The Insight: Beyond the See in Beyond: Two Souls

Here’s my review of Beyond: Two Souls, up at the NYVCC!

“Quite exciting, this computer magic!”  – Viv Savage, This is Spinal Tap

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”  – David St. Hubbins, This is Spinal Tap

by Jeremy Voss

David Cage makes me feel many things, but mostly he makes me feel like a hypocrite.

Here I am, bemoaning all the mindless violence of today’s first-person shooters, the ever-present grays and browns of the Unreal Engine, the sexism and misogyny (however “unintentional”) that pervades our narratives. And here’s David Cage, presenting me with Beyond: Two Souls, a game that features astonishingly beautiful technology, a vibrant performance by a perfectly cast Ellen Page as the female protagonist, an ambitious narrative, a game that features many gorgeous moments of quietude and introspection. And he serves it all up as if to say, “Here’s everything you’re looking for, just like you said you wanted.”

And then I spend around…

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on Lester Bangs and the ethics of game journalism

There were a bunch of things I had intended to write about today – the Tiger Woods / EA split, the generally, startlingly positive reviews for Assassins Creed IV and if that was enough to push me back into a franchise that I’d all but sworn off, etc. – but in light of Lou Reed’s death*, and the subsequent discussions of his life and, specifically, his notoriously hostile relationships with music critics, especially with Lester Bangs (Exhibit A), I started thinking about the current state of game journalism.

Everyone (including me) talks about “the Citizen Kane of video games”, but back in 2006 Chuck Klosterman wrote, rather infamously, about the lack of a corresponding “Lester Bangs of Video Games“, and how the gaming press desperately needed one.  Some people suggested that Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw and his Zero Punctuation series fit the bill; I’d argue, rather inevitably, that Tom Bissell, Leigh Alexander and maybe even Jim Sterling should be in the discussion, too, if we’re assuming that this particular discussion is “necessary”.

In this 2008 response, Kirk Battle (writing as L.B. Jeffries) broke down Klosterman’s agrument and wondered if Lester Bangs was the right person for game journalists to emulate.  There are pros and cons, but he ends the piece with this bit of insight:

What can the video game critic draw from the lessons of the critic of another medium? Stand up for the games that are critically panned for not fitting the mold. Criticize games that are stuck in boring molds and doing nothing but repeat what has already been done. Don’t get frustrated when things don’t change, because that isn’t your function. Like Johnson’s critic predicting the weather, talking about the games that are challenging and moving the medium forward is all one needs to do. These are all essential elements and represent what Bangs contributed to rock ‘n’ roll. Yet at the core of that is the idea of having an image about what that artistic medium should be doing and talking about the moments where that is happening. For every article or blog post about the failings of game criticism, there is an implicit idea about what video games should be doing and this defending or panning of a video game is what defines that vision.

This is all well and good, but there’s something larger at issue here, and that’s what I’m actually here to talk about.

Monday’s Scoops & the Wolf podcast talked in very vague terms about some sort of inside-baseball controversy that cropped up over the weekend; they succeeded in keeping it vague, so I’m not 100% sure I know what happened, but my impression is that certain high-profile journalists at certain high-profile outlets made certain vague tweets concerning… something that may or may not be related to the new console launches, and the console manufacturers being somewhat withholding, and the subsequent difficulty of those sites’ planned coverage for their launch events.  More to the point, Klepek mentioned something about how there’s a “tiered” system – certain outlets have “favored” status among publishers and therefore are afforded better and earlier access than others, and this strikes me, as an outsider, as deeply fucked up.

Here’s the relevant transcript snippet, edited for clarity – they start talking about this thing at 6:27, and the snippet below starts at 7:14:

PK: …Several members of the media over the weekend were tweeting vaguely about stuff (AN: “cryptic things”)… one of the things that people should keep in mind when we talk about console launches is that media outlets are bracketed, there is a tiered system, different outlets are treated differently; that turns into access, that turns into what they get ahead of time or how much they get of something ahead of time… the reasoning[ ] behind that, from what I understand, vary wildly; depends on – maybe they want to target a certain audience that they think that site is better suited for, maybe they’re targeting a more mainstream audience… and every outlet has different things that they use to cover or how they cover or why they cover; some outlets are very specific about wanting to have reviews of every game… The only [concern] that I will throw water on is this idea that publishers somehow have control over final review text… There is no way that is true, I’ve heard nothing to that, that is never something I have heard to be a legitimate or realistic [demand]…

I’d like to think that I’m not naive, and that I understand that the business of game journalism is first and foremost a business, and that there is, inevitably, some necessary degree of symbiosis between journalists and publishers, and that both sides do their best to sidestep whatever ethical weirdness such a relationship may entail.  But how can a professional game critic truly be objective if they’re writing for an outlet that has this sort of “preferred” status?

I understand that as objective as any professional game critic tries to be, they can’t truly be an independent voice.  I’m not suggesting that they can’t pan a tremendously hyped game if that game is deserving of a shitty review; but I am suggesting that tremendously hyped games might not get as objectively reviewed as they otherwise could, especially if the reviewer has had prior access.

This is why “preview events” seem so fucked up to me.  I understand why they exist – game companies want consumers to know about their upcoming games, and game outlets need things to write about – but the tremendous leverage that the game companies have over the outlets (i.e., embargoes) means that it’s very, very difficult for those previews to be truly objective – even if those writing the previews are desperately trying to remain objective.  There’s a very big difference between privately interviewing a game creator and going to a preview event where a publisher only shows a very tightly controlled “vertical gameplay slice”.

Rhetorical questions:  Do movies studios fly New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis to visit film sets and see dailies?  Did Lester Bangs get to watch Lou Reed write, rehearse and record his albums?  The music industry (and the outlets who cover it) is so tremendously fucked up these days that I’m not sure Lester Bangs could even exist anymore; I mean, Pitchfork used to be the vanguard of independent music criticism, and yet now they have an annual music festival featuring the same bands they claim to objectively review.

I’m not sure I know what the answer is.  (Or, at this point, what the question I’m asking is.)  I mean, I’m an aspiring journalist; I’m actively trying to become a cog in this same machine that I’m tearing down.  I’ve heard about “mock reviews” and how ethically horrible they are, but I’m not 100% sure I know the difference between a mock review and a prominently-featured preview article beyond where the paycheck came from.

And so I remain very much on the outside looking in, wondering just what the hell it is I’m looking at.

___________________________________

* I haven’t really talked about Lou Reed’s death yet, as it turns out.  Obviously, he is a mythic, titanic figure of rock and roll, a singular legendary figure on par with Dylan or Lennon or Bowie.  But I must confess I came to him too late for me to feel his loss personally.  It’s a failing on my part, to be sure; in my formative years, I was never introduced to those 4 VU albums, or Transformer, or any of the other many classics in his catalog.  I’m not sure I would’ve gotten into him, though, if I had; I was a prog-rock kid, who valued technical proficiency over all else, and so I probably would’ve heard 5 seconds of his singing and cringed and turned it off.  (Similarly, the primary reason why I got into The Smiths as heavily as I did in my high school years is in spite of Morrissey’s voice – it’s because of Johnny Marr’s guitar playing.  I wasn’t until much later that I appreciated Morrissey on his own terms.)  In recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the Velvets a great deal, and certainly in the last few days I’ve dived deep into Reed’s catalog on Spotify, but I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to soak him in, the way that I used to, back when I had endless time and no distractions.

weekend recap: bits and bobs and odds and sods

So I had big, grand plans for blogging here last week, and, clearly, those plans all went to shit.

I’d written a rather gigantic review of Beyond: Two Souls for the NYVCC (which probably won’t be going up until early November), and in the process of putting it together I started getting a little philosophical about the concept of “fun”.  Not even necessarily about what constitutes fun (as an example, the fun I had in exploring the house in Gone Home is much, much different than, say, the fun of online Call of Duty matches, should you enjoy that sort of thing), but more along the lines of:  is “being fun” the thing that separates/elevates a game from an interactive experience?  Can a game with stellar graphics, a gripping story and fully-realized characters still be considered “great” if it isn’t “fun” to play?  And likewise, can a game with stellar gameplay mechanics (i.e., the “core gameplay loop”, or the “30 seconds of fun” design principle that went into creating Halo) still be considered “great” if the story and the characters and everything else is shitty?

