Thursday, October 3, 2013

I really wish this thing wouldn't auto-generate the URL from the first line of text in the absence of a title.

And anyway, whether I like something or not is beside the point. The real purpose of criticism is to explain what works are, how they do what they do, why they matter, and how they fit into broader contexts. Not to express the critic's coarse vote of approval or disapproval.
Ian Bogost, Distinguished Chair in Media Studies

File photo.
Evil, in practice, is a little dull. In videogames, anyway. Perhaps it’s because games live in the getting, while the benefits of evil have more to do with the having. Despite the adventure genre's inherent biases towards a particular vision of violent, assertive "goodness," the narrative usually bends over backwards to conceal that fact, to focus on what like about it (fearlessness, independence) at the expense of what we dislike (greed, cruelty, sadism). Antihero is one of our more popular, and widely abused, literary terms, and in common parlance it has meant Willy Loman at some times and Satan at others. These days, “antihero” is employed casually to describe heroes who lack the post-heroic niceties, the good guy who’s exactly as violent, sadistic, and immature as we’d like him to be and not even a tiny bit more. It's been suggested that Breaking Bad has effectively broken the antihero trope by inching Walter White up to that line, and then inching over it, and then sprinting so far off into the distance that the line's no longer visible. (I can't comment directly, because I'm an asshole, but you might want to bear it in mind as we approach the final paragraph.)

White is an interesting case, because in any properly moral story of violent conflict, the audience is inherently on the bad guy’s side. The villains begin the story by creating the problem to be solved, and the story ends when they’re killed off, even if we were still enjoying it. We bend over backwards to conceal that we write, read, and play stories about killing specifically because we are interested in killing. Still, there are practical limits. Power is exciting; sadism is dull. Ratchet up the protagonist’s power enough--and make it insufficiently fantastic to conceal itself--and it tends to fall apart rather quickly.

I was impressed by Grand Theft Auto 3, but was more apt to watch my roommates play than pick it up myself. Revelatory as “open-world design” was, the actual mission structure (especially early on) was mostly about driving vehicles from one location to another. Compared to the contemporary State of Emergency, GTA3 felt like a highly detailed simulation of picking up your friend at the airport. I mostly ignored Vice City, and picked up San Andreas primarily for the soundtrack. GTA4 came out at around the time I was falling out of the world, and no, bizarrely effusive GameStop clerk, I did not pre-order GTA5. I have, however, been reading the reviews, critiques, and assorted hubbub, and I find that I’m more interested in the game than I’d have expected, albeit primarily as a paratext to said hubbub.

Almost everything I’ve read about GTA5 has concerned the storyline, the inherently narrative quality of transgressive acts, and the friction between the characters’ personalities and the ludic structures of the genre. You’d barely know GTA3 had a story at all, from the reviews. Vice City and San Andreas had a kind of filmic lineage, but still kept characterization as efficiently archetypal as possible, and people wrote more about genre tropes than character. GTA4 tried for a more ambitious protagonist, which occasionally ran at odds with the anarchic playground when you stepped off the path--the unstable diachronic problem--but I had to hang out a group of game designers and academic wonks to hear anyone explore it in any detail. In GTA5, it seems to be all anyone can talk about.

This is why I wanted to make sure to write about GTA5 before I actually play it: I don’t want my readings of the critiques to be colored by my experiences with the actual game. From my unspoiled vantage point, I can gather that the writing does seem to be qualitatively different in this one, and that might be why, after seven or eight games, the series’ unsubtle misogyny is bothering people in a way it didn’t before. Alternatively, the environment has changed: who’s writing about games, and how they think about them, and what they think is within their purview as critics. We finally have a critical community, in that sense that the people who write about games for a living are finally acting like critics.

Leigh Alexander and Yannick LeJaqc emphasize the increasingly obvious predestination that shadows the genre. I'm inclined to believe this to be an endemic flaw to the genre, as opposed to a particular sin of Rockstar North's; the more freedom you give people, the more restraints they perceive. (See also: white guys.) Then again, since GTA has always seemed to specialize in the pointless and silly. We're talking about a series that was literally--literally literally, not Joe Biden literally--inspired by a glitch. Tom Bissell gets to the heart of it, going aggressively meta in the process:
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, Niko, 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 excited to check out the game, although I don't expect I'll ever actually finish it. There's a strange tendency, in reviews, to keep fighting the last war; we all got sick of Mortal Kombat's stagnance at the third iteration, when its novelties were more ambitious than its predecessor. Perhaps MK was a narrativist, mystery-driven series after all, or perhaps commercial success rendered the familiar strange and let us see our boredom. I'm seeing a lot of references to the sheer economic might of the GTA brand these days, and it's true, but is it really an order of magnitude bigger than it was in 2008?

Have the games really changed, or have we?

No comments: