"That's a good question."
A Japanese-American man in a loose suit said this after staring slack-jawed at the widening, silent grin of a Japanese videogame producer for twelve seconds. I pondered what to say, as the Japanese videogame producer pondered what to say. Do I say, "Yes, I know that's a good question"? Do I say, "Well, now that you mention it, it is a good question"? Or do I say, "Oh, it's a terrible question. Don't flatter me"?
The question in question is not really an amazing question. I'm not going to bother to recall what it is, because it has been a dozen dozen questions over my illustrious four-year career as a "videogame journalist". Sometimes, it's "What books, CDs, or movies have you enjoyed lately?" Is that really a "good question"? I mean, really? To be certain, it's information that, maybe, people want to know. If that's a good question, what kinds of questions are the interviewers before me asking? A hundred guys all asking questions about storyline continuity; they'd look down on me and mutter for not asking the same questions. It's a bit daunting. No, I don't want to ask those questions; I'd rather read your interviews, on the internet, for the answers to those questions. The way information works is that everybody needs to ask different questions. Think about this the next time you get "shafted" into a roundtable interview with a guy you "totally had a one-on-one with last year".
More to the point: how childish is that -- a journalist being told he's asking a "good question"? Perhaps the best answer is to sit up straighter in my chair, hold my shoulders high, stare the complimenter in the forehead, and say, "I know it's a good question. That's why I asked it." Can you imagine the White House Press Secretary taking a sip of water, blinking, pointing his finger at a reporter from the Washington Post, and then slowly saying, "Hey -- that's a good question"? Would the translator for Osama Bin Laden during a groundbreaking, Pulitzer-Prize shoe-in interview, prepared with a long list of questions to refuse, blink at the star journalist holding the tape recorder and say, "Sir -- I just have to say, you're asking wonderful questions"?
Of course not. Such a situation would be, to put it into Sunday-school terms, fucking ridiculous. Why? Because the subject matter is serious. It's world affairs. It's directly connected to life and death. People are living and dying all around the words that are being said. And there are videogame writers who consider objectivity the highest of all emotions (. . .); they treat the facts on games as though they are earthquake death tolls. Does it or does it not invalidate their seriously-beheld careers, that the men who produce the products they so strongly defend would, faced with a question that is like no question no other journalist in the field ever asks, freeze, grin, and compliment the interviewer for asking "a good question"?
Sometimes, I tell you, I have these great questions, and I can't ask them, because, well, I guess the reason is because they'd require too many lead-in questions. Though I'll go ahead and pretend that the reason I don't ask them is because I'm afraid it would result in perfect articles that would disgrace all those who try to write similarly.
There's been a question on the tip of my mind for the longest time. I'd love to ask it of the attorney Jack Thompson, who is both completely insane and complete devoted to his war on violent videogames, or of the creators of the Grand Theft Auto series, at Rockstar Games. Yet, I can't find the opportunity to ask this question, because Jack Thompson has been swamped with so many rabid "KILL YOU LIKE YOU WAS ALL THE HAITIANS" emails from gamers that he's completely written them off as a species, and the producers of Grand Theft Auto behold the institution of "videogame journalism" with such contempt that, at E3 2005, they made a virtuoso statement by renting a booth roughly the size of Sony's, parking three giant trucks inside it, and then enclosing it entirely in barbed-wire fences. Rockstar's statement was clear enough: they don't need magazine publicity to sell their games. People will buy the latest Grand Theft Auto title without reading a preview, a review, or even an exclusive interview. People will buy a Grand Theft Auto game based on a few well-placed advertisements (to let them know the game is coming) and then, by word of mouth. People will buy other games made by the makers of Grand Theft Auto simply because they recognize the brand on the box; the press will foam at the mouth to cover these games (I recall an editor of a magazine I freelance for once shrieking an email over to me about the gall of Rockstar for not sending them a review copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) simply because they are big videogame fans. Nothing wrong with that -- most of the time.
This question of mine, which had been on my mind for a while, sounds like the devil when you put it on the internet. It's a hard one to wrap your head around if you're not a sensationalist, whose heads are like tin foil in their malleability. During an interview with Hideo Kojima on the subject of videogames as potentially producing their own kind of literature -- in which we discussed games as varied as Mother 2 and Out of this World, and how design trends have generally drifted away such from literary aspirations -- I managed to actually approach the question.
The question is not whether or not videogames are art, or can be art; that's a terrible question. Asking if anything is or is not or can be or can not be art is a truly horribly bad question. It's an microphone-off-shirt-collar-ripping, "This interview is over" kind of question. If I were a producer of any kind of entertainment, that'd be my reaction. Furious exasperation. For God's sake, before you ask if videogames are art, ask if they're entertainment. And if you confirm that they are indeed entertainment, ask if they are, or are not, terrorism.
That's the question. "Are videogames terrorism?" It's an impossible question to ask cold. It's a tough question to think about. The answer might be no on most days, and yes on some days. And it's the some days that it's "yes" that it's most dangerous. I'd love to write a well-worded, thoroughly researched essay about why games are terrorism, though I just can't find enough material of significance. This is because, well, enough material doesn't exist yet.
Notice, then, that the title of this essay is a question. I'm going to present to you a couple of things that made the question first occur to me. It's a sensational question, easily positioned to get a lot of people riled up. If you feel the potential to be riled up within yourself, that's good. Be riled up, and let me know precisely why.
And before I get started, let me just commend the press on the world for botching an amazing journalistic opportunity in Mr. Jack Thompson. A straight interview with him could have led to a work of amazing depth. You had to go and make him mad, though, and now he won't say anything to anybody. Mere context-providing facts about that man's life, set aside an original argument on the "culture of violence" that's breeding in American politics, could have been a gold mine. And now the guy's writing books on his own. Man, I tell you, some people shouldn't be allowed to write books of their own. In the future, there could be a computer program that decides when a person is better off as a character in someone else's writing.
Truman Capote turned a small news story about the seemingly meaningless murder of a family in Kansas into a "non-fiction novel", In Cold Blood -- a novel which, though written by a man with a bias, turned out objective and electrifying. It was the right story at the right time. Thematically, it was set to make the world better, and more understanding. One could say the presentation of the story changed the way most people thought about writing. And for all the change in all the ways all the people think about all writing, what do the masses of readers get?
Years beyond In Cold Blood, a couple of kids walked into their school and killed several classmates before committing suicide. There was talk, down the line, that these kids were inspired by the music of Marilyn Manson and shooting games like DooM. Clearly, right there, was an issue that deserved personal, capable, objective, electrifying coverage that would, simply by presenting its themes, make the world (as represented by those who choose to read) a better place.
This didn't happen. To regrettably use jargon, a "media feeding frenzy" occurred. Years before, Truman Capote had taken time and care to put his story together, and we ended up with speech that was as free as it was restrained by its own near-perfect rules; in the present as represented by the Columbine massacre, we had freedom of speech ebbing violently out of every pore. How many books were written about the incident in the space of a year? Probably a lot. More than one ("objective", "literary") interpretation is too many. More than two interpretations turns a tragedy into a trend. Some people, ideals altered momentarily by the flow of a trend, would gladly die to be part of it. Meanwhile, many in the media will gladly punch themselves in the jowls until they're excited about something they've never heard of, just because they have free plane tickets.
2006 saw G4TV, a cable television station that features exclusively programming about videogames, interviewing right-wing attorney Jack Thompson. They clearly disagreed with his points about how videogame violence could potentially be leading to real-world violence, and they weren't afraid to smirk and stammer and scream in his direction about it. It's clear in the video that Jack Thompson is a somewhat socially retarded human being of the most fascinating degree, and as such, he is more worthy of our attention than the issue he's presenting; there's no need to throw quotes like "studies have also confirmed that violent people like violent images!" at him, because he's obviously very much narrowed down his own train of thought. Also, that the media most excited and honored to be interviewing him is also able to say things like "violence has existed before Pong!" to him immediately after saying that they find it a joke that someone would dare talk about videogames potentially spawning violence when there are so many other problems in the country, like poor public education, or whatever. To that, I say, how dare you, sir, take a shit at ten in the morning when you must be eating lunch at noon.
Might I suggest this tip for interviewing someone (sure, on the program, it was set up as a "debate" or something, though, really, come on -- you're a cable network about videogames) whose opinion you know for certain you do not agree with? Try and understand where they're coming from as a human being, not just as a pile of beliefs. And then, in spite of your own bias, try to think up a better, stronger reason why your opponent might be correct. Doing so will prove -- internally -- that you are a more intelligent person than your rival. This is how you get inside their mind.
Anyway, yes. Terrorism.
Some random source, which is not Encyclopaedia Britannica, via Wikipedia, defines terrorism as
"Terrorism is a term used to describe violence, usually against civilians, committed by a person or organization striving to make a political statement."
I suppose that's good enough. There is apparently much semantic dispute about the complete (and perhaps "true") definition of the term "terrorism". For example, Wikipedia goes on to say that "Many people find the terms "terrorism" and "terrorist" (someone who engages in terrorism) to have a negative connotation." This makes sense -- in addition to showing us once again that no one can disagree with a definition that describes "someone who engages in _________", no matter how debated the meaning of "_________" might be. Further quoting Wikipedia (which I promise I'll stop after this paragraph): "These terms are often used as political labels to condemn violence or threat of violence by certain actors as immoral, indiscriminate, or unjustified." So there we have it -- the word-perfect information overlords of the internet are, objectively, of course, declaring that moral, discriminating, and justified violence unworthy of a negative connotation does indeed exist in abundance. Here, I will sidestep politics:
If a videogame were a terrorist, what would its goal be? Money? What do the witnesses have to fear -- not being hip? Not "getting it"? Being the last kid on the block with the newest game about gangster rappers angry enough to curb stomp one another is, in this age of MySpace, a fate worse than death for some youngsters.
Who do videogames commit violence against, then? Is showing someone violence the same thing as being violent? In an abstract sense, games are more likely to be not terrorism than to be not not terrorism: Pong, for example, may be boring as hell, though because it only involves two rectangles and a bouncing square, and none of these shapes bears a facsimilie of the face of a being we can sympathize with, we can't call the rectangles' treatment of the square "violent". Games like Grand Theft Auto present killable characters that more closely resemble human beings than the rectangular paddles in Pong resemble tennis rackets.
Yet what is Grand Theft Auto? From the third installment of the series (the one in 3D, with graphics that look more real than any of the previous games in the series) on up, it's been, basically, a checklist of "Things developers can do with 3D videogames". At first, seeing as the games are constructed with graphics and polygons that are hardly ever more interesting than when things are being destroyed, the games encouraged players to destroy things. It can be said that making a popular game was, from the beginning, Rockstar's goal -- and to accomplish this goal, they decided to employ sensationalism: a game in which you are a person who looks like a person, who can kill other people who look like people, whether they are trying to kill you or not. You can steal cars and drive them off bridges, into brick walls, or into other cars. If you die, you are revived at a hospital. You can steal another car and continue your reckless streak.
Hideo Kojima, producer of the Metal Gear Solid series, once told me that one highly possible future of the "sandbox" genre Grand Theft Auto III had created would be a game that featured a linear narrative, yet was stationed within a world starring the "scope" of a "sandbox" game. That is -- the producers must add more detail to the world than they are willing to allow the player to exploit. Kojima's argument was that the "character" in Grand Theft Auto games is too blank a slate for the narrative to go any way other than ridiculously. Though Carl "CJ" Johnson in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas might have come to his hometown in southern California to attend his mother's funeral, and though he might have left that home in the first place because he was tired of gang violence, he can, at the player's whim, take a hooker into his car, have sex with her under a bridge, and then beat her to death to get his money back, when the player feels like showing his friend "the kinda crazy shit you can do in this game, dude". In addition to being appalling conduct for any human being, it flies in the face of the established mother-loving morals of our protagonist.
This oft-cited example made conservative observers irate; though from a game design standpoint, it's just another tick on the checklist. To wit, when you pay the item salesman in The Legend of Zelda for a Blue Ring, where does the money go? Right -- it vanishes into code. That the prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto continue to carry the money you gave them after they walk away from you, and that you can get it back if you so choose -- this hints at the direction of the tip of an iceberg shaped ultimately like dynamic economics in single-player games that are not, as they say, by-the-book econimics simulations. What could dynamic economics do for an RPG, for instance? I reckon it'd be more interesting than, say, the Isle of Forfeit in Lufia 2, where every item you've ever sold ends up on sale for double what it's worth. Can you imagine an RPG, or a sandbox game where the world contains a dynamically finite amount of money? I'm certain someone at Rockstar possessed such an imagination. To those game designers at Rockstar, Grand Theft Auto games, loose and messy as they are, are true rock and roll. They're laying the foundations for future big, broad-reaching, deep, compelling new genres of entertainment. So they plow on, ticking down the checklist. They're incorporated elements of Japanese dating simulations into Sand Andreas; girls like you more if you choose the right clothes and the right restaurant for a date. There are regrettable weird things, like girls contradicting their desires for "respect" by immediately asking the hero to perform a drive-by shooting once the two are in the car after the date, though really, that's just all sensationalism meant to highlight the good ideas. Simulation games like Civilization, previously, have measured the relationships between two countries as though diplomatics were no more complicated than a woman's body-language to a man over drinks at a pub. (On some levels, this is how it all is, anyway.) Yet Civilization displayed this all with maps, and sheets of numbers. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas translates diplomacy into the third dimension -- into a simulation of reality. Just typing out a paragraph about how this integration makes you feel might call to mind possibilities for cleanly-conceived games wherein you play the role of a hero with two goals, one being to save the world, and the other being to not upset your girlfriend. San Andreas lets you choose from numerous girls because the designers themselves aren't writers (their writers certainly are writers, though that's a whole different matter), and they want to explore and present findings on as many types of experiences as possible. A talented writer, and interesting male lead, and even more interesting love interest, and a hell of an action-packed scenario could provide a dynamo of a game. Rockstar's presentation of these ideas is no doubt done out of great scientific interest -- and as science, it's as well executed as science can be, in that it beckons people to try to do better.
Yet let us not forget that Rockstar are not American, they are British. To them, creativity is a gene pool, not a cesspool. In other words, in failing to acknowledge the existence of the cess pool, they were overestimating a great percentage of their admirers.
Let's talk about hip-hop for a moment. In order to make this easy on ourselves, we won't name any names or facts. We'll make up a little capsule fantasy world of hip-hop:
Imagine there was this young, intelligent black man who grew up in a bad neighborhood in New York. He's seen terrible things. His brother once vandalized a used car dealership and got killed execution-style by some tough and bad gangsters. Our hero has a lot of troubles, and a lot of people threatening to kill him if he ever tries any shit, even though, historically, he hasn't tried any shit, ever. He writes poetry about flowers and butterflies and this girl he likes, and one day, he decides to chant that poetry on a street corner while his friend, a DJ, provides some scalding hot beats. He ends up attracting crowds, receiving cash donations, and getting a record deal on a newly-established label. Suddenly he's establishing copycats all over. He's an upstanding individual. He could have gone to Harvard if he'd not had to drop out of high school to look after his moms. And now he's a millionaire. Someone, acting on a personal belief, decides to kill him for being a sell-out bitch. He gets gunned down by sixteen bullets between his shoulders in the cold one night while bringing his bedridden moms some flowers. The next generation of hip-hop music features lyrical themes which entirely involve guns and drugs and motherfuckers getting motherfucking murdered for fucking with other motherfuckers' business. That is to say, in creativity that involves attitude, edge and aggression, we can progress from flowers and butterflies to guns and motherfuckers following a single success story.
Can music be terrorism? Absolutely. The near-endless layers of posturing and boasting set up by hip-hoppers over the early generations of the genre, generally speaking, slipped from proud to boastful to violent to hateful. There was even some fear involved for a while; after Tupac and Biggie were both dead, there was a hushed awe-ful silence in which the world as hip-hop knew it pondered where to go, how to keep the peace; out of the smoke of war, there emerged a new generation of hip-hop, where everyone has really fucking huge muscles and scary teeth and tattoos. Hip-hoppers came to resemble horror movie monsters overnight.
Of course, there are those who continue to honor the flowers and butterflies of an art's beginning. You'll find numerous white hipsters -- in such unlikely places as internet classified dating services -- who applaud the release of each new banal, plain-as-day (yet still nearly-genre-parodying) hip-hop LP's release. Some will dare to lean back in their swivel chairs and expound on how hip-hop at its most pure, is the true successor to the crown of rock and roll -- it's all about girls, and cars, and money, and duty, and pride.
Yet why do genres poison themselves? Why must copying something always involved diluting it? Aristotle once said that there is no higher form of admiration than imitation, and there is no higher form of imitation than revision. Why is there so little revision? The answer might be as obvious as it is depressing: age-defining great minds, innovators, come along with nearly geological frequency. Great minds define ages, and ages are long god damned periods of time, because great minds are so few and far between. That's as much of a cop-out as it is a cold, hard fact. The infiltration and expansion of services like YouTube, allowing us to view a hundred thousand new blogs a day all of which begin with a bearded and bespectacled guy looking up over his webcam monotoning "Hey guys, it's me again", have done little more than beat us over the head with the fact that no, not all people are interesting or talented. (Don't get me wrong, though. YouTube is still pretty great, no matter what it's being used for.) Maybe our previously existing quality control agencies aren't so bad after all; do remember that television, for example, did once produce "Seinfeld".
Before I go any further, I would like to address THE PROBLEM WITH THE WORLD. You see, this is a subject that Greek philosophers would have felt like morons to approach; I reckon we can backtrack a bit in the face of their pride, and theorize that the problem with the world is that we aren't always happy, and we don't always feel good. Sometimes we are sad or angry, and sometimes we feel bad. Western philosophers tend to address topics that arise when one person speaks with another with whom he does not agree, so their answer to this problem would involve stretched metaphors like "without shadow, there cannot be light -- without good, there cannot be evil." Yeah, perhaps you're right, yes. That is indeed true. The physical definition of a shadow is that it falls where light does not reach. A Western philosopher or psychiatrist might also deem it so that without the bad days to lend us our lows, we would have no dynamic context with which to understand enjoy our good days. This would make us like animals, lazing in the sun without any context to find it pleasant. The kinds of men who would refuse me, a human being, my own biases, my own natural right to like what I like despite working for a company that makes videogames I hate, in possession of conflict of interest, with intent to distribute, were I to write three or four words on the internet about any videogames -- these kinds of men would likely dismiss as ignorant fools the Buddhist monks who, day in and day out, devote their entire lives to peaceful relaxation and praying for peace. Yet if the Buddhist monks are ignorant, they are the world's most blissful ignoramuses. Whether their "religion" or "way of thinking" is "correct" or not, it has lent them the peace of mind to build comfortable temples, and it has bestowed upon them the simple ethics with which to cook their own rice and not fucking starve. There are many political issues and questions rushing in at this paragraph, and the cleanest way to sidestep them is to say if all of us, from the beginning, had been relaxing and praying for peace, there would be no war, and there would be no fear, and there would be no terror, and there would be no hate. The problem is that we are not pandas, who eat tastless bamboo when instinct calls and roll in the grass on the sun-spotted floor of the forest in idle moments, who sleep when the need to be conscious falls away. We are human beings, empowered with words like "good" and "evil"; we take up roles and morals and wield them like sticks we find in the road, until, one day, that stick becomes a sword. And when we are not eating, or conquering, or sleeping, or procreating, we enjoy institutionalized, refined entertainments birthed by our legacies of words: art, literature, theater, videogames, going to the zoo to ogle pandas and squeal about how oh. my. god. so. cute. they are. We are proud of our ability to enjoy higher arts and beauties; wars have been started, and thousands of people slaughtered in the name of ways of analyzing life; though it may be a legend (and it might be better if it is) a war was once started because one man found another man's woman gorgeous. It would be trite to continue talking in this manner. The point I am trying to make is that entertainment kills; that each age of sincerity has, historically, begotten an age of irony during which one of the disgruntled, failed artists according to the previous era's mode suddenly finds himself a hero, and imitated.
See Bugs Bunny: To generalize things a bit in the name of science, we can say that the earliest cartoons, which progressed with the speed of sensationalist horror films, were about a mouse with pants, on a boat or in a house, being opporessed by some larger humanoid animal in metaphysically mysterious ways, strange and even horrifying sounds of terror or musical glee (respectively) coming out of their mouths, everything, even floorboards, in constant swaying, jumping, pulsing motion. Bugs Bunny was a rabbit of human height who spoke in an intelligible voice, and was, like the earliest cartoon mice, always being oppressed. Yet his oppression did not involve being trapped in upside-down rooms or being chased through forests by ghosts; no, it usually involved a man with a gun. In a sense, Bugs Bunny is refined. Yet the revisions are peculiar: he doesn't wear pants, because that would be an obvious rip-off of the mouse with pants; rather, he is naked, and has no genitals -- which is good enough, partly because we wouldn't want to see a cartoon rabbit's genitals -- yet he is wearing gloves. Gloves! Gloves and no pants! Can you imagine walking around outside completely naked except for a pair of gloves? (Or, say, socks on your hands?) To make matters worse, yes, there are the guns: the hunter always wants to kill Bugs Bunny, because he has to kill something, or else he's not a hunter anymore. It's an existential loop. Yet Bugs Bunny does not want to die. Sometimes, there's a duck involved, and the rabbit tries to convince the hunter to kill the duck instead. The word "kill" is used just about every other sentence. Politicians and educators of the age found the cartoons violent, and many people laughed at such a description as absurd. Really, though -- as a twenty-seven-year-old male who has killed prostitutes in videogames because the friend next to me on the sofa told me to, I am capable of seeing that such cartoons, and the thought that went behind them, are indeed responsible for many, many complex layers of violence lurking in the American shared psyche. To wit: after the hunter, Elmer Fudd, there was Yosemite Sam, a wild west bandit with dual six-guns. Though occasionally Yosemite Sam is rustling up locals with violence, there are times when he seems to enter the story simply to attempt to kill Bugs Bunny. Why? Really, why? There is no continuity; every story is a clean slate; every time they're meeting seems like the first time; every time Yosemite Sam gets blown up there's a cut and he's back in one piece. I was discussing this with a friend, who said Sam's murderous rage is always incited by Bugs' smart-aleck attitude. "He tries to kill Bugs that one time only because Bugs is running against him in the mayoral race for that small town." That's a reason to kill somebody? "Well, yeah, politicians get assassinated all the time." And that -- well -- that isn't the point.
The "Tom and Jerry" cartoons, wherein a cat chased a mouse and tried to kill him by elaborate means, only to receive punishment himself in the end, at least had context. Cats eat mice sometimes, right? The "Tom and Jerry" cartoons went on to be parodied as the ultra-violent "Itchy and Scratchy" on the cartoon "The Simpsons"; that parody, however, may or may not have been missing the point, because in actuality, the short-short-shorts contained within episodes of "The Simpsons" carried the same context as the original "Tom and Jerry" -- a cat attempting to kill a mouse, and the mouse fighting back cleverly. "Itchy and Scratchy" is a kind of pop-art pastiche; it's a satire. Cartoons in which a wild west bandit chases a rabbit with human characteristics around a battleship, trying in earnest to execute him with a pistol? Where's the context in that? A wild west bandit has about as much a reason to hate a humanoid rabbit as, say, a white person has to hate a black person. Aha, now we're on to something: the motivation to hate tends to be meaningless. The motivation to place that hate into "art" tends to always have a meaning.
To wit: the makers of "Looney Tunes" no doubt wanted to establish a moneymaking empire with their cartoons. They wanted the cartoons to be things that were always moving, always making pleasant (and intelligible) sounds, always amusing. While Walt Disney went off pursuing animated films based on fairy tales, Warner Bros. picked up the reins and drove the animated short-short carriage straight through brick wall after brick wall. They could have used their distribution to, say, present pleasant stories of inquisitive human heroes solving mysteries or visiting fantastic places. They could have made a series of cartoons about knights in armor and princesses. They could have even made these cartoons funny. They did not do this, however, because the gauntlet had already been thrown down: the gauntlet was Mickey Mouse, and even back then -- long, long before a company like Square-Enix would rather implode than stop making games with the word Final Fantasy in the title, long, long before the sponsors of creative men would demand that creative man make only sequels, and never, ever test his creativity on something new ever again because "This is how things work in the entertainment business" -- no already-existing entertainment empire could see the benefit of trying to do something different with a new medium. The people had, on the record, once seen a talking cartoon mouse with pants and gloves: let's give them a talking cartoon rabbit with gloves and a clear voice and witty personality.
Then there's the issue of these cartoons being tailor-made for cartoons. There's the issue of "Why make a cartoon that aspires to look like real-life?" There's also the issue of wanting to make cartoons that relish their existence as cartoons, angrily absent logic, colorful characters, and all. And there's the issue that, maybe, this is what the creators of "Looney Tunes" wanted to make, in the first place. In this case, we can only assume that, had there been no inspiration for "Looney Tunes", there would have been no "Looney Tunes". Had Walt Disney been wired a little bit differently, and had he tried to make a cartoon about, say, a couple in love instead of a psychadelic mouse being oppressed on board a steamboat, maybe we'd have all turned out well-adjusted people in the end. In the end, though, it's already game over for cartoons; in Japan, they thrive, and there are intelligent ones, though they're only about half as plentiful as the weird thought-splinter that is animated pornography, which many have come to appreciate because "things can be expressed that couldn't be expressed in real pornography". That's one way to use your medium, I guess. An even more unlikely thought-splinter would be the "moe" animations that present girls far to young to be pornographed, and instead urge the viewer to look at them, flat-chested, dressed as French maids from space, and wallow in the feeling of a deep cathartic desire to protect young girls from harm for the rest of their days. As an art form, as wonderful as Hayao Miyazaki's films such as "The Crimson Pig" might be (which is quite exceptionally wonderful), though animation is capable of real brilliance, just as many human beings are capable of real brilliance, the majority of it is screaming, bleating, fucking nonsense. Art forms are our ethereal children, and so, they resemble us. However, some of us would rather hit the Taco Bell drive-thru on a midnight craving than continue to sit in a room where men in tweed are discussing oil on canvas, and I can't be a peace-loving individual and still condemn them when they end up trying to entertain people. Who knows, they could be geniuses. (They're probably not. They're probably just blockheads with blockheads' understanding of why what's popular is popular, afforded opportunity by a lottery of chance. No offense.) Animation has been given a bad name as the tool of nonsense-pushers for so long that you try showing my father anything animated and he'll immediately recoil; once, on break from college, I saw my father walk in on my brother watching a rather highbrow, slow, mopey Japanese animation of high production values, about the bible and robots, or something like that. My father's reaction was a grunted "That Chinese bullshit better be off by the time I get out of the shower: I'm watching baseball."
Ahh, yes. Baseball. Nothing wrong with baseball.
Decades pass; one day none of us remember, a hurricane did a complete 180-degree turn in the middle of the Indian Ocean and worked its way back to an island nation that would give it a different name than they'd given it before, because they lacked the satellite foresight to know it was just the same damn thing just coming back again.
Only this time, instead of cartoons that look like cartoons for the sake of looking like cartoons, we had a videogame, the first of its kind to rise above the pixel-pushing, technologically restrained thin and repetitious representations of single scenes in handfuls of movies that had so long held the medium shackled down as the plaything of children, as the career of men who couldn't make it in Hollywood (or men who didn't want to make it in Hollywood). In order to go against the grain, in order to attract attention to itself, in order to turn the hurricane around, it had to look real; it had to feel real; it had to remind us of the real, while at the same time making us feel that we had been suddenly granted the right and the ability to make the impossible possible. It was Grand Theft Auto III that celebrated videogames as a powerful medium: it let us wield pistols and kill people that looked like people, in the name of providing the perspectiveless a little bit of perspective.
Videogames had always been violent; they had just simply always lacked context. Super Mario stomps on turtles -- if you made this look realistic, it would be grotesque, bloody, unpleasant. The heroes of Contra shot down anything and everything with a machinegun (though only because anything and everything was rushing at them fatally). Takahashi Meijin in Adventure Island threw hammers at giant snails that he could, really, just have stepped over. Dig Dug inflated lizards with an air-pump until they burst. For years games had been about moving and jumping and killing; the goal was always to get as far as you can -- ideally that would be "the end". Various riffs on the formula had been attempted over the years, though it took Grand Theft Auto III to add the final context: to make people and cars and city blocks that look real, and allow you to kill whatever you want until the police came to kill you -- and you could kill some of the police, too. This was a rough template that called for revision. It sought to present a compelling, deep game world, and, most optimistically, encourage other developers to dabble in such deep game worlds. By word of mouth, the game spread like wildfire, like rock and roll. It was crazy. It was nuts. The sequels were, more or less, revisions on the formula. The next sequel, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, will no doubt look and sound a lot better, while retaining the same gameplay concepts and continuing dutifully down that checklist of "Things we can do in 3D videogames".
Yet Rockstar has already begun working on other games, inspired by the principles of Grand Theft Auto. With games like Bully (an insertcredit.com GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006), Rockstar and its forward-thinking developers have begun applying more carefully focused narratives into the sprawling concepts birthed by Grand Theft Auto. They even found time to cause super-rock-and-roll controversy swindle with the game by refusing to detail its gameplay until its release: conservatives had thought the game would glorify school violence (as a screenshot showed a kid getting his head dunked in a toilet), liberals had tried to say that the game was no doubt made as an artistic expression; the game itself was, eventually, about saving kids from bullies, and becoming the hero of your school. If the next Grand Theft Auto game sets you up as a police officer out stopping crooks, who could lose his job and have to start the entire game over for performing a single malicious action (and getting caught doing it), I wouldn't put it past Rockstar. This is basically the kind of game Grand Theft Auto III was coaxing someone, somewhere to make. Yet it didn't happen.
And why? Why, oh why. I was still getting my feet wet in the games industry (the games industry's ground-floor toilet, I think it was, and no doubt I was standing a foot away from the toilet) when I was handed a copy of Grand Theft Auto III and commanded "Dude -- dude." There, on the back of the box, was a quote: ". . ." Okay, so I don't remember the exact quote, though I remember it was by Maxim, a non-gaming magazine if there ever was one (they have girls on the cover sometimes), and I remember that it called Grand Theft Auto III the "Pulp Fiction" of videogames. I saw that and felt about to lose my gravity. When actually played, the game was not "Pulp Fiction". It was not an early-1990s generation defining masterpiece. It wasn't even "Casablanca". It was just a more like can of film, yet to have anything recorded on it. And it had been damned from the start.
To summarize: Grand Theft Auto III was not perfect. It was a work in progress. It presented compelling concepts its developers would revisit at a later date.
However: it sold millions on word of mouth alone. It was a dynamo, a superstar. Everyone wanted it, or wanted to be it. The critics hailed it as the ultimate, as the best. As an actual superlative masterpiece.
And now: it has bred a game that represents the closest a piece of entertainment can come to being a hate crime without actually being a hate crime.
Ladies and gentlemen, in 2006, THQ released a game called Saints' Row. The graphics are clean, the textures shimmer, the music is loud; Hollywood b-talent voices the characters; the car physics, when you're driving, are pretty pleasing. It plays like a videogame. If one compares it to Grand Theft Auto on purely mechanical levels, it's somewhat superior. For one thing, the controls when you aim a gun are fabulous. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, where you have to click the shoulder buttons to cycle targets, and for some reason it keeps forcing you to lock on to, like, an innocent bystander on a street corner a hundred feet away instead of the guy with an uzi right in front of you, in Saints' Row all you have to do is position the right analog stick and pull the trigger button. You know. It's a little more realistic that way, I suppose. On top of that, it's more entertaining to play the action sequences, this way: when faced by a large group of gun-wielding opponents obviously hell-bent on killing your player character, it's easy to express yourself by pointing and shooting the gun. It feels right. Success feels like success.
The problem, however, lies in the dynamics. The game starts by allowing you to make your player character look however you want. You can make him look like yourself, or you can make him Latino, and set all of the body-size parameters to the minimum so he looks like he's collapsing in upon himself, which is what I did. It doesn't matter what you look like in this game, anyway. In the very beginning, your character is knocked down by some gangbanging motherfuckers, and there's a drive-by shooting, and then some other gangbangers -- in purple -- show up to fuck up the motherfuckers who fucking tried to fuck you up. When your main character regains consciousness, he's in the possession of the Saints, the purple-wearing gang, who, under the strict guidance of their leader, have taken upon themselves the task of killing all of the other gangs in the city, in the name of keeping the streets clean. In the process, of course, they'll prove that when it comes to guns, they're the motherfuckers who deserve the most respect, which would bring us to the question of absolute power corrupting absolutely, though I don't think this game really cares about politics. We'll let all that slide, because this is, after all, a videogame at heart, right? Videogames have starred vigilantes before -- men on a rampage to kill other men because those men are killing people. Mike Haggar of Final Fight, for example. I'm not saying we should censor all those old games, or turn their pistols into cellular phones, or anything. I guess we just let them be. And hey, let's let Saint's Row off the hook, too, when it comes to initial setup. Because the game is at least decent enough to tell us at the start that the cops in this town are useless.
What's wrong with Saint's Row is that it sets up this premise wherein you're a freedom-fighting man working with a gang of peace-lovers so devout that they want to kill criminals, and said criminals are always immediately angry enough to brandish guns with which to cap your ass, meaning that, were you a police officer and not a thug, you would have every legal right (and this game respects the law, of course, as evidenced by the fact that the leader of the Saints finds the rival gangs' illegal actions reprehensible) to pull out your gun and kill those criminals. What I'm saying is that the game makes you a thug instead of a cop because, as a cop, it would be out of character for you to, say, hold up a liquor shop or kill a prostitute; I can imagine the board meetings: "Grand Theft Auto lets the people kill hos; we have to let the people kill hos." This level of thinking is frightful and amazing. It's worse than my parents, going to church every Sunday and falling asleep during the sermon and then having the nerve to mutter, on Easter, "Where are all these people every Sunday, huh?" It's the weird kind of self-convincing that, I assume, a terrorist underling goes through when he begins his part of the logistical phase of a mass-murder operation. He's on the internet, looking up airplane ticket prices. Hey, the tickets are cheaper on Tuesday. (They were always cheaper on Tuesday, because Tuesday is not Monday -- not the first day of the week, not the day after Sunday, not an easy day to take off so as to make any weekend into a three-day-weekend -- nor is it Wednesday, or Friday.) Alright, let's conduct the jihad on Tuesday. Really, the terrorist who invests himself in this scheme to fly a plane into a building and kill thousands of people -- his ideals are a copy of a copy of a copy. You know what? His ideals, at their source, long ago, were pretty pure and pretty simple. Pretty peace-loving. I'm not in any way sympathizing with what certain terrorists unfortunately do, because mass murder is pretty fucking terrible, and its even worse when people are willing to die just so they can kill some other people. All I'm doing is lamenting the escalation -- the poisoning -- of ideas. This process is the root of terrorism; much as the root of a tree is considered "part" of a tree, this process is "part" of terrorism. This process is terrorism. It is a blatant disregard for one's ability to think for one's self.
How is Saint's Row poisoned, exactly? The easiest way to explain it is that, uhmmm, it's not ironic. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the hero, Carl "CJ" Johnson is first and foremost the player's way of expressing himself, and secondly, he is the character in a story. He came back to his hometown to attend his mother's funeral, and is caught up in gang activities and forced to defend himself. He decides that he's going to kill any and all motherfuckers that try to fuck with him, and this is what he does. It's not written in stone anywhere that he's an upstanding individual who would never ice a bitch without good reason. It's hinted that he ran away from San Andreas to Liberty City because he was tired of a particular spurt of gang activity, though maybe he saw something in Liberty City that made him lose his respect for the common motherfucker; maybe he saw something that changed him from a motherfucker who would normally bitch out in the face of danger and into a motherfucker who wouldn't ever bitch out for shit, even if that shit was shit he was causing himself.
The nameless hero of Saints' Row is even more permitted to wreak havoc: he is a clean slate. He's nothing. He's free to blast up any joint quick as he'd even look at it. The problem is that the producers, out of an unblinking, cultish desire to, as in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, give their main character a back story that doesn't immediately make him a criminal, went over the top. Yes, CJ in San Andreas is not a criminal -- he's probably never killed a man in his life at the point the game starts. So if the player wants to play the game without killing anyone who, say, is not trying to kill him, he can, and he wouldn't feel weird for playing that way. Yet the hero in Saints' Row joins a freedom-fighting, gang-killing gang right from the start. Therefore, the simplest act of unnecessary violence should immediately label him an enemy. The "heroic" gang holds their own morals in religion-like esteem. (There are hints from the beginning that the leader of the gang might be, perhaps, not as righteous as he's cracked up to be. However, his followers and believers, most certainly, believe in him 100%, and should act accordingly.) If your main character kills an innocent man in front of another member of the gang, he should be hunted and killed by the members of his gang.
This does not happen, however. Very early in the game, if you're out patrolling the street with another gang member -- a devout follower of the gang, in fact -- and you decide to pull your gun out to kill, say, an old woman, what happens? Other pedestrians get mad, for one thing. They might start punching at you. And what does your partner do? Why, he starts shooting the innocent people. He shoots in whatever direction you're shooting. He shoots whatever is threatening you.
I saw this (yes, because I killed innocent people -- hey, I was getting used to the controls, and wondering about various things), and felt something like a tremendous G-force. I felt years of current events -- war in the Middle East, the approval rating of the current president -- catching up with me in an instant. I explained this to a few friends, and they shrugged it off. "It's a videogame." "You're reading too much into it."
Sure, it's a videogame. And sure, it's a pretty bad videogame. And sure, the story it's telling hasn't been told a hundred times better in movies. And sure, it might not even be the worst example of such thought processes running through videogames today -- I hear there's some horrible shit in The Godfather and 50 Cent: Bulletproof, though either of those games sound like inadvertent parody. Saints' Row is as dull and sincere in concept as games have ever been; it's as sincere as Bubsy was -- Bubsy just wanted to be like Sonic the Hedgehog. And it is made by people absolutely incapable of making a simple logical connection.
The original Driver game was originally slated to be about a getaway car driver for the mafia, though in the end, when the potential controversy was deemed too risky, they altered the story so that the main character was in fact an undercover police officer masquerading as a mafia getaway car driver. And the safeguard was seamless, because the game was all about the action, anyway. Saints' Row's little logic slip is, in one way, evidence that the creators had originally crafted its world and missions without having a clue what kind of story they were going to attach to it.
Can you see what I'm driving at, reader? Can you see what's wrong with Saints' Row's logic? It uses a simple narrative to establish the main characters as people who will not stand for violence against civilians. And then, should you murder a civilian in front of one of these devout believers, they will join you in the murder because their AI is wired that way. According to their established morals, these are people who would mark you (logically, a person they did in fact just meet today -- and a person they had met as a victim of senseless gang violence the likes of which you're perpetrating) as the foe. They would and should take you down for such actions. Yet you walk into a burger joint -- called "Freckle Bitch's", with absolutely no tolerance for taking time to try to be funny or clever -- with a henchman and start shooting up the place and you don't even get a single "Hey man, that's not cool." Just the other guy standing around and looking dopey. Can you imagine, say, a television show in which the main character, a righteous cop whose wife was murdered by mafia, who wants nothing more than to exact justice on a cold world of crime, who chews aspirin and speaks such poetic lines as "Rain. All the rain does is make the blood run", who for some inexplicable reason, once every thirteen or fourteen episodes, stands up from his apple pie and newspaper at the corner diner, blasts a patron in the face with his pistol, grabs the cash register like he's uprooting a tree, and runs out the front door? And then, the story continues, business as usual. Can you imagine a television studio funding this sort of thing? It'd be absurd. This is because television has actual quality control; actual artistic conscience.
There is a great, profound, unthinkingly intellectual evil lurking behind these lines of code. This is a game where your hero is part of a gang devoted to cleaning up the streets -- and there is a mission where you must "kill pimps to steal their hos". You kill the pimp, you let the ho into your car, and you take them to -- where do you take them? To the other pimp. The good pimp. The pimp who's a part of your gang. Your gang devoted to cleaning up the streets and getting rid of unlawful activity. Huh.
This is a game made by people who read too many videogame magazines. They read too much Official PlayStation Magazine, with the quote "Is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the best game ever? We think so!" on the cover, and want a piece of the action. This are people who fail to recognize the difference between innovation and nothing. These are people who want to imitate something because it has "lots of stuff in it people like". These people have taken the pants off the rabbit and given him gloves. These people have decided the hunter wasn't interesting, and replaced him with a wild west bandit. With their great big eraser and their pen the size of a missile, they've redrawn everything exactly how it used to look. These are people who might wake up one morning and believe that the best way to disguise yourself as a man who has no mustache is to construct a mustache.
These are people disconnected from human life. These are people so . . . devoutly into videogames that the characters in their fucking game actually speak the words "Complete missions to earn respect points to unlock more missions." "Unlock more missions"? If I ever ran into a bandanna-wearing tattooed gangbanger who said something like that, I'd beg him to rape and then curb-stomp me. I mean, in all honesty, I'm an adult male human being who once told a Chinese hooker in Kabukicho "I have AIDS" just because I thought it was hilarious (and she was scary and persistent), and this kind of thing offends me, so trust the fact that this is big, mucho serious business.
These are people who can't tell the difference between the "kill a hooker after having sex with her to get your money back" in Grand Theft Auto III and the melting ice cubes in the bar in Metal Gear Solid 2. In Metal Gear Solid 2, you shoot an ice bucket in a bar, and it spills ice cubes, which then melt, like ice cubes. Several videogame magazines reported on this in gleeful sidebars. It was like a little chihuahua to them: it was so cute it might as well have tasted like a sweet potato pie on fire. The ice cubes really melt! The makers of Saints' Row no doubt exhibited their superior programming and blinked and said, hey, the hookers really have my money! To them, hookers and ice cubes are the same thing. Why . . . why . . .
In Saints' Row, if you shoot and kill a man, his dead body will disappear after one second; if you drink a beverage from a paper cup, the (littered) paper cup will roll on the ground realistically for thirty full seconds.
I can't, precisely, qualify this is terrorism under any international laws. However, for the sake of science, I would like to suspend my uncertainty and plunge forward, carrying the thorny hypothesis that if it's not terrorism, it was manufactured by pretty much the same exact thought demons.
I'm going to begin to finish this essay now. First, a prologue:
When I was young, and in France, I sat at a bar, kind of dizzy, and there was a French guy next to me reading a French newspaper and smoking a cigarette. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. I must have been looking at him, thinking maybe how he looked exactly like a French guy in a Hollywood movie that needs to have one French guy in it. Stubble and everything. He gave me a little nod. "You are American?"
We talked for a bit about Paris. Paris is one of the most exciting things to talk about in Paris. And there's no better place to talk about Paris than Paris, if I do say so myself. I'm offering sincere compliments here.
"Americans all believe that the French hate them. Why is that?"
"Well, more often than not, because the Americans are sometimes despicable," the French man said, in English with an accent like a French man speaking English.
"Why, then, do the French who hate Americans hate Americans?"
The French man's answer, all at once, made absolutely, amazingly perfect sense. It was less than a sentence, and fittingly. I've told people for years upon years that a French man once told me his opinion on why the French might hate the Americans, and that it made perfect sense and I couldn't argue it (not that I'd have wanted to, anyway), though I've never actually gone so far as to reveal what he said. I might as well reveal it now.
It wasn't much, what he said. He muttered "You -- no, your people. Your people."
And then he said, "Too many words."
The way he gestured with the cigarette and looked at the ceiling an instant before looking me dead in the eye and uttering those three words. I all at once knew what he meant.
figure one: the package reads: "kraft handi-snacks ritz crackers crackers and cheese crackers and cheese dip made with real kraft cheese"
figure two: the demo title menu from electronic arts' Superman Returns videogame for the xbox 360
Here we are, you and me, in the world. Everywhere we breathe, we're poisoned. How did all of this get into the air? We can stay at the convenient store and drink a Mountain Dew(R): Code Red(TM) or we can go home and get on the internet and look on a forum and find a young man complaining that he just got Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter for Xbox 360, and that the graphics are alright, though the clippy framerate really "detracts from the realism".
Mountain Dew(R): Code Red(TM). Why, really? People will quote figures about trademark laws and all that nonsense. Why not just call it "Red Mountain Dew"? While we're at it, why is it called "Mountain Dew" in the first place? Because they wanted the weirdest name possible? I mean, who would drink actual dew found on grass in high mountains? That's hardly the question, anyway. Why not make ten flavors of Mountain Dew -- red, orange, original yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, brown, black, clear? Why not line them all up on the shelf with a spiffy, minimalist package, and let the buyer know which flavor he likes the best? Say the customer has to ask the guy at the convenient store to pour the drink for him:
"I'll have a Mountain Dew."
"What color you want, chief?"
"Gimme the, uhh . . . the green one."
Compare this to "I'll have a Mountain Dew(R): Operation Greenjinx(TM)."
Does a marketer somewhere jump up from the table and pump his fist and scream "YESSSSSS" whenever this happens? Do they delight in owning four out of seven words of the customers' sentences, two of which are ridiculous, and one of which is made-up and patented and trademarked? Conversational real estate, is what this is about.
And you'll tell me that they do things like this because it's proven to work; that buzzwords are proven to drive up consumer interest or whatever. Really, though? Don't you see how ridiculous this is becoming?
"kraft handi-snacks ritz crackers crackers and cheese crackers and cheese dip made with real kraft cheese"
I picked up a box of graham crackers, discounted for a hundred yen, at a little import grocery in Tokyo about two years ago, and remembered the French man's words when I read the "slogan" on the back of the box:
"All the nutrition moms want, with the great taste families go for(TM)!"
What fucking audacity! I mean, I don't have a mom, and I don't have a family either, so what am I to this box of Keebler graham crackers, a pile of horse shit?
Let me also break another huge slice of news to you, America -- you know the Super Bowl? You know how they brag during the broadcast that it's being watched by THREE BILLION PEOPLE wordlwide? That's a lie! Certainly, it's reaching three billion people, though I can tell you for sure that I've never met a Japanese or Chinese person who's ever watched a fraction of it.
And then I go on the internet. Let's say I type "Rainbow Six Vegas" into Google:
IGN: Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas IGN is the ultimate Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas resource for trailers, screenshots, cheats, walkthroughs, release dates, previews, reviews, ...
and . . .
GameSpy: Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas Review GameSpy is the most trusted source for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas reviews with unbiased opinions and detailed analysis for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: ...
both show up on the list. IGN is the "ultimate" source, and GameSpy is the "most trusted". They're both owned by the same fucking company! You'd figure that if one company had the money to run two websites on the same subject, they'd focus on running one website that is simultaneously the ultimate source and the most trusted source. To gamers on the internet, this claim is absurd: IGN bought GameSpy, and GameSpy had its own loyal readers long before IGN bought them, so they need to continue to please the readers while, at the same time, making a killing because now they have two websites reviewing videogames when before there was just one. Maybe I think this is ridiculous simply because I'm the kind of person who, quite frankly, doesn't get antsy when I don't have a job and people to scream at me everyday because I'm typing up memos in email form and not using Microsoft Excel as is company policy, though I personally think that, say, if I were to meet a girl and make her my ultimate (meaning "last", yes), I'd also like her to be my most trusted. Since IGN and GameSpy are the same company, of course, we can take this to be some kind of subconsciously radiating subliminal message that's telling us to settle for a marriage partner who might murder you someday. Or they could be using the word "ultimate" because it has more syllables than "best", and therefore sounds more like something you'd see on a movie poster. Yes, let's go with that.
To recap: according to the videogame journalism conglomerate, an institution that speaks without thinking, because speaking without thinking is the clearest path to the soul, good and trustworthy are not the same thing.
In another corner of this cardboard box we call the world, is GameStop.com. Just go to the front page of that website at any day of the week, and read the blurbs for each game. Here, I'll pluck a few out to keep this thing current (2/2/2007):
Rogue Galaxy for PS2: "In a sudden turn of fate, Jaster is recruited into a band of space pirates in a race to find the key to the greatest treasures."
Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar for PS2: "Immerse yourself in the only authentic recreation of Middle-Earth."
Ghost Rider for PSP: "All-new playable characters and a freshly designed, non-linear, single player campaign as well as support for Ad Hoc co-op."
Medal of Honor Heroes for PSP: "Relive your favorite Medal of Honor moments by unlocking over 20 classic characters to use in multiplayer."
Is anyone seeing this? Maybe not -- maybe because ninety-nine times out of ten visitors to GameStop.com don't go there to browse. They go there to purchase. They know what they want. Even so, how fucking weird are these descriptions? For about a year, I've been visiting the GameStop.com front page every other other day and talking about it with friends, trying to get inside the head of the (obviously one) guy who writes all of them. He's not even writing them -- he's ripping words from the back of the box and/or press releases and arranging them into "original" phrases. He's doing this for one or both of two reasons: his boss tells him they can't simply copy exact statements from the press release because that'd be plagiarism, which is against the law, or that they can't copy the press release because they're better than that -- this is their chance to stick it to the man!
Arguably, though, the man is a bit limp. To wit (emphasis is mine):
"Developed by Ubisoft Montreal Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six makes its next-generation hardware debut in the most dramatic installment of the renowned first-person shooter franchise to date. Rainbow operatives take to the chaotic streets of Las Vegas as an escalating terrorist siege in "Sin Cityh threatens to take world terrorism to new, uncontrollable heights. The future of global security hangs in the balance as you battle to defend classic Vegas locations and environments like Fremont Street, the Strip and casinos. Experience Las Vegas like never before ? through revolutionary next generation technology as you work against the clock to protect one of the world's most recognizable cities from utter devastation."
Here I could say that the solution to this flash-in-the-pan of a problem would be to invent a new PR structure from the ground up, though if I even started in on a paragraph like that I'd have men with monocles and snifters of brandy on all corners of this Chinet ballroom we call the modern world chuckling and calling me Evian spelled backward. Yes, this is an industry where someone in PR recently stated in an interview that they wouldn't dare think of, say, putting videos on YouTube because it's "hard to prove" that such action is profitable. Sounds to me like they're just covering their asses; they don't want to be out of a job. See also: nine out of ten guys in my office. They'd be emotional, idealistic wrecks if they were out of a job, even if, say, tomorrow someone were to invent and implement a society model that made it so, really, no one had to work at all and we could all continue to live in our apartments and take long warm baths for two hours every night. These guys don't understand that, real as it is, money isn't real. Trying to explain that to them would make their heads explode -- or get you fired, even if you don't work there. And there's no use even thinking about explaining the lies of the world to these people. Let it be our little secret.
If you ask me, PR for games -- or any entertainment, really -- should become one microscopic entity that distributes video footage and/or demos of games to players based on their preferences (perhaps an extensive online survey they can update a little at a time, a la the surveys on dating site OKCupid.com). Game trailers would be presented categorized by genre, maker, design staff, collaborator (musical artists, big-name voice actors) and distributed into game machines themselves.
You may say this is already being done with Xbox Live. Maybe so! However, there are still sites like Kotaku that will keep us up to date with the updates on Xbox Live. "New themes released today!!" If someone who doesn't have Xbox Live sees that an Idolma@ster theme was released for the system, would he rush out and buy the system? Probably not! "Man, I was thinking about buying an Xbox 360, though now that I read on Kotaku I can play a demo of Just Cause, man! Maybe it is worth it, after all!" Kotaku, to be sure, is simply reporting press releases as they see them because, hey, if they didn't, the people sending the press releases would get very :( and cease to send them any more press releases.
On the other hand, sometimes I'll read about Xbox Live updates on some site like Kotaku and say, hey -- shit, maybe I'll try that out. I'll go home and log on to Xbox Live and search for the new game trailer or demo: which is to say that if Microsoft is still writing press releases about such things, they're only doing it because they have to, because many, many people, all over the place, are overestimating other peoples' worth, and building up false necessities. There exists an aristocracy in a teacup that would groan at comments on YouTube.com videos and say that users should be denied the right to comment on, say, blog posts (there are some horrendous things said in the user comments on websites like Joystiq.com or 1up.com, if you haven't noticed) simply because those people are uninformed. I bet I can log on to YouTube and have a vile comment in less than thirty seconds. Let's look up "Rainbow Six Vegas Xbox 360".
Here we go, third comment down:
"wilfer (5 days ago)
shut the fuck up dboy and go to fuck your mother "
Wow! I'm surprised at these people, and honestly slightly fearful of the culture that brings this about, this culture of gross reciprocal overestimation of the value of words, which leads to a man telling another man to stand up from his computer chair, find his mother, and have sex with her because he says that the player of a videogame featured on a video on the internet isn't very good. These same people will troll other YouTube videos in the most lethargic manner: they'll type in the name of a videogame they don't like, and then find a video of it, and then immediately type how "this game is fucking gay". Why do they do that? Why deliberately seek out people who enjoy what you hate and try to tell them you hate it? For the same reason people shoot civilians in Grand Theft Auto, I guess. I mean, what's the point of that? What's the point of all that animosity? Take a hot bath; find the temperature of water that's right for you. Eat noodles. Cook some spaghetti. Listen to a sweet old lady tell a story about her dead husband. If you still find the need for words, read a book, and then start a blog. Put your opinions somewhere on their own, and let others find them if they choose.
Now I'm being naive again. It's not the peoples' problem, it's the world's. And it's the people's fault that it's the world's problem. And it's the world's fault that it's the people's fault, down, down, and down.
I'm flip-flopping, again, maybe purposely, between the state of videogames and the state of the world.
If Xbox Live were perfect -- or at least correct -- we wouldn't need to look at the internet at all to know anything about videogames for the Xbox 360, because it'd all be there, right before us; some would-be revolutionaries will pipe up and say that it's the biased voice of the publisher, and not the pure voice of the people, and to that, I say open another can of Spaghetti-Os, jackass. Assuming that the publisher's voice is necessarily biased is a thought process nearly equal in dynamics to racial hate. It's because you think that words like the ones UbiSoft puts in a press release are the only words that can come out of publishers -- you fail to see that publishers could, perhaps heeding to the French man who told me what was wrong with Americans, use no words at all. They could use pictures, video footage to explain the way the game works, and demos to let the players form their own opinions; as surely as YouTube became the sensation of the decade, understated demonstrations could replace any and all PR speak. For subjective journalism to continue to exist in a world like that (granted that the demos for distribution were substantial enough) would be, in practice, actual aristocracy. It would be guys saying "My opinion is better than yours." Just thinking about the "future" so naively, unfortunately, is a fuckin' house of cards, so I'll take a deep breath and offer an analysis of the UbiSoft press release one more time:
"Most dramatic renowned chaotic classic revolutionary next generation technology!"
All of these very, very positive words, yes? Wait, wait -- "chaotic"? Is that "chaotic" sitting there among all these words that mean "exciting", "amazing" or "really great"? I'm sure chaos makes for more interesting videogames, yes. I'm quite sure. Let's further examine the subliminal semantics of Those Who Speak For Tom Clancy:
Figure three: Load up the Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas demo (available for distribution on Xbox Live) and take a look at the difficulty selection screen.
"kraft handi-snacks ritz crackers crackers and cheese crackers and cheese dip made with real kraft cheese"
The two difficulty selections, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, are "Normal" and "Realistic". I'm sure ultra-conservatives wouldn't have any problems at all with Rainbow Six: Vegas because it's about guys with guns paid for by the US Military, and it's about protecting our God-given right to protect our God-given Homeland. Yet I reckon, if Jack Thompson were a man of actual intelligence, he could ride this image right here all the way to the end of a legal rainbow, and slam dunk himself right into Uncle Scrooge's money bin. Instead, he says that DooM trains kids to murder. Are you fucking kidding? DooM is about demons and corridors and rock and roll. It's about making twitch reactions. It's more likely to influence a kid's appreciation for pinball, turn him into a zombie, or bestow upon him the power to catch a fly in might-flight with a pair of chopsticks. And let me tell you, as a man who's played House of the Dead 3 in a Japanese arcade -- with a super-heavy shotgun controller -- spending a lot of time in front of a computer tweaking a mouse and staring at a monitor, sitting bolt-upright in a chair and periodically typing "OMG" with both hands on the keyboard would sooner atrophy the muscles needed to steady a fucking rifle or a pistol than actually train anyone to actually shoot anyone.
No, the real problem -- yes, realer even than DooM 3, with those amazing graphics!!! -- has been standing behind us all along.
"Select difficulty: Normal / Realistic."
This makes thousands of statements. Hundreds of them deal with the compartmentalization of pleasure: in the 1990s many American restaurants or eateries eliminated the "Small" drink, instead choosing only to serve "Medium, Large, and Extra Large". Immediately, there were many progressive-minded individuals whose progressive minds, um, halted and decided to instead stop and stare and poke fun at the way things are in the world. Some of these people ran eateries of their own, and decided to call their own eateries' drinks "Large" "Extra Large" and . . . "Jumbo", or some word of equal weight expressing morbid size. I wouldn't be surprised if, somewhere in the near-future, someone releases a game with the difficulty settings "Normal" "Realistic" and "Fatal". It'd be funny. It'd be ironic. It'd be -- well, it'd be poisonous.
The least terrorist-like game we could hope for, Gears of War -- funny that is so heavily involves guns and killing and even lets you stomp foes in the back of the head when they're down -- a game about narrative and forward motion, with sparkling clean design concepts and rock-solid graphics, is not only so careful as to never feature a situation (outside multiplayer mass "accidental" suicides) where any one of the good guys attacks another good guy, is clean right down to its semantics. Its difficulty settings are "Casual" "Hardcore" and "Insane".
"Normal" and "Realistic", though! I'm sure there are other difficulty settings, like "Novice" in the final version, though man. "Normal" and "Realistic" really makes a boatload of statements. We can beat around the subject and say that this screenshot declares that realism is "werid". This says a lot for the collective subconscious mind of the creators as people who would rather stay indoors and absorb falsified worlds in the name of cultured entertainment -- or, better yet, as "pixelantes" (a word -- meaning a game-addict -- that I borrow from Jack Thomspon without permission). However, to address the issue as bluntly as possible, we can say that this screenshot is an understated (and simultaneously overstated) message from deep within the videogame itself, and it whispers to us that
REALITY IS NOT NORMAL
As you and I might have grown up playing with Super Mario and jumping on cartoon turtles, knowing full well, deep down, that this game had nothing to do with real life, so your children will grow up with first-person shooters that no one would hesitate to consider offensive because the context contained within dictates that the people getting shot deserve to get shot. They will be silently preached to that it is not the game that is not normal compared to real life -- it is realism itself that, quite frankly, is not normal. Having not a single synapse connected in the name of realizing the faults in their logic, certain game creators obtain the keys to dramatic and renowned next-generation technology. Some of them do what they do; others imitate; others obtain power and responsibility at the same time and run, fast as they can, in cowardice.
Exhibit four: adaptations of popular comic books, one in Japan, one in America.
In Japan, there's this comic called Deathnote, which ran between 2004 and 2006. It concluded in episode 108. It was, from a literary standpoint, a boldly satisfying conclusion. There were points throughout the story where things felt stretched, though only because the story, like Grand Theft Auto III's concepts, was produced in consumable form mostly because the creators (in this case, one novelist, who wrote the story, and one comic artist, who drew the pictures) were nearly bursting with rock-and-roll like desire to release their ideas onto the public.
In short, the story is a long morality play. In the very beginning, the hero, Light Yagami, finds a black notebook on the ground. A description of its rules is written on the first page. It is a "Deathnote" -- a tool with which gods of death take human lives. A human's name is written in the book, and if the writer has that person's face in mind, that person will die of a heart attack in sixty seconds (unless the write writes the cause and time of death, as well). The main character sees a man boasting to a girl on the street; a bit of an introvert himself, the hero finds the man -- and his forceful flirting -- disgusting. He overhears the man's name, and writes it in the Deathnote. The man dies. Immediately he feels terrible. Horrible. Yet, over the course of the next five pages, he wastes no time in unleashing an agenda: he watches TV and reads police reports, collecting names of criminals being imprisoned for life or awaiting the death penalty; he surfs the internet and assembles a list of names and faces, and strikes them all down in the course of a night. In a day's time -- the story has a breathless pace in the first few pages; I won't spoil any big events -- the world's most brilliant detective, whose name and face are unknown, is on the main character's trail.
Following the main character is a grim reaper named Ryuk, who, instead of a cloak and scythe, dresses up like a glam rocker in Harajuku. He's over seven feet tall, and visible only to the main character. He's a freaky manga oddity. Read any internet fan review of the series and you'll no doubt find some twelve-year-old who loves the series because Ryuk looks totally bitchin' and awesome. "The art is sub-par at best, unless Ryuk is on the page", you might read. In Jump Superstars for Nintendo DS, Ryuk is a playable character, much to the delight of Deathnote fans.
I'm sure the creators see all of this and nod. It's a price they have to pay. The truth is, Deathnote isn't a story for comic fans, and it isn't a story for children -- the comic was, in fact, banned in a city in China because kids at a certain school thought it would be awesome to kill anyone just by writing their name in a notebook; they had purchased black notebooks, wrote "DEATHNOTE" on their covers with white-out, and started writing teachers' names in them, and this made the teachers very mad, to have absolute confirmation that the students in their schools were fantasizing about the teachers being dead.
No, Deathnote is a story for people in their late twenties, as they ponder marriage or having children of their own. It's just that the creators must have felt some level of social responsibility -- they didn't rule out the fact that some kids, somewhere, might get it. They might understand the hook. They might understand from the first page that the main character is not a hero.
The main character tests the Deathnote by killing a man who had, to his knowledge, committed no crimes. Just a random guy on the street. And he feels awful about it. Yet, in the blink of an eye, he is changed. He decides he's going to kill people who have been legally determined to deserve it. He is going to avenge the world.
The first person he kills, on the next page, is a man who had committed murder and is now locked in a house with a woman and a child. The main character does not know what exactly is going on in the house. He does not know the details of what's going on inside the house. Based on a police photograph showing on TV, he kills the man. That is to say, in the name of building his own reputation, he denies a man -- a fellow murderer -- the right to the same redemption he himself experienced. That is to say that the main, from this first episode of the 108 in the story, from the moment he, as a murderer, kills his first murderer, he becomes utterly unworthy of life by his own rules.
Taking in the whole story at once is remarkable; using elements of fantasy as mystery (most remarkable because the killer is already known) and keeping relatively realistic, Deathnote masterfully bends its themes toward a satisfying and correct conclusion. In many ways, it is the most significant work of fiction presented in over a decade. It's even being taught in Japanese high school classes -- really, go to any bookstore and find Deathnote on the shelf, and you'll find the several unofficial study guides for it. Study guides! For a comic released in Shonen Jump magazine, the most mainstream (and sometimes trite) comics magazine in the country.
Well, at the height of its popularity, just as it was coasting to its justified conclusion, Japan decided to make a movie out of it. No doubt the producers, like many of the younger fans of the story, saw the winding-down phase of the story to be confusing and/or boring. No doubt they had had access to the last pages of the story. They decided to make two films, which excited many devoted fans of the series, because it would mean that the story might be getting a full, careful treatment.
Well, that didn't happen. Japanese cinema is a weird little cesspool, in that most directors with talent will make precisely one great work, which is underfunded and misunderstood, and then, having thus attached their name to a film as "director", having thus signed the lifetime contract in blood, will continue to make films they do not believe in, just for the sake of continuing to be what they are. That's a whole different thesis altogether, anyway. What I'm trying to say is that the "Deathnote" movies sucked. Least of all because they cast a guy who looks like he's fucking forty years old to play the main character, shattered the canon by making the main character in college instead of high school (note: this didn't bother me), picked terrible music, and made the camera always constantly moving the way it is in a 3D videogame (you know, where the directors don't know shit about cinematography and so decide to just make the camera constantly rotate around the main characters -- because it can -- during slow dialogue scenes lacking in "action"). Man, seriously, that guy who plays the main character is creepy-looking as shit. That's neither here nor there, though. The problem with the "Deathnote" films is that, first of all, they spent more money meticulously making the computer-animated reaper character Ryuk look precisely like he does in the comic than than they probably spent on the rest of the film -- and second of all, that they killed its moral lesson with one deft blow, right at the start. That is to say: the first victim of the Deathnote, the first person the main character kills, is not an innocent man: it is a yakuza thug who, according to the main characters, has been pictured in newspapers as a suspect to numerous murders.
In other words, the main character is never breaking his own rules.
This came about, most likely, because the producers observed that the majority of the fans, ignorant, were rooting for the hero, and they wanted to present a film -- a film with the budget and progression of a fucking after-school special -- that gave an alternate view. That gave the fans what they wanted. In order to properly adapt the Deathnote story into a film, that film would need to weight the "first kill" segment quite dramatically. It would need to present the central character as a flawed and corrupt man. It would need to move smoothly. (It would need to also get rid of the computer-animated demon, and replace him, as my friend and I concluded after fierce deliberation during which neither of us disagreed with the other, with a makeupless David Bowie in a pitch-black three-piece suit.) It would need proper direction. I would say Spike Jonze and Charlie Kauffman. It could be an amazing, amazing film.
Surely, despite what any look at a comic magazine for boys aged twelve through fourteen might make you think, there are talented people in Japan. Surely. Surely, this movie could have been made, and it would have been a worldwide smash hit. Yet the rights were damned; they were owned by a company that, despite putting out a weekly comic magazine on pulp paper that often stars pink-top-hat-wearing midget-like humanoid reindeer pirates playing football, is also descended from a long line of charcoal-ash-shitting conservative men with iron hairlines stuck at the absolute worst stage of recession. They would not see their property entering a risky situation. These same brick-teethed individuals also commanded Keita Takahashi, producer of a wonderful videogame called Katamari Damacy, to make sequels to that videogame, despite there having doubted and refused his talent on previous occasion. This world is trained to recognize success as either a fluke or a result of many spreadsheet presentations being read aloud in many rooms with vertical blinds, as the sun sets over a highway and forty-eight men who occasionally feel human while playing golf take turns yawning. A fluke, or the result of analysis. That's all we have. No conscious risks, no self-esteem, no big ideas. The poison of cowardice, the same poison that will allow a man to sink so low as to commit mass murder-suicide and die for (indirectly) a religion, has seeped so far into the collective subconscious as to take a story that found tremendous success because of its moral hooks and make a movie that removes the hooks that made the story successful to begin with. And this happens over, and over, and over again, all around the world. Surely, there exist noble adaptations of artistic works, in some places. Just not in the places that count: those who skipped the book to wait for the movie will die without ever knowing, well, why someone bothered to make a boring movie on that book, anyway.
They say, it's for the sake of entertainment! Is it, really? The producers of Saints' Row, to begin turning this Mack Truck back around, might say that the bodies disappear a full thirty seconds before the rolling paper cups dropped by the murdered victims because they didn't want to encourage players to seize the opportunity to fire unnecessary bullets into the dead bodies (and they didn't want to make the paper cup disappear at the same time because, hey, research into those physics cost a lot of budget, and we want players to see it as much as possible). Then why let them kill the bodies at all? They'd say, well, we can't restrict our players, in a game about freedom! What about America, a country based on freedom? You're free to murder five men while holding up a liquor store, though if you get arrested afterward and put on trial, you will at least serve life in prison. Or, uhm, at least a little time in prison. Freedom isn't without laws! If I say this, you might say, Well, it's a game. It's just for fun. We can't deny our players the chance to have fun. And, well, I suppose I would have to agree with you. Making a game that tries its hardest to force people to not have fun is a fast way to make a game that gets ignored, or even loathed. Your duty as a game designer forbids you from being so malicious. Though hey, have you, person I'm not actually interviewing, ever thought that making a game where killing innocent civilians is considered the most "fun" you can have might actually be kind of, you know, fucked the fuck up?
Cliffy B., producer of Gears of War, when I asked if you could kill civilians in his game, made a long sighing sound. He demonstrated that bullets simply pass right through the civilians. We can't just have you killing these people. That's not what your characters do, he said. In a perfect world, people wouldn't even try to shoot the civilians, because, you know, they'd be busy immersing themselves into the role of the character. Much as the designers would like to create some sort of branching justice system to punish the player for killing people they shouldn't kill, it would be too much work, so they had to make a choice: let the player kill civilians with no effect to the story, or just make bullets pass right through them. Neither one would fully satisfy the designers. He chose one of them anyway. It was a compromise. He paused, and then added, "Never underestimate the ability of the player to undermine the narrative you're trying to tell."
Cliffy B.'s noble approach to game design pleases me to no end; he makes games about guys with guns because that's how he got started. He told us in our interview that he got started on Super Mario Bros. -- in fact, his name is at the top of the high scores list in the first-ever issue of Nintendo Power (9,999,999 points) -- and that he played virtually every Japanese RPG ever, and even cried at the end of Lunar. This makes him, in addition to something of a sissy, a really great guy.
I'd love to see him make a game based on, I don't know, Superman?
Electronic Arts' new Superman Returns game is the next piece of evidence. It's based -- I think -- on the terrible "Superman Returns" film that came out in 2006. It's a game based on a movie based on a movie (the original "Superman" movies) based on a comic book. I don't want to talk about the movie. I don't even really want to talk about the game, either. I guess I will: it's pretty weird. You play as Superman. You can fly, fly really fast, fly really really fast, or land and walk around a (very) huge city. It has a nice (clean) enough visual style. You follow the exclamation-point-shaped cues on the screen to direct Superman toward danger. You fight boring robots using superpowers (usually just punching) and carry wounded people to ambulances (as marked on your radar). There are some big boss fights, and some story segments, I guess, and I guess I could pick on little things like how the physics are boring as shit because you can be flying at the speed of sound and hit into a building and just . . . stop -- I mean, I know you're fuckin' Superman and all, though really, we could at least have a smack and/or a thud or something. I don't want to critique the game, because then I would be writing a review, and of this game, I can only use very mean words, so let's instead talk about terrorism.
You can use your superpowers, yes, to kill bad guys. You can also use them to destroy cars. The quickest way to land while flying is to crash to the ground, sending cars and pedestrians flying; the people never die, not even at the hands of the enemies, which keeps this all from being reprehensible, though -- low and behold and what the hell -- I'll be damned if spending forty-five minutes blowing up cars with heat vision, freezing cars with ice breath and then punching them so they explode, blowing cars with super breath so they smash into other cars and then, yes, explode, or picking up cars and tossing them at people or buildings isn't the first thing every player does. And, curiously, the enemies never seem to go after the cars. The evil of this is hard to prove: we can say the designers made the car explosions so satisfying because they knew people would love the chance to use Superman's superpowers to cause some awesome LOL chaos. They could have balanced this out by, I don't know, making the rest of the game interesting, though I'm pretty sure making the game interesting wasn't required by the contract. Instead they made a desolate, boring game where it's hilarious to throw exploding automobiles at people who never die.
And when someone is marked with a "wounded" icon after a struggle with enemies has ended, you pick them up, and take them to an ambulance. You set them down before the ambulance, all 3D-rendered as can be, and they say "Thanks, Superman!"
And then they walk away. Away from Superman, and away from the ambulance.
Such things are the cockroach in the hotel room of progress; it skitters under the closet door when you turn on the light; no matter how weary you are when you sit upon the bed with your socks still on, should you possess an "artistic conscience", you will not sleep that night.
In Superman Returns for the Xbox 360 videogame entertainment system, Superman is, of course, as per the comic book legacy, invincible to any physical violence that doesn't involve a shimmering magic green rock called kryptonite -- which, ironically, was only ever found on the far-off planet (now exploded) where he was born. What this means for the videogame is that unless the enemies are using bullets made of this rare rock, Superman can't be harmed. So the two requisite meters at the top of the screen detail Superman's superpower stock and the health -- the health of the city. As Superman gets hit, it damages the health of the city. Likewise, everytime Superman blows up a car, it damages the health of the city. If the health of the city reaches zero, the player sees a harsh black "GAME OVER" screen. That's the consequence, then, for getting beat up too much, or for making too many cars explode. No police / military uprisings. Just "GAME OVER".
To recap: the city loses health when Superman is "hurt" in battle because it's not Superman that's being hurt, it's his reputation. The city also loses health when Superman makes things explode recklessly out of the player's sheer rampant playful idiocy. In other words, the game's punishment of the player's performance is identical whether Superman's reputation drops out of pity (when the city sees him being punched) or anger.
In other words: the player is punished the same way when he plays poorly as when he plays unethically.
And there's no real punishment. Just a "game over" and a "Well, I guess I'll try the mission, then." Why not play around with the dynamics? It seems to me that the two meters are on the screen just because the designers wanted to show off their new spiffy light-effected gradient (and there is never, ever, editing in videogames), and because they misunderstood the high school English class that told them to never have an "I" without an "II", nor an "A" without a "B", nor a "1" without a "2" when constructing a research paper outline. (Wendy's misunderstands this quite poetically, actually, with "Dessert: Frosty: Chocolate".) So they believe they cannot have one meter without two. Hmm.
If you want to keep the game in this free-roaming, cityscape state, why not hide Superman's reputation player? Why not have several variables firing at once? Maybe, if the player is enough of a jerkoff to make the evening news, his approval rating will plummet; maybe, the military and city officials might even side with Lex Luthor in his now-not-so-evil scheme to kill Superman. And maybe if this keeps up, late into the game (after several cutscene news broadcasts describing how no one has yet been killed in any of Superman's outrages), it will be announced that a new villain, an alien from space has been controlling Superman's mind with a kryptonite laser? Then make utter chaos rain down upon the city -- kryptonite meteorites -- during which Superman will die and a weird angelscape ending will play out during which faceless beings argue over the fate of the universe?
