In contrast to the the infamy surrounding its more contemporaneous descendents, G. Christopher Williams explores the past of the free-roaming criminal video game in its more swashbuckling origins, noting that Pirates! not only made history, but that history made the game less unsettling without losing the fun. Avast, maties!
Pirating the Gangstahs: Why the Phrase "Yo Ho" May Be Less Offensive Than You Think
Before there were gangsters and gangstas tearing up the 'hood, there were the truly bad men. Before Grand Theft Auto, there was Pirates!
While we gamers like to pretend that the Grand Theft Auto series pioneered the free-roaming video game genre, with its emphasis on freedom and wanton destruction, several hundred years ago (or maybe just a couple of decades, depending on your perspective) Rockstar Games was beaten to the punch by a man named Sid Meier.
Forget carjacking. Real men jack sloops.
Or, at least, I believe that was the important lesson I was supposed to learn way back in 1987 when I first booted up a floppy disk containing suggestive material including peril and piracy on my Commodore 64.
Looking back on the design of Pirates!, on the surface it really is rather stunning how many of its elements parallel the bad boy of video gaming culture, GTA. Besides the aforementioned hijacking of boats (a necessity for any pirate who needs extra space for hauling his bling and his booty), much of what made Pirates! innovative, and ultimately a classic, is shared in common with its modern-day cousin.
The most obvious commonality is, of course, that both games allow you to play and experience a criminal lifestyle. However, Pirates! existed long before the ESRB was a gleam in a concerned senator's eye, and because of its displacement in time, its allowance for a slightly more romanticized and seemingly less threatening role for boys and girls to play never really evoked the horror in parent's hearts that GTA protagonists CJ Johnson, Tommy Vercetti, or Claude have managed. Despite its simulation of a lifestyle based on carnage and cruelty, a pirate costume causes no more tongue-clucking and tsking on Halloween than a pitchfork-wielding devil or green-faced witch. On the other hand, a strapped thug costume or a ghetto 'ho may be a different matter -- a little too close culturally in space and time for granny's approval.
Nevertheless, it is obvious what criminality provides for a game attempting to allow its players the liberty to go anywhere and do anything within the confines of its little pixelated world. The criminal can break the rules. Thus, pirates or gang bangers serve as a thematic match to a game based on bucking linearity and other typically prescriptive, goal-driven play.
Not that there are no goals to meet in Pirates!. While Sid Meier's game allows you to roam the Spanish Main in the late 17th century, looting and pillaging as you so choose, cleverly the game kept track of time. As those of us old enough to recall what a Commodore 64 is know, time means aging, and aging reminds us that the privilege of cruising the strip (or seven seas) for chicks and something to do just does not last forever. Hence, your pirate will eventually begin to slow down and his skills at fencing and wooing the ladies will wane. You do need to retire eventually in Pirates!, and doing so allows the game to sum up your exploits, providing some statistics about the treasure you have found, cities you have successfully raided, wives you have managed to score, etc. The game then tells you your fate based on those stats, whether your pirate will live out his life swapping sea stories with patrons at the inn he keeps, or living in relative luxury as a colonial Governor. If this statistical breakdown reminds some GTA fans of the statistics screen in those games that keep track of how many people you have killed, how many gang territories you have controlled, how many times you have hit that shit, etc. with that elusive 100% completion rating hovering about for some pirates (err.... gangstas) to direct their goals in that game, well...
A fight scene in the original Pirates!
Meier's game, like GTA then, was interested in nudging players in some directions in order to simulate a piratical lifestyle. While it lacked the mission-based schema of a GTA game, with its narrative that allows the player driven more by plot than random encounters to witness themselves as a gangster rising in wealth and reputation towards the goal, perhaps, of taking over Vice City or Los Santos, like Rockstar, Meier provided players with minigames and subquests that matched the theme of the game. Like GTA, while the game featured largely vehicular mayhem, you could have "on foot" encounters in the game by stopping in towns to drop by the local tavern for rumors about potential treasure-laden ships to raid, or to buy a treasure map. Fencing, courting governor's daughters, and landing on an unexplored beach to search for buried treasure all foresee the staples of GTA-style freedom with combat, "hot coffee" with a lady friend, or seeking out hidden packages, all providing players their own preference for their own flavor of goals to guide their personally designed adventures.
Firaxis Games remade and re-released the game as Sid Meier's Pirates! last year, giving it a graphical overhaul (Golly! You mean those two stick men whacking each other with sticks were really two men fencing?!?) and taking cues from improvements that GTA has made in making more complex and compelling mini-games in free roaming games of this sort. Rather than just needing to hold a title of nobility to wed a governor's daughter, you now have to actually take her on a date via a simple but fairly fun rhythm-based 17th century dance mini-game, romance her with bling, and other such things. It is a good remake, with the core elements of the gameplay still there, but, despite its serving as a potentially influential ancestor to GTA, players raised on Rockstar's fare may find the game a touch restrictive in some of its menu-driven town encounters, for example, and a bit too simplistic in its approach for similar reasons, especially after having been spoiled by more ambitious projects like San Andreas or even Electronic Arts's The Godfather. Additionally, playing as a pirate may seem quaint and less M for Mature than shooting up the ghetto or backhanding a hooker.
Pirates!'s innocence is its charm to me, though. As I noted earlier, it is the romanticization of this criminal lifestyle chiefly as a retrograde and historical form of villain that makes living the life of a pirate more acceptable than the "ghetto-ization" of the urban themed video games that are currently all the rage. While I do enjoy GTA for the very reason that the pleasure of playing a rogue and a criminal taps into some very basic human desire for independence and freedom, the pirate, through its historical distance, has become a "safe" way of representing that desire without touching on the uglier realities that more gritty and "realistic" games have come to represent. And while I am not opposed to gang-banging with CJ once in awhile, Pirates! offers a similar experience, but with a little less shame about having to explain to my daughters why my car's tires are leaving bloody tracks behind it as I speed away from a hit. This also suggests, perhaps, what may be so often cringe-inducing about contemporary media's attempts to serve up the latest news on the movie or television or video game screen before it has had time to cool. The edge-smoothing of history has a way of romanticizing some of our darker tendencies, and even making them a bit of innocent fun.
Despite my earlier caveats, I cannot recommend Pirates! to younger gamers enough -- assuming, of course, that they can put up with graphics that consist of stick pirates whacking one another with stick swords -- if for not other reason than for the sake of experiencing some of the early history of the medium and appreciating a bit of the development of the genre of the free-roaming game. Just expect a game labeled with an I for Innocence, rather than an M for Making Your Mother Mad.
Oh yeah, and you may also discover that, in the right contexts, "yo ho" is not always a phrase that offends.
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