Tag Archives: GTA

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 – GamARTing

Sunset is a game by indie developer Tale of Tales about being a maid in the early days of a revolution…which you never played.  How do I know this?  Easy.  The game sold 4000 copies and the developer complained about it here.  In their blog post, Tale of Tales talked about how it did all the right things, yet the game still failed.  There’s a very real sense of entitlement throughout the entire post which hints at why they failed.  Beyond that, the post almost asks a very pertinent question: What is the role of art in gaming?

It is unfortunate to see that most artists and art minded critics feel that the role of art is to criticize people who don’t appreciate art.  Tale of Tales’ blog post, with the adjoining Kotaku article, lament the popular crowd and its failure to understand the brilliance of the indie scene.  From this view, the general games buying public is a mindless mass that gobbles up cheap Call of Duty fare, but lacks the capacity to appreciate the genius of the small, auteur creator.  Should the general gaming crowd point out a problem, the indie minded critic cries “but its art!” to explain away all manner of gaming sin, assuming the developer is sufficiently avant-garde and the audience is suitably popular.  By the end of this kind of article, art in gaming feels like an elitist club designed to make the complainers feel better about themselves by denigrating the greater masses.  The critics are wrong to do so.

The problem with the above argument is that it stems from a limited understand of why people play games and so imposes the motivations of the arguer on to the public.  For the vast majority of people, video games are a fun way with to relax and socialize with friends and that’s totally legitimate.  The average player of GTA V isn’t looking for deeper meaning, but rather would like blow to stuff up in an entertaining manner.  Our hypothetical GTA V player might look to something else for greater meaning, or not, but their failure to do so within the context of games does not suggest there is something wrong with them.  Gaming need not be a major source of artistic value like it is for some passionate followers of the medium.  It’s also important to recognize that appreciating an artistic game often means understanding the long history of gaming.  A new player can’t pickup up an artistic game and appreciate the high level of meaning any more than a consumer of just a few cheap romance novels will grasp Kant.  Many of the ideas analyzed in these games rely on a mental infrastructure that artistic gamers, developers, and critics have developed over years of play.  Art complainers are effectively criticizing people for not spending the considerable time and money needed to reach this understanding.

The real insidious nature of this kind of argument is how it warps the potential role of art in video games (I got here…eventually).  The devoted art gamer often hones in on the most expressive and least accessible examples of the medium, while ignoring the very real potential for meaning within its most popular expressions.  One of the greatest artistic achievements in games is the original Bioshock for its ability to marry gaming’s popular appeal with a deep critique of Ayn Rand.  The role that art can and should play is to use the relevance of the medium to impart messages in a way that gaming’s audience can appreciate.  The more art gaming breaks away from the basic appeal of video games, the more it isolates itself from the broader public who might benefit from art gaming’s message.

There is a role for developers who want to push the boundaries of meaning.  They investigate new ways to express ideas through games that may make their way into the popular scene.  While we applaud their efforts, we should recognize that their work is necessarily limited by the small, devoted audience the players their games.  These developers aren’t better for their niche pursuits.  Instead, they fill a necessary role within gaming that should be appreciated alongside the triple A developer who takes a less nuanced approach to a broader audience.

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Diary – This game is not detail oriented – Shadow of Mordor

I PRESSED Y, DAMN IT.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a surprisingly mediocre game.  I’ll try to review it a little later, but I want to take a little time to investigate one of the major sources of disappointment: getting the small things wrong. It shouldn’t be a big deal.  After all, the small things are small things for a reason. However, the little touches in a game are often the most important and draw a line between fun and dull. For a game that got a Metacritic average of 84 and rave reviews from a number of users, Shadow of Mordor misses some of the tiny things that should make the game shine.

Button delays

As my line above might suggest, one of the first issues is combat responsiveness.  Shadow of Mordor pulls from the Assassin’s Creed/Batman school of fighting with timed button presses to fend off attacks.  When it works, battles flow from one swing to the next with the player feeling like an unstoppable badass.  What’s wrong then?  The delay in responding to button presses.  Pressing the appropriate button at the last possible moment doesn’t work because the game will ignore that button long before it removes the button queue above the enemy character’s head.  This isn’t much of an issue in early combat, but as the game becomes more difficult, the small issue creates a large crack.  With numerous enemies on screen attacking and a combat system based on chaining together hits, delayed button responsiveness destroys flow and make it difficult to access high levels of combat.  The little thing becomes a big thing.

Tower placement

Towers serve as Shadow of Mordor’s fast travel system.  Though no map is particularly large, towers allow the player to get around enemy patrols and pointless dead time between missions.  Unfortunately, the towers don’t cover the whole map making some areas difficult to access.  Often these areas are strongholds for enemy forces which means the area is both far from a tower and blocked by combat.  This makes sense during a mission, but becomes frustrating when trying to nab collectibles.  The player can’t take a break from combat (one of the best parts of collectibles), because the tower placement ensures that combat either must take place or be actively avoided.  Whereas a player might collectible hunt in Assassin’s Creed for a break, they must leave Shadow of Mordor to accomplish the same task.

No joy in motion

Most open world games have a mechanic whereby the player can just enjoy running around the world and soaking in the sights.  GTA and the Saint’s Row series have cars and radio stations.  Assassin’s Creed has rooftops and the occasional pirate ship.  Shadow of Mordor has…well….nothing.  The player is confined to his feet most of the time and the occasional ride on a feral Caragor doesn’t help considering how inconvenient it can be to get on one.  This doesn’t hurt basic gameplay as the maps are small, but it does hurt the downtime between missions.  There just isn’t a fun way to get around the game which hurts when that’s all the player wants to do.

Small things often add up to big things when there are enough of them.  Shadow of Mordor’s small things are often wrong and show an ignorance of what makes an open world action game tick.  They take tiny bites out of the player’s enjoyment until only the game’s true strengths are any fun.  Nailing the small things, particular in an open world game where the player will often want to mess around, is the key to making a great game.  Sadly, Shadow of Mordor doesn’t and so isn’t that game.

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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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Opinion – OMG! Boobies!

Not the source I expected on this one

There are a couple of scenes in Wolfenstein: The New Order where the hero, BJ Blazkowicz, and his love interest, Anya, have sex.  What is shocking about this is not the act of sex in the historically sex shy video game scene, but rather that it was shown with a modicum of maturity that isn’t present in even gaming’s most mature franchises.  The act of showing two character engaging in sex as a normal function of their relationship and without gratuitous Playboy shots runs counter to the games industries typical depiction of sex from a 13 year old view point.  The games industry, as a whole, has trouble breaking free of the immature perspective of sex.  New Order gives us a glimpse of how easy it would be to move away from the youthful swamp in which most video games are mired.

The most common depiction of sex in games is the mindless titillation of big boobs, skimpy clothing, and prostitution.  It’s often done from a straight male point of view (a topic worthy of its own article) and captures the simplest conception of sex there is.  Off the top of my head, I can think of strippers in Saint’s Row, the giant breasted sex minigame of God of War, and just about every game that includes prostitution ever.  One of the many problems with this depiction of sex is that it represents the act as conceived by the average teenager, rather than by the many adults who both make and are the audience for these games.  Consider the strip club minigame I tried in GTA V.  I approached a busty stripper, got a lap dance, and, when we went back to her place, the screen bounced to an unshown good time and faded to black.  This is pretty much what your average teenager thinks of when they conceive sex.  Hot women, sensual moves, and some kind of black box that is supposed to be super cool.  In contrast, New Order has two individuals who, as part of their relationship, have sex.  No lurid strip club, no sex crazed prostitutes, just people who enjoy sex as part of a greater relationship.  This is how most adults approach sex, yet it is one of the few times a game has depicted it as such.

The sad part is that even one of gaming’s greatest series has trouble with sex.  Mass Effect is well known for depicting the act in the exact opposite way.  Rather than showing sex as a dirty act between a man and oversized, throw away genitalia, Mass Effect sanctifies the act as the crowning achievement in a relationship.  Each romantic option climaxes when Sheppard and his partner having sex.  This is the pinnacle of the relationship when most adult relationships include sex well before some kind of mystical understanding is reached.  It is a fun part of the relationship that can start anywhere between the first date and the wedding day and is rarely considered an achievement.  Rather than be the sex mad teenager, Mass Effect chooses to be the virtuous abstainer whose refusal to have sex puts the act on a pedestal that it doesn’t deserve.  Again, New Order provides the more mature counterpoint.  BJ and Anya’s first time isn’t a vaunted relationship defining achievement nor does their subsequent encounter suggest anything more than stress relief and a good time.  Sex is neither glorified nor objectified in New Order, it’s just a healthy part of two character’s relationship.

I don’t want to oversell New Order’s achievement.  While BJ and Anya’s relationship is believable, it isn’t particularly well developed.  Condoms were never shown despite how important avoiding pregnancy would be while living in the heart of an insurgency.  Furthermore, most sex does not occur between a giant ball of muscles and a model with a fantastic rack.  Still, the general tone is something that few games have nailed.  New Order’s decision to depict sex in an adult way rather than as a 13 year old might is refreshing and laudable.  I can only hope other developers will follow suit.

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Review – Grand Theft Auto V – Xbox 360

Where GTA V is reviewed and babies are born

Grand Theft Auto V is an interesting game.  It boasts major production values, gaming’s most expansive world, and a genuinely interesting couple of lead characters that would shine in almost any game.  Unfortunately, GTA V is not defined by its strengths, but by its weaknesses.  For all the obvious time and effort that went into the game, it feels listless.  GTA V is the culmination of incredible success, overwhelming ambition, and an inability to bring that all together into a strong, cohesive package.

The basic mechanics of the game should be familiar to any series stalwart or lover of open world action games.  The player controls one of three characters, Trevor, Franklin, or Michael, as they accept missions, plot plans, and interact with the population of Los Santos.  GTA V’s first big innovation to the usual activities is the new heist system where the player plans and executes major thefts by selecting one of two mission types, picking a crew based on their skills and payment, and completing  a variety of missions surrounding heist.  These missions are generally well executed and provide variety beyond the straight shoot out.  They help the player feel as if they are participating in a heist, rather than just another mission.  Unfortunately, the limitations of the options become obvious quickly undermining the feeling of choice that Rockstar was attempting to convey.  Like many of GTA V’s mechanics, heists don’t feel as fleshed out as they should, but they’re still a pulse-pounding good time.

The other new mechanic is the introduction of three main leads.  Trevor, Michael, and Franklin are three unique bank robbers with conflicting and intertwining motivations for engaging in a series of audacious heists.  The player can switch between the leads on the fly allowing for different gameplay and perspectives on the events.  Once again, the mechanic feels underutilized as the perspective is often just a different view on the same event, but the occasional time spent as a dog, or torturing a prisoner while teammates assassinate a target are highlights of the experience.   More differentiation between character skills or genuinely different experiences for each character would have made this mechanic more engaging and will hopefully be developed in the sequel.

The three characters are the highlight of what is a generally a bland cast of vapid stereotypes.  GTA V’s attempts at satire and humor transform the supporting cast into one note commentary on the shallowness of life forcing the three leads to hold up the story.  Franklin, the black tough from the streets, is little more than a suggestible gun whose lack of emotional depth and repeated willingness to go along with bad plans make him a more developed, but still flat character.  Trevor and Michael, on the other hand, are the real stars of the game.  Trevor’s amoral psychotic behavior and Michael’s oscillating views on violence and crime come together to create an interesting alchemy.  The constant clashing between these two and their motivations serves to develop their personalities, create GTA V’s best interactions and drives much of the plot.  Trevor and Michael’s relationship is the star of GTA V’s storyline and it produces a gripping narrative.

From the first step into the world of Los Santos, it’s obvious how much love Rockstar put into this world.  The graphics are gorgeous, the setting is varied, and the sheer size of Los Santos is absolutely mind boggling.  Walking down the street, the player hears conversations in progress as people in the world go about their everyday lives.  Even the main characters feel organic, rather than player controlled automatons.  Take control of Trevor and you might find him in a drug fueled haze without any explanation for the dead bodies that surround him.  Switch over to Franklin and watch him finish up his exercise for the day.  All this combines to create a feeling that Los Santos is a living, breathing world and not just a level crafted for a particular mission.  This adds to a feeling of realism that few other games can match.  Actions, particularly the anarchic destruction that the series and the genre is known for, feel all the more impactful because it’s contained within a world that feels like a world.  Almost every open world game allows the player to drive fast, blow up cars, and fight cops, but few can match GTA V’s sheer authenticity.  That feeling adds additional excitement to each car chase, shoot out, and game event.

