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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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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 4, 2009
Despite being a simulation of dictatorship, Tropico 3 is largely about questioning authority.

In Tropico 3, you take on the role of a Latin American dictator on a fictitious island in the Caribbean.  Sounds like fun, right?


Well, as anyone who likes to play god in simulation games by taking on the role of managing cities, zoos, movie studios, or amusement parks can tell you, doing so is generally a fairly complex undertaking that generally tests your own abilities in administrating but rarely tests your authority.  Despite being a simulation of dictatorship, Tropico 3 is largely about questioning authority and also about questioning the ideals of those politically motivated enough to arrest power.


Like other god games, this one will have you building an economy while developing and managing resources (both natural resources as well as people).  Unlike other god games, the political aspects of leadership become an additional management issues.  While “El Presidente” is free to make decisions about what to build and how to allocate the treasury of Tropico, he or she will also need to pay attention to the interests of a host of interest groups that influence the tiny people that find themselves under the sway of your “benevolent” guidance.  These interest groups range wildly from Capitalists to Communists to Militarists to Nationalists to the Religious.


As a result, while the various scenarios that the player can choose to play out in campaign mode have specific overarching goals (like shipping a certain amount of tropical goods over the course of several decades or building an economy based on oil profits or staying in power for three decades or socking away a large amount of cash in your Swiss Bank account before your tenure as dictator is over), any of these specific goals can only be met by kowtowing to the whims and needs of these various interest groups.  While building up an agriculturally based economy might seem like a simple enough goal, try doing so at the same time that religious Tropicans want you to build them a cathedral or the military wants better pay for those that defend Tropico against foreign and domestic threats (especially domestic threats but more on that in a moment) or the Communists are demanding better health care for all Tropicans.


Thus, Tropico suggests that you might play at being a seeming “master of men” while exposing the political reality of such “mastery”: that even a dictator has to bow to the demands of the little people if he or she wants to remain in power.  An almost Jeffersonian claim concerning the assumption that power is only granted through the will of the people underlies this democratization of dictatorial power.  This is democracy born of antagonism with the people, though, not by being directly empowered by them.  Indeed, any of the interest groups (of which there are seven in total in addition to the foreign interests of the US and USSR, since the scenarios are all set during decades of the Cold War) that might choose to begin attacking the infrastructure of the nation if they become sufficiently uncomfortable with your power.  Particular groups, like the Militarists, become especially thorny problems as they may simply mount a palace coup and remove you from power altogether if their needs are not addressed or if they feel that the safety of Tropico is threatened.  Elections may also be difficult to control (though, fraud provides some limited options) if a large enough group of variant interest groups find themselves generally dissatisfied with the fruit of their dictator’s labor.


Tropico then is played as a balancing act made up of constant political pandering.  The addition of edicts that can be issued unilaterally aids this process of pandering.  Edicts change the rules of the game and also cost a regular amount of money to maintain over a period of time.  Some edicts are just generally helpful to the Tropican community.  For example, the literacy edict improves relationships with the Intellectuals but also improves education and skills among Tropican workers.  However, the more interesting edicts are those that tend to pit interest groups against one another.  Declaring same sex marriages legal on Tropico will help to assuage any rifts that you have managed to create with the Intellectuals, but the edict will also open up new rifts with the Religious.


This emphasis on practical pandering, too, emphasizes another aspect of the game’s themes concerning the nature of politics themselves.  Since you have your own goals as dictator, which are not necessarily bad for the people of Tropico (building a grand economy for them couldn’t hurt could it?), practicality and pragmatism tend to trump any kind of adherence to political philosophy or ethics.


