights of these politicized buildings, the mysteries of Assassin’s Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.  Climbing towers to fully come “to know” the landscape beneath him becomes a metaphor for fully coming “to know” the grounds under which power lies.  To climb to these heights is to rebel and to attempt to see as a potentate or a god might, which is ironically exemplified by the artifact of power that so many are seeking in both games.  The apple of Eden involves coupling the concept of rebellion against authority with knowledge, thus, overcoming one’s lowly stature as mere mortal and becoming powerful “like a God.”  While taking on such authority through knowledge is warned against in the traditional views of this story, the man that so comfortably scrabbles over rooftops and cornices, the assassin Ezio, simply seems less afraid of a fall.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 9, 2009
The illusion of speed is magnified by the perspective offered to the player.

Video gaming’s recent love affair with parkour (or free running) should really come as no surprise given the centrality of two basic forms of movement, running and jumping, to the video game experience.  In a sense, this love affair might be traced back to Super Mario Bros. whose gameplay solely derives from the notion of carefully managing velocity and gauging distances.


One of the more innovative elements of of Super Mario Bros. is one often taken for granted in contemporary gaming, and while I can’t say with absolute certainty that the idea of a “speed run” button first appeared in Super Mario Bros., it is certainly the game that brought the usefulness of such a button to gamers’ general attention.


The notion is simple: hold down a button while moving and the avatar onscreen runs rather than walks.  The application of that simple mechanic made all the difference to the Mario experience, though, since Mario’s survival depends on leaping onto turtles and over seemingly bottomless pits.  Thus, the ability to change the speed of the character in order to make a jump of just the right distance to either bop a turtle on the head or to clear a distant jump becomes the main skill that needs to be mastered in order to solve the game. 


Here we are over twenty years later and this notion of playing with speed and evaluating distances is still one of the central mechanisms that gaming depends on.  Part of the allure of the simple run fast and jump mechanics of Mario games seem to derive from a pleasure that is taken on the part of the player that is probably less intellectual than it is visceral and kinetic in nature.  While precision is essential in succeeding in running and jumping and certainly there is an intellectual component necessary to process how fast and how far a game character can run and jump, there is something about the motion itself of moving in this way that reminds us of our own bodies and how they move.  Physics are being simulated alongside a simulation of physical expression, which brings us to the recent spate of games that have overtly or less explicitly adopted parkour (literally “the art of moving”) as a more refined influence in the simulation of human locomotion.


In particular, three recent games come to mind whose gameplay largely concerns emulating parkour and simulating it for the pleasure of the player, Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia, and Assassin’s Creed.  The first of these three, Mirror’s Edge most overtly references parkour as an influence on its gameplay, which is ironic as it seems in my estimation to be the least successful of the three in creating a simulation of a free runner.


Mirror’s Edge certainly attempts to immerse the player in the perspective of the free runner.  By adopting a first person perspective, the player finds themselves thrust into the simulation of running itself.  Velocity becomes immediately apparent to a player as a touch of a controller really does seem to “thrust” them forward into the world. The illusion of accumulating speed becomes much more apprehensible from behind the eyes of a free runner in a way that a third person, two dimensional perspective (like Mario’s) is unable to, since space itself seems to move past the player from this viewpoint as opposed to watching an avatar traverse it.  The illusion of speed is magnified by the perspective offered to the player.


Of course, the problem that underlies this model is one that plagues games from the first person perspective generally.  The somewhat artificial and rather “slow” means that one has in changing perspective (with a right hand controller stick for instance) as one moves rapidly through surroundings makes it difficult to quickly evaluate what you are looking at and to gauge what elements of the environment can be successfully traversed on foot or by leaping in the air.  The right thumbstick control scheme for looking around has yet to properly simulate the movement of the human head and eyes to effect this same ability to take in surroundings rapidly.  Mario has few of these problems as the two dimensional perspective nearly guarantees a pretty clear sense of just how wide an upcoming gap might be.  The first person camera perspective with no ability to “crane the neck” or “squint” to focus quickly seems sorely lacking in this regard.  Additionally, no real sense of where your “body” is underneath you (there seems to be some sense of weight that is lacking in this simulation, reminding me somewhat of the problems that I have with Wii bowling—it simulates the motion of rolling a ball, but I can’t gauge the ball’s “weight” with a Wiimote) makes it more difficult to judge where “you” will land.