I’d wanted to sink some serious time and thought into this piece, but, again, the week fell apart and I couldn’t put it together – not even after I tweeted that I was working on something ambitious, and that I sincerely hoped that I wouldn’t quit on it.   The tweet was more concerned with the post becoming too ridiculous for me to wrangle into shape; it didn’t take into account the many external factors that conspired against me even having the time to put it together (i.e., day job, sick baby, musical side projects).

Such is the blogger’s dilemma; as I am not in an environment where I can concentrate on writing 24/7 (or even 9 to 5), I seem to only churn out these sorts of lightweight posts – weekend recaps, uninformed gut reactions to industry news, whining about jerks on social media.  The heavy-duty stuff is problematic – I get intimidated because I want the piece to be great, and when I get intimidated I either allow myself to get distracted, or I get too critical and censorious and the whole thing falls apart.

I don’t necessarily want to abandon this idea, though, even if I just gave it away.  Because one thing that I am going to start doing over the next few months is a thorough examination of this console generation, and I’m very curious to see how my personal definition of “fun” has evolved over that time.

Case in point:  I ended up spending quite a lot of time in GTA V this weekend, trying to finish a few Strangers and Freaks missions, and also trying to trigger new ones – there’s quite a few missing in my Social Club profile, and I have no idea where to find them or how to start them.  Two of them started quite by accident; I decided to buy up some businesses, and one of them (the pier in the WNW area of the map) triggered two different quests that essentially sent me underwater, circumnavigating the entire island (one quest in a submarine, the other involving deep-sea diving).  These were strange, laborious and frequently tedious missions, and yet they were also, at times, deeply engrossing – if for no other reason than to simply appreciate the staggering amount of work that went into creating the underwater environment.   And since these missions were also untimed and free of enemies, I could explore at my leisure, and I personally really enjoy that sort of exploration – even if the speed of the sub and/or swimming was painfully, agonizingly slow.

Indeed, most of my time now in GTA V is spent driving around the northern expanse of the map, wishing there were Skyrim-esque dungeons to explore.  (Or, barring that, Red Dead Redemption-style gang hideouts to raid.)   (Also, mostly wishing that someone would mod GTA IV to incorporate GTA V‘s gameplay improvements – combat, penalties for mission failure, quick-saving, etc.)

Also this weekend:  I was generously gifted a copy of Deux Ex: Human Revolution (Director’s Cut) on Steam, and so that was a lot of fun to go back to.  I didn’t notice much in the way of the advertised graphical or AI improvements, and I haven’t gone far enough to see the re-tooled boss fights, but the commentary is a really nice touch, and it was neat to re-approach the first few levels without the clunkiness of my first playthrough.

Also spent a little time with Eldritch, a Lovecraftian roguelike that looks like a Minecraft mod.  I’m not really all that into roguelikes, nor am I particularly into Minecraft, but I do love me some Lovecraft spookiness, and so I finished the first dungeon and am contemplating a return visit.

Finally, I spent a few hours with the new PC port of Enslaved, which is a game that I remember being really impressed with on the 360 – I recalled it being a colorful adventure in the vein of Uncharted, which is a game that I could stand to see more clones of, and in my “Best of 2010 feature” I specifically called out Heavy Rain and said:

See, Heavy Rain, this is how facial animation should be done.  Hell, this is how storytelling should be done.  There’s more said in a character’s face here than in 20 overwritten lines of dialog.  The relationship between the two lead characters was thoroughly believable and authentic.

The PC version for the most part looks incredible, although the camera has considerable moments of severe jank.  And for whatever reason, this second time around, the story seems to be moving a lot faster than I remember – especially in regards to the relationship between Monkey and Trip.  The game is still fun, though – and it’s also pretty neat to see how the combat in Ninja Theory’s reboot of DmC evolved from what they did here in Enslaved.  If you didn’t play it on the console, this PC version is definitely worth picking up for $20.

I seem to doom myself every time I promise a blogging schedule for the upcoming week, so I’m not going to do that now.  But as I said above, my larger project over the next few months is to reexamine this console generation.  As I’m probably going to hold off on getting a next-gen console (most likely the PS4, first) until next year, I anticipate having plenty of time to get caught up on some backlog titles, and to revisit the console games I felt compelled to hold onto (which is to say, the games I liked too much to want to trade back for credit).   When I consider my Top 10 of this generation, it’s mostly just off the top of my head – with the exception of Red Dead, which I recently played to get warmed up for GTA V, I haven’t played any of the other games in my Top 10 in at least a year or two.   And it turns out that I really want to play Portal 1 and 2 again.

like spinning plates

I’m very scatterbrained this afternoon, so rather than trying to focus on one topic, I’m just going to move around as I see fit.

1.  In my last post I said I was glad that I didn’t have to review Beyond: Two Souls.  But as it turns out, I ended up finishing it on Wednesday, and now I’m reviewing it for the NYVCC, and so I’m hoping to get that turned in by early next week.  I’ll save my larger analysis for the review proper, but the key phrase in this paragraph is that I finished the game, which is more than I can say for Heavy Rain or Indigo Prophecy.  It’s easy to see why it’s divisive, and even though I liked it I can’t necessarily defend it.  I appreciate its ambition, even if I’m a little turned off by its pretentiousness.

2.  I meant to sit down and play a bit more Shadow Warrior last night, but I ended up getting sucked back into The Stanley Parable for around 3 hours.  I played the original mod and liked it very much; this new, “official” version is a spectacular remake.  As I did with the original version, my first playthrough was spent following all the narrator’s instructions, and then each subsequent playthrough was spent picking various spots to make detours, while keeping tabs on other spots to try next time.  It’s very funny and witty and smart, and it can be more than a little unnerving to see how the narrator is following along with your thought process as you attempt to break the game; and at times the game is genuinely, sincerely beautiful; and there’s one path in particular (the one where you answer the phone and get taken to your apartment) that hit me right square in the face.  I took a bunch of screenshots during my time with it last night, but I’m sorta reluctant to share them here, as they might be spoilery (even if they wouldn’t make much sense without the proper context).  So I’ll split the difference – if you want to see them, here’s the link to my Steam profile.

3.  All my love for The Stanley Parable should not indicate that I intend to neglect Shadow Warrior, though.  I finished the first chapter on Wednesday (as a palate cleanser after finishing Beyond) and it is fan-fucking-tastic.  Two quick observations:

  • I’ve played most of my games this year on the PC, but Shadow Warrior is the first time in years that I’ve played a first-person shooter with a mouse and keyboard, and it’s making me very nostalgic for my Quake 2 years.
  • The whole thing is very nostalgic and old school – lots of secret areas, incredibly fast action, a very goofy sense of humor (the game was co-written by my buddy Scott Alexander), and lots and lots of blood and gore.

I highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing; I didn’t realize that old-school shooters were an itch that needed scratching until I booted the game up, and I got hooked almost immediately.

4.  Meanwhile, my obsession with all things Picross has now found a home on iOS, thanks to Paint It Back.  It’s perhaps not as elegant to control as with a DS/3DS, but it gets the job done, and the puzzles are not without a certain sense of humor.  I’ve also found myself getting sucked into Angry Birds: Star Wars 2, which had been sitting on my phone untouched for no good reason.  Other recent iOS pickups worth mentioning are the gorgeous Type:Rider, a gorgeous platforming game that also teaches you about the history of typography; Pocket Titans, which is a hard-to-describe puzzle/combat hybrid that I’m still getting the hang of; and I also continue to be kinda disappointed by, but also compelled to stick with, Marvel Puzzle Quest.

5.  I’m also kinda getting into GTA V Online, though I’m still hesitant to really dive in full-bore.  I guess I kinda miss co-op stuff, like the gang hideouts in Red Dead.  Sure it’d be great to do heists, though I suspect they’ll add those in at a later date; but I’d be really disappointed if they are simply locking co-op missions for higher ranks.   The whole point of an online GTA, for me, is to explore the world and to do things with friends together; if I just wanted team deathmatch I’d go and play Call of Duty.

What are you playing this weekend?

The First Few Hours: Beyond: Two Souls

I am in a weird spot when it comes to David Cage.  On the one hand, I’ve grown tired of shooters and mindless violence and flashy, empty spectacle, and so I’m very appreciative of games with ambition; games that clearly meant something to their creators; games that actively try to do something different.  On the other hand, I’ve played his previous games (i.e., Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain) and have come away flummoxed and disinterested.  

Beyond: Two Souls arrives at an interesting time for me, then, as I’ve just spent 40 or so hours finishing up GTA V, a flashy, spectacle-filled (if not spectacular) game that features both mindless violence and crazy ambition.  While I think I can now say that I ultimately enjoyed GTA V in spite of its numerous flaws, I’m also well aware (and maybe a little sad) that my favorite game franchise is no longer intended for me, or someone my age.  The point is, I’m vulnerable.  I’m in yet another release calendar lull, I’m wanting something to really sink my teeth into, and I’m wanting to play something that doesn’t insult my intelligence.

And so, to that end, I find that I must commend David Cage, because Beyond: Two Souls is (for the most part) a success.  And unlike his previous two games, I have every intention of finishing it.  The game’s technological strengths are astounding – the facial animation in particular is probably the best of this console generation.  The acting is quite good (even if the script is occasionally hokey and/or overwritten), the non-linear storytelling is a novel approach to an already-strange story, and I’ll admit it – I really want to see how this story ends, even if it occasionally gets unintentionally silly at times.

But because I’m also a fan of clever wordplay, I cannot commend the game without also condemning it, because some of the game’s controls are the absolute worst.  The game is played almost entirely via Quick-Time Events, which is not necessarily the end of the world – it’s just that they’re woefully inconsistent in terms of responsiveness, or even necessity.  I mean, I get having to do it when I need to climb out of a window or ascend a rock wall, but do I really have to use them in order to draw a picture?  Moreover, there are some times when the game wants you to mash on a button.  But the cue to do so is inconsistent – it’s unclear if you need to mash it in a certain rhythm, or at a certain pace, and often you’ll fail the cue and have to do it again.  Even worse are the combat scenarios, which eschew on-screen prompts entirely – instead, you have to follow Ellen Page’s arm or leg movements, wait for the game to enter slow-motion, and then move the right thumbstick in the same direction as Ellen’s limbs.  That the game doesn’t tell you that it’s the right thumbstick is bad enough, but the ultimate problem is that even if you fail, it doesn’t seem to matter; you’ll take a few more punches than you should, but you’ll end up finishing the scene anyway.  So what the hell is the point?

The game is much better at immersing you in quieter moments.  A particularly brilliant example of this comes early in the game, when Ellen Page’s character Jodie is a teenager, attending her first party with a bunch of strangers.  I actually want to go back and re-play this particular chapter, because the first time I did it I found myself responding to questions and situations as I personally would have, which is to say – very awkwardly, and with disastrous and humiliating consequences.  There is an option to go back into the party and get revenge, and I opted to not do that; I know it’s a pussy move, but it’s what I honestly would’ve done, and it was neat that the game let me do it, and that Jodie responded in a very real, touching way.  (But believe me, I very much want to go back into that room and set everyone on fire.)

I’m glad that I’m not reviewing this game for any particular publication; it seems to be an impossible task to tell a potential consumer if this game is right for them or not.  (Judging from the reviews, it seems a lot of reviewers felt the same way, and the wide range of scores bears this out.)  I came in without any real expectations; like I said above, I appreciated what Heavy Rain was trying to do but found it exceedingly tedious and very much in love with itself, and I couldn’t finish it.  For whatever reason, I’m finding Beyond to be far more approachable than Heavy Rain.  The visual technology is strong enough to overcome my frustrations with the controls, and Ellen Page’s performance is more than strong enough to keep me involved in the story, despite the story’s goofier sci-fi ambitions, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it all winds up.  

GTA V: the conclusion, and what comes next

On Monday, I said that I wouldn’t write any more about GTA V until I finished it.

On Monday night, I finished it.   I pushed through the last 5 or 6 missions in one go, including the setting-up and execution of the last heist, and then finished the final tying up of loose ends.  The Social Club says I’m around 70% complete; I know I’ve still got Franklin’s assassination missions to do (and I’m glad I waited; it’ll be much more lucrative to mess with the stock market when I’ve got $20M in my account as opposed to $50K) and there’s a few strangers and freaks missions left – Trevor got a new one upon the game’s conclusion that, well… I’m curious to see where it goes, let’s put it that way.

Anyway, my original intention was to write about it yesterday – and I did get about 500 words into it –  but a situation arose; it would not be prudent to say much more in a public forum, as I’m still not 100% sure who reads this, but the short version is that I was not in the mood to write.  

I had to leave work early yesterday, as it happens, and I got to spend some much-needed time with my kid.  I was still in a highly agitated state when I left work, and I’d taken some prescription medication in an effort to calm down, but my kid managed to calm me down better than any pill ever has before.

That being said, even after this quality father/son time, I found myself still feeling a bit anxious and edgy, and so when I put him down to sleep I fired up GTA V again, purely because I needed to blow off some steam.  And so, finally freed from the constraint of narrative, I switched over to Trevor and did some of his Rampage missions.  Picked a fight with some soldiers outside an army base, grabbed a grenade launcher out of the back of their truck, and then just proceeded to blow the shit out of the ensuing jeeps, cargo trucks, and tanks.  I didn’t care if I died; I didn’t care about strategy; I didn’t even necessarily care about passing the mission.  I just needed to blow some shit up.

Of course, I needed to spend a few minutes driving there; and then, once I’d finally passed the mission, I needed to drive somewhere else, being that there wasn’t anything in the immediate vicinity to do.   I found myself missing Saints Row 4 just a little bit; what I wouldn’t have given to be able to zoom along at top speed and then jump a thousand feet into the air, gliding down from the desert back into the city.  

Speaking of which, I was listening to Monday’s alternate Bombcast (the one with Klepek and Navarro) and Patrick offered the insight (and I’m paraphrasing here – the moment comes at around 6:30 or so) that GTA V is at odds with itself; that the story and the main missions are so laser-focused that the game fails to take full advantage of, hands down, the greatest open world ever created.  And it occurred to me that this is the exact opposite problem that I had with Saints Row 4 – that SR4 takes incredible, mind-bending liberties with the sandbox but fails to make the sandbox itself all that interesting.

QUICK TANGENT

It’s funny – I’ve probably written close to 5000 words now about my experiences with GTA V and not once did I bring up Saints Row until just now, at the end, and I suppose it’s a little bit unfair, being that I couldn’t get through 2 sentences about anything Saints Row without comparing it to GTA.  To be fair, Saints Row 4 goes out of its way to compare itself to GTA before deciding to fly off the rails, whereas GTA has been willfully stubborn in acknowledging that other video games even exist (which is ironic, given that if you’re going to skewer and satirize American pop culture, you sorta have to acknowledge video games; and this is doubly ironic because GTA itself is seen as being largely responsible for all of the terribleness of today’s youth, if you ask Jack Thompson or Senator Leland Yee.)   Now, GTA V does include a few scenes of Michael’s asshole son playing video games; I seem to recall them being first-person-shooters, and indeed Jimmy does attempt to teabag a downed enemy in one of the last missions, so it’s not like Rockstar is totally in a bubble.  But it still is a bit weird.

END QUICK TANGENT, BEGIN NEW TANGENT

As long as we’re making comparisons, my perceived competitive relationship between GTA and Saints Row reminds me very much of my perceived competitive relationship between Gran Turismo (the gold standard) and Forza (the young up-and-comer).  Both Gran Turismo and GTA took several years between installments, and in that downtime both Saints Row and Forza went from hopeful clones to fully-qualified AAA titles in and of themselves.  I have no other insight into this comparison, other than to say that it’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while, for no apparent reason.

