GTA V: the grind

I linked to Tom Bissell’s excellent piece about GTA V last week, and included a beautifully-written quote about how people who love video games – as well as any person who loves any medium enough to spend long, solitary hours with it – are “broken in some way.”  I thought this was a very astute observation, and I certainly related to it very deeply.

Towards the end of that piece, however, is the actual money quote regarding how he feels about the game itself, and I’m finding it equally astute and relatable:

One of GTA V‘s characters admits at the end of the game, “I’m getting too old for this nonsense.” And you know what? I felt the same thing numerous times while playing GTA V, even though I continue to admire the hell out of much of what it accomplishes. So if I sound ambivalent,… I think it’s because I’m part of a generation of gamers who just realized we’re no longer the intended audience of modern gaming’s most iconic franchise. Three steps past that realization, of course, is anticipation of one’s private, desperate hurtle into galactic heat death. I’m left wondering when I, or any of us, express a wish for GTA to grow up, what are we actually saying? What would it even mean for something like GTA to “grow up”? Our most satirically daring, adult-themed game is also our most defiantly puerile game. Maybe the biggest sin of the GTA games is the cheerful, spiteful way they rub our faces in what video games make us willing to do, in what video games are.

I’m so very much in tune with this quote that it kinda makes me want to not write about it any more.

I’m now around 30 hours into the game, give or take, and my save file indicates I’m a little under 50% completion.  I have no illusions about that number – I’ve never come anywhere close to getting 100% in any GTA game, and I’m certainly not going to start now, not with a baby in the house that I enjoy being around and a wife that I like to spend time with.  So I have already given up on finding all of the hidden collectible stuff (though I’ll still collect something if I happen to stumble across it), and I’ll probably stay away from some of the side missions and activities (i.e., I won’t do any more Assassination missions until I have enough money to make the stock market investment truly worthwhile).  

As far as the core story and missions are concerned, I am more or less entertained.  Some missions are better than others; indeed, some parts of missions are better than others.  A highlight was having Michael shoot down a plane with some sort of robotic gun, and then having Trevor chase after the downed plane on a motorbike; a lowlight was Trevor flying a cropduster into a cargo plane (even though that sounds amazing, it was actually quite frustrating).  I don’t know what it says about the game (or my enjoyment of it) that I happened to play these two missions back-to-back.

Funny thing; I’ve written so much about GTA V over the last 2 weeks or so and still haven’t brought up my biggest pet peeve.  It’s a small thing, but it’s driven me crazy ever since GTA III, and it continues to annoy me now.  Here it is, my biggest complaint of the GTA franchise… it’s not the violence or the language… it’s that the camera angle, when I’m driving, has always been just a tad too low to the ground for me to see the road as well as I’d like to.   This means that I can only really drive well if I’m keeping my right thumb angled down on the thumbstick.  Consequently, I don’t really go in for most of the race events, and the missions that require precision driving are always a bit more difficult than they should be because I’m trying to keep the camera at an appropriate angle while trying to avoid obstacles.

I am determined to at least see the story’s conclusion, and do a few more heists, and also see how the online aspect shakes out (we’ll all know tomorrow, and I’ll have more to say about that as well).  Despite my crabbiness I’m still enjoying the experience, even if it’s not what I’d hoped it would be.  (But let’s also state the obvious; the release calendar is pretty dry for the rest of the year; it’s not like there’s something else I’d be playing.)

Tom Bissell on GTA V

Not a GTA V post from me; instead, it’s Tom Bissell writing about GTAV for Grantland.  I’ve not even yet finished it, but this particular bit was worth reposting:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. …I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

GTA V: of yoga and torture

I wasn’t necessarily planning on blogging every GTA V play session, but, well, it’s a slow afternoon.

I did the much-ballyhooed “torture” mission last night in which Trevor and Michael are, for some reason, brought in to (a) help the FIB interrogate a prisoner and (b) assassinate someone based on the prisoner’s intel (given under duress).  It wasn’t necessarily as awful as I’d been led to believe, but that’s not to say it wasn’t utterly distasteful; I suppose the most offensive part was that I’d failed to get the gold medal after I completed the mission because I’d failed to use every torture device available.  Let me rephrase that:  the game said I didn’t do a thorough enough job of torturing an innocent man, even though I’d removed two of his teeth with pliers, hooked his nipples up to a car battery, and broke the shit out of his kneecap – all while using his frantically-offered information to assassinate someone who may or may not have been “bad.”  The whole thing reminded me a bit of the infamous “No Russian” level in CoD:MW2, in that it was senseless and mean-spirited and there simply to make you feel bad, not necessarily to provoke or inspire thought or discussion.

