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Monthly archives: January 2007


I May Be a Sellout, True, But Observe Also That I Am Carrying an Assault Rifle
2007-01-24 08:00
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I don't remember whether I brought it up anywhere on this page before I left on my big rock sabbatical, but I have joined the Gamefly service, which is basically Netflix for video games. Because I have been away for three weeks, I still have out the first two games I ordered. I'm sure Gamefly doesn't care how long I keep them -- it's a flat monthly rate thing, and besides, they have my credit card number -- but I feel guilty about this. I'm the sort of person who breaks into terror sweats when I discover an overdue library book. So I very much wish to utilize the elegant self-addressed postage-paid return envelopes Gamefly sent me so many weeks ago. But I want to get my money's worth, too. I want to finish these games!

While console games have grown considerably easier over the years, they've also gotten longer at a much greater pace. First games went from cartridges (which were basically floppy disks in proprietary shapes) to CDs. Then they went from CDs to DVDs. Soon, they will be on yet still another format, although the final decision on which format that is to be won't come for some time. Just be sure that while the games will cost more and more, you'll at least be getting 50 to 60 or even more hours of play time for your money. Pretty much every game has full voice acting now, which can certainly stretch things out. Unless you get impatient and just turn the subtitles on and zip through them. I don't do that as much as I used to because mercifully as voice acting has become ubiquitous in games its standard of quality has risen, with a slight lag at first. Nowadays it's quite common for companies to re-release games from the hardware cycle before last (the PS1 era) with dramatically expanded and improved voice acting. As a curious side effect of the industry's rather slipshod transition to 3D graphics and theater-quality surround sound, there are now a great deal of games from the mid-1990's that are completely unplayable and obsolete...while there are hundreds of much older Atari and NES games that are as fun now as they were when parachute pants were the hip thing. Isn't that funny? It's kind of like how much of the commercial rock music from the 60's still sounds great while the one-hit wonders of the 70's by and large don't. "Those disco synthesizers/Those daily tranquilizers" indeed.

Yes, well, on to my point. I'm playing a game called Saint's Row. I'm having a lot of fun with it, and since a major part of the gameplay involves assembling small teams of your allies to go and kill somewhat larger teams of your enemies, I've really started to get into the goofy, exploitative potboiler storyline despite myself. An example of the across-the-board improvement in video game voice acting I mentioned in the last paragraph, this isn't. This is one way the experiential component of video games throws a spanner into the works of objective criticism. Look, I've watched enough of Ice Cube's movies to know that the dialogue spouted by the Saint's Row character Troy is neither well-written nor particularly deftly performed. But last night I was in this warehouse, right, totally out of ammo for my sniper rifle, surrounded by Los Carnales, and hearing the ominous low-health-meter beep loudly in my ears. You could have knocked me over with a feather, but I swear my man Troy somehow overcame the limitations of his clumsy AI script, finally moved away from the dead end he'd been humping for the entirety of the firefight up to that point, drew his Vice 9 semi and iced those last three enemy gangbangers like it wasn't no thing. Ever since I've had a soft spot for the poor guy. He might be a bit of a poseur, and some of his limbs tend to disappear when he walks too closely parallel to a wall, but he's got my back. Saints for life, yo.

It's not too hard either to perceive or to explain the difference between liking a character because of gameplay experiences (like for example that time I played franchise mode in NBA 2K5 for 20 seasons and randomly and without really trying to turned Mike Dunleavy Jr. into the single greatest offensive force in sports video games since Barry Sanders in Tecmo Super Bowl) and liking a character because of orchestrated excellence in art design, sound production, and dialogue writing (like the blissfully stoned King of All Cosmos from Katamari Damacy, a dude as big as a planet who parties so hard his benders obliterate huge chunks of the night sky). The unique thing about video games, and one of the things that makes it difficult for critics more used to static works of art to accept them indeed as having artistic merit, is that for a game to be totally successful it needs to be populated by heroes and villains who connect with the player on both levels. Final Fantasy VI's seminal archvillain Kefka is a terrific example of having it both ways. He's memorable because he's well-designed, with an unmistakable silhouette, costume, catchphrases, and (uncommonly for a pre-CD game) audio signature, an ominous digitized cackle that no one who has ever played the game can possibly fail to recognize. He's scary in the classic movie villain sense because of good writing and plotting. He's a nihilistic psychopath who mangles the very face of the planet in order to make it more reflective of the yawning darkness inside of him. But Kefka is scary too because he properly fulfills his function as a major league butt-kicker in a game that doesn't lack for them. He shows up at various points in the story to complicate things for your group of heroes, and finally meets his downfall in a gothic, multi-tiered teeth-grinder of a boss battle that's a suitable release after untold weeks of tension and hatred.

