Monday, June 30, 2008

Junot Diaz reviews Grand Theft Auto IV

The Wall Street journal posted a review of Grand Theft Auto IV today written by Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown.

It's a good review, and clearly written by someone who has both a good sense of the virtues of the series' innovative gameplay (what he aptly terms the “grammar” of the series, its mix of driving and third-person adventure in a sandbox environment), and a familiarity with the narrative texture of the previous installments of the series. Diaz is clearly a fan of the games, and for that reason his argument that the favorable comparisons to The Godfather bestowed upon the game by several members of the enthusiast press betray a serious lack of critical perspective is persuasive and well-taken. GTAIV is a great game, but The Godfather it ain't. As someone who has hopes for games as art I don't think there's any shame in acknowledging that the young medium has yet to produce anything whose cultural value is comparable to the great works of cinema.

Diaz faults the game's plot on the grounds that it fails as a depiction of the immigrant experience. I think his reasons for this claim are contestable, but I want to quote another point Diaz makes: “For me, GTA IV is more an example of our evasions as a culture, more of a fairy tale, more of a story of consolation than a shattering cultural critique or even, dare I say it, great art. GTA IV is a game that allows you to forget how screwed-up and complicated things are in the real world; it could have done more, it could have put that screwed-up complicated world front and center.” I think the charge that the game is uncomplicated in its depiction of the world and the immigrant experience in particular is quite right; the game isn't centered around the challenges that face most immigrants to the United States: earning a living in a context where the conditions of employment are likely to be exploitative, avoiding Immigration authorities, and so on.

But I think that this charge misses the point that GTAIV's most successful mode of critique is not gritty realism but broad satire. The creative team at Rockstar games, the series' developer, has exactly one satirical tool, and it consists of taking the various elements of American culture-- its television, its movies, its advertising, its products, its various ethnic and professional stereotypes-- and ratcheting up their vulgarity to maximum. Rockstar's team has a definite flair for the grotesque, and when this technique works it succeeds in exposing the essential vulgarity and cheapness of the recognizable real-world counterparts of the game's virtual products. In this sense the real object of critique in the GTA series is not the depredations visited on immigrants in the Bush era but American consumer culture of the last four decades. In GTA's New York, the Statue of Liberty is replaced by the Statue of Happiness, and she holds a coffee cup aloft in lieu of a torch.

Now, this isn't Gulliver's Travels, to be sure. But it's not a consoling picture of our culture, either. There's something to be said for using a video game to hold a funhouse mirror in front of American life. This effort doesn't go off without a hitch, certainly (The game becomes very unfunny when it devotes its general mean-spiritedness to caricaturing those marginalized in American culture-- homosexuals, women, and minorities. Mitch Krpata noted his queasiness on this score in a blog post.), but the satirical take on American culture the game presents offers something beyond mere escapism.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Tollbooth Problem

Grand Theft Auto IV is a great game, but it inspires a new sort of anxiety I call the “tollbooth problem.” The bridges that connect the city boroughs in the game have toll booths, and if you don't slow down your car, wait in line, and hand over 5 dollars you get pursued by police. It's pretty easy to evade the police, but every time I get to the booths I feel torn between gunning through them and waiting for my turn like a law-abiding citizen. Other people have described having this same indecision, and I think it is symptomatic of a central design problem in the series.

The Grand Theft Auto video games have developed over the years by pushing through two central ideas. On the gameplay side, the series has moved further and further along in fleshing out the “sandbox” game design concept it invented with Grand Theft Auto III. Rather than providing the player with a set of linear levels and a set of clearly defined tasks within the levels, the Grand Theft Auto games offer the player a huge open environment that they can explore at their own leisure without having to accomplish any set goal. As the series developed, the team at Rockstar games have fleshed out these environments with an escalatingly slavish attention to detail. It's difficult to describe the most recent game's accomplishment in this respect without reaching for stock phrases like “living and breathing city,” but the faxu-New York created for GTAIV is an astonishing achievement. Every block looks a little different from the previous one; every neighborhood has a distinct feel, from the cars to the people on the street to the stores; you see garbage trucks driving around the streets on Tuesday mornings and businessmen talking on their cellphones in battery park during lunchtime.