Mirror’s Edge‘s interestingly stark and washed out aesthetics are a solution to at least the problem of perspective.  Since the world is so washed out, the game’s design provides visual cues to draw the attention of the runner that indicate what are the most useful environmental details to use to move through an environment and to indicate the best routes through them.  These markers, designated by their orangish color, are fairly noticeable as they stand out in contrast to the starkness of the rest of the world.


Unfortunately, this detail while sounding reasonable on paper is less useful in practice.  Since Mirror’s Edge‘s main sequences usually involve running for your life from some threat, it still remains difficult to quickly assess the landscape and make the right decisions about where to run.  Much death results or a tendency on the part of the player to have to stop frequently to regain their bearing, which kills the fluid dynamism that free running is all about.  In Mirror’s Edge, you take on the role of a free runner but a seemingly less than competent one since she is so frequently falling off things or starting, stopping to look around, starting up again, then stopping again to look around.  All the pleasure of moving in a fast, fluid way is replaced by a frantic, spasmodic form of “the art of moving.”  Unfortunately, the mechanics undermine the simulation not only because they don’t work well but also because they call into question the authenticity of the character herself.  Faith is supposedly a world class free runner, how come she falls down all the time and seems so incapable of keeping up a regular and fluid parkour pattern


Now before getting into arguments concerning whether or not the player is as skilled as the avatar that they are playing (and ignoring also for the moment that Mirror’s Edge does provide some slight narrative justification for Faith’s relative incompetence during its tutorials – she has been away for awhile, is rusty, and needs to brush up on her skillz), I want to turn my attention for a moment to the other two games that I brought up earlier that also lean heavily on mechanics that concern moving rapidly through an environment. 


The newest Prince of Persia depends heavily on just such a mechanic.  Curiously, by distancing the player from the experience through the use of a third person perspective and simplifying the way that the player responds to the environment the game more successfully creates the illusion of both speed and fluidity of movement but also the competence of the Prince as a free runner.  I (and others, like blogger Iriqois Pliskin) have commented before on how much Prince of Persia resembles rhythm games like Guitar Hero.  Much like Guitar Hero‘s note track designated by colors onscreen that correspond to the buttons needed to be pressed on a guitar controller, several simple and distinct visual markers like gouges in a rock face signal to the player of Prince of Persia what button to push at any given time as you approach that kind of obstacle.  Like a rhythm game, this does indeed make movement in Prince of Persia feel rhythmic as timing button presses—A, then B, then A again, then X—suggests the same kind of rhythmic timing that makes the Guitar Hero experience feel like an approximation of playing a guitar.  The illusion of playing in a band or running along a wall is supported by the very real sense of rhythm and timing that the player is experiencing while inputting commands on the controller.


This tends to further immerse the player in the simulation of a physical experience of moving fast across the landscape, flipping, spinning, andkicking out in a regular way as if one actually knew what one was doing.  The illusion of movement supports the illusion of a competent acrobat and gymnast.  Furthermore, that the Prince is saved from falling by his partner in parkour, Elika, further provides an illusion of a man who knows what he is doing (who slips once in awhile) as opposed to a player who just can’t keep up with the amount of visual data being thrown at him.


Likewise, Assassin’s Creed generates a similar sense of confidence in the player in an even more simple manner.  The mechanic of holding down one “speed run” button with another button that might be termed a “do anything that is appropriate given the context” button, Altair and Ezio are both capable of some stunning acrobatics with great regularity and the illusion of a real competence.  While a button that allows a player to signal his avatar to “do the right thing” in a given circumstance might seem like a cheat, it really serves as a more important support of the player’s sense of the character that they are playing and frankly adds a level of authenticity to a confident and competent acrobatic assassin. 


Altair and Ezio basically will determine how to respond to an environmental obstacle as is appropriate when holding down this button.  If they leap towards a small square chimney, they will perch when they reach it or bound off of it quickly if the button remains pressed down.  If they are just short of hitting a rooftop as they leap towards it, they will reach out and grab it.  This is a long way from the days of Super Mario Bros.in which a jump just shy of the lip of a cliff would feature a hapless Mario falling to his death without ever reaching out to save himself, hands left stupidly at his sides.


