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May 2008

More reasons not to play GTA IV

Lostwinds_2I started playing Grand Theft Auto IV the day after it was released and immediately devoted about six hours to it. I had to stop because I was in the middle of another game - The World Ends With You - and was committed to reviewing it for PopMatters (to be posted there soon). I knew as soon as I finished TWEWY I would get right back to GTA IV.

Then Mario Kart Wii came along, and although I have mixed feelings about the game, I had to try out the new wheel. Plus, it's the one new title my wife has been eagerly awaiting. Well, that and the Dancing With the Stars game (with motion controls!), but that's an entirely different and excruciating story. So we played the heck out of MKW for a couple of days and scratched that itch. Back to GTA IV.

Except then an orange Gamefly envelope arrived with a sparkling new copy of Boom Blox in it. Well, I thought, let's just take a quick look and see what Mr. Spielberg can do with a video game. Two days later I'm halfway through the story mode, building my own levels, and suffering from a fairly painful case of "Boom Blox Elbow." Meanwhile, my GTA IV game case sits next to me, with Niko glaring at me from his little top middle square.

That was yesterday. Today was to be all about Liberty City. We put the baby to bed early. My wife went upstairs to watch the Dancing With the Stars semi-finals, so I had the living room all to myself. I'd already decided to start the game over from the beginning (I'm crazy that way), so I thought it might be fun to re-read Edge Magazine's recent cover story on the making of the game. Big mistake.

The article immediately preceding the GTA piece is a short feature on David Braben's Frontier Developments studio and their new game LostWinds, one of the release titles for Nintendo's new Wii Ware download service. You probably already know where this is going. I downloaded the game, and I've been playing it non-stop all evening.

Boom Blox and LostWinds are terrific games, each for very different reasons. I admire Boom Blox, but LostWinds has me completely enthralled. I'll return tomorrow with more detailed impressions of each. In the meantime, if you'd like to see what Wii Ware is all about, I strongly recommend that you check out LostWinds. It's a superb and charming little game.

GTA IV? Can't wait to get back to it. Actually, come to think of it, apparently I can.


Turning the corner

Reporter Back in September of last year I wrote a piece called "Why don't the mainstream media get video games?" It followed the "biggest game launch of all-time" (Halo 3), and examined the woeful coverage from news outlets like Time Magazine and The New York Times. Throughout the media, stories tended to focus on the same three generalized observations: 1) Video games generate big money; 2) Video games attract geek fanatics; 3) Video games are violent.

Now there's another "biggest game launch of all time" in town (GTA IV), and things are looking quite a bit different. While it's still easy to find plenty of stories that focus on all the nasty things players can do in the game (see note below), some of the biggest mainstream outlets have responded in ways that suggest the game is an ambitious cultural achievement to be regarded seriously.

San Francisco Chronicle: Cultural revolution often comes from seemingly imperfect people and unpopular places.The most influential athlete was labeled a draft dodger. The man who helped bring rock 'n' roll to the mainstream grew a huge gut, wore sequined jumpsuits and then died in the bathroom. One of this country's greatest defenders of free speech was dismissed as just a pornographer. But Muhammad Ali, Elvis and even Larry Flynt are remembered for their contributions - just as one day, the makers of Grand Theft Auto will be known as more than peddlers of video game sex and violence.

The Sunday Times (UK): Rockstar North is to video games what JK Rowling is to literature but few, particularly in government, are prepared to acknowledge this. It seems odd that politicians committed to “a smart, successful Scotland” haven't come knocking at [Rockstar producer Leslie] Benzies's door.

New York Times: Grand Theft Auto IV is a violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun... [It] sets a new standard for what is possible in interactive arts.