We're conditioned to cheer when the bad guy gets his just desserts. The more gruesome the end is when it comes, the better. I remember joining a theater audience in applause when Dennis Hopper's character is grotesquely beheaded at the climax of Speed, and feeling a little unsettled about it afterwards. I was 13 and it may or may not have been my first time seeing an "R" rated movie on the big screen. There's certainly a difference between watching someone die horribly on TV at home and reacting to it in relative privacy and joining the unwashed masses in screaming for blood down at the local octoplex. Consider the difference then between merely celebrating someone else's fictional murder and actually pushing the button/pulling the trigger/using the Economizer and the Gem Box and Gogo's Mimic ability to totally Ultima x8 that sick weirdo yourself. It's weird, right? I've been playing video games my whole life so it's something I take for granted, but I can see how it might be unsettling for modern grandparents when the first, last, and only thing on little Billy's Chanukah wish list is a glorified genocide simulator.

I mean, is that where mainstream critics draw the line with video games? Can you construct a logical argument that it can be a valuable cultural and social experience to watch actors playing serial killers but it's just completely beyond the pale to utilize a device that allows you to take on the role yourself? Okay, okay, yes, rhetorical question overload. But I do feel that this is an interesting subject, particularly so given that it's an obvious hot-button issue and has been for many years now, one that has generated untold column inches on both the pro and con sides without very much if any of that heated writing coming across as at all ideologically coherent. Pundits on both sides of the debate face serious handicaps. The video-games-are-evil crowd are attention-grabbing rabble-rousers to whom the art form is so completely alien that they constantly undercut whatever established position they might claim by making statements that are misguided, erroneous, and self-evidently ignorant. (Like the group that wanted to either change the rating or flat-out ban the PC version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion because the game's makers allowed its users, if they so chose and scanned in their own clip art, to create characters with *gasp* nude boobs!) Then on the other side of the fence, as we've discussed before, are the game journalists, who are cowed enough by the industry to provide these millennial lunatic fringers the legitimizing coverage they so richly do not deserve while at the same time lacking the editorial autonomy and rhetorical fire to dismiss them once and for all. Meanwhile, billions of nude boobs (an exact figure could not be provided at press time) continue to proliferate more or less without comment on the Internet, which all of the kids who play these games can use far more literately than either their parents or the right-wing Luddite types trying to inflame their imaginations.

Back (at last) to Saint's Row. I am enjoying the game very much, as I wrote, despite its rather poor and too often inflammatory and bigoted dialogue. On another level entirely, one that I promise has no connection to the quagmire out of which we've just so recently navigated, I feel bad about enjoying it. It's not the violence or the vulgar language or all of the supposedly transgressive swipes at women, gays, and minorities. I hate to say I'm desensitized to that sort of thing, because it definitely eats at me a little still and I'd really like to see those sorts of things cut out of games entirely. I realize and appreciate that the medium is maturing and there should always be a place for grown-up content in an art form that is consumed in ever-increasing percentages by adults. But, come on, the whole simulated sex with streetwalkers thing is so 2001. And enough with the Colombian drug lord missions already. Come on, every game that came out last year this side of Super Princess Peach had a Colombian drug lord mission. Just once I'd like to see a Colombian character in a video game who isn't a coke kingpin or a shortstop. Is that too much to ask? So let's not say that I'm desensitized to these ugly aspects of the game. Let us instead say that I can contextualize them, realize that despite the "M" rating this is a game for 12-year-old boys, or at least older men with comparable mentalities, make a note of my disapproval, and move on.