20 minutes after this, I completed Michael’s first yoga exercise, which came replete with the expected sexual innuendo and jokes (including a few ripped straight out of the terrible, terrible film Couples Retreat, which, I mean, come on).

That the controller mechanics for the yoga were not all that dissimilar from the controller mechanics of the tooth-pulling is maybe the game’s slyest joke thus far.

 

GTA V continued: now it gets interesting

[Previous spoiler warnings still apply; I try not to get into story spoilers, but talk about missions and characters are unavoidable.  Do not read if you’ve not yet played.]

[Also: I’d been working on this post all morning but then I got sidetracked with the SteamOS announcement, and so I have no idea what the hell this post is about any more.]

So, where was I….

Ah, yes.  In my last post, I was treading water, somewhat; I had not yet performed the first in-game heist, and I was kinda just messing around in the world, killing time until the last piece of the pre-heist puzzle was solved.  I was feeling a little bit lost, a little less enthused about the game than I’d hoped.

I am many more hours into GTA V now.  Its hooks are now firmly planted in my brain.  I am still a little put off by the relentless profanity for profanity’s sake, but I admit that could just be me and my changing attitudes towards that kind of thing.  The game itself now has a forward momentum that the early hours just didn’t have.

That forward momentum is, of course, personified by the game’s introduction of Trevor, the final member of the player’s trio.  He may yet be the least sympathetic character in the entire franchise; he is also the most appropriate.  He embodies the sociopathic nature of the franchise; he murders and destroys because it’s fun, and because he’s good at it.

But first, before I talk about Trevor, I need to get caught up.  I did finally finish that first heist.  All things considered, it was pretty satisfying to pull off – and the take was nice, too – though the post-heist escape was lifted straight out of Italian Job.  I haven’t seen the original film, so I’m not sure what’s referencing what, but the only real significant difference between the Mark Wahlberg remake and GTA V was the absence of Mini Coopers.  There are times when I wish GTA wasn’t so reliant on pop culture references; things feel familiar when they shouldn’t, which ends up spoiling the surprise.  It’s one thing for film references to help put you in the right frame of mind (i.e., Scarface/Vice City), but sometimes it feels as if the mission designers would rather ape something tried-and-true than come up with something original.  This is something the entire GTA franchise has been guilty of since at least III; I’m just noting it here because it seemed particularly egregious.

(I’m not totally against references, mind you; I just get ornery when it feels like a missed opportunity to do something unique.  That said, there is a post-heist Franklin mission that takes place in what might as well have been CJ’s house and cul-de-sac in San Andreas, and that one gave me goose bumps.  That reference works, though, because it’s (a) subtle, and (b) earned.)

*     *     *

Quick tangent: having never been to Los Angeles – or California, or the West Coast – the verisimilitude of Los Santos is something I can’t necessarily appreciate in the way that I, as a native New Yorker, could with Liberty City.  But I did play L.A. Noire, and San Andreas, and I’ve certainly seen lots of movies that are set out there, and so there’s quite a lot of stuff that I recognize, and everything certainly feels true, which is pretty amazing.  And yet: it’s the stuff north of the city that really knocks my socks off…

*     *     *

But yeah, once the game shifts gears and introduces Trevor… wow.  He’s a really tough character to watch.  People complain that GTA IV was too dark and gritty for its own good, but Trevor is even darker, more menacing, and completely insane – and also maybe a little bit silly, which is off-putting, to say the least.  Are we supposed to laugh at him?  with him?  Is he meant to be entertaining?

We are introduced to him mid-coitus, as he discovers that Michael (his old thieving partner) is not actually dead.  5 minutes later, he’s more or less killed a biker with his bare hands.  It’s hard to know whether what happens over his first set of missions is a continuation of earlier events or simply Trevor’s id exploding with rage, but it almost doesn’t matter; everything goes batshit insane immediately, and without warning, and so the narrative context is made irrelevant.  (This may or may not be a good thing; it’s hard to tell.)  Trevor’s personality is so dynamic and dominant and spontaneous that it’s entirely possible that he just decides to take over all meth operations in that part of town, blowing the hell out of everything in his way in the process – it’s not a culmination of months-long planning, it’s just a thing that he chooses to do, right then and there.

And so suddenly the game is no longer about social issues or class warfare or the financial crisis; it’s about blowing shit up and causing maximum amounts of chaos… which is kinda what the game has always been about.  The franchise just never had a protagonist who enjoys this sort of work with the glee and gusto of a true psychotic sociopath.  Trevor wouldn’t be out of place in Saints Row, frankly, except that the cast of Saints Row aren’t this dangerous; they’re wacky-ha-ha, not wacky-holy-shit-look-out.

On the flip side of the coin, being introduced to Trevor also introduces us to the northern half of the map, which I can’t even describe without completely losing my train of thought. I knew the game would eventually take me up there, but I was too wrapped up in the early missions to really go exploring.  Once I was up there, though… it’s truly breathtaking, what Rockstar’s managed to create.  For all the vulgarity and the racism and sexism and ugliness of the narrative, the world itself is mindblowing.  I mean, the city of Los Santos is as incredibly detailed as anything I’ve ever seen in a game, but once you get out of the city it somehow gets taken to a whole new level.  Honestly?  There’s a part of me that kinda wants to finish the story as quickly as possible just so I can get it out of the way and have the freedom to explore every nook and cranny of that map.

*      *      *

Tangent, part 2:  If I were to interview Rockstar – and specifically the guys in charge of the gameplay experience, however that’s delegated – I think the main question I’d want to ask is how they balance the need for narrative urgency to complete the next story mission against allowing total freedom to do whatever the player wants, or if that’s even something they worry about anymore.  GTA3 took the idea of non-linear, emergent gameplay and made it the centerpiece of the game experience; with each subsequent game they expanded the number of toys you could play with, while also making their narratives larger and more ambitious.  Here in GTA V, they’ve gone and given you THREE different main characters to play as, and yet they’ve also given you the largest and most pliable sandbox ever created.  (This is to say nothing of the online component.)  So, then:  is the story even necessary?  

*       *       *

This post is now running very long and is probably long past being coherent, so let me try to run down some things that are working for me, as well as some things that are not.

Things that work:  The stock market.  I’m really impressed with how this system works, and it’s only because I’m an idiot that I didn’t truly make the most of the first two assassination missions that could’ve given me millions.  Even in spite of my stupidity (wherein, as Franklin, I immediately spent most of my post-heist take on buying a taxi dispatcher business, which meant I had less than $50,000 to play with), I made over $160,000 by buying up the cheap stock that was set to explode because of each mission.  And it’s only now occurring to me that I’ve done two of these missions now and never bothered to switch over to Michael or Trevor so that they could take part in the action as well.  *sigh*

Things that don’t work:  Franklin’s dog.  And not just because the iFruit app is completely useless right now.  Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be that big a deal so far, and so I’ve been content to ignore it, but it’s a needless distraction in a game already full of distractions.

And speaking of Franklin, I’ve been spending most of my time playing as Franklin at this stage in the game; he’s certainly the most sympathetic character of the three, and his special driving ability is a lot of fun to play with, and his new house in the hills is sweet… but it also needs to be said that his character is not written all that well.   I don’t really understand why he was willing to follow Michael so blindly at the beginning; similarly, nearly all of his side missions are taken with great reluctance  (i.e., the paparazzi dude, the legalize-weed dude).   He gets pushed around and agrees to do things for no good reason other than the game makes him, which is kind of dumb.  It makes him look weak, and I’m not sure the game intends for him to look weak.

The Next Few Hours: GTA V and sadness

[I’m around 9 hours into GTA V, and as such, there will probably be some slight early-game spoilers ahead.  But I’m also well aware that anyone reading this who isn’t an immediate family member is also probably playing the game as well, and is probably ahead of me, story-wise, and so I’m not going to sweat it too much.  Still, though, people will gladly accept any excuse to get angry where the internet is concerned, so consider yourself warned.]

I’m in a strange place with respect to GTA V.  I’ve been in a strange place for a while now, to be sure, but I’m specifically talking about this weird feeling I get when I finally get my hands on something long-awaited, whether it’s a game or a book or an album by a favorite band:

  • I get ridiculously excited in the days leading up to its release, so much so that I either have trouble sleeping or I have constant dreams about the thing;
  • and then, when the thing finally shows up, I’m so intimidated by it that I’m sort-of afraid to open it;
  • and then, once I’ve gotten over all that and I’m finally in the thing, it’s hard for me to know if I’m actually enjoying it or not.

But it should also be noted that I’m prone to binging; when I get into something, it is very hard to tear me away from it.  (When Infinite Jest first came out back in 1996, I was so entranced by it that I basically stopped going to class for about a week; I barely slept; I’m not sure I ever changed my clothes.  I devoured it and could not be bothered by anything else.)  But while I’ve played GTA V every night this week, I have only been playing it in short 2-hour bursts, and I’ll often pause it and check in on the baby, or get a snack, or check my email.  To put it another way, I have not taken any sick days, nor do I feel particularly inclined to.

In the case of GTA V, I remain in tremendous awe over the city itself, and the technology that powers it.  I took my first dive into the ocean last night (during an early Michael mission where he’s trying to be involved in his two kids’ lives, one of whom he rescues from a porno yacht) and my jaw dropped when I saw what was under the water.  There is a part of me that kinda wants to ignore the story entirely (and also the mini-map), and line up towards something off on the horizon, and just go.