NPR's All Things Considered: The game is more than merely satire. Video games have never been known for expressing the finer points of human emotion...The more I played GTA IV, the more I felt I knew Niko. He's haunted by violence. He walks slowly, and every action is deliberate, as if he were conserving energy. When he steals a car, he matter-of-factly pulls the driver out of the seat and deposits him on the road. There's no joy in it; it's just what needs to be done. And everything about Niko feels uniquely Niko — like when a great actor disappears into a character. It's just not something you see that often in video games.

Rocky Mountain News: I answer the phone and get a nasty reminder that in Niko's world, not only do things not turn out as expected, but the tragedy of his life and of his months in the big city have other, more tragic and lasting consequences, which he and I will have to live with as we continue to explore. In Grand Theft Auto IV the story isn't just an amalgam of cut scenes and cleverly written dialogue, it's the experiences I create, too. It's now, watching Niko stand, his shoulders slumped, that the depth of this game finally hits me.

Newsweek: When you find yourself, as Niko, standing on the edge of a crane, deciding whether to save the low-level hood you've been ordered to kill or speed his passage to the afterlife, what will you do? I let him live, even though part of me very much wanted the instant gratification of watching him fall. What held me back, however, was not just how convincingly the digital actors can portray the series' signature violence (because of the way your enemies stagger, stumble and crawl after being shot, the killings now feel more squalid than exhilarating). It's also because the writers have given our mercurial protagonist a conscience, a fatigue with death and a desire to start afresh. Rockstar managed to convince me that Niko wouldn't do this—so I didn't...That's where the art of Grand Theft Auto IV resides, in the complicated responses it can elicit. Even for those among you who aren't gamers, attention must be paid.

The Today Show: It will be a great shame if the inevitable hubbub overshadows the epic, revolutionary nature of “GTA IV.” The developers, Rockstar Games, have crafted a wildly ambitious game world complete with an engrossing story of an immigrant's rise to power, unforgettable characters and expertly honed gameplay. It will be weeks, if not months, before I get my fill of “GTA IV.”

Part of this sudden enlightenment is surely due to the fact that these and other outlets are hiring writers who understand the medium and happily refer to themselves as gamers (Heather Chaplin, N'Gai Croal, Brian Crecente, etc.). I'd like to think it also has something to do with the quality of the game itself. Despite the franchise's long history as a target of media outcry, GTA IV appears to have turned a corner in the minds of whatever critical mass is required to make something culturally acceptable. Given that it's currently fashionable to speak in praise of GTA IV, there's probably some bandwagon jumping going on as well. I'm sure the backlash is due any day now.

Whatever the reasons (and whatever you think of the game), it's encouraging to see a significant portion of the mainstream media respond to a video game in this way. Perhaps it signals the emergence of a more widespread cultural appreciation for games in general. I'm not expecting an overnight conversion, but this at least feels promising. I don't need the New York Times to tell me video games matter...but I want them to anyway.


Note: Many newspapers and websites rely on the same source (in this case the Associated Press) for their coverage or reviews of GTA IV. Consequently, the following phrase can be found in various versions of the AP story reprinted in dozens of newspapers like the Kanas City Star and the Indianapolis Star: "Critics say the extreme violence in "Grand Theft Auto" video games could be harmful to children, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving has complained that the latest version includes the ability to drive while intoxicated."


Confounded by the Kart

Img_23_2 If I added up all the hours I've spent playing games with family and friends, Mario Kart games would easily top the charts. The rivalry that has developed between my wife and me has reached Yankees/Red Sox proportions with accusations flying around like "You've been secretly practicing on this track, haven't you?" or "It's obvious this game penalizes the best driver!" It's all in good fun, of course. No, really. It is.

But since we picked it up, I've developed an odd, ambivalent attitude about Mario Kart Wii. We're playing it a lot. I like the new tracks. The game looks good and plays smoothly. Online racing works seamlessly - much better than Smash Bros. Brawl. The white hot spousal rivalry continues.

So why don't I like this game more than I do?

Maybe it's the wheel. Aside from its online modes, the addition of the Wii Wheel is the only significant upgrade from previous Mario Kart games. It works surprisingly well - better than I expected, actually - but I still prefer the thumbstick, mostly because it's what I know, and it offers finer control. Still, manual steering is a nice idea, and a recent dinner guest (a longtime Mario Kart fan) happily chose it over a nunchuck when we offered it to him, and he had a blast.

Maybe it's the wacky, frenetic unpredictability of the game. In the past, this has always been a major draw of the franchise for me. A last-place player can make her way to the front of the pack on the final lap if she gets just the right combination of shells, stars, and mushrooms. I'm not talking about anyone I know, mind you. Just the generic "she" writers throw in to balance the pronouns. I don't personally know anyone who consistently relies on that strategy every...single...time.

Mario Kart Wii ramps up the item frequency to a degree that renders most races a strategic crapshoot. Grabbing first place and hanging on to it until the end is virtually impossible. It seems perfectly clear to me that my sudden inability to win races has nothing to do with diminished skill or prowess. It simply must be that abominable blue shell. Right? I mean, that's got to be it.

I think if all calamitous events in life were preceded by the sound of an ominous whooshing sound emanating from the palm of your hand, we'd all just chop our hands off and be done with it. That's what I think.

What was I saying? Oh, yeah. Why don't I like this game more?

Maybe the bloom is off the rose. My friend Mitch Krpata recently described playing the game with a group of friends - Kart fans all - and watching them gradually lose interest after only a short time. They moved on to Rock Band and played non-stop for hours. I think I understand that reaction. For me, the wheel simply doesn't add enough oomph to the experience of Mario Kart Wii to make the game feel significantly distinctive from previous Mario Kart games. Had Mario Kart Wii been released at the launch of the system, would it be different? Have Wii Sports and other motion-controlled titles diminished the novelty of the Wii Wheel? Maybe so.

Or maybe it's just me. I could see myself lovin' this game if I could ever figure out how to get back on that tall middle platform with the fireworks and confetti. But some people I know keep hogging it for themselves.

;-)


Questions for the community

Animal_crossing_2 About a week ago, Angela from Lesbian Gamers invited me to collaborate on an essay addressing the hostile climate that frequently arises within the gaming community. After tossing around some ideas, we agreed that we felt uneasy about proposing a one-size-fits-all "solution," nor were we interested in pointing fingers or dredging up a long history of internet blowups and controversies. So what, then, to do?

We finally decided it might be most useful to point at some specific concerns and then simply raise a few questions about how to address them. We don't expect to uncover a miracle solution, and we're aware that many people may not share our concerns. But for those who do, we hope a conversation will help identify ways we can work together to create and nurture a community with higher standards for vigorous and respectful discourse.

So here goes:


This short essay is an attempt to engage others in a conversation about how we can work together to enhance civility and raise the level of discourse about video games. We realize we're members of a diverse community, and we're not interested in squelching strong opinions or dictating a set of inviolable rules. But we think there must be constructive ways to address the hostility, belligerence, and stereotyping that so often characterizes public conversation about video games among gamers.

The hate mail, berating commentary and forum spamming we've seen on our own sites and others (much of which is deleted before ever seen) emanates from within the gaming community itself. Ironically, the medium we love that provides us with so much joy has also developed a fanbase with a reputation for anti-social, intolerant behavior in both Australia and the United States where we live. We know it's a gross and unfair mischaracterization, but the broad set of cultural assumptions about games and gamers is largely negative, and we too often affirm those assumptions by our own behavior. We're not interested in being scolds or behavior police, but we face an uphill climb convincing a parent or new gamer whom has visited a tirade-filled forum, or whom has been repeatedly attacked on Xbox Live as a "faggot," that video games are good for our souls, as James Paul Gee suggests.

As bloggers we understand that personal expression and a free exchange of ideas are fundamental to our purpose. As a community, how can we meaningfully respond to the creators of the "Ladies of Liberty City" video in a way that might encourage more reflection about what such a video communicates and whom it may harm or offend? How can we constructively address members of our community who use the public and anonymous nature of our forums and comment areas to attack or berate others? Is banning specific commenters or IP addresses the best solution? We can moderate and filter, but is there something meaningful to be gained by allowing such people to publicly have their say? Can we nurture a community that responds to these situations in a useful and instructive way? Can we engage a critical mass of gamers willing to model respectful disagreement and thoughtful discourse?

Or are we wringing our hands about something only a relative few of us care about? Is it unlikely we can do anything substantive to create a more civil environment among gamers? Should we simply do what we can as individuals and hope things improve over time? We'd like to make a positive contribution, but are we being hopelessly idealistic?

These are earnest questions, posed in hopes of engaging conversation and clarifying for ourselves the best way to proceed from here. In the end, we love games and gamers. We want to help foster a welcoming community for everyone who loves games. We welcome your ideas and feedback.

Angela and Michael


The value of a good slider

White_castle_double_slider Before GTA IV sucked me into its sordid vortex of vicarious licentiousness, I was spending most of my time playing Square Enix's new RPG The World Ends With You for the DS. I encourage you to click on the link to the game's media-rich website, as it does a great job of conveying a sense of what the game looks, plays, and feels like.

Much has been made about the many ways Square Enix has revised or reconfigured the standard JRPG conventions in this game, and the experience of playing it certainly feels fresh. Part of this is due to the game's stylized environment and its mash-up of modern urban Shibuyu Tokyo tweaked with manga visuals and hip-hop/electronica vocal music.

But the revisions that matter most are under the hood, and one design feature in particular seems to me particularly inspired. The game lets you dynamically adjust its difficulty settings in two separate controls. One of these we've seen before: a simple "easy/normal" toggle selection ("hard" appears later as well) which influences the overall difficulty level of the game. This setting can be changed at any point.

The other difficulty adjustment is much more interesting. The game presents you with a slider which can be dynamically lowered to reduce your HP. Doing so makes staying alive much harder, but increases the drop rate and quality of pins you collect to use and sell in the game. Decreasing this slider to its minimum value makes battling a very hard, but very rewarding experience.

Worldends1_4 Playing with this 2-pronged difficulty adjustment system adds an incredible amount of flexibility to The World Ends With You. Other games provide such options, but often only at the beginning. I can't think of a another game that encourages and rewards such on-the-fly tinkering with dual gameplay difficulty settings like this (though I'm sure someone will let me know if I've forgotten one). Players who don't want this "crutch" can ignore it altogether. Frustrated players who get stuck (a frequent reason many players abandon RPGs) can get a leg up and move on.

And, of course, freaks like me can fight the same battle repeatedly, toying with various combos of difficulty settings and HP slider adjustments just for the pure joy of it. This is when my wife usually tells me that I need to seek professional help. ;-)

I'm working on a thorough review of the game, and I'll let you know when it's finished. Somebody please tell Niko Bellic he's on his own for a day or two.


Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 13

Micpodcasthad_2 A week of GTA IV run, gun, and fun (all while not playing the game); the emergence of the gaming tripod; IGN video madness; and an interview with Kirk Battle (AKA L.B. Jeffries) - all in this edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast!

  • Listen to the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.
  • Subscribe to the podcast feed here.
  • Download the podcast directly here.

Links mentioned in the show:

L.B. Jeffries' Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games
Moving Pixels Blog
NPR's coverage of Grand Theft Auto IV by Heather Chaplin


The gaming tripod

Longtime gamers know that console wars are usually followed by periods of relative calm when the games themselves take center stage. With three apparently viable consoles and two well-established handheld systems all in place, now would seem to be such a time. It's been seventeen months since the launch of the Wii and PS3.