The reason that this isn’t a “cheat” is both due to the reasonableness of the idea that a trained acrobat would try to land correctly given the circumstances but also because it maintains the fundamental principles of the mechanics of running and jumping.  The player is not passively watching Altair and Ezio; the player’s responsibility is still to judge the velocity necessary for a jump and the distance that can be reasonably leaped.  Failure is still possible if the player makes a bone headed decision about what Altair and Ezio can actually do.  It is just that they aren’t such spazzes when performing their role as gymnast for the majority of the game.  The player is left to evaluate what can be done and where to go but in ways that still allow for the character to look both competent and experienced at the extraordinary feats that they are accomplishing.  Thus, both the simulation of kinetics is maintained but also the illusion of a competent hero, satisfying both the needs of the game as well as the needs of generating an authentic character within the parameters of the story.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009
Boa and heavy rouge complete the burlesque effect.

While it parodies the very thing that we do here at PopMatters.com, I kind of love Mark and Ari’s Ms. Pac-Man: Feminist Hero video:


The video pokes fun at “serious” readings of popular culture, and I can respect that.  We cultural critics do have a tendency to occasionally go overboard in assigning significance to our readings of seemingly superficial signs in media.  The parody here very cleverly sends up those moments. 


At the same time, I also kind of love the video because it really does contain interesting observations about Ms. Pac-Man’s relationship to feminist ideals.  The video makes me laugh, but it is also insightful at times.


If we are to treat Mark and Ari’s “thesis” in a semi-serious way, though, I must observe that what Mark and Ari may be observing in the presentation of Ms. Pac-Man is less the representation of feminist heroism as it may be a representation of the complexities of acknowledging gender in a Post feminist culture. 


In “Post feminism and Popular Culture,” Angela McRobbie discusses such complexities when she defines the concept of a “double entanglement” present in a Post feminist culture.  She describes such an entanglement as “the co-existence of neo-conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life . . . with processes of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations.”  In essence, McRobbie suggests that competing ideologies surrounding gender (traditional senses of what women should be as wives, mothers, and generally in relation to men alongside liberal values of female empowerment regarding freely making choices about marriage and sexuality) have become entangled with one another despite the seemingly contradictory values that traditionalists and progressives hold concerning the roles and behaviors of women.


McRobbie exemplifies this idea by describing a late 90s television spot for Citreon cars, in which Claudia Schiffer disrobes as she leaves the house to go for a drive in her car.  McRobbie reads this moment as an example of such an entanglement, saying, “This advert appears to suggest that yes, this is a self-consciously ‘sexist ad,’ feminist critiques of it are deliberately evoked. Feminism is ‘taken into account,’ but only to be shown to be no longer necessary. Why? Because there is no exploitation here, there is nothing remotely naıve about this striptease. She seems to be doing it out of choice, and for her own enjoyment.”  While the ad is suggestive of the idea that women are still reducible to something to be looked at for their sexual appeal (a more traditionalist position), nevertheless, this role is adopted as an example of the freedom and empowerment of choosing to be so (the progressive position).  McRobbie suggests that such power is clearly communicated in the ad because of the audience’s knowledge of Schiffer’s success, “the advert works on the basis of its audience knowing Claudia to be one of the world’s most famous and highly paid supermodels.”  Schiffer can afford to be an object because she is powerful enough to reduce herself in this way, to choose how to exploit herself.


Such a curious “double entanglement” of ideology similarly exists in the representation of Ms. Pac-Man.  While Ms. Pac-Man could be considered a feminist icon as a figure able to take on the world (or in this case the maze) all on her own, a maze rightly pointed out by Mark and Ari as being a more difficult puzzle to solve than her male counterpart’s slower maze with its stable fruits (Ms. Pac-Man has to work that much harder for her bonuses), nevertheless, these emblems of Ms. Pac-Man’s greater drive and need to prove herself are entangled by the imagery surrounding her.


