City of digital angels

There’s food porn. There’s nature porn. Apparently there’s even porn porn, out there on what is laughingly referred to as “the internet”.

I have virtual timelapse porn.

Since video games have become less Mondrianesque (read: big pixels in primary colours) and more visually rich, more and more bloggers, game photographers and videographers have been exploring their visual appeal beyond the simplistic “Great graphics, most realistic blood splatter, coolest lens flares, 9.5/10!” (I recently posted about the YouTube project Other Places.) It’s not so much about showing that games are approaching photorealism, at least not to me; it’s about getting to a point where the worlds created by games become interesting and arresting in their own right, and where they can be explored in various creative ways.

Are time lapse videos of game locales creative? Let’s put it like this: they can be beautiful, evocative, eerily poignant. There’s more to a good time lapse video than sticking a camera, virtual or otherwise, in one place and shooting one frame per second. And some games lend themselves more to such videos than others – I’ve previously posted about such videos made from the likes of Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed. To my mind, just about the best worlds for video game photography and videography are those created by Rockstar Games, and their latest, Grand Theft Auto V, is a gorgeous case in point. Ignoring the controversy around the game for once (there are already more than enough articles out there on whether GTA V is misogynist, racist, homophobic, or even (yikes!) a bad game), I am yet again amazed at how well Rockstar can take a real place and boil it down to its essentials. Their Los Santos, while clearly a fictionalised Los Angeles, is more than a Reader’s Digest version of LA – it’s as if the Rockstar artists had taken the world’s collective dream of Los Angeles and put it into textures and polygons. To me, there’s a touch of the hyperreal, and even of Neil Gaiman’s dream of the city in Sandman, and of Calvino’s Invisible Cities (sadly Marco Polo never talked about “Virtual Cities”, but then again, each of his invisible cities is virtual), in how these places resonate, even more so when put into the format of (wait for it…) a timelapse video. They make me want to inhabit Rockstar’s dream of LA, especially at night, when the street lights shimmer through the distant haze.

Do yourselves a favour. Let the entire video download before you watch it. Go for the highest resolution. And definitely, most definitely, go for full screen. If you still don’t see at least a fraction of the fascination these have for me, I’ll spring you a drink. I know this great little bar just off Vinewood Boulevard…

Payne Killer (part 2)

This post follows from my previous meanderings on Max Payne. For those who have not played Max Payne 3, beware: there will be spoilers.

While I am not an outright fan of explicit violence in modern media, I’m not particularly squeamish either. I have no interest whatsoever in the gore extravaganza of much modern horror, but neither am I put off by the viscera of some of Tarantino’s more recent offerings, and some of the TV series (e.g. Rome or Game of Thrones) I’ve enjoyed most over the last couple of years don’t skimp on the red gushing stuff.

And yet, Max Payne 3 almost made me switch off the game, not just once but twice, due to the brutality it depicts.

And this is in no way an indictment of the game.

Max Payne 3 is a brutal game – and more than any shooter I’ve played it does a remarkably horrid job of showing what bullets do to bodies. Does the game revel in showing exit wounds? I think I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t – MP3 does not present its violence with the frat boy, fist-pump glee of other games, but it has a fascination for showing the damage done, both to people and to interior (and exterior) decorating, in slow motion. So much so that checking out some of the videos on YouTube makes me queasy – less with the game than with the Beavis and Butthead-ish tone of the video description and comments.

But it’s not so much seeing the carnage I’m authoring that made me wince, at least not after the first ten minutes or so. (There is definitely something numbing to seeing henchman after henchman dying horribly at the business end of my gun – and it’s this repetitiveness that’s a major flaw of the game in my opinion.) It’s two key scenes: in one, I finally find the beaten, bleeding trophy wife of a São Paolo business man earlier abducted by a favela gang, only to see one of the gangbangers put a bullet through her head. In another, the business man’s brother is covered with petrol and burnt alive. The game has previously shown the man as shallow, narcissistic and rather pathetic – but the way the game depicts his death got to me, and quite possibly more so than a similar scene would have in a film.

I don’t want to get into the question here of whether games are becoming too violent or whether people are desensitised to real-life violence and cruelty due to watching brutal films or playing violent games. That question is much bigger and deserves a longer discussion in a wider forum. What I’m interested in is this: why did these two scenes get to me to the extent where I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue playing (keeping in mind, as I’ve said, that I’m not all that squeamish)?