Which is good, because the game is fun. The particle effects are amazing, the soundtrack has Ghostface Killah on it, and there is a mode in which you try to rack up insurance money by hurling your body in front of oncoming traffic. (This would be a good concept for a reality television program.) Wait, what kind of game is it exactly? Well, there's the rub. There's no way around it. Saint's Row is completely plagiarized from the Grand Theft Auto series. Everything from the fictional car names to the in-game "radio stations" to the font in the menus is stolen. It's a brazen act of intellectual property theft that also explains how the title became an Xbox 360 exclusive. Microsoft, who must still have a few lawyers hanging around from those heady days when Bill Gates punched a full dance card with the DoJ's trustbusters, probably lent Saint's Row developer Volition a couple of "look and feel" experts.

GTA has been ripped off a ton, as do most games that sell tens of millions of copies, not that there exist many such beasts. Unlike the glut of copycat games for the PS2 that came out late in that system's hardware cycle, however, Saint's Row actually betters its source material. It's better looking, the controls are tighter, GTA's chronically broken targeting has been junked for a much more sensible point-and-kill system, and the automap actually shows the sequence of turns you have to make rather than just giving you a destination and making you guess. Once again, we have art and commerce in conflict. If you want to argue that video games aren't art, then there's nothing particularly egregious about what the programmers of Saint's Row have done here. They took an existing product that was out on the market and improved upon it. But if video games are art, or at least if they ever aspire to be recognized as such more widely, you have to take a longer view. Creating a successful product by making minor refinements to someone else's design template is good business, but bad art. The Stone Temple Pilots sold a lot of records, but anyone with a halfway functioning sense of moral outrage and a copy of Pearl Jam's Ten could tell you what they were doing wasn't art. This gets so tricky with video games, though, because as I said before, there's the aspect of the game that is presented to you, the art design, the characters, the story, the script, and then there is the part that emerges from what you tell the game to do and what it does in response.

If the first part of a game is completely lifted from an earlier title but the second part -- the major part, the part that makes it a video game and not just a Choose Your Own Adventure DVD -- is refined and improved (including many genuinely original ideas, like the targeting reticle, the way the game's progress structure naturally encourages you to sample all of the different kinds of gameplay Saint's Row has to offer, and the blessed automap that simply tells you when to turn rather than sending you on constant time-consuming wild goose chases) does that get the designers a "not guilty" verdict when it comes to the charge of plagiarism? It's hard to say. And it works both ways as well. Grand Theft Auto designers Rockstar Games would do very well to steal some of Saint's Row's innovations right back, and in all likelihood they will when GTA4 hits late this year.

The one thing that worries me is that at present the only significant incentive driving developers is sales. There's little to no recognition in the industry for video games that are brilliant but nobody buys. There aren't any awards that anyone takes seriously, and most of the people controlling how the history of all of this gets written down are still operating with the bottom line as top priority. The original PC Grand Theft Auto was a genuine work of art -- an original, compelling, twisted little top-down world which created feelings in gamers that hadn't been felt before. The idea of entering into an entire little world where much goes on around you without your input and the simple logic of the code controlling how all of these little cars and pedestrians went about their business created, perhaps serendipitously, a game where completely unpredictable things happened all the time. When the game went fully 3D when the PlayStation 2 allowed it do so, this effect increased onehundredfold.

Game writers call the unscripted and bizarre things that happen in sandbox games like GTA "emergent gameplay." Since none of these events were at all scripted and many were never imagined even by the programmers who created the games, who is the real artist? The player? The software? Elvis? These are excellent topics, people, feel free to jump in at any time. Game designers, who are all thieves in the sense that the very process of generating millions and millions of lines of intricate repetitive programming more or less necessitates great leaps of corner-cutting and code recycling, have something with which to contend that no playwright, novelist, sculptor, or musician ever imagined. The ultimate accomplishment, the Citizen Kane of code, will also be the end of programming as we know it. Some day some squinting genius is going to execute a program so magnificent it will render him and all other coders completely obsolete -- true artificial intelligence. If man is driven to create and contemplate art as a way of both reinforcing and understanding what separates him from the animals, wouldn't the invention of a sentient intelligence to compare with man's be the greatest work of art the human race has ever contemplated? I mean, after Frampton Comes Alive. Nobody's touching Frampton.