Ms. Pac-Man’s bow, of course, marks her gender and is a simple enough way of distinguishing her from her male counterpart as female.  However, the Marilyn Monroe inspired beauty mark and lip gloss both suggest that Ms. Pac-Man is interested in maintaining an appearance that makes her more desirable as an object for others.  The dominant function of make-up is to enhance elements of appearance that are perceived to make women more attractive and the mole is an image evocative of a woman whose success stemmed from her ability to manipulate her status as object into a commodity.


Frankly, the image of Ms. Pac-Man on the side and front of the arcade machine is even more provocative of Ms. Pac-Man’s status as object as she resembles something akin to a pin-up.  Her leggy pose is reminiscent of that form.  That Ms. Pac-Man is “curvy” (quite literally, she is one big curve after all) is reminiscent of the pin-up period’s tendency to prefer a fleshier body type.  The boa and heavy rouge complete this more burlesque effect.


In an article that I read a number of years ago on female gamers, one psychologist suggested that one of the major reasons for Ms. Pac-Man’s appeal was that one of the reasons that female gamers were not attracted to video games is that they often need to be given “permission” to play with the boys.  By feminizing Pac-Man with a bow and a feminine identity (the “Ms.” marker), she further suggested that a female identity to inhabit while playing Pac-Man gives such “permission” (one might wonder about this same phenomena in comic books in which feminized versions of Batman and Superman are assumedly intended to capture the attention of female readers that otherwise might feel excluded from stories that are seemingly intended for boys). 


Various representations inspired by Ms. Pac-Man might suggest a more specific embrace of stereotypically female identity, though.  These representations also emphasize that female empowerment might not be suggested by Ms. Pac-Man’s imagery or what appeals to female gamers, but instead, the elements of Ms. Pac-Man that are emblems of sexual objectification.  These elements of her identity continue to represent the “double entanglement” of the Ms. Pac-Man image as the images throughout this essay suggest.  From retro shoes to lingerie inspired by Ms. Pac-Man to even a possibly suggestive “tramp stamp” featuring the consumption of a cherry, these images suggest an embrace of Ms. Pac-Man by the game’s audience as one doubly entangled by objectification and empowerment at the same time.


While the title “Ms.” is evocative of the feminist movement of the 1970s, Ms. Pac-Man’s pin-up inspired representations seem in some way more a product of a pre-feminist culture than they are evocative of the politics of Gloria Steinem.  Like Suicide Girls and Pussycat Dolls, Ms. Pac-Man’s image seems one predicated on recoginizing objectification as a viable choice assuming that the ability to pursue pursue power (in this case, perhaps, power pellets) by any means chosen by women has already been won.  Game over.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009
Despite being a simulation about soldiers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 calls into question our tendency to blindly follow rules in general.

This discussion of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains spoilers for this game as well as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Bioshock.


The most compelling thing about the use of the first person perspective in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was how it victimized the player.  From the opening scene in which the player was forced to take on the role of the victim of an execution to the sequence in which the player tried but failed to escape a nuclear blast, the game victimized the player by immersion. Taking full advantage of the illusion of the personal that the first person evokes in video games (you do after all seem to see right out of the eyes of the character that you are inhabiting), the immersive quality of being able to control your perspective in the first sequence but being left unable to escape the consequence of a fatal shot leaves the player sharing and experiencing the helplessness of the doomed character.  Likewise, the ability to crawl from the wreckage of a helicopter downed by the eddies of a nuclear explosion but being unable to get much further before dying in the ruined landscape is a suggestion that despite seemingly having “control” over a character (something the gamer is accustomed to having) that control of a final destiny is tenuous at best.  The character’s helplessness is the player’s helplessness, reflecting the game in the experience of it.  For gamers used to the sense of invulnerability and immortality that gaming experiences provide through multiple lives and continue options, this experience produces an unaccustomed impotence.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 significantly ups the ante of exploring ways of reflecting the experience of playing a character with the players own experience of gaming, but it additionally begins to explore how that relationship coincides with questions of rules and authority.


