Press X to ride into the sunset

If you have any interest in video gaming whatsoever, you can’t have missed the release of Rockstar Games’ oater epic Red Dead Redemption 2. From the game’s almost Deakinsian visuals via its insane level of detail (yes, your horse’s testicles contract in cold weather!) to, sadly, the reports of the studio’s insane crunch culture that’s deleterious to mental and physical health as well as relationships, RDR2 (which, I admit, sounds too much like a Star Wars robot to be a very helpful abbreviation) has been everywhere – including my PS4’s hard disk. I’ve not yet had much time to explore the dying Old West alongside the Van der Linde gang, but it’s already clear that this is an exceptional game. Exceptional in scope and ambition, surely – but what is most surprising to me is that this is also an exceptionally wilful game. If it wants me to like it, it’s going about it in a very strange way.

Red Dead Redemption 2

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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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Planes, trains and automobiles

Let’s get it out of the way: GTA V may just be the best Grand Theft Auto game. It may also be the most disappointing – and it is probably one of the dumbest games in the series. Credit where credit’s due: Rockstar Games do one thing amazingly well, better than anyone else out there, and that’s creating living, breathing worlds. Their obituary to the Old West, Red Dead Redemption, is one of my favourite virtual worlds bar none, the sort of place that I enjoy inhabiting and navigating, even without following the story or sidequests. Just being in the world covers so much of what I look for in games.

Red Dead Redemption also works in one key way that GTA V flubs, and that’s the character writing: yes, there are the joke characters, the broad caricatures of two-faced hypocrites, but Rockstar’s western knew when to take its cast seriously. It didn’t work all the time or with every single character, but by and large the dramatis personae of what could perhaps be called Grand Theft Horse carried the weight of its narrative. I understand that Rockstar might not want to write tragedies all the time – something that Red Dead Redemption ended up being quite effectively – but when it comes to humour the company’s writers tend towards the lazy, obvious joke… and then they flog it until way past its expiration.

I admit, there were moments in GTA V where I laughed out loud, and there were others where I sniggered. There are storylines in the game that work due to a combination of fine voice work and their sheer absurdity, but for each of these storylines there’s a character whose venality and stupidity is so drawn out, so overplayed it’s cringeworthy. What’s worse, perhaps, is that these characters are essentially all variations on the same theme: people who are smug and think they’re the best thing since sliced bread, yet they are essentially hollow. Which is fine until you realise that GTA V is 90% populated with such characters – and no, this does not strike me as a convincing parody of Southern California, and it’s most definitely not an interesting parody – and that the writing itself exhibits the same smugness. By comparison, Rockstar’s previous foray into Los Santos and surroundings in 2004’s GTA San Andreas (it’s already been ten years? now I definitely feel old) also had the broad jokes and the caricatures, but it brought together a band of mismatched characters that genuinely felt like family by the end of the game. By comparison, I don’t miss any of GTA V‘s cast of misfits and murderers, since with so many of them it’s clear that the punchline will always precedence over the character. There are exceptions: moments that show genuine wit and complexity, and jokes that don’t rely on the nth variation on the theme of “Haha, aren’t Californians/Americans/people stupid, vapid and easily fooled?”, but compared to Red Dead Redemption it all feels too much like a middling sitcom writer had watched The Sopranos and decided that they could pull this off.

Much was made of the lack of female protagonist in the game, especially since GTA V‘s main innovation is that there’s not just one but three playable characters. Seeing how limited Rockstar’s palette is in their latest, I have to say I’m glad they didn’t try to write their first female protagonist in this one. In fact, my main recommendation to the company would be this: they’ve pretty much perfected the creation of living, breathing worlds and mechanisms to enjoy being in that world. They have great artists, they choose fantastic music to add another dimension to their worlds, and they have ideas. What they should do is bring in new writing talent that doesn’t just do what they already do. They should get writers whose skills can shake up the by now rather stale mix of HBO Lite (imagine the worst moment in the weakest episode of The Sopranos) and Southpark-style loud parody. They don’t need to go for Greek tragedy or the Dickensian sweep of The Wire – but they should stop telling what is essentially the same joke. In brief, whatever they do next, I’d rather not think that it’s an improvement on their track record to date in every respect other than the writing. If that’s the case, I might just stay in GTA Online, because when the lines are provided by other players I don’t expect the writing to be good.

P.S.: For the record, GTA V‘s most maligned character, Trevor, is actually the most interesting at times. Yes, much of the writing is lazy and repetitive, but there are moments when his lines display a self-awareness that, while not particularly deep, does stand out compared to his usual lazy “Ooh, isn’t this edgy, offensive and craaaaaazy?!” shtik, the aftermath of the infamous playable torture scene (ah, to be a gamer in 2013…) being a case in point.

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…