At the same time, the creators of GTA have been refining the art of narrative in games. As the player moves through the city, he can advance the narrative of the game by taking on “missions” that give him specific goals. During these parts of the game there are brief cinematic sequences that flesh out the main character's personality. These scenes never dominate the game, and in the most recent iteration the cinematic sequences are top-notch: the scripting and the acting are excellent, and they manage to provide a convincing portrait of the game's protagonist, a Eastern European emigre named Niko Belic. The game sustains the narrative outside of the confines of the missions by incorporating narrative into other parts of the gameplay. One feature of the new game is the development of the character's social life; as you wander around the city your friends and girlfriends you meet through the narrative will call you and ask to hang out-- drink, play pool, ask for a ride to the airport. There are some advantages for cultivating these relationships, but in general you get the idea that they are put in the game in order to give you a better perspective on your character. The portait of Niko that emerges is very well-drawn, and he emerges as a violent but ultimately sympathetic figure, a decent man who has been drawn into a life of expert violence against his own best efforts.

As Rockstar has pushed forward these two aspects of the game, gameplay and narrative, they have begun to pull the game in separate directions. This is the tollbooth problem: the narrative portions of the game cast you in the role of a troubled-but-essentially-sane human being, not a deranged sociopath. But when the game hands the reins over to the player and lets them get around the world on their own you immediately find it difficult to play this role. It's not fun to drive slowly enough that you can avoid mowing down some pedestrians along the way, it's tedious to wait in line to pay the toll on the bridges, and the easiest way to get around in most contexts is to pull innocent bystanders out of their cars at gunpoint. It is fun to destroy passing vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades, but your feel like it's out of character. The dictates of the game's design-- what make it fun-- also make it difficult to feel like you're inhabiting the character provided by the game's narrative.

Now, on one hand this very tension speaks to how accomplished the game's storytelling is. The very fact that you feel like you ought to portray a normal human being capable of adult relationships in the game shows how well the game's writers have provided a well-realized central narrative. Tollbooth anxiety points to the clash of two central imperatives of that have to be balanced in modern narrative game design. In order to make a game, the designers have to give the player freedom; in order to make a story, the designers have to take the freedom away. The game's protagonist must reflect the player's choices, on one hand, and be someone in particular, on the other. In recent years several games have tried to strike and equilibrium between these two imperatives, and I hope that the problems of this game will point the way towards improving the medium.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Death and Design

Modern video games began in the arcades. In the many games where the player faced off against a computer opponent, the designers had a good rationale for killing the player off as often as was possible without driving them away: every time the player died he had to put more money in the machine if he wanted to play more. Death meant profit. If you play some early arcade and 8-bit games these days the big thing you notice is that you die all the time. Those things are damn near impossible. Looking back I wonder if my 8-year old self was a masochist.

When home game consoles came along, player death lost its raison d'etre: since the player put all his money in up front, there was no direct economic incentive to murder the player over and over. However, player death can be a cornerstone of good game design if the game uses death for effectively, because failure is an excellent teaching tool. Death is the stick the game's designer beats you with in order to teach you the rules of the game. Through forcing you to repeat sections of the game over until you master the mechanics of the game world, death can serve as an incentive to pay attention to the details of the game's structure-- the way enemies behave, the way the game's controls work, and so on.

The Ninja Gaiden series of 3-d action games, created by the designer Tomonobu Itagaki, both use and misuse player death. On one hand, the games' fun emerges from the series' preposterous difficulty. Deviating from many other games in the genre, Itagaki chose to make the common-variety enemy encounter (squads of ninjas) potentially deadly. Even a small number of enemies can kill you if you are not careful. This produces a satisfying level of tension throughout and also forces the player to master the game's intricate combat system to survive. (Unlike many other character action games, you cannot get through normal enemy encounters by mashing buttons.) This basic design choice was a genius move on Itagaki's part.

On the other hand, the latest installment of the game also frequently kills you for no reason, compelling you to repeat difficult passages and encounters. Learning to play a game should not be a matter of guessing how many fingers the designer is holding behind his back. At one point, you have a pretty difficult fight against a volcano/armadillo hybrid (don't ask); after you succeed in killing it, it explodes and kills you. Nothing in the game up to this point leads you to expect this, and so you are forced to repeat a long and frustrating battle. The minutes I spent re-fighting that fucking armadillo are precious moments of my life that I will never get back. Needless player death is bad on its own, but it is especially egregious when it forces you to repeat battles that you've spent long stretches of time trying to overcome, and this occurs several times.

The Ninja Gaiden games really illustrate the use and abuse of death in games. If games are ever to gain some broad appeal they will have to overcome their outmoded love of needlessly humiliating the player. There's no money in it anymore.