At the beginning of the third chapter of the game, an Army Ranger,  Pfc. Joseph Allen, is briefed on his mission to go undercover with a Russian named Makarov who has no territorial or political affiliations.  Makarov is genocidal and traffics in human beings.  As the briefing reveals, “Makarov’s fighting his own war, and he has no rules and no boundaries.”  Rules and boundaries become the chief interest of this sequence and subtley also everything that the player has done thus far and usually does in an FPS or any video game for that matter.  Playing at soldier is what a player does in any game in the Call of Duty series and always within the same sorts of boundaries that a soldier has.  You are given mission objectives and meant to fulfill them.  Gamers are most often followers of rules.


Indeed, in the previous mission while playing as Sgt. “Roach” Sanderson, the player is given an onscreen prompt to “Follow MacTavish” as Sgt. “Soap” MacTavish leads a mission to infilitrate an enemy compound.  The instruction is almost needless as any player of games is accustomed to following other characters’ leads in missions.  The player is unlikely to give any second thoughts to following the instructions of MacTavish.  Falling into the role of a soldier is about the equivalent to falling into the role of the player of a game.  Follow the rules and don’t step outside of the boundaries.  Conforming to rules leads to solution, the solving of the game.


The Makarov mission, however, begins to challenge rules and boundaries with its content and much of that challenge lies in the mission briefings description of the events surrounding the mission.  It explains that in the current global political situation “Uniforms are relics.  The war rages everywhere, and there will be casualties.”  This reference to uniforms certainly informs about Makarov’s nature as an apolitical animal that is not affiliated with, not marked by the uniform of a citizen loyal to a particular national interest, but it also alludes to the situation that the player is about to experience, one that violates the “rules” and “boundaries” of a typical military FPS.


The mission begins with the player riding an elevator alongside four heavily armed men that are dressed as civilians (one of which is Makarov).  That familiar and almost invisible prompt “Follow Makarov” is one of only two instructions that the player receives in terms of his objectives for this mission.  The second is one of his colleagues turning and simply stating “No Russian.”  As the elevator opens and the player moves forward (“following Makarov”), the reason for the second instruction becomes clear.  A group of civilians easily noted by their lack of uniforms (indeed “uniforms are relics” and the “rules” and “boundaries” of the game of war have seemingly been altered in modern warfare) waits in line at airport security. 


As a player that was “following Makarov” and drawing conclusions about the lines that I had just heard about uniforms now being irrelevant in warfare and that I was to follow Makarov’s lead to complete my objective, I felt one thing at this moment, despair.  My character had lifted his machine gun, and I felt a sick feeling in my stomach.  Makarov and his men opened fire.  I did not.


What I did wonder as I watched Makarov and his men gun down three or four dozen people in front of me is: how many players would open fire on the crowd?  After all, like every other mission in the game and most missions in video games, instructions were clearly given on what to do: follow.


My choice not to do so seemed cued by the lack of uniforms in front of me.  Enemies in video games generally are marked visually in some way to represent them as targets.  Such markings include ugliness, monstrosity, and, of course, the uniform of a foreign government.  My choice to not open fire may have been as “rule driven” as the choice to open fire.  Players opening fire may do so because they are trained to follow onscreen prompts.  Players who do not may not do so because they are trained to recognize the “otherness” of enemies through simple and clear signs like uniforms. 


In any case, I stood and watched.  As Makarov and his men advanced, I quickly fell into the role of “following” as I was supposed to.  I followed Makarov up an escalator as he and his men killed civilians in droves.  At one point, I even stepped to the edge of a balcony to watch the man that was now beside me kill everyone below.  I fell into my role as undercover agent.  Unwilling to participate, I also was participating in not blowing my cover.  I realized that I had become complicit in the actions of Makarov and his thugs by merely observing. 


My second feeling of despair hit as we were about to descend to the floor below, and it occurred to me that I was armed and standing behind Makarov.  While uniforms were obviously not relics to me, why hadn’t I tried to intervene on the behalf of the victims of those who violated such rules?  I am ashamed to say that I hesitated for a moment wondering if shooting Makarov would cause me to fail my mission (again, rules intervened in my considertaion of how to appropriately participate in this sequence).  However, I determined to see what the outcome of shooting Makarov would be.