But this isn’t Skyrim; there aren’t hidden dungeons and treasures.  There are ambient events, of course, but those aren’t quite the same thing.  The game can be enjoyed in whatever fashion you might desire, but the game can only be played by moving the story forward.

And so that’s where I am; I’ve done all the available side missions for both Michael and Franklin, and I’m in the process of getting set up for the first heist.  There’s one last thing I need to do, but that thing is only available at certain times of the day, and since I missed the window I have a few in-game hours to kill; that’s the state of my most recent quick-save.

But in terms of where my head is at?  Well, like I said – I remain in awe of the world.  And the missions themselves are fun, and the new combat controls sure help a great deal, but some of the missions can get a little janky, as open-world games tend to do – that aforementioned mission with Michael and his kids ends in a jet-ski chase and it was very, very unclear what I was supposed to do and where I was supposed to go, and when I managed to outrun the people chasing us I didn’t understand why – they’d been on top of us the whole time, did they suddenly disappear?  I think I ended up trying and failing that mission 6 or 7 times before I stumbled into a Mission Complete – and while I was grateful for the new, less punishing restart feature, I still felt no closer to understanding what the hell was going on.

But the story, and the characters, and that dialogue – it’s making me wonder if I’ve outgrown the franchise, if my being a new father and suddenly seeing the world in a different, protective way makes me somehow less inclined to play along with the game’s ridiculousness.  The game’s outright hostility towards women cannot be excused by the banner of “satire” any more; the incessant vulgarity does not shock any more; the game’s been telling the same satirical jokes about American culture since GTA III, and it’s just not all that funny any more.

So I wonder; is this game really for me, anymore?

*     *     *

As I wrote this, I happened to check Twitter and saw that Leigh Alexander basically just took the words right out of my mouth.

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/200648/Opinion_The_tragedy_of_Grand_Theft_Auto_V.php

There will never be a Citizen Kane of games

This post is not going to answer the question of whether games are Art.  (Although:  I think they can be, if they want to be, but that’s not the point.)

No, this post is meant to respond to a series of Kotaku’s Talk Amongst Yourselves editorials written by one GB ‘Doc’ Burford, at the amazing site Forget Amnesia (see also Twitter: @ForgetAmnesia), in which he argues if there will ever be a Citizen Kane of video games.  You should read his posts in their entirety:  (1) in which he asks the question, and (2) in which he offers what such a game might look like.

Citizen Kane is held up as a paragon of artistic creation; a “perfect” film, a film that even now still appears ahead of its time. The phrase “Citizen Kane of video games” has become such an overused cliche that there’s even a tumblr for it, one that attempts to collect each and every use of the phrase in the mainstream enthusiast press.  But that said, it’s an apt metaphor, because there’s not really a suitable example in any other medium – would there be a [insert Shakespeare play] of games?   Would there be a [Beatles song] of games (not counting the excellent Beatles Rock Band, of course)?  Video games have this inferiority complex only when it comes to movies, most likely because both games and movies tend to look similar, especially as game technology has advanced in recent years – the last 2 Uncharted games were rightly lauded for looking almost as good as film.

Anyway, look – read his pieces, and then come on back.

Here’s the first one, “Citizen Whine“, and here’s the second (which doesn’t have as catchy a title).

In that first post, the ultimate point he comes to is:

If you want to make The Citizen Kane of Video Games, you’ve got to make a game that’s great—really, truly great—on technical and artistic levels. Then you have to make a game that influences the way society thinks about your medium. Whatever The Citizen Kane of Video Games is, it’s going to be the game that gets mainstream scholarly attention. It’s going to be the game that quells many of the debates about the medium. It’s going to be something that people look at and are inspired by, something that lets them improve upon it. It’s going to be real art, not simple entertainment with decorative bits.

We don’t have a Citizen Kane right now, not in a climate where most people feel comfortable asking a guy like me why he chose game design, instead of a degree in something useful—no one’s uttered a peep in regards to my current film degree pursuit.

Citizen Kane, in other words, gives Gaming a kind of legitimacy it doesn’t have yet.

I agree with all of these points, most especially the bit about how the Citizen Kane of games would have to be able to influence the way society thinks about your medium.

That’s also the tricky part.  Because the reason that this will never happen is actually quite simple; a gamer has a completely different relationship to a game than a non-gamer (or “society”) does, and that is because a gamer knows how to use a controller, and a non-gamer does not.  A gamer has had years of experience with control inputs, and developers have had years to learn which control inputs make  the most sense, and so a gamer knows intuitively how to move forward, how to shoot, how to drive, how to jump, how to crouch, how to choose the correct dialogue option, even how to navigate menus.

