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.

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.

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:

Manhunt 2… Something for the kids, honey?

Okay, I have to warn you. This is not one of those “I like game/movie/book XYZ enough to bore you with the details” posts. It’s an opinion piece. And it’s about one of those boring topics that the media keep coming back to, usually in the most facile, over-the-top way possible. Especially in the German media, you often get the equation: video gamer = potential murderer and sadist.

Which ticks me off. But what ticks me off just as much are gamers who aren’t able to look at the issue with some critical distance. You can’t have a decent discussion with the likes of Jack Thompson, people who believe that games train you to kill and maim (the word “murder simulator” pops up in their rhetoric), but it’s just as impossible to have a decent discussion with people who don’t have any second thoughts about a game where you’re rewarded for stealthy behaviour with extra-gory executions, and that’s part of the fun. (Warning: the video, showing Manhunt, is quite explicit.)

The people who think that any depictions of violence in games are fair game usually bring up three arguments: 1) “Movies such as Saw or Hostel are just as violent, they’re more realistic than pixellated polygon carnage, and adults can watch them, so it’s hypocritical to want to censor games!” 2) “It’s just a game, and personally I can tell the difference between a game and reality. If you can’t, that says more about you…” 3) “Censorship is a restriction of free speech! And that’s un-American! Why don’t you go back to Russia, commie?”

1) “Many movies are just as violent, but you don’t see them being banned, do you?”

It’s definitely true that films such as Saw or Hostel are at least as violent. They’re also more realistic, because while games have advanced quite amazingly in terms of visual representation, you still wouldn’t mistake a game’s version of reality for the Real Thing(tm). (One point that’s often raised together with this one is that games aren’t kiddies stuff per se. I agree with that – just like not all animation is Disney fare but may be aimed at an adult audience, not every game is Super Mario World.) However, it’s silly to ignore the fact that games are interactive, whereas films aren’t. Quite often, game violence is inflicted by the player’s avatar, controlled by the player. It’s too simplistic to say that you, the gamer, are committing the violent acts, but there’s obviously a causal link between your actions and the on-screen violence.

I’m not saying that this automatically programs gamers to become murderers, or simply to become more violent and aggressive. Most of the studies I’ve seen that suggest such a correlation are questionable in terms of methodology – for instance, they measure an increase in aggressivity in ways that would apply to football or any other competitive sports as well. On the other hand, though, there aren’t that many good studies that show the violence in games to have no effect whatsoever. Until there’s more, and especially better, unbiased research, the argument simply doesn’t hold. And just because individual gamer X who’s been playing violent games since he was 12 hasn’t taken a knife to his parents yet (you gotta love anecdotal evidence!), that doesn’t mean that there might not be other, more subtle effects.

Does this mean we should prohibit all violence in video games? No – but it does suggest that we, critics as well as defenders,  should keep a more open mind.

2) “It’s just a game, man! Ever heard of fiction? It’s this thing that isn’t reality!”

When Goethe published his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther which ends with the protagonist’s suicide (yeah, I’ve just spoiled the novel’s ending for you! deal with it!), there was a rash of copycat suicides. People cheer when bad guys get killed in movies. They cry when their favourite characters in a series die. Yes, the emotional reaction is safe to some extent because it’s based on fiction – but it is nevertheless an emotional reaction.

And while the relationship between fictional representations and the reality they represent is highly complex, would anyone really, honestly deny that there is a relationship? Horror movies scare – why else would people watch them? Romantic comedies make you all warm and fuzzy. How many people sit in their seats thinking “Yeah, right, but it’s not real, is it? That’s just an actor, that’s ketchup, and those are digital effects.” Much of the time we watch fiction in order to get lost in it. Fiction can have a real effect on us, so saying that when you put a virtual knife in some poor virtual henchman’s virtual eyesocket it’s just fiction strikes me as naive at best, and disingenuous at worst.

Again, this doesn’t mean that violence in games should be made illegal outright. It just means that the argument is becoming increasingly facile.

3) “Freedom of speech, yadda yadda yadda…!”

Okay, I’m going to out myself here. I don’t necessarily believe that absolute freedom of speech is such a great thing. In the best of all possible worlds it is. In a world filled with responsible, mature people who can look at themselves and their own actions with a minimum of critical distance, free speech would be one of the greatest goods.

In a world where people think that just because you’re allowed to say something it’s right to say it, and where people don’t think that every now and then it’s better not to say something… well, in such a world, I must say that I can live with restrictions to free speech. There is no such thing as absolutely free speech anyway – there are always limits imposed by others. Sometimes these limits are institutionalised (for instance when the government issues laws against hate speech), sometimes they’re internalised. (“You don’t say XYZ because…”.)

I often find that you can’t really talk to people who act on pure principles – because principles, if applied as purely as they’re usually argued, ignore context. And that’s what is woefully missing from this entire debate: people fight over examples of videogame violence, but they don’t really look at the individual contexts. Do I think it’s right that the BBFC denied Manhunt 2 a certificate, in effect banning it in the UK? I don’t think it’s wrong, although I think this sort of thing should be applied only after a lot of consideration, and it should be open to appeal. I think it’s important to discuss whether “freedom of speech” means such games should be made and sold. I think it’s important that the in-game context of violence should be looked at critically. Who is the player character, what does the violence consist of? How is it integrated into a plot? Who is it committed against? Does the game reward violence, does it punish it, or does it simply show it? All of these are interesting, important questions that are so often ignored by both sides of the debate. The same act of violence may mean something vastly different depending on context.

If anything should go in games, because they’re fictional and because artistic freedom should be absolute (i.e. it should include such things as gamers being able to chainsaw their opponents in the throat and then dismember the corpses – it’s art, innit?), then there’s nothing wrong with rape games or concentration camp simulators. These games exist (they’re amateur productions), and they won’t stop existing if there’s legislation. But unless the defenders of videogame violence are willing to have an mature, differentiated debate about the issue, acknowledging its complexity, I can live with limits to what is acceptable in games.

Until a game is banned that I really like, and that’s when I’ll probably be shouting the loudest.

(Note: That last sentence is there to acknowledge the contradiction in me advertising GTA: San Andreas one day and ranting against violence in games the next. Hey, I’m a contrary bastard! Also, I’d rather continue the discussion in the Comments, if anyone’s interested. This issue should be debated, and not just in black/white terms.)