Indeed, killing Makarov branded me a traitor and ended the mission.  Thus, as the game loaded me once again to the checkpoint, I found myself fatally bound to follow Makarov whether as an active participant or not.  I continued as observer and found myself scanning the faces of crumpled bodies that we waded through as we approached the doors out to the tarmac where rules and uniforms saved me once again.


Outside we were greeted by policemen that began shooting at us.  While I waited a bit and watched Makarov and his men engage the cops, I could clearly see that they were making no headway and in any case, my life was being threatened, and I knew the rules: when you are being shot at you can shoot back.  Suddenly, my role as soldier and as a gamer had been reinstated by the uniforms of my enemies.


The ending sequence of the level does provide a kind of means of absolving the player of the guilt of either having had directly participated in this sequence or in indirectly by avoiding but still watching an atrocity.  Pfc Allen is gunned down by Makarov, removing the stain of his actions by negating the character as a future protagonist.


Currently, it is all the rage to prize games that offer players complex choices, moral and otherwise, in approaching solutions to levels or resolution of narrative.  Indeed, one of the most compelling and largely unique things about games as a medium is that the audience of the medium is given the ability to participate in and potentially alter the narrative itself.  Much maligned are games that enforce narrative elements like the often criticized sequence in Bioshock in which the player suddenly loses control of himself and is made to execute Andrew Ryan.  Despite the seeming choice that the player seems to have to not fire, though, like Bioshock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 seems interested in interrogating the relationship between authority and free will.


Certainly, I may have “chosen” the more noble route of not participating in the murder of innocents.  Nevertheless, I still followed Makarov as instructed.  Even when I realized that I might have some alternative option to intervene in an activity that was distasteful to me, I still felt hamstrung by rules and hesitated in executing Makarov and his men because of my expectations of the rules and conventions of the game despite my own moral quandry.


Despite being a simulation about soldiers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 calls into question our tendency to blindly follow rules in general.  In fact, as I was playing through this sequence the prompt “Follow Makarov” evoked my recollection of how I had previously been quite comfortable with the prompt “Follow MacTavish” and made me wonder why I had not felt anything about gunning down humans that were one symbolic marker away from civilians.  If uniforms are only relics now, why were uniforms something that I could acceptably assault before now with no concern for the human underneath?


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is ferocious and terrible.  It once again victimizes the player, ironically, by offering the illusion of choice to the player but then reminding him of his own dedication to rules that are followed consciously and unconsciously.  The reflection of the life of the soldier on the experience of the gamer once again becomes a way of causing the player to reflect on themselves.  In this case, though, it may be a reflection of a terrible ferocity that we share with the game.


Even if we believe that rules don’t guide our decisions and that we are free to make choices, remember that even a man with no rules and no political boundaries may find himself falling prey to deeply embedded rules: “No Russian.”


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 11, 2009
The Oedipal drama that would normally ensue in father-son stories is inverted, though, perhaps as a result of Tony's homosexuality.
Your brand of charming homosexuality, Tony, it’s kind of run out of steam.
—Rocco Pelosi, Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony

This discussion of The Ballad of Gay Tony does contain spoilers.


The Ballad of Gay Tony is the straightest Grand Theft Auto ever. Okay, well not exactly (or perhaps, what my title implies isn’t exactly what I mean).  Nevertheless, despite its title, heterosexual sex acts are considerably more common than homosexual ones in The Ballad of Gay Tony.


This is due in large part to the significance of sex to this particular iteration of GTA but also due to the nature of the protagonist of this game, Luis Lopez, a partial owner of one of the hottest clubs in Liberty City, Maisonette 9. Lopez is a ladies man, unafraid to shake it on the dance floor in order to get a little on the side, and he is also the number one of the man who owns the controlling share of Maisonette 9, Gay Tony Prince.


When The Ballad of Gay Tony was announced, I was certainly surprised, left wondering if Rockstar had decided to feature a homosexual protagonist in one of their games.  That Gay Tony would not be the persona that players would be taking on was rather quickly made clear in Rockstar’s promotion of the game.  Still though, Gay Tony is a most crucial character as the title of the game implies, and his presentation is fairly fascinating given Rockstar’s history of creating cartoonish stereotypes of both gays and racial and ethnic groups as part of their parody-laden crime sagas.