This Machiavellian vision of the machinery of the political can be quite pleasing from a gaming perspective as well as leading to often cynical observations about how certain philosophies’ ideas can be used pragmatically rather than idealistically to meet the goals of the individual in power.  A troubling but also surprisingly thrilling moment for me came in a scenario in which I was building a very strong economic infrastructure and realized that my workforce was not sufficient to maintain my economic engine.  My relationship with the Nationalists was quite poor at the time as I had hired a good many foreign workers to try to keep up with my need for a larger workforce.  However, my open immigration policy was pushing them towards rebellion.  I had never had the need to issue a contraceptive ban during the game before as I had merely seen it as a way to please the religious while pissing off the intellectuals.  Doing so seemed a pointless tradeoff of potentially rebellious citizenry.  However, I suddenly saw the very pragmatic purpose of “finding religion” and additionally realized that doing so could also benefit me by creating a native workforce, thus, stabilizing my fractured relationship with the Nationalists.  Philosophy and ethics bore very little relevance on my quick decision to issue the ban.  I needed more Tropican babies and the religion of Tropico allowed me to create them.


It is these moments of pragmatic insight and decision making that carries with it complex consequences (hurting you in some ways and helping you in others) that make the simulatory politics of Tropico 3 most interesting as they are expressed through gameplay.  Being a dictator is indeed fun, but it is also a rather wicked way of coming to understand the practical ramifications of seemingly absolute power.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 28, 2009
The game is less interested in presenting a building simulation (as the previous games in the series were) as it is in presenting a world of mystery where persistence, not problem solving, is key to resolving a mystery.
There are also a few badly-scared champions of the formal or the classic mystery who think no story is a detective story which does not pose a formal and exact problem and arrange the clues around it with neat labels on them. Such would point out, for example, that in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story) because the reader is kept thinking about something else. Yet in The Glass Key the reader is constantly reminded that the question is who killed Taylor Henry, and exactly the same effect is obtained; an effect of movement, intrigue, cross-purposes and the gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway. The rest is spillikins in the parlor.
—Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

In attempting to distinguish the hard boiled detective story from the kind of “parlor” detection of traditional British detective fiction, Raymond Chandler suggested that a distinct difference emerges in the interests of these two subgenres of mystery.  The latter “classic” form is concerned with solving a formal problem.  Hard boiled or American crime fiction is more concerned with setting a tone and resolving mysteries through movement, intrigue, cross-purposes, and the elucidation of character.  What this difference boils down to in practice is that detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot become logicians that draw conclusions based on careful studies of evidence and formal problem solving all while sipping tea in the parlor.  Detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade don’t so much investigate by reasoning out solutions as much as they get their hands dirty by wading into the muck of the world that a crime takes place in in order to see what might shake out.


The British detective is brilliant, insightful, and driven by logic.  The American detective is persistent.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 21, 2009
Unlike the radical individualism that marks and perhaps romanticizes the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto, Saint's Row succeeds in creating a positive response to the Saints through their representation of them as a gang of slightly more thoughtful, slightly more opened minded thugs.

Most games based on the Grand Theft Auto formula of creating an open world, in which a player in the form of a criminal is allowed free reign to explore and dominate a world, have a tendency to attempt to distinguish themselves from this forerunner in some fundamental kind of way.  Games like The Godfather or Scarface have attempted various ways of changing up the open world formula by grafting area control and economic development elements into the mix of shooting and driving components that form the basis of GTA-style gameplay.


These additions to gameplay are welcome enough to fans of this form of crime fiction.  They also seem appropriate given that the player is taking on the role of a criminal and being allowed to play out the “business” of being a member of an organized crime syndicate or gang seems a sensible choice for building a more complex gaming system. 


However not all GTA clones have sought to make major innovations in the genre. Realizing the successfulness of the series lies in the experience of ripping off cars and creating mayhem alongside its generally satirical and absurd tone, THQ’s Saint’s Row (while sometimes making some subtle improvements to certain weaknesses of the GTA-style “thug simulator”) has largely chosen to adhere to the basic gameplay concepts and generally parodic qualities of its source of inspiration.  This tendency has led to a number of folks observing that the game is something of a GTA “clone” (a truly dreaded term given its usual implications of merely being a rip off of a more successful original).


Nevertheless, I would argue that the Saint’s Row series does distinguish itself from GTA in some subtle ways that are perhaps more related to some of its presentation of criminality than in its approach to gameplay.  While GTA games tend to focus on a kind of central and largely solitary protagonist, there is a greater emphasis on collectivism in Saint’s Row that is interestingly very much antithetical to exclusive individuality as its gang culture is rather radically inclusive.


