Burning The Backlog 4: Grounded To The Sandbox

My best friend and me came of age loving two things: video games and movies. We grew up owning Playstation 2s and seeing games expand as many companies were willing […]

My best friend and me came of age loving two things: video games and movies. We grew up owning Playstation 2s and seeing games expand as many companies were willing to pour money into crazy idea after crazy idea. Games no longer were the simplistic high that Mario and PacMan provided. Games were committed to creating whole new worlds to explore and substantial narratives to live and truly immerse you in them in a way that Fallout or Planescape Torment couldn’t, by simple virtue of their limited resources.

The catalyst for this expansion on the time of the PS2 was, of course, Grand Theft Auto III. It wasn’t the first open world game and it wasn’t even the best. But it was what finally struck a chord strongly enough to convince people that this was the way to go. That big expansive worlds were nothing without a veritable way of navigating them. Previously, all you did was walk and hiked through Hyrule and the Wasteland, interacting with NPCs and trying to find the location of your next adventure, a new community to help and then move on. In a way, it was all very Mad Max.

But in Grand Theft Auto III, you became the inhabitant of a community and you strived to raise above your peers through crime. This vision was in many ways, a butchering of what many gangster movies often do, caused by the filter of the easiest interpretation of movies like the Godfather and Goodfellas. GTAIII is the sort of game that’s written by people who watch gangster movies for the “badassery” of its criminal protagonists and see men as Henry Hill and Michael Corleone as Men, relics from a bygone era that should be revered and seen as sources of inspiration, rather than the symbols of brutality and excess that they’re supposed to represent in their original text. 

This dissonance between the texts that Rockstar would take as direct inspiration and the games they would create to heighten the feelings those movies originally caused through interaction would become the key problem for me as Rockstar built their new empire.

I’ve played through most of San Andreas and watched my best friend play Vice City. I also finished GTAIV. I found a lot to like on those games when I was a teenager. Acerbic, energetic and freeing, there were very few video games that actually strived to be anathema to the very concept of invisible walls. Sure, before San Andreas the sea was just the invisible wall preventing you from going anywhere interesting. But once San Andreas introduced a three-city-region full of rural areas and coasts to explore (as well as actual flying vehicles), the high that those games provided was unparalleled. Riding through 90s Not!San Francisco while playing “It Was A Good Day” felt like an experience that very few games could replicate. And very few other games had both a playable version of the Rodney King riots and an Area 51 elaborate break-in.

It’s a game that goes all over the place and a flaw that the series readily tries to address in GTAIV, easily the best example of the series when it comes to storytelling. This may sound like a compliment and I wish it was an unequivocal one. Playing GTAIV on my teens was an experience like no other. I think there are exactly 0 games fascinated with what it means to be an immigrant, to move to a different city looking for more and then find that it’s more of the same. The closest game to represent the immigrant experience is Papers, Please and that’s mostly by proxy.

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The Misadventures of Niko Bellic are very rewarding as a character study for Niko, who proves at turns genuinely funny and bellicose (hence the name, probably) And his game features a couple of decisions that actually feel weighty in a time when video games seem unable to make you feel the consequences of your action. It’s especially remarkable because GTA mostly makes the consequences as lightweight as possible. Not killing someone mostly leads to eventually finding them on the streets and getting an extra mission out of that.

And yet, they spoke to Niko’s character and who he was after escaping the Balkans conflict that defines his background. That alone made it substantially different. The writing in GTAIV is not really engaging in most departments, but its core interrogation of what led Niko to violence and subsequently what motivated the player to pull the trigger was truly interesting. And by alienating that from gameplay consequences, it made the weight of those decisions go entirely to the player. It pointedly asked you if you genuinely valued human life or if you thought it was as pointless as the game design had forced you to consider it.

Niko’s story was closer to the considerations of survival-through-violence that defined that filmography that Rockstar clearly reveres. Stories about complicated men who must live with the violence they bring into the world while condemning it are a dime a dozen, true. But they’re particularly bad in video games where almost by default, violence is gleefully accepted.

In a way, it’s a predecessor to Spec Ops: The Line, a game that often forces you to kill people and then asks why you did it. However, where Spec Ops the Line’s entire experience is about that dissonance, GTAIV is constantly switching between that dissonance and providing the typical GTAIV high where you fight the law and the law sure wishes they hadn’t picked that fight while having your character moan the fact that he has to choose to be an outlaw even though he consistently talks about how much he wishes for peace.