I think it’s this: games make a big thing of player agency – as gamers it’s our finger on the trigger, we decide who lives and who dies, it’s, like, interactive! – yet in practice our agency is always limited, it’s circumscribed in a hundred ways: by a game’s design, its user interface, our character’s abilities and, often frustratingly, by the story a game tells. You’re Superman while playing the game, you’re John McClane, you’re Neo – and then comes a pre-rendered sequence, and what’s pre-rendered as well is your impotence in the face of the great god, Plot. The villain jumps from the shadows and skewers your love interest with his great big sword. (I’ve never played Final Fantasy VII, but apparently this is one of the primal scenes of so many gamers into Japanese role-playing games… and I wonder whether the cod-Freudian subtext is as heavy when you’re actually playing.)

Many games use this in a frustrating way that feels like the program is cheating, in revenge for decades of players using hidden cheats and God modes to become invulnerable. Think you’re all-powerful, gamer? Take that! Ooh, that must’ve hurt! The two scenes in Max Payne 3 that I mentioned earlier (and there are others, although none as pointed) may have an element of this, but I think the game is being cleverer than that: Max Payne, from the first game onward, told a story about revenge and redemption. I’m not sure to what extent it manages the latter all that well, although there’s a lot of quasi-Noirish verbiage in the game about it – but especially Max Payne 3 never lets you forget that the revenge you’re effecting is finally hollow. Yes, you might get to kill hundreds of bad guys in bloody, bone-crunching ways, but Max’ loss is the constant foil through which the player views this revenge. For every henchman killed, for every villain stopped, Max’ wife and child is not a single bullet closer to being alive. For a game that’s entirely about revenge and redemption, it’s bleakly ironic that revenge is shown to be pointless and redemption all but impossible. Max Payne’s extended trauerarbeit (and I don’t think this is wankerish pseudo-analysis imposed on the game – every second line of dialogue is about Max’ ongoing, futile quest to find some sort of meaning in a life that’s had all meaning shot to hell), like the hundreds of painkillers he keeps popping, only serves to dull his pain momentarily.

I’m not saying that Max Payne 3 is a deep, philosophical treatment of mourning, revenge and the futility of redemption – but it does address these issues within the rules it has set up for itself… and, like Rockstar’s earlier Red Dead Redemption (although my vote still goes to RDR for doing more interesting, complex things with the theme) it goes a long way to disabuse the player of this crazy idea that just because he’s got his finger on the trigger he can make everything all right.

True West

I’ve made a couple of posts on the subject of games, films, art, yadda yadda yadda. Boring stuff, and anyway, who cares whether Roger Ebert knows a gamepad from a Wiimote?

Rockstar, the makers of the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, take a strange position in the whole game/film argument. There are few games that borrow as liberally, and as successfully, from the movies and from TV as Rockstar’s. This has never been as obvious as in their latest, Red Dead Redemption, which is in equal measures Once Upon a Time in the West and Deadwood. The ghost of Sergio Leone haunts the game’s arid landscapes. I’ve rarely seen as effective and evocative an interpretation of the West as the one Rockstar have conjured up. Yet their games never become that most frustrating of hybrids, the interactive movie. They are both grandly cinematic and great games.

More than anything else, Rockstar excels at creating worlds to explore that feel alive: the faux ’80s Miami of GTA: Vice City, the parallel LA, San Francisco and Las Vegas of San Andreas and the not-quite-NY that is Liberty City.

None of these measure up to the accomplishment of Red Dead Redemption, however. I’ve played the game for five to ten hours, and in terms of gameplay it’s nothing revolutionary – missions here, duels there, horse riding, cow herding and poker minigames elsewhere – but it creates a sense of place that is simply amazing, as the video of the game’s time-lapse day/night cycle shows:

John Hillcoat, director of Australian neo-western The Proposition and the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, was asked to direct a short film using footage from the game – possibly a gimmicky way of advertising its release, but one that’s pretty gutsy, speaking not only of Rockstar’s confidence in their creation but also in their chosen medium. Is Hillcoat’s half-hour take on Red Dead Redemption an overly idealistic barrage in the Great Movie/Videogame War of the ’00s? Is it just something to do in between directing grim, gritty and depressing movies? Judge for yourselves.

How the West was won, pixel by pixel

Nothing big to add here – I’m still working on a blog entry on Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in my mind (these things take time, and it’s not as if the film’s already years old), but since I’ve posted the odd entry on Ebert’s big “Video games cannot be art” shtik, I wanted to post this link: The Observer has two gamers and their regular film critic Philip French give Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption a whirl. French is obviously not a gamer, but he knows his films, and it’s good to read a critic who’s at least willing to take the artistic potential of games seriously. He doesn’t use the A word, but that’s fine – any discussion of art that circles around what art is tends to vanish up its own backside anyway.

And now for some heavy-duty shilling of the game, because it does look quite good – western fans take note, and don’t be put off by the sucky stills below: