The Rear-View Mirror: GTA V (2013)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

If I ever were to write a GTA-themed memoir of a gamer, it’d have to be titled Driving in Cars with Criminals.

GTA V

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They create worlds: Grow Home

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

The little robot’s steps are clumsy, awkward, as if both the use of his legs and the concept of gravity were new to him. B.U.D. is miles away from the usual video game robots – they’re often metallic warriors and/or cannon fodder – and closer to the likes of WALL-E, if Pixar’s garbage collector was a toddler. And like his precursor, B.U.D. is given a momentous ecological task: he must grow the so-called Star Plant on a faraway planet, and in doing so he has to scale the plant to a height of 2 kilometres – which would be difficult enough for the likes of Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt, let alone someone who is barely able to walk in a straight line.

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They create worlds: Grand Theft Auto

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series has received a lot of flak, from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. They aspire to being The Great American Satire, and sometimes they achieve moments of wit and insight, but while they’re great games, all too often as cultural critique they resort to lazy, crass caricature that says little more than, “America, huh?”

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It’s the idiom, stupid!

In the conversation about the artistic legitimacy of video games, it’s sometimes instructive to take a step back and consider what any given game looks like to a non-gamer. Take the current big-budget game with artistic aspirations du jour, Bioshock Infinite: this is a game that addresses big issues such as racism, revolution, free will and redemption. It throws around allusions to quantum physics, US history and philosophy. Its art design and music are beautiful and filled with a wide range of allusions.

Yet it is also a game where you run around shooting gaudy bad guys in the face with a shotgun just before searching a trashcan to find a hotdog and some popcorn. You scarf them down, healing the damage you’ve taken from being shot at. And then you throw an exploding fireball at your opponents with a flick of your wrist, just before jumping up 20 feet to catch a ride on a metal rail.

BioShock-Infinite

So, to someone who isn’t into games much of the actual gameplay may look grotesque. Why is the player eating from trashcans, and why does this heal him? Why is he spending 90% of his time inflicting grievous bodily harm? And doesn’t all of this rather hobble any aspirations the game has to resonate with the player’s emotions one moment and tickle his grey matter the next? Bluntly put, how can anyone take this sort of tonal mess seriously?

I’d say that there is some justification to this line of argument. As someone who’s been playing games for, oh, 30 years, I don’t see this sort of thing as weird anymore – I’ve become largely inured to what has been called ludonarrative dissonance, unless I choose to. But yes, gameplay and plot – or gameplay and a game’s striving for meaning beyond “I have big gun. He has big gun. I shoot him. He dies.” – do often clash. Take Grand Theft Auto IV‘s guilt-riddled Nico Bellic and his quest for redemption for the horrible things he’s done in his past, which sit oddly next to the multiple killing sprees he engages in during the game’s missions.

Ideally games either explore ways to reconcile their gameplay and whatever meaning they aim at, or they use the tension between the two to interesting effect. However, I’m wondering whether to some extent the discussion ignores one important thing: each medium develops its own medium. Yes, to non-gamers a lot of the medium’s particular idiom is strange – something that is rife for parody – but then, films and TV series have their own idiom, as do books, and to some extent those idioms don’t strike us as weird and ridiculous because we’re used to them. They’ve become invisible to us. (Check out TV Tropes for a comprehensive, time-consuming list of tropes that make up the idiom of various media.)

Compare, for instance, someone who watches his first opera. Is the tragic heroine’s extended death aria, possibly while she’s clutching the dagger in her ample bosom, any less silly than the trashcan hotdog imbued with healing powers? Or Shakespeare: are end-rhymed heroic couplets or stage directions expressed via dialogue any more believable than conventions in games?

Seriously, guys, can we wrap this up? I'm supposed to go out tonight... Oh, okay. One more arrow, but then we call it a day, 'kay?I’m not saying that we should give games a free pass because we’re so used to the medium’s tropes that they’re invisible to us. Tropes can be useful shorthand, but they can also be a crutch – and ludonarrative dissonance is something games have to contend with. After all, how would we react to a big-explosions, brutal action flick doubling as a harrowing intimate drama if the tonal inconsistencies weren’t addressed, let alone resolved? At the same time, critics have to accept that all media and all genres rely on cultural conventions and tropes to some extent, and a certain familiarity with (and, indeed acceptance of) these conventions is required when it comes to enjoying games as much as movies, TV series, stage plays, ballet, opera – and even paintings. After all, wouldn’t I be silly to dismiss most of the paintings of St. Sebastian out there because the arrow-addled martyr usually looks mildly bored rather than in agony?

So, rather than pointing at gaming tropes and saying something along the lines of “This is why we can’t have nice things”, perhaps it would make more sense to become more aware of these conventions, how they are used, and how they can be used better, more intelligently, more subversively – how they can be played with, for want of a better word.

Dark is L.A. and full of terrors

When it comes to creating virtual worlds, Rockstar may just be the true heir of Origin Systems. Whether it’s the Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto 3 or GTA4, the fictionalised versions of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas in GTA San Andreas, the boarding school and small town of Bully or the dying Old West of Red Dead Redemption, in my opinion Rockstar’s greatest creation to date.

L.A. Noire‘s sun-drenched yet crime-riddled 1950s Los Angeles is both an amazing feat and, quite possibly, Rockstar’s greatest wasted opportunity. It’s an impressive recreation, looking just like the movies, from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential – but where I enjoyed exploring San Fierro, New Austin and Liberty City, I never felt at home in this noirish L.A. In Rockstar’s other games, I’d forgo all automated options of getting around the place, I’d drive everywhere myself, just because I enjoyed hanging around in these cities. The games and their locations, they were one and the same. In L.A. Noire, though, I quickly started to ask my partner to do all the driving. In spite of the game’s title the place itself, Los Angeles, is a mere backdrop – and as it’s rarely integrated well into the game, it feels like an elaborate loading screen, or like a technically impressive but essentially lifeless cardboard backdrop – like The Truman Show‘s Sunhaven, and I was the unwitting Truman stuck there.

Unfortunately, L.A. Noire is full of wasted opportunities. The writing is great, as is most of the (voice) acting, but the game’s signature motion-capture technology veers into Uncanny Valley as often as it succeeds at bringing its characters to life.

The occasional disconnect between the characters’ faces and their bodies is one thing; another is that L.A. Noire doesn’t do photo-realism, doesn’t try to, so the animations, realistic down to the imperfections of involuntary twitches, don’t gel with the more stylised look. It doesn’t matter whether the latter is due to technical limitations – the result, while often impressive, does pull its audience out of the moment too often.

L.A. Noire could have managed to pull everything together with its gameplay, but alas, that’s another strike against the game. It’s not so much that it plays badly – what hurts L.A. Noire is that as a game it is bland. Rockstar’s other titles tend to be generous to a fault in the gameplay department, where you might get new elements introduced two thirds into a game’s plot. In its ’50s crime-and-punishment saga you’ll be doing pretty much the same from the first case you’re working to the last. Here a foot chase, there a car pursuit – and the game’s signature interrogations suffer from a lack of internal logic (seriously, guys, at times the choice between Doubt and Lie seems to have been down to a coin-toss).

In spite of all this, though, I’d be lying if I claimed that L.A. Noire didn’t have its compelling moments. As you progress from the first crime desk (Traffic) to the second (Homicide), the single cases start to connect, and the story ties in cleverly with the Black Dahlia murder. As the plot begins to cohere, the characters become more interesting, and the protagonist Cole Phelbs, while rarely likeable, turns into one of Rockstar’s trademark flawed anti-heroes. By the game’s ending, I felt for the guy and his messed-up issues.

In the end, L.A. Noire is a weak game with strong elements – and for a Rockstar game, it’s a failure. It’s a fascinating failure, though, and I’m curious to see how its experiments and assets – the motion-captured acting, the story structure, the ‘real’ location – pay off in future titles by the developer. Grand Theft Auto V will again be set in Los Santos, Rockstar’s earlier take on LA; I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing L.A. Noire‘s fingerprints on it.

Are you going to San Andreas?

Okay, it’s “Plug an old game” time. Yesterday I finished my second or third playthrough of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. And it’s still one of the most versatile games I know – it’s probably the truest “sandbox game” that’s out there. For those of you who aren’t computer game nerds like myself, here’s a handy definition from Wikipedia:

A sandbox-style video game (or a video game with an optional sandbox mode) is a video game with an open-ended and non-linear style of gameplay, or a mode of gameplay within a game that is more often played in a goal-directed manner. The sandbox analogy is used to describe this style of gaming because, as with a physical sandbox, the user is simply allowed to do what he or she wishes (with the available game elements and within the limitations of the game engine — the metaphoric toys within, and boundaries of, the sandbox).

Now, what does that mean in concrete terms? San Andreas is a story-heavy game, it’s “played in a goal-directed manner”, but it gives you a lot of freedom in a) how you go about achieving the goal and b) how you spend your time in between missions. The game world is huge – you’re given three virtual cities/states to play around in: LA-inspired Los Santos, San Fierro (based on San Francisco) and Las Venturas, which is eerily similar to a certain desert city replete with casinos and organised crime. And while the story itself is enjoyable enough, some of the most fun can be had just boarding one of the many vehicles (cars, bikes, boats, planes) and zooming around. Personally, I get most of a kick out of navigating the hills of San Fierro on my trusty BMX bike, but here’s some of the fun’n’games that others came up with.

Crazy jumps 
Bike stunts 
Base jumping