Unfortunately, for all the strengths of GTA V, Rockstar never seems to bring them together into a cohesive whole.  Various elements seem to exist to add more things to the universe rather than building a cohesive game.  The use of money is a perfect example.  After the first heist, the player has enough money to afford the best weapons in the game.   Beyond guns, money serves little purpose.  There are properties to buy, but they just provide more money, and at a dramatically reduced return than if the player had kept the money in the first place.  Other than that, the monetary reward from the heists is useless.  The same can be said of the side missions, mini games, and other ancillary aspects of the game.  They float in a giant world without context or cause.  The narrative suffers from a similar approach where characters and events are mentioned once for the purpose of a plot development and then dropped.  Franklin, a character in desperate need of development, has a romantic back story that is mentioned twice in a side mission and then used as a catalyst for an end mission.  Rather than feel organic, the use of Franklin’s ex-girlfriend feels forced and unnecessary.  The same can be said of any of the side events.  GTA V often feels more like parts of a game rather than a well crafted experience.

Puzzling design choices also plague the game.  GTA V is miserly with information by hiding it behind menus and simultaneously over and under explains concepts.  GTA V will remind the player what a hideout does every time the player acquires one, but fails to remind the player about how to fly a plane.  This is made all the more aggravating by the numerous control schemes that Rockstar implements.  With varying controls for driving, shooting while driving, running, creeping, flying, and lifting things while flying, it is hard for the player to know what the control scheme is for a given event.  This leads to unnecessary confusion and frustration when a simplified system would have made for a more approachable experience.  When the player does understand the controls, they are marred by questionable decisions such as including a button to switch to a cinematic, but totally useless, camera while relegating the map behind a menu.  Like the story and the gameplay, the controls feel like a victim of feature creep.  Tons of activities and ideas are jammed together without focusing on what actually matters.  Rockstar couldn’t seem to identify the line between where more is better and more is clutter.

GTA V is not a bad game.  It contains a degree of polish that is hard to achieve and signifies considerable talent.  The problem is that it never focuses.  Rockstar didn’t seem to know what it wanted to do with the game and so it tried to do a little bit of everything.  With a stronger vision and a more disciplined approach, Rockstar could have created a tighter, more cohesive experience.  Hopefully future iterations of this franchise will.

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GTA V Diary #4

It’s okay if we offend as long as we offend everyone…right?

One of the common defenses of GTA V’s heavy use of stereotype is that the game is an equal opportunity satire that holds a mirror up to our society and shows how ridiculous we’ve become. Offending people is fine, so the argument goes, as long as it serves the higher purpose of social commentary. The fact that just about everyone is in GTA’s crosshairs means that no one is left out and so no one can be offended. As far as the basic argument goes, I don’t object. Satire is a legitimate form of social commentary that often takes extreme and objectionable views to highlight the flaws in an idea. Furthermore, GTA V can honestly make this claim. That doesn’t mean it does satire well, just that it is doing it.

I wrote earlier that Rockstar populated its world with a non-stop barrage of vapid stereotypes . As I have progressed through the game, I can honestly say that the only exception to this rule is the inclusion of Trevor and Michael. Both are well developed with interesting variations on old clichés that make them fun to watch and discover their character arcs. Everyone else is just a one note cardboard cutout designed to facilitate a section of gameplay and pass along GTA V’s big message: Everybody is shallow these days. That’s right, GTA V is your crotchy grandfather who is angry at the world for not raising its kids right anymore. I wish I could say there was more to it, but that’s it. From Michael’s daughter Trisha getting hump for fame to joining a Scientology knock off cult that very clearly is taking your money, every bit of satire in this game is calling the modern world shallow. That’s all GTA V has to say.

Good satire explores the ideas that it targets. Satire doesn’t just ask that you laugh at an idea; it says things about those ideas and points out the silly or contradictory nature of the idea. The shame about GTA V is not that it is offensive, but that it wastes its voice to make intellectually stupid comparisons that have been made many times elsewhere. It’s no longer enough to have an entitled millennial who just wants everything handed to them on a platter. That stereotype is well worn. The stronger statement is why that is or is not a fair evaluation of that population and what that means for society. Instead, GTA V just collects all the stereotypes in one place and lets them roam free in the most mindless incarnations. Good satire says something. GTA just repeats it. Ad nauseum.

This is not to say that Rockstar’s approach isn’t entirely without merit. In some areas, such as the aptly named Facebook knock-off “Lifeinvader”, the game speaks more intelligently about the loss of privacy and cult of self involvement that results. Occasionally, Rockstar even drops satire in favor of ranting on a soap box such as when Trevor monologues on the ineffectiveness of torture. GTA V can say things when its creators want it to. The game just needs to be smarter about it. Like realism and the mini games, Rockstar needs to pick on a few ideas and work with them rather than dumping underdeveloped copies in the game. Less can be more, particularly when it comes to saying something worthwhile.

Next Up – The actual review!

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GTA V Diary #3

Gameplay elements!  Go to your corners and think about what you’ve done.

 

There is a moment following the first bank heist where the player takes control of Franklin in a strip club.  Franklin can play a simple mini game where he throws cash and the stripper (let’s call her Sophocles) likes Franklin more.  Throw enough money at Sophocles, and she will invite Franklin to a private dance mini game which increases both the gyration and boobage on offer.  Maxing out Sophocles’ “like” meter results in the anticipated sex scene which is actually just a panoramic shot of a building having an orgasmicaly good time.  Sophocles’ contact information is added to Franklin’s phone and the game continues on unchanged.

Moments like the above scene can be extremely valuable when establishing a sense of place in a world.  They are an isolated bit of gameplay that, by virtue of being untied to the larger game, promote the idea that the world has hidden nooks and continues on while the player is elsewhere.  This encourages the player to explore the world as if it were real and rewards that exploration.  Unfortunately for GTA V, the stripping mini game is not just a world building vignette, but also an example of one of the game’s major failings.  GTA V has tons of disparate gameplay elements that don’t interact with each other.  They exist in separate universes without contributing to each other. 

Consider the previous situation again.

In his brief time with Sophocles, Franklin shelled out money and treated the player to a couple of scenes sure to titillate the 13 year old crowd.  Nothing else, besides Franklin’s bank account, changed.  Franklin didn’t become stronger, get access to special weaponry, or open up a new story line.  There is no discernible difference between a player who completed the mini game and one who did not.  The same can be said of a number of mini games that pop up throughout GTA V.  At one point, Franklin helps out an old flame by running her husband’s tow trucking business while he is strung out on drugs.  Again, Franklin performs the required actions and receives nothing at the end.  Nothing Franklin does in the tow truck appears to contribute to anything else he will do in that world.  What this does is force the player to evaluate the mini game strictly on its own merits.  If the game isn’t fun by itself, then there is no reason to do it because it doesn’t add value anywhere else.  Unfortunately for Rockstar, most of its mini games just don’t hold up.

There’s a reason Tow Truck Simulator never made it to the top of the sales charts.  It’s not a particularly glamorous or entertaining job, yet that is exactly what GTA V has the player do repeatedly without compensation.  Contrast that with the Saint’s Row series where each element of the game links which each other element.  GTA-like minigames called diversions provide money and new abilities.  Main missions capture territories that provide income and protection for the next mission.  Even traditional money sink holes like businesses and shops provide the player with the tools to take on larger tasks.  Not all of these activities are fun, but they are worth doing on the merits of what they contribute to the rest of the game. 

 

In creating a myriad of isolate game elements, GTA V gives off the impression that Rockstar just threw ideas into the game without considering how they would fit.  As a result, they’re, at best, worthwhile only if the gameplay they present is worthwhile.  Rockstar needs to focus on what value its activities add and judge them both on their own merits and what they add to the rest of the game.   Few, more focused minigames with a clearer conception of what they add is more fun than randomly modeling a game of darts.  Until Rockstar gives me magic stripper superpowers for frequenting the clubs, I’m sorry Sophocles, but we’re through. 

Next Up  – Stereotypes are not satire

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