Tag Archives: Grand Theft Auto

Opinion – Solutions for Open World Games

We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.

The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space.  From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games.  There certainly is something appealing about the genre.  The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well.  Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects.  I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it.  We’ll start with something that should be obvious:

Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun

Playing games is a voluntary act.  We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that).  We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days.  Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy.  Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme.  Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest.  The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing.  This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection.  Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own.  If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack.  Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.

Systems are your friend

One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds.  Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities.   Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex.  When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place.  When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control.  This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights.  Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world.  Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.

Please stop forgetting about the story

Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game.  Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment.  Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place.  The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice.  While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations.  Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city.  The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons.  I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”.  By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.

If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation.  If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre.  These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.

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Opinion – Violence in GTA and Hatred

I didn’t kill him.  He got in the way of my bullet

The discussion about violence in video games shifted with the release of the trailer for Hatred (link), a brutal romp focusing on the execution of civilians.  The game’s subsequent banning and unbanning from Steam resulted in a plethora of articles about the nature of violence in video games and the medium’s various approaches.  One such article by Shamus Young (link) suggests violence in Hatred is more odious than Grand Theft Auto as GTA provides a justification for murder whereas Hatred does the opposite.  I suggest that, for the same reason, Hatred has the more honest approach to violence.

First, let’s cover Young’s argument.  In his article, Young seeks to address Hatred’s defenders who claim that Hatred’s killing of civilians is on par with a game like GTA as it involves the same bloody mayhem of seemingly innocent populations.  Both games include large numbers of civilians who are subsequently massacred by the player.  Young argues this is a superficial comparison that ignores the very real differences between how the games’ approach civilian violence.  He sees two key differences: justification and encouragement.  Whereas GTA provides some justification in the form of making civilians snobbish, racist, superficial jerks, Hatred goes the opposite route.  Hatred wants the player to know that its innocent people that they’re killing.  Hatred is a game explicitly about murdering people who don’t deserve it while GTA gives the player a reason.  Interestingly enough, when it comes to mechanically encouraging the player to kill people, the roles are reversed.  Whereas killing people is the sole goal of Hatred, it’s only an option in GTA.  In short, Hatred wants you to murder people in the worst way whereas GTA makes it feel like murder is okay, but not required.

I find Hatred’s blunt approach to be the more honest of the two.  Hatred draws a clear line at the horror of shooting innocents and then asks the player to cross it.  It never hides the fact that the player is asked to kill blameless individuals with families and lives which puts the onus of enjoyment on the player.  GTA’s approach obscures the reality of what it allows the player to do.  By turning all potential civilian targets into unsympathetic jerks, it tries to gloss over the nature of the act of killing them.  Its okay to kill these people, the game says, they deserve it for a variety of negative social traits.  Of course, most would say that being an objectionable person does not merit the death penalty, but GTA uses the personalities to obscure the nature of a shooting spree.  It provides a fig leaf that the player can hide behind so that they don’t feel bad when they engage in atrocities.  Hatred makes its morals clear while GTA tries to trick the player into breaking theirs.

GTA takes a similar side approach to encouraging the slaughter.  While it is true that the GTA series rarely makes killing noncombatants a mission goal, it does find plenty of ways for them to be caught in the crossfire.  Gunfights and car chases take place on open streets where stray bullets abound and the sidewalk is often an additional lane.  The obfuscation mentioned above works with this method of gameplay to reduce the inhibitions of the player and encourage them to use all options available, regardless of the body count.  Again, Hatred takes the more honest approach.  The death of civilians is deliberate and encouraged without the attempts to hide the repercussions.

In the end, much of the objectionable misdirection of the GTA series feels like a response to the reality of open world game design.  Civilian lives are necessarily cheap where the open world acts as a level and obeying traffic rules is a chore.  GTA happens upon its violence whereas Hatred focuses directly on it.  While I think Hatred has the more hoenst approach, GTA’s style is far more playable.  I can ultimately write off the people on the streets as mindless bots.  Hatred may be more honest, but it tries hard to make sure I don’t forget that its people I’m killing.  That doesn’t sound like fun to me.

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Opinion – Status Quo

I’m going to PAX!  Thanks Triforce Quartet!  This is what you get for Sunday’s post.

It seems that every time someone points out that video games have a problem with diversity, vocal members of the community remember fondly of a golden age before all the controversy when men were men and video games were all about fun.  Holders of this view see critics (sometimes called SJWs or Social Justice Warriors) as spoilers of gaming’s Eden-like garden.  Everything was good and fun until SJWs forced the industry to focus on pressing issues of the day rather than making games.  It’s a compelling argument for those who have found their once simple past time polluted with major social and political issues.  Unfortunately, it’s grounded in ignorance.  The issues we’re hearing about were always issues, we just didn’t hear about them.

The stereotypical gamer of the 80s and 90s was a bespectacled nerd whose knowledge of fictional lore was only matched by his inability to connect with others.  Like many stereotypes, there was some truth to this as many social outcasts found their way to the gaming world and drowned their sorrows in magical realms where they could be the hero.  What often gets ignored is that being a social outcast is not confined to white boys.  Many youth from across the spectrum made their way to gaming only to discover that it had been made by and for a very limited audience.  Some moved on to different pursuits and their potential contributions were lost.  For others, the allure of the screen was enough to overcome the fact that they were poorly represented.  They sought out the few games and heroes that they felt best reflected their reality.  They hung on to the few cracks in the wall and accepted what they must because that’s all games were.

Surprise surprise, these people weren’t happy about it.  The commentary we’re seeing now isn’t outsiders who want to ruin our fun, it’s committed gamers who grew up and decided to speak out against the games industry’s singular focus on one type of person.  They aren’t seeking to destroy fun, but rather finally see developers who take them and their needs seriously and who use the medium to explore the realities of the lives of a more diverse set.  These SJWs don’t hate games.  They don’t want to stop Mario.  They just wish that gaming’s leading lights (GTA, inFamous, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, etc) gave them some love (and no, side stories like AC: Liberation or inFamous: First Light don’t count).  They want to see heroes like themselves, which really doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

When someone argues for returning to focusing on fun, what they’re actually asking for is keeping games limited to people like themselves.  They, understandably, see the status quo as preferable because the status quo serves them, but it doesn’t serve everyone.  Should anyone be surprised when the losers of a system seek to make it more equitable?   SJWs aren’t deliberately raining on gaming’s parade, they’re asking to be a part of it.  Not surprisingly, they also want gaming to grow up.  Gamers used to get up in arms about whether games counted as art yet, now that a number of games explore that space, we want to pull back.  Well, tough.  Contra isn’t art.  Nor is Mario.  Art has a meaning that SJWs are infusing into old and new game worlds.  It may not be a meaning you like, but that’s also an aspect of art.   

It’s time to stop living in the past.  The past only worked for a select few while others had to put up with something inferior.  We now have the energy and resources to create an inclusive gaming culture that serves the needs of an increasingly diverse group of individuals and that inclusivity is worth far more than any attempt to recapture the days gone by.

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Opinion – Talking About Tropes v. Women

Soooo…this went long.  Sorry!

 

Viewers of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos on women-in-games generally fall into two categories.  The first is the ever present troglodyte internet trolls that plague so much of the community.  At their best, they object, often incoherently, to Sarkeesian’s videos based on a feeling of socially progressive intrusion into what was previously a safe space.  Gamers have often been a defense group, likely resulting from starting in a culture that didn’t take games seriously, and that has unfortunately turned into a sense of automatic offense whenever video games are challenged.  At their worst, this group engages in mindless attacks and threats that only prove Sarkeesian’s point that things need to change.  The second group are the more socially conscious critics who generally agree with Sarkeesian’s videos, but shy away from criticizing them, possibly due to a fear of being included in the first group.  This is a shame because the videos aren’t perfect and a stronger discussion surrounding them would both increase their exposure and help the gaming community move towards a more intelligent position on its depiction of women.  In that spirit, I’m going to discuss my concerns with the most recent video titled “Women as Background Decoration”.  Note: You should see the video before reading this article.

Cherry Picking

The strongest of the troll arguments is often that Sarkeesian cherry picks her clips from the most damning options or ones that misrepresent the game.  While this argument is often overstated, the naysayers do have a point.  “Women as Background Decoration” shows clips from gaming’s most violent franchises yet never explains why a particular game matters.  Some choices, like Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row, are obviously relevant, but I’m at a loss as to why Shellshock: Vietnam or The Darkness 2 were included.  Without an explanation as to why a particular game made the cut, it’s hard to judge the value of its inclusion.  Furthermore, Sarkeesian never provides the context for her choices.  How many copies did they sell?  Who bought them?  How do they match up against other games in the genre or generally?  The existence of objectionable video games does not mean that they represent a noteworthy problem.  Sarkeesian needs to do a better job explaining why the games she presents as evidence matter, not just that sexual objectification is wrong.

In addition to not justifying the clip selections, “Women as Background Decoration” consistently uses clips and arguments that are unrepresentative of the game in question.  In one particular section, Sarkeesian points out that a prostitute in Red Dead Redemption propositions the protagonist despite being hogtied and thrown on a horse.  The NPC has clearly reverted to its original programming and is not reacting to the event in question yet Sarkeesian uses this as evidence of abuse against women programmed into the game.  It’s obviously a bug, not an example of authorial intent.  She also uses prostitutes in Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea (which condemns the philosophy behind the prostitution), Fable hookers (the later games played the mechanic for laughs, not abuse), and the one instance in Mass Effect 2 where a fully clothed woman dances suggestively.  By combining this with the treatment of women in Saint’s Row or Metro: Last Light, Sarkeesian attempts to create the feeling of a much broader climate than she actually proves.  GTA’s prostitutes are nowhere close to the level of objectification as Mass Effects “exotic” dancers, yet she lumps them all together.  Sarkeesian would be better off selecting consistently extreme examples or, at a bare minimum, noting the vast gulf between her samples.

Prostitutes Exist

The mere existence of women as sex objects in game isn’t a problem.  Prostitutes do exist in real life and often work in situations where they are demeaned by men.  Furthermore, a game about crime and the underworld ought to include these kinds of situations as they are reflective of the reality of the setting.  It’s hard to argue that a mafia game should not include prostitution as that is a major industry in which mafia engage in.  In this kind of game, strippers, prostitutes, and exotic dancers can add authenticity and a sense of place that is required to depict them.  Unless we’re prepared to ban the idea of showing a port town (Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was another cherry picked example), we have to accept that objectified women were and are real. Furthermore, we must accept that women depicted won’t move much beyond sex objects in certain situations, if only because that environment rarely treats the women as such.

That does not mean that all depictions of sexualized women are acceptable all the time.  If a developer is going to use a brothel as a backdrop, then it is incumbent upon them to show the reality of brothels.  They need to move beyond busty women who just love having sex all day and show the downsides like abuse and drug use.  Particularly in criminal settings, sexualized women ought not be glamourized outside of the showroom setting, but rather shown with the level of desperation that often accompanies such situations.  All this is to say that treating women as sex objects isn’t the problem, it’s the rest of the story that goes untold that’s the issue.

Women are NPCs too

The biggest flaw in Sarkeesian’s argument is how completely she focuses on sexualized women NPCs to the detriment of the whole universe of NPCs that exist.  Sarkeesian uses Martha Nussbaum’s theory of objectification to show how women are objectified, yet fails to acknowledge that the same could be said of all NPCs anywhere.  Going down the list (Quotes are from Nussbuam):

  • Instrumentality – “The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.” NPCs exist for the enjoyment of the player. This can be negative, such as the abuse Sarkeesian mentions, but it can also be innocuous or positive such as a question to help someone. Even in the later situation, the player is often doing the quest for the reward, not the NPC.
  • Denial of Autonomy – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.” Literally true, in this case. Also, players rarely care about an individual NPC’s needs and often see them as a means to an end. Think shopkeeper.
  • Inertness – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.” Again, it is very rare that the player actually cares about what an NPC wants. Most players think of NPCs as automata without any desires of their own..
  • Fungibility – “The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.” Most NPCs fulfill a function held by many other NPCs. Sexualized women NPCs are not special in this regard.
  • Violability – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.” Just about every enemy in every RPG ever. Also, in open world games, every NPC, not just the sexualized ones, are available for abuse.
  • Ownership – “The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.” In the case of monster fighting games, this is quite literal, but you need not go that far. Any game that allows you to buy and use the services of an NPC, such as the thieves in Assassin’s Creed, would qualify.
  • Denial of Subjectivity – “The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.” It is very rare for a game to infuse one of its many hundreds of NPCs with personality. Even rarer that it does this well.

This failure to distinguish between sexualized women NPCs and NPCs in general continues throughout the video. In the most egregious example, Sarkeesian states that GTA and Saint’s Row incentivize the player to abuse women by having them drop money when they die, but completely fails to note that all NPCs do the same thing.  There are other examples, but they all speak to same problem in Sarkeesian’s argument.  Replace sexualized women NPCs with NPCs and you have an argument against violence in video games writ large.  Almost every lurid, brutal clip of a protagonist violating a women could have been, frame for frame, reenacted with any NPC passing by.  I do think there’s a compelling argument for singling out women NPCs and sex workers in particular, but Sarkeesian never makes it.

Conclusion

“Women as Background Decoration” is still a great addition to the Feminist Frequency series.  It makes great points about how some of gaming’s most cherished franchises approach sexualized female NPCs.  I hope the future entries will stop working so hard to make an extreme case for the mistreatment of women and will instead use the ample material that already exists.

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