END SECOND TANGENT

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about GTA V.  I’ve played it almost every night since it came out, but I haven’t really thought about it all that much aside from the time I’ve spent writing these posts.  The world is, again, absolutely incredible; but the game itself can be tedious – when it’s not being in love with itself.  (The late-game heist mission that sees Michael mopping the floor was particularly egregious in this regard; on the one hand, I admire the balls they have for having you do something that ridiculous at that stage of the game.  But on the other hand, give me a fucking break.)

Honestly?  I think I prefer IV.  Ideally, I’d like to see the gameplay improvements in V placed back into IV – the combat, the regenerating health, the any-time quick-save option, the lessened penalties for mission failure/death.  IV’s narrative was dark, yes, but I also found it quite resonant and powerful, and I found Niko Bellic to be one of the most engaging player characters I’d ever seen.  V’s narrative is all over the place, and the characters are repugnant and repellant, and I found almost nothing to like about any of the people I was playing as or interacting with; there was no humanity to be found anywhere.  Perhaps they evaded “ludonarrative dissonance” by making these characters more likely to engage in the sorts of things they did, but that didn’t make them any more fun to be around.

And I also must admit to finding a lot of the game a bit tedious.  The first time you have a long drive to a mission, it’s legitimately interesting, because you’re experiencing the city and you’re engaged in the conversation along the way.  But towards the end of the game, it just dragged; if I started a mission and saw my GPS read anything over 3 or 4 miles, my heart sank a little bit.

That said, for the most part the missions themselves were pretty fun.  Driving to and from the missions could be annoying, but once I got to where I was going the action was satisfying and some of the grander set pieces were pretty spectacular.  I think they could’ve done a bit more with the heists – though I have a sneaking suspicion that more heists will arrive as paid DLC.

I haven’t mentioned the online portion of the game; to be honest, I haven’t played much of it.  I suppose I can admit now that I was part of the beta test, which was only up for around a week before the online part officially launched; if you thought the official launch was a technical disaster, well, the beta was even worse.  Connection problems, severe graphical glitches, all sorts of scripting problems; I was shocked to see that they were still going forward with the announced launch date, because I didn’t see how they’d be able to fix what was wrong in such a short amount of time.  

When I have gotten online, I’ve found the experience lacking.  Griefing is rampant and annoying; I got killed twice just trying to enter “passive” mode.  I haven’t played it with friends yet; I would hope that would be a lot more pleasant.  Doing co-op missions in Red Dead was some of the most fun I had online this generation; I think there are co-op missions in V, but I haven’t been motivated to look for them.

But I also kinda feel like I’ve had my fill, which is not something I ever thought I’d say this soon after any GTA’s release.  I may continue to poke and prod in the single-player game, trying to tidy up the side quests and maybe find a few more hidden collectibles, but I don’t feel myself drawn to it the way I have with past GTA games.  Maybe that’ll change now that the story’s over and I don’t need to hear these guys talk any more, and I can be free to see the world without all that nonsense.    

*     *     *

What comes next?  

That used to be my favorite game to play, trying to figure out how Rockstar would top the last title.  Being that we’ve all seen the enormous, unprecedented success of GTA V, it’s very safe to assume that there’ll be a GTA VI appearing on the new consoles, probably in at least 4-5 years; it’s also probably not a stretch to imagine that Rockstar will have already cut its teeth on the PS4 and the XBONE with the long-rumored sequel to Red Dead Redemption, given that the two franchises share a great deal of tech and DNA.  

But as for GTA VI itself?  I really have no idea.  I’ve been wrong every time I’ve tried to guess the city and the era.  (Though I still long to see them do mid-late 90s London, which – if nothing else – would have the best soundtrack of all time.)  They reinterpreted GTA3’s Liberty City in GTA IV, and they reinterpreted San Andreas in GTA V.  But I don’t think they’d revisit Vice City, because they seem to have moved away from period pieces; both IV and V are very much set in the present, and I’d be very surprised to seem them repeat themselves so obviously by going back to the 80s.  

Regardless, I find that guessing the city and era isn’t nearly as interesting to me anymore as it used to be.  Don’t get me wrong – I have no doubt that the world they’ll create will be astounding to behold, and that the graphical horsepower of the new consoles will allow them to do some truly remarkable things.  I am sure that the world of VI will make V seem as small and seemingly uninteresting as V has now made IV, and I do look forward to seeing it.