Choices in Grand Theft Auto V, the latest game on the series, however, are entirely about gameplay and mostly bypass plot decisions. The only real plot decision the game gives you is a relatively asinine “Kill either of the main characters or take on every antagonist in the game”. I have yet to imagine anyone who likes these characters and take any other route other than number three. Of course, what GTAV tries to do is make you like these two possible casualties less and less.

Trevor Phillips is a stand-in for every GTA player, chaotic, ragey and someone whose sexual mores are pretty much nonexistent. His gimmick becomes boring by the second scene he’s in. Imagine spending 40 hours with him. Almost two days of your life, being spent with someone whose smartest opinion is “Maybe torture is bad” and whose likes are “meth and sticking his dick into things”. That sounds like something that’d work in a movie or a game if he truly was the satirical character he’s meant to be. But GTA takes Trevor entirely at face value. You’re supposed to laugh when he laughs, you’re supposed to be outraged by the things he’s outraged. For a parody, the game sure respects him.  

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Then there’s Michael, whose mood swings and poor me schtick is supposed to be reflective of The Golden Age of TV characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano. Rockstar’s history of homage and imitation has mostly led to boring traces of more interesting charcters and concepts. Michael is no exception to this. It’s a shame because his voice actor brings a lot of charisma to a role that is pretty dull. Michael’s exasperation with the whole plot of GTAV is also rather understandable..

To close out the ensemble, you have Franklin who is, pretty much, a duller CJ from San Andreas. Franklin feels more grounded than CJ, however and it’s a step forward from a character who might as well be how a sixteen year old who only listens to rap imagines black 20 somethings behave and talk like.

They’re tied together by what far, is the best aspect of the game: the switch mechanic. In GTA V, you can switch in between your three protagonists and go off on different missions. Alternatively, you can bring them all together and have them cooperate in over the top heists that involve everything from skyscraper kidnapping to bank robberies. It’s all exhilaratingly designed and it makes you feel like you’re the A-Team. Sadly these missions are rather limited and after a while, the game returns to the same basic strategies (sniper covering for friend in the ground being the most repetitive one)

The Switch mechanic is the only reason I caved to purchase GTAV a full two years after it was released and skipping it. A thought that has often bothered me about games is how often they have a single playable character for no reason. You see it especially in games by Bioware where, during combat and exploration, you may be allowed to control a full squad, but otherwise, it’s all built around a dullard character who’s supposed to be a vessel to the player. An ambassador of his will into the game’s world.

GTAV promised not only to allow you to have multiple characters and lived their stories, but also to make them positively distinct from the player. You would do what Michael, Franklin and Trevor would do rather than what you would do. It’s a shame that such an interesting design was anchored around such fundamentally boring people and such a boring game where the only highlights came when these people pretty much behaved as pieces on a chessboard to be configured and reconfigured until you got the heist done correctly.

One of the saddest aspect of Rockstar is their poor understanding of satire. Mostly because GTA’s cover might as well be adorned with a gravestone that reads “Subtext”. Whenever the game franchise picks targets such as Fox News and Hollywood, the proxys meant to represent them just spout what the creators believe them to be as a boldly as possible. The joke is always the same: The Americans are cool with the craziness of a network that has a slogan like “Confirming your prejudice”.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the joke changed with each target, maybe. But it’s always the same. It’s always this South Park-style humor where people who are passionate, regardless of their actual position are mocked for trying to change the world and where their position is so exaggerated it becomes generic. Weazel News supposedly is a Fox News stand-in but its reporters admit they do MDMA in the name of journalism, which doesn’t sound like Fox News at all.

Its constant peddling of classic films as direct inspirations (Everything from Goodfellas to Heat) is an attempt at legitimacy, but it never understands that the themes of those movies are that crime is a source of pain in the long run. And whenever it tries to imitate the pain that the tortured protagonists in the movies it dearly loves go through, it simplifies it to angst about not fitting in a world that’s filled with a culture its game derides, with cheap jokes about “millenials” being entitled (because they said so) and the government being corrupt (because they bragged about it)

GTAV is the ultimate exemplifier of what the GTA franchise doesn’t seem to understand about its goals. It wants to be the ultimate indictment of media and American culture, yet its deeply steeped in it, with its constant mockery of anyone who isn’t a white male and its fetishism of non-white culture. It wants to be satire but it doesn’t understand subtext, with its humor often being the satirical targets immediately spouting what the writers believe about them rather than behaving in ways that exemplify why they’re worthy of satire. And most importantly, it wants to be a game about freedom, where you actively rebel against the constraints that society puts upon you but its game design constrains you in acting out white male fantasies until you either embrace them or decide a different game might be better worth your time.