GTA V: Keeping the Peace in Los Santos

The first time I fired up Grand Theft Auto V, as the install disc slowly unpicked the world held within and built it anew on the Xbox’s hard drive, I had an idea. Talking to friends about the game, it struck me that the thing which has really stuck with people about GTA is that one story: you can hire a prostitute, kill her and take back the money you just paid for sex. For some people, it’ll never escape being another example of an Evil Violent Videogame. And fair enough, y’know? That stuff is horrible, and the GTA games – all the way to their fifth instalment, based on the reviews I’d read – are violent and sexualised and a lot of other things besides. But the game I’d read about, watched trailers of, was also beautiful. It contained a city of crisp fidelity, fresh opportunities for exploration and experimentation, and a soundtrack that stretched, like the best record collections, from Britney Spears to NWA, Clams Casino to Simple Minds. So, as the ‘percent loaded’ meter ticked up into the final digits, I started to wonder: what if I just engaged with the bits that interested me, and avoided the violence altogether?  It would mean stripping out a whole part of the game, but faced with such a richly detailed world – where each fragile pedestrian has their own fashion sense and voice, each of their cars’ radios playing just the right station as you tear them from it onto the asphalt – pacifism felt like the only sane option. I It quickly becomes obviously that GTA does not want you to eschew violence.  About three minutes into the opening mission, a bank heist gone wrong, you’re forced to put a bullet in the head of a guard, before he does the same to your friend. After seconds of careful consideration, I tried shooting shooting him in the leg. MISSION FAILED. Retry, pull the trigger, and move onto the next setpiece, which drops a few dozen heavily-armed police between you and progress, and places a fully-automated machine gun into your hands.  Clearly, a compromise would be necessary. This was all prologue, a decade before the game proper, I reasoned. Besides, when I’d killed those people, I was playing as Trevor, one of the game’s three controllable characters, a gleefully murderous psychopath filling the role of group id.I was soon handed the chance for a fresh start, as a cutscene picked up with Michael nine years later – presumed dead after the bank robbery, now leading a peaceful but unfulfilling life in witness protection, with a wife, two kids and a therapist – before introducing the third and final character, Franklin. Franklin’s a young black man, a petty criminal who, unlike his partner Lamar, seems disinterested in the glamour of crime, and certainly not the kind of guy to go on a killing spree. This was my man. And this was the plan: GTA V features a stats screen which lists each character’s achievements and misdemeanours down to the most granular detail. It’s a series tradition, something I’ve occasionally wished for in real life. Looking at this screen, I could see that Trevor already had 22 dead cops to his name – but maybe Franklin could keep a clean sheet of 0s. II It took just a few minutes for my new plan hit a roadbump. A fleshy one. In GTA, it’s not the guns or the petrol bombs or any of the other weapons you can wield that’s most deadly – it’s your car. Driving is much tighter than the Bambi-on-ice handling of GTA IV’s vehicles, but it’s still possible to lose control of a car, especially when you’re impatiently nosing your way through speed-limit-observing traffic. Each character has their own special ability, reflecting what they’re best at. Mostly, these make it easier to kill people, but, as a skilled car thief, Franklin is able to slow time while driving. It’s pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card for when your back tyres start to spin out and tug you off the road. But in the first mission, as Franklin and Lamar forcibly repossess two gleaming sports cars and race them across town, I did not know this yet.  So when, during a shortcut through a narrow studio lot, a man in a green rubber alien costume jumped out in front of the car, I plowed right through him. His ragdoll corpse bounced off the car’s roof, and crumpled to the ground. I paused the game. There, in the stats screen, it read ‘Vehicular kills – 1’. There was no other choice. Reader, I restarted the whole damn game. III Fast forward through the heist, the police shooting gallery, that first stolen car. This time, I cruised carefully through the movie lot, avoided the men dressed as aliens – there’s actually a trophy for not running them over, ‘We Come in Peace’ – and stepped out into the world for the first time. I unfolded the paper map that comes in the game box, picked out a few potentially interesting locations, and drove in their general direction. Just taking in the scenery, which to my British eyes is slightly too bright and shiny, like being on holiday. Enjoying the way it all mingled with, say, the creaky bedsprings of Mirror Maru on the radio. Playing with the Instagram-styled camera function of the in-game mobile, snapping graffiti, people on the street going about their business, and selfies. Oh, the selfies. I climbed ladders and clambered up suspension cables just to see how high up I could get, took a pic of the blown-out orange sunset, then toyed with the idea of jumping off. I shot targets in the Ammu-Nation gun range, earning meaningless medals until night turned into day. After getting my hands on a BMX for the first time, I spent one enjoyable hour just pedalling and bunny-hopping it around a reservoir, into Los Santo’s sewer systems, marvelling at the little […]

The Physicality of Games

I like games about shooting. I like to run, and jump, and blow things up. I’m a fairly cerebral – some would say pretentious – type. My musical tastes are 50% chasing avant-garde newness, 50% over-thinking pop; in film, I talk about the new Coen Bros, how Where The Wild Things Are figures in the Jonze/Kaufman/Eggers canon, in a way that annoys my girlfriend. And yet, in gaming, it’s yr Halos, yr Marios, yr Grand Theft Autos that grab me. These are the videogames your parents warned you about- the ones with the explosions and childish colours and dinosaurs and mindless killings. As this blog attests, I like the more thinky games too – Bioshock, say, or indie games – and I definitely like to over-think games. But those games, almost without exception, are the ones where I get to do physical things. Shooters, platformers, action games… For me, gaming is that physicality. It’s fair to say that I am: fairly chubby, non-athletic, completely lacking in any hand-coordination beyond the confines of my keyboard. I’m not incapable of experiencing the rush of speed and activity: semi-regular biking, or my occasional attempts at fitness through running. But, by and large, I’m not regularly putting aside time for sports or major physical activity. I’m not in any Fight Clubs. In this way, I’m pretty much your average ‘hardcore’ gamer.My sport is Halo multiplayer, my exercise a burst of left-to-right platformer. I take out day-to-day frustration on the poor citizens of Liberty City, or the buildings of Mars, or anyone unfortunate enough to be worse than me on shooting games. I need that physicality- the Fight Club thought leads me down an entire new path of thought, where that extreme physicality – fighting strangers – is sublimated safely into the (largely) non-active pursuit of gaming. But, my point remains: a game needs to be physical to succeed. For me, anyway. I don’t mind using my brain – whether in Portal‘s puzzles, or deciphering the avant-garde mystery of Time Fcuk, or learning about Objectivism and Ayn Rand from Bioshock -I just want to feel engaged in that world. The world is physical, so a gameworld should be physical too. Simple as that.* Half of the joy of New Super Mario Bros Wii is bumping into your playmates, knocking them off ledges, picking them up, helpless. Living-room griefing, hilarious because of its unpredictability, bringing together housemates in a way only a few games have. Another of these being Sumotori Dreams, the fantastic slapstick physics–based drunk-outside-a-kebab-shop fighting game.Half-Life 2 made puzzles tangible, showing how using physics to carry through a simple task made it that much more entertaining. Portal took that a step further and, beyond a few mods floating around, no-one seems to have really tried since. I know it’s a tired maxim but games need to do what only games can. That’s interactivity, yes, but it’s also consistency, physical interaction. Remove the abstraction, and do less to distance the player. What I’m trying to say here, really, is aimed at the world of game developers in general. Make your games physical: represent what a player can do as fully as possible, make them feel possible of anything, and you can revive dead genres. You can make slapstick funny again. You can make a player feel powerful in a way Michael Bay never could. You can make it exciting to bounce a basketball around a room, for someone who’d never actually pick up a basketball. *It’s not quite as simple as that- my love for the point-&-click adventure game disproves my point, though my lack of love for strategy games, and loathing for turn-based combat** puts us back on familiar ground. Phew. **Further undermined by my current obsession with Solium Infernum. Balls.

Halo 2; Take 2. A Tribute to Rocket Guy.

The warthog rolls. Rolls. Say a quick prayer… Rolls! Yes! I’m back on my wheels, crew fully intact. I thank the UNSC for the divine gift of roll-cages. Oo-rah!Yes, it’s unmistakably Halo. I think the game gets a bad rep: that it attracts an audience of what might be (unkindly, but not uncommonly) termed idiots. This is the meta-story of Halo: the game for jocks. Also, the game that saved a system (Microsoft’s first Xbox). Sometimes people talk about the infamous 30-seconds-of-great-gameplay idea. But most of the time: it’s the shooting game for jocks. And, admittedly, it’s never going to be a classic example of Games-as-Art. Even a rabid fan like me (if I was doing an RPS-style Gaming Made Me– and I might yet- the first Halo would have to be on there.) I think that the reason for this status it that Halo, in multiplayer at least, is as close an example to sport as exists in gaming. A pure set of rules, occasionally tweaked, presented clearly; an environment for competition to flourish in.But there’s more to it than that. In its best incarnations (not Halo 3– a finely tuned sport for sure, but lacking a truly satisfying campaign), the singleplayer is a triumph. And here’s why that bit works, for me: it lets you role-play. I think it might just me be but… my fellow marines. In another favourite, Bioshock, the bittersweet triumph of felling a noble Big Daddy hurt. In Halo, losing the ally riding shotgun in my Warthog (the imaginatively named Rocket Guy) in a volley of purple laser causes me to emit a Vader-like “NOOO!” in mourning. Reason? Well, because I’m obsessively compulsive about keeping them all alive, the way I used to be about having 100% health (and a round number of bullets in each gun) in GTA3, a perfect record in Splinter Cell. But, more importantly, because in very basic ways these marines feel human. They shout like the marines from Aliens at opportune moments, and have individual accents. The much-mourned Rocket Guy, for example, was Australian, and knowing even that gives me something to grasp onto. Because, ultimately, half of the joy of gaming is role-playing. (The other half being rules, testing yourself against them, and testing their limitations. I know a lot of people who enjoy this element of Halo, too- seeking out the highest possible point on a given map, or investigating the “grenades under a Warthog” rumour.)Back to the point- I want to believe I am Master Chief, quietly iconic, as I crush a car under my tank tracks. The Master Chief would never leave a man behind. Even when it meant sacrificing the flow of the game a little- going back and replaying the last 10 minutes because . Testing the limits of the rules, again, but for a purpose. The replay becomes a mechanic in its own right, something that couldn’t exist in any other medium. It’s for this reason that the first level of Halo 2 is so brilliant. It knows exactly how excited you were going to be, dropping the hot-off-the-presses disc into the tree, and cribs from the Half-Life pre-game pre-amble, 10 minutes before you can even pick up a gun. But, with marines cheering me on as I stroll around a military base, I feel like a war hero. A celebrity. Later, my alien adversaries running away, screaming warnings of “The Demon”. An icon.And soon I’ve played too much and I have to put the Xbox away for a while. And then, the website steps in and lights up that excitable young boy in me (the one who never played D&D or any hardcore roleplaying, but looked at those fat glossy books of figures and descriptions and …wondered). Being able to read pages from the Halo Bible describing weapons, enemies and vehicles, sounds pedestrian -every game manual, surely- but the fiction runs deep. Reading marines’ accounts and comments on each topic gives a further edge of authenticity, next time I’m fighting to keep marines alive. It’s especially fascinating to see the fiction interact with the gameplay: a Ghost’s fuel tank is on its left-hand-side, so that is its weak point. It’s a world as immersive as you want to make it.(All of which is a little jarring next to the aforementioned sport of the online experience. A world of brillo-pad-to-the-soul-American-teenager-accents and racist abuse. A brilliant game, but with an execrable community behind it. That reputation is perhaps rightly deserved, but I’ve had some real tense, competitive games of Halo, more than anything else I’ve ever played.) So, Halo isn’t a piece of art. I don’t think many other people feel anything for their marines (in fact, I know people who purposely kill them, an idea which makes me wince as much as someone pulling the wings off a fly.) I know this is the last of the great Halo campaigns. But, the truth is: crouched behind a boulder as plasma bolts chip away at it, with Cortana whispering advice into my earpiece and fingering a magnum, I feel like James Bond, so why should anything else matter?

Lost, Damned: The Death of Novelty

Looking back on old games is a funny thing. It’s the nature of this young games culture (probably, for once, to its credit) that innovation is prized more highly than any other single asset. We’re trying to push the medium forward, after all; but this means that going back to any game which did something particularly successfully, a couple of years later, is likely to be an experience of diminished enjoyment. The games industry, at its best, is a magpie, stealing all the shiny bits of other games and polishing and adding to them. Soon you begin to take that innovation for granted- four years ago, the Gears of War/Rainbow Six cover system was brand new. Now, it’s in everything, from the newest Grand Theft Auto to James Bond games and we can’t see how games ever survived without it. Ditto regenerating health. Driveable cars in shooting games. Games seem a little broken without these obvious additions- running out from behind a wall, shooting, and running back, This is a particularly peculiar experience when dealing with expansion packs. Even expandalones and completely reworked ‘expansions’ like the Half Life episodes are tied to their original source, but it’s the straight-up, original-games-with-nobs-on expansion that is most curious. Case in point here: GTA IV expansion Lost & The Damned.IV’s a strange game: it came with a very immediate backlash, after the shine of the (wonderful) new technology and (progressive, at least) new style Rockstar had introduced. I’ve badmouthed it a little before but it was one of my formative gaming experiences. Where was all the space of San Andreas? The variety? The ridiculousness of Vice City? Where the hell were our jetpacks? But I think its reputation has aged well. I was having a conversation with the friends I shared a copy of IV with, when it came out- I pointed out that our initial enthusiasm had seemed to burn out quickly, and if they thought it was a step backwards. They asked me, had I tried to go back and play San Andreas recently? It’s unplayable, they said. For all the ideas and innovations it added to the GTA formula (many of which were absent from IV), the nuts & bolts of that game, by modern standards, are fundamentally broken. IV polished the open-world, shooty-drivy game model to a hitherto unseen level- the newly crisp fidelity of this world and its inhabitants so much more tangible than the turn-round-and-they’ve-popped-out-of-existence world of the previous games. Which brings us, finally, to The Lost & The Damned. Revisiting that polished world a year and a bit later (forever in gaming times), it seems somewhat tarnished. The game is technically new- but the world is unmistakably the same. The wonderful features of IV are still there, still enjoyable- the opening cutscene is impeccably stylish, and I’ve already had one hilarious encounter with a Euphoria-powered character who held desperately onto my bike as I rode off. Yet, at times, I can’t help but wince. Buildings pop in and out of sight much closer than I remember, all the characters except Jonny seem to be drawn by throwing a tin of brown paint over four or five pixels. And I don’t remember Niko spouting canned lines so repetitively. In fact the game seems less accomplished than the much more sprawling IV, though I’m willing to admit that might be rose-tinted glasses speaking.Meanwhile, and perhaps it’s shallow, but the pure novelty of newness seems irrevocably gone. Without expanding on GTA IV the way Vice City did on GTA 3, there’s even less sense of discovery. The world seems wilfully artificial- I’ve been recently addicted to the Red Faction demo- my eyes have been opened to this ridiculously fun (if imperfect) mechanism. I’m wondering- why the hell can’t I plow through this wall? Meanwhile, Mirror’s Edge makes Johnny’s movements seem stiff and slow. Both of these games have (or, in the case of Red Faction‘s demo, seem to have) some large failings of their own. But what they do is so fresh that their flaws become forgivable. More importantly, what they do achieve retrospectively eats at all that came before. L&tD is caught in a bind between the two positions- neither perfectly polished nor novelly innovative- and this makes it harder to love it. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it’s hugely crippled by this problem. Gaming is such a forward-looking culture- apart from the odd stand-out, most commonly a Quake or Counter-Strike; ie, endlessly modifiable multiplayer games, we constantly hunger for the new. And often that seems like a failing, especially looking from the artsy hipster side of the fence, where I so often stand. But I think (3D, at least) gaming hasn’t, maybe, yet reached the base level of tricks that, say, film has always had to hand. We’re still developing those, and while we do, the standout classics-for-all-time will that much rarer. Gaming historians of the future will be interested in the innovators, but games like, say, Portal– relentlessly polished- are the best contenders for all-time-classic status. Maybe. Confession: Apologies, imaginary readers, for the giant hiatus there. The all-consuming entity of exams took me over for a bit there. I’ve missed you- and Blogspot most of all- I was always thinking of you, baby. The draft pages here are full of barely-begun ideas from across that period. But its hard to write about a media you’ve sworn yourself off for revision purposes. Let’s hope it pays off, eh? Confession II: I can see already there are flaws with this idea. For one, games can be both polished and innovative- HL2 remains very playable to this day, even if it’s losing its looks with age. My opinion on GTAIV changes with the seasons. And I’m not sure how this applies to old games you’ve never really played: the acrobatic responsiveness of Mario 64 still impressed me when I got it for the Wii a year or two ago. I’ve got a cheap copy of Half-Life […]