Nathan Rabin inadvertently describes video game cutscenes

"It's as if the Superman ride at Great America stopped every 40 seconds for a sentimental speech about Superman's complicated relationship with his adopted planet, and his angst at being the only surviving member of his alien race."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Player Piano 2.0

I think that like many of my friends, I have gone through this experience in my late '20s where music has come to play a smaller part of my life. Since college, I don't keep up on the new releases, I don't get to too many shows, etc. I catch as catch can and poach new music off the year-end best-of lists on Pitchfork. I don't always take my iPod with me, the way that I kept my minidisc player on my person nearly every time I left the house at Brown. You feel a sense of guilt about this, a sense that you are impoverishing yourself allowing an important part of your life-- the love of music-- slip away as you get older and lazier.

I heard a story on NPR recently about the demise of creativity and imagination in American culture. The piece was annoying in its yearning after the good ol' days, seemingly blind to the fact that new forms of media inspire children in much the same way old ones did. (When I was a kid, I had a sketchbook full of designs for a video game I had made up-- little drawings of ships and cars whose offensive and defense capabilities were fleshed out in minute detail. I'm pretty sure it was meant to be a more complicated version of Defender.) Anyways, one caller talked about how his family used to gather around a player piano with neighbors and sing along to recent pop tunes for entertainment, and he despaired that this habit of social music-making has gone by the wayside.

When I heard the caller reminisce about this experience it reminded me of Rock Band, which I have been playing obsessively with my roommates and friends nearly every day for months. While the game can't replace the experience of mastering real musical instruments, what it really does realize is the experience described by the caller-- the social experience of getting together with friends and participating in music that you could not, strictly speaking, create by your own means without a good deal more training. If you can put aside the absurdity/shame of having numerous prosthetic musical instruments in your living room (it helps to think of them as synthesizers), the game is straight out fantastic. (Our band, “Just the Tip” has t-shirts. I have yet to make a t-shirt for my solo project, “The Guermantes Way.”). I spend so much time crooning tracks from the game to myself at work these days (the game really unearths my heretofore undiscovered lust to croon) that my coworkers probably know the game's setlist by now.

I think the success of Rock Band and Guitar Hero among casual gamers, and my many many friends who would otherwise avoid video games, shows that the player-piano spirit is alive and well. When I'm old I'll call into NPR , and I'll look back on Rock Band with a sentimental fondness that will annoy the youth.

The Anxiety of Influence

The business of video games is built around the production of sequels. Because the small number of major companies that develop and publish video games are publicly traded, and because market forces are arrayed against uncertainty, the creation of video games is built around the iteration of a reliable franchises whose economic success can be replicated predictably over a span of years. (Tom Kim's interview of Michael Pachter, an investment analyst who covers the games industry, illuminated this point.)

The opposition between the dictates of this business model and the dictates of individual creativity is clear. People who have romantic-era aspirations for the medium and unnegotiable creative visions find the games-making industry inhospitable. Because the production of large-scale games is largely the co-operative effort of large creative teams, games rarely present the creative viewpoint of any one individual even when they do manage to present a creative viewpoint at all. A comparison to the Harry Potter movies might help here: just as the central narrative given by the books provides a loose framework shaped by a changing cast of directors with different creative sensibilities, the basic play mechanics of a series (some particular variety of shooting, driving, whatever) provide a loose framework for a changing cast of game designers. A notable exception to this general trend is the Japanese game designer Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear series-- Kojima's games bear the clear creative imprint of his unusual authorial sensibility in their visual style, storytelling, and humor. Michael Abbot recently compared him to the film director D.W. Griffith, and this comparison nails the fact that Kojima is a meticulous auteur with serious creative blind spots.

Back in the late 1960s, the Yale literary critic Harold Bloom argued that the basic dynamic behind artistic creation is a psychological dynamic he called agon. New works of literature are a product of the artist's struggle to overcome the generic forms of his precursors, and the artist is always spurred by a distinctly Freudian anxiety about his relationship with his artistic forebears. While Bloom's theory was meant to describe interpersonal and intergenerational creative struggles, it works quite well as a description of a certain intrapersonal creative struggle as well.