But my experience playing V has left me wanting.  The juvenile humor, the excessive vulgarity and profanity, the rampant misogyny and racism, the “satire” – I’m not prudish by any means, but these do not shock or titillate me anymore, nor do I find the satire all that amusing.  Indeed, the Daily Show packs more satirical insight about American culture in a single 30 minute show than in the entire 40+ hours I’ve already spent with V.  If we presume that VI would come out 5 years from now… well, I’ll be 43 by then.  I’m already feeling like I’m maybe a little bit too old for this franchise; I shudder to think how ancient I’ll feel if they’re still telling the same stupid dick jokes in 5 years.

Other Places – GTA V

I know I said I wasn’t going to post any more about GTA V until I finished the game, but this video is part of why the game remains so intoxicating.   (This video came out on 9/23, but I just found out about it about 5 minutes ago.)

Follow Other Places on tumblr for more greatness.

 

“the texture of the search itself”

“It’s all right,” dialogue boxes assure her, “it’s part of the experience, part of getting constructively lost.”
Before long, Maxine finds herself wandering around clicking on everything, faces, litter on the floor, labels on bottles behind the bar, after a while interested not so much in where she might get to than the texture of the search itself.
– Thomas Pynchon, “Bleeding Edge”

I’m 8 chapters into the new Pynchon book, and I am continually amazed at how such an famously reclusive author who is also, at this point, an old man, can still get it when it comes to popular culture.  The quote I pulled above describes a Second Life-esque game experience (the book takes place in 2001, 2 years before Second Life was officially released), but that phrase at the end – “the texture of the search itself” – is the thing that’s hitting me square in the solar plexus.  It’s precisely that feeling of pure exploration for exploration’s sake that makes games like Journey feel so utterly transcendent – or, likewise, of simply wandering around in Skyrim (or other Bethesda RPGs) and seeing what pops up along the way.

And it’s also very much why I’m still playing GTA V, despite my weariness of the game’s many faults; for as much as the game’s narrative can fly off the rails, and the characters are simply poorly motivated (when they’re not being actively repulsive), the world is so incredibly detailed that I tend to tune the other stuff out.  Kotaku’s been featuring some videos that highlight just how subtle some of these details really are (this one in particular is pretty amazing); my personal favorite thing that I’ve seen is how, after a head-on collision with an oncoming car, the driver of the other car will silently, but with great anger, flip you the bird.

Rockstar’s Social Club says that I’m 65% complete.  I’ve finished 59 of the game’s 69 missions, plus a few miscellaneous activities here and there.  I’m definitely in the home stretch, as it were; there’s “one last job” to pull off, though we haven’t started planning it yet.  The point I’m slow in getting to is that I’m probably not going to write any more about it until I’ve finished the main story, so that I can then try to put the whole thing together.

Other things that I’m hoping to write about this week include:

  • Beyond: Two Souls, which will probably arrive on Thursday or so from Gamefly;
  • Marvel Puzzle Quest, which came out on iOS last week and which I’m pretty disappointed with;
  • Cookie Clicker, which is currently running on my browser at home (I’m generating 4.5 billion cookies per second);
  • Picross titles that I just discovered are in the 3DS eshop (sadly, they are only 2D puzzles, which are not nearly as interesting or as fun to solve as Picross 3D (on the 2DS), but it’s still Picross, so…); and
  • Minerva’s Den, which I got for free when 2K upgraded everybody’s copy during the switch from GFWL to Steam.  I’d originally played Bioshock 2 on the 360 and was summarily disappointed by it, and so I’d sent it back before Minerva’s Den was released; I then picked up Bioshock 2 on the PC during a sale but couldn’t access Minerva’s Den, for some reason; now I have it, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to try, being that I’ve heard such amazing things about it.  I actually gave it a quick spin over the weekend and realized that I’d forgotten how to play the original Bioshock – and while the PC version offers controller support, they never re-wrote the in-game button prompts to tell you how to do things with the controller, so it might be a little while before I get the hang of it.