I’ve sat a few of my non-gamer friends in front of the first hour or so of Portal 2, which I consider one of the finest games ever made – and which also goes out of its way to make sure you understand how the game itself works – and they almost always struggle and fight with the controls, not being able to look and move at the same time – or even just knowing how to point the camera where they want to.  They get frustrated and annoyed, and hand over the controller after 30 minutes or so, and say “Yeah, it looks cool, I’m just no good with controllers.”

The Wii was supposed to fix this problem – it certainly attracted a much wider audience of non-gamers than any console before it, and the controls, for the most part, were intuitive and easy to learn.  If you wanted to play Wii Tennis, you simply swung the Wii remote as if it were a racket – this made sense to gamers and non-gamers alike.  The problem, of course, is that nobody really did anything with it; third parties stopped developing for the Wii almost immediately, and Nintendo was left holding the bag with more of the same first-party experiences that they’d always made, and the non-gamer crowd didn’t go for it.

In that second post linked to above, Burford argues that if there is a Citizen Kane of games, it will be a first-person shooter – or, at least, it will take from the first-person perspective.  It very well might be – his reasoning is sound, and Portal 2 would still fit the bill – but if it is, I think it’s quite possible that it’ll be an iPhone/touch-screen game.  Touch controls, when done correctly, are generally very intuitive, and very easy to pick up and play without having to figure out what you’re doing.  (Ironically, though, touch screen devices haven’t yet mastered first-person controls.)

He says:

The Citizen Kane of Video Games, in other words, is a game that is going to have broad appeal while putting players in a unique headspace and making them reflect on who they are and what they’ve done. Instead of being a game that tells us about the world, though it will do that, the Citizen Kane of Video Games is going to be a game that tells us more about ourselves than we’ve ever known.

This is all true.  But only as long as the gamer isn’t fighting the controls.

The First Few Hours: GTA V

[Editor’s note: I am very much wanting to write about my first few hours with GTA V right now, but I’m also in the middle of a work-related anxiety attack.  I apologize in advance if whatever follows is gibberish.]

My weirdness about GTA V continues.  This weekend I was having GTA dreams; then, on Sunday night – the night before the game got reviewed – I got no sleep, and instead was having some sort of weird anxiety attack, part of which might very well have been triggered by review anticipation.   A wide assortment of badness happened on Monday morning and so I ended up staying home from work, and so I juggled taking care of the baby while also power-reading through the reviews from all the major sites (while being very careful to avoid the comment sections).

The reviews were more or less what I expected them to be – perfect or near-perfect scores, though not without some caveats, cautions and concerns.  And while I did manage to avoid the comment sections, it was the gaming press themselves on Twitter who reposted the commentariat’s vitriolic, frothing rage over point deductions.  Only on the internet does a 9/10 score get almost 20,000 comments simply because the reviewer dared to point out that the game engages in some misogynistic and racist behavior – behavior which is not unusual for the series but which, in this case, is especially troubling because it doesn’t necessarily seem to be as satirically designed as the rest of the game’s social commentaries.

Anyway, my copy of the game arrived on Tuesday, and I played it for 3-4 hours or so.  And now I’m all sorts of fucked up about it.

On the plus side: it’s technologically impressive as all hell, and by far the best looking game Rockstar’s ever made.   This is the first disc-based AAA game I’ve played on my 360 in months, I think, and I’m kinda blown away as to how good it looks.  I played Red Dead over the weekend and that game still looks terrific, but GTA V really takes it to the next level.   The city is colorful and crisp, the art direction is impeccable, and the animation is among the most convincing I’ve ever seen – especially the ragdoll physics, which are borderline creepy.

And as for the stuff on my wishlist, they pretty much nailed everything I wanted:

  • Failing a mission is much less punishing, and merely results in a mid-mission checkpoint restart.  YES.
  • Ambient events – I haven’t seen these for myself yet, but I watched some gameplay video yesterday and so I know they’re in there.  YES.
  • Miscellaneous challenges – GTA is a different sort of beast than RDR; I don’t know if there’s a treasure hunt yet.  Surely there are hidden collectibles, as there are in all GTA games, but I’ve never been good at finding them.  That said, the tennis mini-game isn’t terrible (though the camera is a bit low), and the golf isn’t terrible (though it’s not great, either) – I’m not sure I’ll play them again, but it was nice to see that there was at least some effort into putting those things together.  Still, I’ve only played for a few hours; there’s a million things I haven’t done or seen yet, and so the  JURY IS STILL OUT.
  • The combat system is very much improved.  Takes everything that worked from RDR and MP3 and further refines it.  Cover system works the way it’s supposed to; targeting works the way it’s supposed to; the radial menu works just fine. YES.
  • I threw in that bit about navigation almost as an afterthought, and yet that was addressed as well.  The new GPS system has a subtle 3D tilt to it, which makes navigation a lot easier (even if I find myself looking in the lower corner more than I’d like).  Still, I wasn’t expecting that, and they addressed it anyway.  YES.
  • Last but certainly not least, there is now a much-needed quick-save option.  This was the very first thing I tried once I had the opportunity.  YES YES YES.

On the negative side:  the short version is that I’m very, very glad that I was wearing headphones.  In the first few hours alone, the script uses more “n-words” than Quentin Tarantino writing a Sam Jackson monologue on 6 cups of coffee.  And I’m using Tarantino as an example because the Houser brothers, as far as I know, are just as white as Quentin is, and so it’s a little weird.  All the dialogue in the game has a stilted quality to it – I suppose it’s meant to sound very naturalistic, but it’s also a little over-eloquent and in love with itself.

And the characters themselves are not what you’d call “nice guys”.  It would be hard to expect them to be, and I’m not necessarily sure I’d want them to be – it’s weird enough playing Uncharted and pretending I’m the charming rogue Nathan Drake while killing 700+ people.  But these characters are ugly, and from what I hear they don’t necessarily get any more endearing, and if this game is as large as it appears to be, well, that’s a lot of hours I’m going to be spending while feeling rather uncomfortable.

I think my larger issue is that the GTA franchise – arguably the most important and influential gaming franchise around, and certainly my personal favorite – has the unique opportunity to do bold and interesting things.  (In fact, Rockstar does do bold and interesting things – in their non-GTA games, like Red Dead and Bully and even The Warriors (and, lest we forget, Table Tennis)).  The rest of the gaming world gets the hell out of the way whenever a GTA game comes out – it’s a special event, it’s something that everyone pays attention to.  These are important games.   And so I guess what I’m saying is that it would be nice if the narrative could rise to the occasion, and not just the technology.

GTA V wishlist

I’ve been getting a little weird about GTA V over the last few days; I’m in that super-hyped-up pre-release phase where it’s pretty much all I can think about.  Hell, I played an hour of Red Dead last night and ended up having non-stop dreams about GTA.

I say this all the time, that comparing new work to previous work can be awfully reductive in terms of analysis, but here’s the thing – most Rockstar games end up sharing a lot of DNA, and pretty much every game that they’ve put out since GTA IV has made remarkable strides in terms of the overall gameplay experience, and so there’s things in those games that I would like to see integrated into GTA V.  As I said above, I’ve spent a few hours this weekend playing Red Dead Redemption specifically so as to get re-acclimated to that game engine and the marvelous little touches that are sprinkled throughout, as well as a tiny little bit of Max Payne 3, which really refined the combat systems perfectly.

Anyway, since the reviews are coming tomorrow morning, I’m feeling compelled to get out in front of them and speak my mind as to what I hope to see.  I know nobody will read this between now and then, but for whatever reason I feel like I need to be on record about the stuff I want.

  • The penalties for failing a mission in previous GTAs were unbelievably harsh; if something went wrong, you were kicked out and had to manually trigger the mission again, minus whatever ammo you lost; if you died, you woke up at a hospital without a car and out a not-insubstantial percentage of cash.  Whereas in RDR, you just restarted at a mid-mission checkpoint.  Saints Row has been doing this for the last few iterations, too; it just makes sense.
  • RDR’s ambient events did so much to make that world feel alive; I know that an urban environment makes that a bit tougher to pull off, especially when the 3 characters are not exactly the sorts of good samaritans that would be inclined to help out strangers, but it’d be nice to see something along those lines.
  • Similarly, not that GTA games have ever needed help getting the player off the linear path, but the challenges in RDR opened up the world and the gameplay and encouraged exploration; for me, the treasure hunting and survivalist challenges are still absorbing and compelling, even all these years later.  If GTA V has something along those lines, I’ll be very, very happy.
  •   Max Payne 3’s combat took the cover system and controls of RDR and made it super-tight and focused; I always felt in total control over every bullet I fired.  Now, granted, MP3 is specifically focused on combat, and the bullet-time tactic is an integral part of the experience; I don’t expect GTA V to have that kind of thing.  But the tightness of MP3’s controls are tough to beat, and it would be really nice to see a GTA game with decent combat for once.
  • An improved navigation system; while RDR’s corner map with highlighted route worked just fine, I’ve grown very accustomed to Saints Row’s on-road arrow system.  I would never expect GTA to go that far in terms of change; they’d never alter the physical environment just to make it easier for you to see where you were going.  Still, though, I’d like to see something to make it a little easier to find my way around.
  • Would LOVE to be able to save anywhere I wanted.  I grew very tired of having to find a safehouse every time I need to save.  Now, I seem to recall there being sort of automatic save system after every completed mission in The Ballad of Gay Tony – but I’d still prefer the option to make a hard save whenever the urge strikes me.  (As a parent of a 5-month old baby, needing to save at a moment’s notice is very, very important.)