As the owner of a nightclub that is signified by a description of an architectural space and designated by a number, Tony largely seems to be a kind of re-imagining, of Steve Rubell, the gay owner of Club 54.  Unlike Rubell, a man referred to openly as Gay Tony is obviously not closeted (he also owns a gay nightclub called Hercules), but Tony has been running clubs since 1987 very close to the year of Rubell’s death from AIDS.  As a result, Tony seems to be a kind of consideration of what a man like Rubell would be doing in the 2000s, and Tony is certainly prone to Rubell’s darker tendencies as he maintains a pretty substantial coke habit as well as exhibiting symptoms of paranoia and stress as a result of operating his businesses.


Club life is the central focus of The Ballad of Gay Tony, which brings us back to the sex act as a central concern of this version of GTA.  Much like Studio 54, Maisonette 9 is a hotbed of hormones.  Dancing leading up to the sex act is a tale as old as time and one written into nature itself as humans mirror the animals in performing mating dances to get the juices flowing.  The game features the ability to participate directly in such mating ritual as Luis can shake a little tail to get a little tail at the club, and his conquests frequently give out phone numbers that can be dialed up for health boosting booty calls at any point during the game.


In that sense, Gay Tony‘s sensibilities are a bit retrograde by linking sexual habits with criminality.  Much like crime fiction of the early twentieth century, homosexuality in crime fiction is often chained to the seamier aspects of life, including the criminal.  As anyone who has read a Raymond Chandler novel or two knows, crime novels tend to associate homosexuality with generally deviant lifestyle choices, and thus, homosexual characters in crime fiction are frequently associated with pornography, drugs, and the like (I’m thinking of novels like The Big Sleep for example).  Tony’s occupation and personal habits connect him to such things, but Luis’s promiscuity also marks him as being deviant from the mainstream ideal of monogamous sexuality.  Thus, the title Gay Tony might imply that sex of a wilder or more taboo nature is going to be explored or expressed in the game, sex that might be viewed as a “normal” part of a more licentious lifestyle, like that of a man dabbling with underworld connections.


However, Luis’s promiscuity is complicated by his own background, which is as a son whose own father abandoned him.  Curiously, this complication also connects him more closely to Tony.  At several points over the course of the story, Luis suggests that Tony has been like a father to him, having been the one to get Luis employed and on the straight and narrow (or at least out of prison) after running afoul of the police in his younger days.  Tony, too, mentions that Luis is like a son to him.  Thus, the game is less than retrograde in presenting a rather daring and progressive version of a father-son story, one in which the “father” is a homosexual.


The Oedipal drama that would normally ensue in such stories is inverted, though, perhaps as a result of Tony’s homosexuality.  Luis is not especially threatened by his “father’s” power as neither one compete with one another over a mother or any woman for that matter.  Freud would suggest that such competition is a necessary part of the psychology of becoming an adult.  The symbolic act of killing the father becomes foundational for becoming a mature adult capable of taking on the authority of being a father himself.  However, when faced with the dilemma of having to literally kill Tony near the climax of the game (which is a result of some mobsters needing the head of one of the two men because a diamond heist has put the two into bed with and in the cross-hairs of several criminal organizations), Luis chooses to save the man (as Tony did the younger Luis) rather than to destroy him and take his place (as the mobsters offer Luis the opportunity to do).  Indeed, throughout The Ballad of Gay Tony, Luis spends much of his time caring for this adopted “father” whose addiction is leading to some really bad decision making on the part of the elder of the two men.  This curious re-structuring of the Oedipal conflict with a homosexual and a heterosexual father and son removes conflict from their relationship altogether and offers instead a co-operative version of the relationship in which one man brings up and nurtures the other and then the other likewise returns the favor.


Thus, despite Rockstar’s frequent employment of stereotyping ethnic and sexual identity for the sake of parody, The Ballad of Gay Tony actually becomes a rather different kind of discourse on the development of human beings and their relationships to one another because of (not in spite of) their differences.  Social deviance becomes a means of uniting very different people rather than in dividing them from society.  Instead, Tony and Luis manage to form the most fundamental of social units out of deviance, a family.


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