At the risk of ignoring many interesting games, I believe three just-released titles provide a telling snapshot of the gaming landscape. Grand Theft Auto IV, Mario Kart Wii, and Wii Fit provide three very different experiences for gamers and represent three distinct legs of a "gaming tripod" that illustrates the evolution of the medium in some useful ways. If you can bear with my awkward metaphor just a step further, I'll suggest that a tripod is apt because its primary function is to provide support and stability for a device (in this case, the games industry) perched on top.

Gta4boxart_2 GTA IV is the grand epic narrative experience - the evolved descendent of RPGs, adventure games, and other genres that rely on storytelling as a central component of the player's experience. Obviously these games contain ludic properties as well (rules, interface, timed objectives, win/lose missions, etc.), but at the risk of reawakening the slumbering narratology vs ludology beast, I believe GTA IV, more than any previous GTA game, aspires to provide an immersive storytelling environment and an empathetic connection between player and protagonist (Niko Bellic).

Mkwiiboxart Mario Kart Wii is the latest installment in a series that has always focused on playful colorful fun. No backstories. No cutscenes. No story-mode. The avatars are significant only to the degree that they represent various sets of racing characteristics. Most players don't associate meaning or identify with the characters in any certain way. Large bearded homophobic men will happily race as Princess Peach in a pink buggy if doing so will give them a racing edge. It's hard to imagine two video games more different - stylistically, tonally,  structurally, and aesthetically - than GTA IV and Mario Kart Wii. And that's a good thing for my tripod theory.

Wii Fit (available now in Japan and Europe - I played it at GDC in February) is something altogether different. I initially assumed its appeal would be based on integrating the balance board into games that could make unique use of it (snowboarding, surfing, etc.). I was trying to squeeze it into a paradigm I understood, and seeing the balance board as simply another game controller, this made sense to me. While it's clear the device can function in this way (and it ships with a collection of "balance games"), Miyamoto clearly has something very different in mind. If he were a tripod-metaphor man, I feel certain he would see Wii Fit as the third stabilizing leg of the gaming tripod. ;-)

Wii_fit_pal_boxart_2 Wii Fit is designed to function as a health station for families. Combining yoga with aerobic and muscle exercises, the system builds a game framework around these activities to provide feedback and make them more fun. Your avatar levels up (or down in this case, since it's based on weight and fitness) by grinding through repetitive but fun and rewarding tasks in a persistent environment tied to real time. The persistent real-time environment is the world you live in. When you check back into Wii Fit after that beer and bratwurst bender...your avatar will know about it and suffer the consequences with you.

Your Wii Fit avatar connects to you on a substantive and physically realized level. Instead of slicing your way through armies of orcs slouched in your chair munching Funyuns, Wii Fit presents you with an avatar who can only succeed if you do. She may not look nearly as cool as your Mage in her flowing robes and open midriff, but your cute little Mii has eliminated a layer of separation between you and your on-screen persona that no video game has ever removed. Guitar Hero and Rock Band come close, but Wii Fit requires your whole body and extends - if you "play" it right - into your whole life.

So in an odd and unexpected twist, Wii Fit arrives as a perfect complement to the narrative and the ludic. In its own unique ways, it is neither and both of these. Some will consider it no kind of game at all. It's a glorified scale that connects to your TV. Others, I believe, will engage with it in a variety of meaningful ways, both mentally and physically.

If you look at it the way I do, Wii Fit (and the door it opens to consumers putting a versatile gaming device in their living rooms) GTA IV and Mario Kart Wii look like three stable legs of a sturdy gaming tripod. At least for now. Who knows? Maybe this thing could become a four-legged table.


Podcast 13 on the way

Question76396 I considered skipping 13 and going right to 14, but curses schmurses, 13 it will be!

I'm preparing the next podcast and, as always, will happily include your games-related questions, comments, or feedback. GTA editorials are also welcome. ;-)

Send an email or mp3 audio file to me at brainygamer@gmail.com, and I'll do my best to work it into the show. Look for the podcast here and on iTunes this Tuesday.

Thanks very much for listening!