People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that…

It’s amazing how quickly a game of Spelunky can go wrong. One minute you’re looking at your dollars and health tick up as you rescue another dame and liberate another golden statue, modestly proud, and then a single mispressed key sends you falling onto those insta-death spikes. Sigh, press x, start again. And again. And again. Generally speaking, when I tell people why I want to do this journalism thing as a life, I say its because I want to let people know about things that are important to me, and why. Oscar Wilde spoke about the Critic as Artist, which is what I aspire to, but also Critic as Your Mate With A Mix CD Of Stuff You Need To Hear. This is something of an exception- Spelunky is not a game I necessarily want to recommend- its addictive and, like any addictive substance, its damaging to your health. But what you’ve got to remember about addictions, to quote Renton from Trainspotting, “is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fudging stupid. At least, we’re not that fudging stupid.” (Thanks, family-friendly-blog-censorship!)And the pleasure of Spelunky is its unpredictability. You’ll curse it as regularly as you praise it, but there’s a real joy to its randomly generated …everything. Even the opening story, told in three terse, pulpy lines, reveals new variations every time I play. And this saves the game. Because Spelunky is unrelentingly difficult, something you’ll discover in the first few minutes of play. Every level is packed with enemies and traps, which can be overcome easily – once you’ve learnt the patterns – but their sheer quantity leaves your tiny avatar outnumbered and outgunned. And you’ll die, over and over. My current count, according to the Scores screen, is approaching 300 deaths. Below this there is a box announcing your total “wins”. This is of course 0. A lot of the stress is taken off by the fact that many of your deaths, especially early on, are laugh-out-loud ridiculous. The first time your bouncing corpse kills three or four enemies, or is batted endlessly between two spike traps is as satisfying as any success you’ve had. And then you begin to discover, and that’s what makes Spelunky so playable and, more importantly, joyfully replayable. And death is necessary to your discovery- the first thing is realising how you can work the traps, even turn them against your enemies. Then you’ll meet a new enemy, or pick up a new item, and it’ll go wrong and you’ll die, until you figure out just how they work. Even though its a world rendered in pixellated sprites, there’s a amazingly genuine sense of discovery- the kind I haven’t felt in a game since GTA: San Andreas (and the lack of which is GTA4‘s major failing). It’s a game of accidents, glorious accidents. The most beautiful of which, so far for me, involved setting off an Indiana-Jones-style rolling-boulder trap, dodging it and watching the boulder roll into the nearby shop, trapping the shopkeeper in. “Vandal!” he shouts, as I slowly pick up all of his goods. “Thief!” I’m laughing evilly to myself as I bounce through the level, omnipotent, with spring shoes, climbing gloves and a cape. I’m still chuckling as I reach the end of the next level, where he’s waiting, with a shotgun. BLAM. And all that gold just becomes another high score, listed above the ever-increasing number of kills.(Confession: I wanted to make this a faux-feminist analysis of the game, wherein women are quite literally objects, listed alongside “loot” or “kills”, depending. They’re entirely helpless without you and need to be carried around, lest they run headlong, crying, into a trap. But I just couldn’t help talking about how fun the game is- and also the power of their kisses heals you and they’re near invincible. So that’s the end of that argument.)