Tuesday, March 10, 2009

La Comedie Post-Humaine

I finally downloaded The Lost and the Damned a few days ago, and my first thought was thank God they didn't let this thing go to waste.

Though it sounds like a cliché at this point, I'll say it again: the city is the best character in Grand Theft Auto IV. It's not the most eye-assaultingly sumptuous environment ever created (In fact, it has this distinctly abstract quality in comparison with, say, Far Cry 2 or Crysis), but GTAIV doesn't trade in visual density, it trades in cultural density. Which is to say, it teems with the sort of details that make it feel like a place civilized people inhabit. There is TV, Radio and internet: all the things you need to fictionalize if you want to render the cultural life of a modern city. The brownstones might not be photorealistic, but they do look different from the ones on the previous block. This is progress.

Which brings me to Balzac. As a novelist, he's known for a few novels: Pere Goriot, Lost Illusions, Cousin Bette. But all these individual novels are just episodes in a ninety-five-work strong über-novel, which Balzac called La Comedie Humaine. (“The human comedy,” a callback to Dante's divine comedy-- which is now, implausibly, a video game) La Comedie Humaine is a panoramic satire of French (usually, Parisian) life during the restoration period. One of the basic conceits is that all of the characters in the comedie inhabit a common fiction: for example, the young and idealistic parvenu Eugene Rastignac appears in over a dozen novels. He's not always the main character-- sometimes he just makes a quick appearance-- but his persistence across the work gives the imagined world a feeling of coherence. Balzac saw each work as an opportunity to bring another perspective to bear on the phenomena that drove French society: money, sex, and status.

Now, let's be clear: Rockstar games is no Honoré de Balzac. Their preferred register is low satire, which means that your trenchant portrait of consumer society comes with a dick joke in it. However, Rockstar are men with credible ambitions when it comes to narrative. To play The Lost and the Damned is to be reminded that their dialogue and voice acting are professional grade. (It is unusual, even striking, to hear video game characters say the sorts of things that human beings say to each other, in the way that human beings say them to each other. On this front Rockstar is peerless.) Here is an outfit that is demonstrably capable of representing human interaction.

And this is why the episodic model exemplified by Lost and Damned has so much potential. While they stuck to the shooty-shooty bang-bang template here, Bully demonstrated that Rockstar can vary their gameplay while sticking to the open-world genre. Making a game where mayhem is not the core value proposition would actually be a better fit for the types of stories they've been trying to tell with Liberty City-- it would allow them to create a protagonist who is potentially not a sociopath.

Sam Houser, Rockstar's president, says that he likes the low cultural esteem of games because it gives developers license to do whatever they want. And since DLC have a higher profit margin and lower development cost than full retail games, it is a place where some experimentation might be financially feasible. If you keep the city and concentrate on putting more world into it, imaginativeness becomes the primary obstacle-- you can add things into this city without having to add much physical space and new assets. There's legions of empty storefronts and empty buildings, waiting to be filled. And media-- web sites, radio stations, tv shows-- don't take up space either. Think of this cheap empty space as a place to tell new stories, because as a developer, you are good at this.

Now that they've done so well with Lost and the Damned, why shouldn't Rockstar keep layering narratives into a consistent fiction? Tell a story in Liberty City from the perspective of a policeman, or a politician, or a dockworker, or a street kid. A city is a big place; there is no shortage of interesting people to simulate.

And you could switch up the gameplay: GTAIV already has a murder mystery in it, so why don't you try something on those lines? The short-form model would make it easier to accommodate the tentative experiments with player choice Rockstar tried in GTAIV proper. They could build on the player's familiarity with the world and its characters instead of making a headlong rush for the next graphical iteration.

I think GTAIV's graphics will look good enough for quite some time, and Rockstar has the clout to innovate in the console space. I hope I'm still driving around Liberty City for years to come. I don't know what Rockstar's long-term plans are for Liberty City, but I hope that they'll see it as a chance to establish a new genre of video game: the serialized post-human comedy.


Anonymous said...

Something that's interesting to me in game worlds that persist between games is the Rashomon effect that companies like Rockstar and Valve start to build up between all the playable characters.

The first time I became aware of this strange feeling was playing as Barney in Halflife: Blue Shift, and watching out for all the places in the game where you could catch a glimpse of Gordon Freeman. This was more of a novelty, since Freeman has no character and there's never any direct interaction that I remember, but GTA really expanded on this.

If you play San Andreas without playing any of the other games, there are plenty of characters you'll run into that might not seem particularly memorable. But for a player who's played all of the other games, running across one of the playable characters or antagonists from one of the other games is a major moment.

The fact that you've spent so much time in that player's shoes lends them an almost mythic quality, which retroactively reinforces your previous self as a mythic figure. Playing the previous GTA games makes San Andreas better, perhaps unsurprisingly, but playing San Andreas retroactively makes the previous GTA games that you've played even better, which is amazing to me.

I'm sure we'll start to see this feeling used to great effect when Portal's characters and/or story begin to become integrated into the Halflife saga proper.

GG insomnia. Hopefully I'm speaking real words.


Anonymous said...

PS: A couple other places I've seen people become excited over this effect, in passive narritives:

Recurring charactes in J.D. Salinger

Watching flashbacks in Lost, where characters who later go on to murder each other, fall in love, etc are shown in each others' pasts, just wandering through or interacting with them in mundane ways.

In movie adaptations, seeing important characters show up as foreshadowing or cameos seems to ellicit this same pleasurable response. I remember how excited people got in the Xmen movies picking out the students at the X Mansion like Kitty Pryde, or seeing Hank McCoy on TV in the background, and knowing he'll later become Beast.

These moments can't compare to running into what essentially amounts to yourself, though.

Matthew Gallant said...

While having a modern city in GTA4 is interesting, I vastly preferred Rockstar's two forays into past eras: Vice City (the 80's) and San Andreas (the early 90's). The reason being that modern Liberty City is a little too close to my day-to-day experiences as a Generation Y person living in the Northeast, whereas driving around 80's mock-Miami gave me a glimpse into an era and place I've never experienced.

I'd love to see Rockstar push this idea even further, and set the next GTA game in 1930's Chicago.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@mike: it's true that GTA has always experimented with forging a consistent universe, and it's made each game better than the last-- there were callbacks to GTAIII in san andreas, for example. I think that with GTAIV and the short-form episodic model they have an especially good chance to build on this approach.

Oh man, and if you want to get into the consistent fictions there are tons. the most relevant, in terms of GTAIV, might the the Wire.

Ben Abraham said...

You know, what would be really cool in a future GTAIV DLC would be getting to play someone that you murder in the main game as Niko. Whether they're an important character, or just some random dude on the street, it would be awesome to live through the life of someone you knew was doomed - in fact, someone whom you had already killed yourself.

That would be something special.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@matt: I hear you. I did like the way that the earlier GTA games had this kind of time-travel cultural tourism in them. And I wouldn't want them to abandon this aspect anyways. More than a new world, though, I'd like to see them take some risks with the storytelling; and the DLC episodes offer this low buy-in.

@ben: this is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about. Like Mike said, it would be a way to get a sort of Rashomon-effect going with the consistent fiction.

Kirk Battle said...

Terry Pratchett and Ankh Morpork is the first thing that pops into my head as an example. The mileage that guy has gotten out of a fantasy-based Victorian London is astounding. Time travel, comedy, mysteries...as long as you have something familiar to ground you then the audience is happy to go along.

Anonymous said...

You've stolen thoughts right out of my head here. A series of stories in Liberty City could sustain the game for years without any need for a full sequel and I'd be more than happy.

Especially some of your suggestions that veer away from gangland criminals. Playing the other side as a cop or detective would be fun, but I'm thinking even bigger departures. It's a fake New York, what about a white collar criminal story that parodies the financial crisis? Or a sleazy stealth paparazzi story that continues their skewering of celebrity culture?