One more take

Gta4trailershot After I posted my short and admittedly angry piece earlier today, several thoughtful readers suggested I elaborate on my objections to the IGN "Ladies of Liberty City" video. I agree that I didn't properly explain my point of view, so here goes. After this, I promise it will be back to normal programming.

I think it's unlikely I'll be able to persuade anyone of anything, especially given how polarizing this and other GTA-related issues tend to quickly become. But I can at least try to clarify my intentions in posting as I did. I'm speaking, obviously, only for myself here, but I feel strongly about this, so I'm sure my tone may be seen as harsh or dogmatic. I don't think there's much I can do about that.

What IGN did was morally and ethically reprehensible. They posted a video using stitched-together segments of GTA4 gameplay to show a series of incidents where women are paid for sex and then shot and killed, or run over by a car and killed. This montage was not delivered as some kind of ironic social critique. It was, essentially, a hip, funky homage to killing women.

A similarly heinous compilation pieced together in any other medium and posted on a highly visible website would be denounced immediately, if it ever saw the light of day. Why is it somehow acceptable - and why are responses like mine considered "hysterical" - simply because the video uses footage from GTA4?

I'm not the first person to suggest we're reinforcing the marginalization of the medium by falling back on the "it's only a game" argument (I would extend this to include "it's only GTA."). I recommend Mitch Krpata's "Sex, Violence, and Video Games" for more on this. He says it much better than me.

Of course it's possible to do all the things the video depicts while playing GTA4. It's possible to do all sorts of ugly things in all sorts of media, as well as in real life. The fact that it's possible doesn't make it acceptable to do what IGN did. If you want to play GTA4 at home and kill as many prostitutes as you can, that's your decision. It's another thing entirely to make a compilation video featuring one killing after another, set to music, and post it on your website that receives over 20 million unique visitors per month.

The video is a construction. It was deliberately made, edited, and posted. Someone made specific choices about what this video was intended to communicate. It's not simply "footage from the game." I am suggesting that whomever is responsible for it ought to be held to account.

I've played two hours of GTA4. I have no idea if it's a good game or a bad game. It's irrelevant to my argument. I admire Rockstar for their innovative approach to video game design. They have made an indelible impact on gaming and gaming culture. These facts are also irrelevant to my argument.

Finally, I don't mean to suggest there's some kind of monolithic entity known as the "gamer community" of which IGN is some sort of spokesperson. We're way more complicated than that. But there is a culture and community of gamers out here, even if we don't all think or behave alike. It's fair to say that video games continue to suffer a serious image problem in our culture at large. Making the case for video games as a legitimate form of human expression is a long uphill climb. I know this from personal experience as an educator facing resistance, misinformation, or simple ignorance from my peers and colleagues every day. I realize lots of gamers don't care how we're perceived. In my career, I don't have that luxury.

I'm trying to move the ball forward. That's why I started this blog. It's hard for me not to take it personally when a major media site devoted to gaming posts a video like this because they think it's funny or cool or subversive or whatever. From a purely selfish perspective, it makes everything I'm trying to do as an advocate for video games more difficult to justify or explain. This may not matter much to others, and that's fine, but it matters a lot to me.


Pushing back

18_18_ign_logo When one of the major games media outlets (Fox-owned, ironically) does something like this, we can let the politicians and cultural hand-wringers frame the discourse for us...or we can do it ourselves.

Thank you very much Leigh, Lux, Stephen, and Angela.

Dear IGN,

Removing the video and saying you "crossed a line" is a woefully inadequate response. You need to issue a formal public apology, and the people responsible for creating and posting this video must be held accountable. Jack Thompson is the least of your worries. You need to answer to us, the gamer community, many of whom resent the self-inflicted black eye you just gave us.

Step up and do the right thing. Until you do, I will no longer visit your site, your sister sites (Gamespy and Rotten Tomatoes) or your podcasts. I encourage others to consider doing the same.