Kojima, who is in the business of producing sequels to a popular video game franchise, has found ways to express a fundamental anxiety about producing a series of games that rehearse a well-cemented set of forms and conventions: a main protagonist named Snake fights exactly four battles with grotesque, animal-inspired bosses each game, encounters cyborg ninjas, smokes cigarettes, etc. At the end of the second game in the series, the game's main villain explains that the whole game has been an elaborately calculated training mission meant to reproduce the events of the first game. (The tone of this revelation is quasi-hysterical: “Don't you see! It's just the same thing over again!”) The final installment of the series begins with a surreal filmed cooking show with containing some serious Freudian overtones: the actor cries “this is the last chapter of this snake's life!” and chops a coral snake in half with a cleaver. At other points in the game, the solider-protagonist laments that he has been trapped in a system where he has been fated to perform the same actions over and over again, and I believe this complaint is meant to work at multiple registers. Shawn Elliot proposes that certain scenes in the game are meant to the point up the obsolescence of the series' basic mechanics and environments. Kojima's work is brilliant when it manages to sound his main points of thematic emphasis-- control, governance, inheritance-- at various levels in this way, but this very dynamic is what really ruins the last game in the latter half. (Kojima cannot illustrate themes except by explicitly telling you what they are in the course of a cutscene) At points, it seems as if Kojima was pressured both to reproduce the basic four-act structure of the series and wrap up every detail of the series' absurdly complicated plot, and as a result the second portion game is given over to exposition. Kojima really is a creative genius of sorts, and the final installment shows some serious flashes of brilliance, but he still has yet overcome his anxious relationship to his own past works.

I played Metal Gear and I feel Used

In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs proposed that the central dynamic of capitalism is a phenomenon he called reification, or the transformation of people into things. For capitalism to take root and displace pre-capitalist modes of production, human labor had to be turned into a commodity whose price (wages) was regulated by the market. The result of this process is the transformation of human life into an instrument of the economic system; while economies were originally created to serve human interests, the logic of capitalism dictates that human beings be regarded as instruments for the realization of profit, the immanent end of the market. Lukacs thought that this reifying logic of capitalism came to permeate all aspects of human culture under capitalism, and that only Marxism could put human needs back at the center of economic organization. Arts and culture had a dual role on his vision: on one hand, the often mirrored the governing logic of the era; on the other, they served as places where the distorting effects of capitalist life were brought to the surface and interrogated.

Metal Gear Solid 4, a new game by the Japanese game designer Hideo Kojima, is set in a future where war has displaced oil as the basic productive force in the world economy. The basic conceit is that private military corporations, or PMCs, have become largest segment of the international economy. In this imagined future various technological advancements have made it possible for these corporations to completely monitor and control the actions of their soldiers on the battlefield through computers and nanomachines. These wars pursued for economic gain have come to replace the “old” 20th century wars fought between sovereign nations for territory. Regardless of whether you think this is an immanently plausible scenario, I have to admit I found this a compelling line of argument for a video game to make. The series' protagonist, a prematurely aged soldier named Snake (don't ask), complains that all soldiers are fated to be instruments in the service of remote powers.

The irony, of course, is that the protagonist of a video game really is just a locus for external control. A game character is a puppet manipulated by a third party, the player. In previous installments of this series Kojima exploited this irony to good thematic effect, and he does so here as well. (One boss is a puppeteer-- when she takes control of the player you can see a set of marionette lines stretch from his limbs up to the ceiling. I have heard that when the player makes a some horrific mistake controlling the character-- say, walking off a cliff by accident-- the strings are visible as you fall.) The gamer's control of the main character in a game is a ripe ground for exploration, and one of the lessons I took away from the earlier games in the series (notably Metal Gear Solid 2) is that games might, as a medium, be able to interrogate themes of control and agency in ways unavailable in other media. They can do this by exploiting the gamer's control over their avatar, playing on the identification that occurs between the player and the game's hero.

Metal Gear Solid 4 fails to see this idea through; about halfway through it becomes weighed down by the need to resolve the series' byzantine plot through long expository cutscenes, and the game becomes freighted with so many points of thematic emphasis by the end that it fails to give a cohesive statement of any of them. While the presentation of the game as a whole and the cinemas in particular represents a high-water mark for the medium (one that is only comparable to GTAIV's gonzo similacrum of New York in its meticulous devotion to the small details that make for realism-- mice skittering in the corners of basements, visible breath in cold environments), it really exemplifies a disconnect between gameplay and storytelling that results from the series' overreliance on filmic techniques to convey narrative. And so the last half of the game is essentially a b-grade computer-animated spy melodrama about war, religion, information technology and the anxiety of influence. All this is done with level of narrative and visual sophistication miles above the average video game, but the medium has a long way to go.