Now the notion of radical inclusivity should at once raise some eyebrows when discussing gang social dynamics.  Seemingly much of the gangster lifestyle can be equated to a kind of tribalism that may be related to territorial interests or even hereditary or biological ones.  Gangs form around territory and shared interests, and thus, gang members surround themselves with fellows of similar socioeconomic backgrounds as themselves.  Or gangs are organized, like the Mafia, around family units that similarly have related social and economic interests that they wish to defend.  In either case, most gangs have a tendency towards homogeneity rather than towards recruitment of a diverse membership.


The original Saint’s Row certainly represented this tendency clearly through the gangs opposed to the 3rd Street Saints.  Los Carnales, the Westside Rollerz, and the Vice Kings all had a pretty homogeneous racial make-up (race being a relatively easy visual marker for representing such commonality) as each was largely made up of Spanish, Asian and white, and black gang members respectively.  Curiously, the gang that the player’s avatar finds himself a part of distinguishes itself from these three gangs through its racial diversity rather than its racial and ethnic homogeneity.  The Saints colors, purple, are the only color that marks this group’s unity unlike its opposition whose skin colors were largely as common to one another as their chosen gang colors (the Westside Rollerz represented some slight degree of diversity with their seemingly biracial make-up, however, the Rollerz social class represented by their more suburban territory might serve as a further homogenizing element).


Given the positive valorization of racial and ethnic diversity in contemporary Western culture, the Saints embrace of inclusivity has a subtle effect on the player’s perception of the gang.  They are clearly the most civilized of these warring tribes of thugs, since they are so progressive and open minded.  Unlike the radical individualism that marks and perhaps romanticizes the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row succeeds in creating a positive response to the Saints through their representation of them as a gang of slightly more thoughtful, slightly more opened minded thugs.


The gang’s leadership is similarly marked with this commitment to diversity as the Saints’s leader Julius is black and his lieutenants are Asian and white (though there are no major hispanic leaders).  This inclusive make-up is even helpful to the gang, since its members find themselves more capable of slipping moles into their rivals ranks; they have members that “look like” their rivals.  Diversity here is not simply a mark of the civilized, but it also demonstrates how such a strategy of inclusivity is advantageous and “smarter” than racial homogeneity.


Of course, some of the reason for the racial diversity of the Saints might be attributed to THQ’s decision to give players of Saint’s Row considerably more freedom in creating an avatar of that player’s own design.  Unlike Grand Theft Auto, whose characters are necessarily defined by the game’s narrative, Saint’s Row contains a fairly robust character creation system that allows the player to design their ideal criminal’s appearance, including racial characteristics. 


Indeed, the race and ethnicity of GTA characters are deeply wedded to the storyline that Rockstar has in mind for each installment of the series, and thus, the sort of freedom that Saint’s Row is looking for in crafting a character seems unlikely given the significance of various characters’ backgrounds.  Tommy Vercetti’s Italian heritage links him to his Mafia roots, CJ Johnson is a young black man from a Los Santos ‘hood, and Niko Bellic hails from an unnamed Eastern European country that has been devastated by war and left Niko with an axe to grind and a killer instinct.  The story of an inclusive gang allows Saint’s Row to give the player more freedom in crafting a racial identity of their own without interfering with the story.


Interestingly, this same system’s expansion in Saint’s Row adds an even more radically progressive inclusivity to the identity politics of Saint’s Row.  Since the protagonist of the first game was badly burned in an explosion on a yacht at the conclusion of the first game, Saint’s Row begins by allowing the player to once again select this character’s appearance.  The attempted assassination of the character becomes a useful conceit for justifying this change as reconstructive surgery.  What is especially radical about this chance to “update” the character’s look (assuming the player played the first game) is that not only can the player choose to change up the character’s hair and eye color alongside his race, but it is that the main character’s gender can be reassigned as well.


To my knowledge, no other open world crime game has allowed the player to play as a woman, let alone as a transgendered character.


Before considering this decision’s implications for the player, though, it should be noted that Saint’s Row 2 largely maintains its distinctions between the “good gang” and the “bad gangs” through racial unity and diversity.  Saint’s Row 2 concerns conflicts with a Japanese gang and an Afro-Caribbean gang.  A third gang, the Brotherhood, is interestingly more homogeneous in nature, which is especially interesting because they initially attempt to form a truce with the newly reformed Saints, suggesting, perhaps, that this more inclusive style of gang membership does lend itself towards more peaceable and civilizing tendencies.


Returning to the reconfiguration of the player’s avatar, though, players who adopt a new racial identity may certainly note how easily they are once again adopted into the Saints despite their change in appearance, but a player who adopts the role of a transgendered gangster will likewise find that their former colleagues have managed to maintain an extremely progressive stance towards identity, which might be surprising given the radical nature of their change


Now, I don’t want to make too much of the scripting that acknowledges identity and identity change in the second game as it is largely played as a joke, but I find it notable that the nature of the joke largely changes based on the player’s choices in reshaping their identity and their choices made during the prior game.  In that sense, Saint’s Row exhibits a really interesting consequence of a medium that allows its audience to alter the course of the narrative.  While a script is in place for the game regardless of those choices (the linear narrative will remain regardless of the player’s choices about character creation), the way that those lines are interpreted by the player are directly affected by such choices and thus do alter the message of the text because the context in which the lines are understood changes their signification.


The notion that meanings need to be reconsidered under certain contexts are common enough in literary works.  For example in Natheniel Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter, Hawthorn acknowledges a symbol’s meaning can change given its context in a number of ways and that when such changes occur that their consequences are meaningful whether that meaning be intended or not.  The Scarlet Letter A itself is intended by the Puritans to mark Hester Prynne as an adulterous.  However, since Hester is allowed to design it herself, she sews an emblem that is highly decorative and ostentatious, something potentially beautiful.  When she emerges before the Puritan women with the A on, they are offended by its message, both because it is emblematic of Hester’s sin but also because it is so ornate and beautifully made that it also suggests a defiance in its wearer (probably very much an intended message on Hester’s part).  Later in the novel, a Native American visiting the Puritan community sees Hester’s A and assumes that she is a personage of great honor and power.  This alternate reading of the A results in an unintended message that nevertheless has consequences as it alters the way that he chooses to behave towards her. 


To illustrate what I mean in the context of the Saint’s Row series, players who choose to play both Saint’s Row and Saint’s Row 2 as a man are likely to find Johnny Gatt’s comments (Gatt is a former lieutenant in the Saints) to be mildly amusing when he notes that the player looks like he has changed in some way and asks the protagonist, “Did you do something with your hair?”  If the player has altered their race, this comment takes on an understated and ironic tone However, the joke reads even more differently when the player has chosen to adopt a female role for the second game.  Gatt’s wildly, understated comment is all the more ironic in this context, but it is also serves as a kind of reassurance that Gatt still recognizes and is not rejecting the appearance of the character. 


Thus while joking, Gatt still seems pretty accepting of a big, big change in the character.  In this context, the superficiality with which he treats the transformation becomes a kind of acknowledgement of an essential respect for the character, especially because this comment is one of the game’s few acknowledgements of such a radical identity shift.  Gatt’s interactions with the character then revert to something resembling the general camaraderie that his character showed towards this same individual towards the close of the first game.  Thus, unlike just choosing a new eye color for a character and having Gatt shrug it off, Gatt’s joking acknowledgment of radical identity reassignment, followed by his resumed comfort with the character speaks quietly but clearly to a sense that the character’s essential self is respected regardless of what physical changes have been made to the character.


There is little else to say regarding the gender reassignment possibilities in Saint’s Row 2, and while it may well be that the game’s developers didn’t bother to seek to explore the complexity of this issue in the game’s script, the near silent acceptance of such transformation tends to speak volumes in the context of the game’s commitment to accepting and embracing diverse identities.  Maybe it is just a character creation thing but curiously that mere mechanism sends rather interesting messages whether intended to do so or not about the nature of assigning identity through appearance.


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