I think that should cover everything.  I’ll be posting impressions at every possible opportunity this week, though I fully expect nobody to be reading.  See you guys online in a few weeks!

video and words!

It occurs to me that I never reposted my review of Gone Home which appeared at the New York Videogame Critics Circle; it can be found here:  http://nygamecritics.com/2013/08/23/the-insight-gone-home-retro-then-not/

And here’s my first-ever video appearance on behalf of the NYVCC, recapping my Gone Home review and then talking with Victor Kalogiannis about Saints Row IV.  (I was terribly sick at the time, but managed not to fall over and die, so that’s something.)

on nostalgia, prog rock, and games

Nostalgia is the enemy of all great art, rock and roll most of all, since at its best it is a celebration of the now.
– Jim DeRogatis, “Ode to the Giant Hogweeds”

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why today is a tough day to write about games, even if today is a day where I’d prefer to be distracted by writing about things that keep me distracted.

But it’s also tough to write about games because, well, this is the week before GTAV, the game I’ve probably been looking forward to more than any other game of this generation.*  And as such, I’m having trouble staying focused on the games that are already in front of me.  I played around 30 minutes of Rayman Legends on Monday, and around 20 minutes of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs last night, and while they’re both really impressive (even if for wildly different reasons), I found my mind wandering.  (And yet I continue to play the shit out of Giant Boulder of Death on my iPhone, even as it eats up my battery like crazy.)

Anyway, I feel like I need to write something, so indulge me as I ramble for a bit.  (It will turn back around to games, I promise.)

*      *      *

Yesterday I started reading “Yes Is The Answer: (And Other Prog-Rock Tales)“,** a collection of essays about the big prog bands of the 70s.  It actually ends up reading mostly like long sort-of-but-not-really-apologies about liking the big prog bands of the 70s, because admitting that you like prog rock is, I guess, a mark of shame.  I had the good fortune of discovering prog rock during the late 80s/early 90s at summer camp, long after punk had kicked prog to the curb (but just before grunge came back to finish the job), and so I don’t necessarily feel guilty about my unabashed love for Genesis, Yes, Rush and the like.

Anyway, I was reading this book and I happened to have Spotify open on my computer while I was reading – this way, I could listen to the bands that were being talked about that I didn’t know all that well.  (i.e., Caravan, the Strawbs, Van der Graaf Generator, Soft Machine, The Nice, Incredible String Band, etc.)  It was an illuminating afternoon, even if, as it turns out, there are certain bands that I will never, ever, ever be able to get into.

For example, Emerson Lake & Palmer – I just can’t do it.  And I should be able to appreciate them, as I’ve been a keyboard player since I was 3 years old and Keith Emerson ought to have been my keyboard hero, because my keyboard heroes when I was younger were Bruce Hornsby and Billy Joel – but I’m 37 now, and I like what I like, and when I go back and listen to that stuff it’s impenetrable.  It’s the same thing with King Crimson (even though I adore Red).  And while I do love Yes, it’s really only certain albums that I can still enjoy listening to – the ones I know the best.  Of all those prog bands, Genesis was the only one where I forced myself in recent years to become familiar with the albums that I hadn’t been familiar with when I was younger – and I suppose that’s only because they were my favorite prog band and I was predisposed to get past the stuff that turned off other people.  (And also because the remastered box sets from a few years ago sound fucking incredible.)

Likewise, not prog, but still:  David Bowie – can’t do it.  And I respect the shit out of him, and I appreciate that he’s well-loved by pretty much everyone.  I forced myself to get into Ziggy Stardust, and by and large I do like that album a great deal, but I just can’t get into anything else.  I’ve tried repeatedly to get into The Berlin Trilogy, but there’s something about the production aesthetic that bugs the hell out of me – it totally obscures the songwriting and the vocals, and I’ve never been able to get past it.

Anyway, I thought about this a lot yesterday, and I started to wonder if this knee-jerk reaction to certain genres of music applies to other media.   It’s hard to say, I suppose, because rock music – much more so than film or books – is very much defined by its era and its immediate context, and so an older band can be a bit more difficult to get into if you already don’t have an innate sense of where it was coming from.***

For example, I don’t find capital-F Film to be that difficult to get into, of any era; maybe there are certain filmmakers that i can’t see eye-to-eye with, but by and large I’m willing to give most any film a chance (even if I don’t often find myself longing for old-timey, black-and-white films).  TV is a bit trickier, as old shows can feel incredibly dated now,**** but to be fair I’ve never been a big TV guy to begin with.

Games are a different story altogether.  (See?  I told you it would come back around to games!)  Because it’s more than just cultural context at play – it’s just straight-up technology that gets in the way.  Even games that are only 5 years old can be technically horrific to look at, compared to what we’re used to today.  Gameplay systems and conventions have evolved radically, exponentially; GTA3 is damn-near impossible for me to enjoy these days, especially now that Rockstar Games has so clearly reinvented the combat wheel with Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption – indeed, even GTA4 feels downright archaic.  How can I go back to Oblivion (where I’ve spent over 100 hours) now that I’ve clomped around Skyrim? Could I even enjoy KOTOR now?  I think I have it on my iPad and I kinda don’t care, and we’re talking about one of my favorite games of all time.  I tried playing System Shock 2 when it came out on Steam a few months ago – one of the “greatest games of all time” – and couldn’t get much farther than the tutorial; it felt alien and strange and unintuitive and not fun.  If I’d played it when it originally came out, I suppose I might have been more forgiving towards it – but as a new player, it was impossible to get into.

And, of course, there are plenty of older games that are literally impossible to play now, because there are no logistical ways to play them.  Skies of Arcadia is one of my favorite JRPGs*****, but unless they make an HD remake I’ll never play it again – I’m not even sure my Dreamcast can hook up to my HDTV without needing some arcane adapters.  And my love for all things Tim Schafer can only begin with Grim Fandango, as I never played Full Throttle or Day of the Tentacle and I don’t have the technological savvy to make that happen without accidentally setting my PC on fire.

*      *      *

If you made it this far, thank you.  I’m sorry I don’t have a central point to all this rambling; ultimately this was about me trying not to have panic attacks about what happened 12 years ago.  It feels like a lifetime ago, even if a lot of it is still simmering in my brain and my blood, as fresh as if it happened this morning.  It changed me; it scarred me.  It bothers me a little when people say “Never Forget”, because if you were there, you can’t forget it.  I was only a few months removed from temping down there, actually; indeed, if I hadn’t had the world’s worst boss at the time, I might’ve still been there.

Hug your loved ones; keep them close.

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* I wrote this without really thinking about it; but now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure it’s true.  The only other game that might come close in terms of me going bananas with anticipation is Portal 2.  (What’s notable about Portal 2, though, is that it turned out to be even better than I’d hoped, which is something that almost never happens.)  I’m trying to think of other games that I was absurdly excited about; I know I waited in a midnight line at Gamestop for GTA4, and I might’ve waited on a midnight line for Skyrim, but those were unique situations in that I knew I wouldn’t have to be at work the following day and that there was a Gamestop within walking distance from my apartment.  I did get pretty nerded-out for Beatles: Rock Band, of all things.

** The book is good though uneven – and of course you will only bother to pick it up if you’re already a fan of the music – but the absolute knockout of the bunch is Tom Junod’s piece about Genesis and Peter Gabriel, which can and should be read by anyone.  I’m cutting and pasting from the L.A. Times’ review, since it says all that needs to be said:

“The indisputable star in this band of essayists is Tom Junod, whose “Out, Angels Out” might be worth the book’s $24 price by itself. Junod revisits a perilous passage in his late teens when he was falling into alienation and despondency. Genesis singer Peter Gabriel became the lifeline that pulled him through — although Junod’s closest sidekick in prog didn’t make it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about rock music or, for that matter, about how adolescence can suddenly turn into a rope bridge over a chasm in a howling wind.”

*** My parents were both classical musicians and didn’t listen to rock music in the house at all, and even listening to the Top 40 countdown on the weekends was a minor act of rebellion on my part (even if I did it on my tiny boom box at very low volumes).   So it makes sense to me why certain, classically-influenced prog music would resonate so deeply with me as a teenager away at summer camp, surrounded by all the older brothers I never actually had.  (It was a performing arts camp, too, so my fellow campers were already predisposed to liking geeky things; it was a save haven for all of us to rejoice in our nerdiness without getting punched by jocks.)

**** Case in point – the wife and I ended up watching a lot of TJ Hooker during Labor Day weekend, and it’s just ridiculous that anyone could’ve been a genuine fan of such unintentional silliness.

***** Skies of Arcadia is also the first JRPG I ever played, so that might have something to do with it.  I have absolutely no idea if it holds up today; I’m not even sure I want an HD remake, because I don’t want my memories to be squashed.  (If someone out there who is in charge of such things is reading this, I want you to know I’d still buy it – just turn down the number of random encounters a smidge and we’d be all set.)