Or, uhm, why not make the game actually kind of innovative? Superman is all about helping people, right? Why not make various stages all involving huge catostrophic attacks on various locales by various evil bad guys? Why not make the game about using Superman's superpowers with speed and grace to, while dodging evil robots, freeze water so people can cross where a bridge has been destroyed, or blow fallen wreckage out of the way, or laser a herd of evil fighter jets while using the right analog stick to hold up a car so several people can pass? Fly up high to survey the map; make it something of a real-time strategy with no HUD, where there's no way to lose , though if you don't do well the congratulatory crowds at the end of a scenario would be thinner than the screaming masses were at the beginning. There are so many exciting game design concepts to try out with an invincible character -- and as the character is so iconic, the product would reach the masses, and introduce them to exciting game concepts. Why not give it a go?
Oh. I know why not. Budget. Time constraints. Lack of imagination. Unwillingness to take risks. No artistic conscience. Yes, no artistic conscience. It's a convoluted business, and there is no simple solution.
You know, it's said that Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the most beloved videogames of all time -- Super Mario, Zelda -- was interested in making a videogame based on the Harry Potter books. The Harry Potter games ended up made by Electronic Arts, because, well, because they had more money, and more staff, and covered more platforms. And they turned the games out; not a single one with a single design tactic behind it. They even made a game based on the invented sport of Quidditch, for fuck's sake -- Quidditch, with rules so broken you'd imagine the author had never actually watched a sport on television. She simply, well, put a sport into her book because she figured it needed one.
Again: artistic conscience. Again: competent judging of content. The best conclusion we can come to, ultimately, is that there aren't enough people of actual, competent talent working in videogames, and that people like money because they need to be able to pay for their liquor and swimming pools.
And now back to GameStop.com:
Crackdown for Xbox 360: "Includes Access to the Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta! Limited time offer. Requires a hard drive and Xbox Live Gold subscription."
Isn't that just it, really? I mean, doesn't that say it all? We can joke and joke about people buying Dragon Quest VIII because it had a Final Fantasy XII demo, and we can sigh and say how sad it is, though really, it really is sad, isn't it? This is really what everything comes down to; for years we've been trying to make pixels do things they're not supposed to do, trying to make Link stab the old man who gave him the sword, trying to make the old man die. At some spots, fireballs shoot out at the player: simple justice. In Ultima: Exodus, the player can indulge in the opportunity to engage a townsperson in battle; he will have 30 hit points and the townsperson will have three. Kill the townsperson, and the town will be full of guards with 300 hit points each, and you will die. Simple justice. Fast forward twenty years, and it's all about Limited time offers requiring hard drives and Xbox Life Gold subscriptions.
And at the same time, all around the internet, we have people saying that a cute little harmless PSP game called LocoRoco is racist because certain evil characters somewhat resemble blackface minstrel-show stereotypes that American culture has been trying to bury for decades. A blogger who is neither black nor white complained about this, overestimating his own pointed words, just because he wanted to be overestimated by, and perhaps underestimate others. If anything, he should accuse LocoRoco of being a short game with irrationally designed stages that feel like they were drawn in Adobe Illustrator. The issue of the minstrel show accusation is ridiculous in its own right; I can understand America not wanting to glorify its previous, repeated, senseless, meaningless, pointless, juvenile bigotry for entertainment's sake; however, the anger of a man whose pride was never pick-axed directly by the minstrel shows is mysterious. Saying we should never, ever recall the events of shame in our nation's past is bizarre; it's like a dictator of a third-world country declaring a law to make it a capital crime to behold him from his right side: "That's not my good side." And besides, the Japanese don't even fucking know what a burrito is, and I doubt very much you can know what blackface is if you don't know what a burrito is. If blackface did somehow inspire the character design, it happened because America isn't doing as good a job at hiding blackface as it wants to, accounting for it seeping out into various places in the pop-culture contiuum where it is represented as something less than despicable; if it was the intent of the blogger to stir a controversy for the sake of, in internet-language, bumping blackface's thread back to the top of the heap, if it was an attempt to get America to remember its shame, and if he was being subtle and ironic, I suppose I can tip my hat. Though I'm pretty sure he was just being a jack-off. Either way, he and we are all parts of the same problem, and the same solution. It's hard to really nail it down.
And there were kids on GamesAreFun.com, commenting on a story about Nintendo's Brain Age game, and not two comments in one kid was saying that the polygonal face of Professor Kawashima, who actually invented the simple mathematical exercises that are intended to keep brains from decaying into Alzheimers, should probably be replaced with the face of Super Mario if Nintendo wants anyone at all to be interested in the game.
And you might start a new game of Ratchet and Clank 3, and see that the "help" text at the bottom of the screen when you highlight "START GAME" reads "Start a new adventure for Ratchet and Clank", and you might not even notice what's weird or lazy or problematic about these simple semantics. Shouldn't "Start a new adventure" be the menu selection, and "Start the game" be the help text? Or maybe, shouldn't all the menu choices be rewritten to avoid the need for help text?
For some reason you buy a PSP game, and here's the text on the first page, beneath a large, detailed diagram of the PSP system, explaining the location of such vital parts as the "strap holder", "left speaker" and "right speaker":
"Set up your PSPR(PlayStationRPortable) system according to the instructions in the manual supplied with the system. The power indicator lights up in green and the home menu is displayed. Press the OPEN latch to open the disc cover. Insert the ______________ UMD(TM) disc with the label facing the system rear, slide until fully inserted and close the disc cover. From the PSPR system's home menu, select the Game icon and then the UMDTM icon. A thumbnail for the software is displayed. Select the thumbnail and press the X button to start the software. Follow the on-screen instructions and refer to this manual for information on using the software. "
All those details, obviously included for the deserving benefit of those who know nothing about their videogame console (and have failed to read the manual, where the same information is carefully recorded), and there's the word "thumbnail". Does the average person who doesn't know the difference between a "right speaker" and a "left speaker" know what the hell a "thumbnail" is? Probably not.
And then there's my little brother; six-foot-eight and three hundred pounds, nineteen years old, acne-scarred like puberty had been a war and Clearisil had been The Shit; I got back from the bathroom one day, sat down at my desk in my office here in this high-profile corporation full of sexy people doing very little work and having affairs, took a sip of my cup of Darjeeling tea (little out, little in, I always say), and saw that he'd sent me a cascade of chat messages. This was the day after Thanksgiving, 2006:
I GOT A PLAYSTATION 3
I GOT A XBOX 360
I GOT A NINTENDO WII
I GOT GEARS OF WAR
I GOT RESISANT FALL OF MAN
I GOT ZLEA THE TWILIGHT PRINCESS
I GOT WII SPORTS
I GOT RIDGE RACER SEVEN
. . . He was listing his Christmas presents. He had signed off before I got back from the bathroom. This was the first I'd heard from him in about three months. (The previous occasion had been to say that his friend told him he'd seen me on MTV and that my leather jacket made me look like a fucking poser wimp.)
This is the same vapor-baby who I quite honestly lost almost all faith for one day many years ago, when a breaking news report during summer vacation informed the soap-opera-watching world that comedian and actor Phil Hartman had been murdered by his wife, who then committed suicide with the same firearm. My brother, mouth grotesquely full of fish sticks, four sweaty unopened cans of Dr. Pepper on the coffee table, using the front page of that day's newspaper as a placemat, shouted, spitting,
I dare to speak in the young prince's presence: "Hey -- that's pretty sick, you know --"
And my mother cut me off: "Hey, leave him alone -- he's watching television."
Years will pass and leave us all behind. If you show Disney's "timeless" "classic" film "Aladdin" to your children, they'll see the Genie, voiced by Robin Williams, swing his arm and make a whooping sound in imitation of Aresnio Hall, a fast-burning television talk show host from the early 1990s. They won't even ask who the Genie is supposed to be imitating, and you might not even know yourself. Kids at the time of the film's release didn't even know who Arsenio Hall was, because they weren't allowed to stay up late. Yet Robin Williams' voice performance as the Genie garnered rave reviews. Wrote the critics -- who would continue to say the same thing of most every successive animated feature aimed at children, and for astounding reasons -- "There's plenty of great lively stuff for the kids, and some surprisingly mature humor that only the parents will catch."
And in 2006, Microsoft commissioned Rare, a company they paid way too much money for, to make a non-game videogame in the vein of Animal Crossing. There was a minor blitzkrieg of publicity for the game in Japan. In much the same manner as Bandai-Namco had with their ill-positioned Portable Island: Resort in the Palm of your Hand, Microsoft had underestimated the videogame medium. Portable Island tried to capitalize on the three-million-selling success of Animal Crossing by tailoring the game to include no cartoon characters, or personality, even, and instead star realistic people on a dead-empty tropical island. The game, which seeks to taunt people who wish they were on an island paradise instead of a rush-hour train, which doubles as a pleasant-ocean-sound simulator (the website shows a man with his PSP propped up on a stand, with speakers, listening to the ocean sounds while banging at a spreadsheet on his Sony VAIO computer), is supposedly a non-game "for adults". The problem is that Namco failed to look at statistics, and realize that Animal Crossing was already for adults. In the same way, Viva Pinata! is supposed to be a non-game for children, even though Animal Crossing is already for children. Also, another of Viva Pinata's miscalculations would be that it puts the player in control of a fucking cursor instead of, you know, a character.
I'm not going to talk about Viva Pinata the game. I don't care about it. All I really know about it is this hateful promotional video that I downloaded on Xbox Live, in which the screamy characters, joyous to be animated and so brightly colorful, try to introduce the game systems to the potential players, and it comes off looking like a Microsoft Excel primer course for preemies. I also remember a Japanese booth girl's attempt to explain the game to a foreign journalist at Tokyo Game Show. It was an unfunny anecdote that never got off the ground. She kept looking around, trying to catch the face of someone who could speak both Japanese and English. She locked eyes with me, and then quickly looked to her toe-tips. Probably a good reflex, is what that was. The foreign journalist, with curly hair and big glasses, kept rotating the analog stick, sending that bright little cursor spinning around and around the screen.
On Xbox Live, I was able to download an episode of the "Viva Pinata" television show. I downloaded it because I wanted to see what kind of "intellectual property" (a phrase, yes, usually reduced to acronym for a pretty good reason) had been built for the ground up for Rare to make a game out of. Rare has had some serious trouble with game narratives in the past, to say the least. To wit:
Battletoads: two toads named Rash and Zitz need to rescue a princess, and the third toad, Pimple, from the evil queen. In the sequel, it's Rash and Pimple who need to rescue Zitz and the princess; in another sequel, it's Zitz who needs to rescue Rash and Pimple.
Donkey Kong Country: in the first installment, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong need to rescue Donkey Kong's stash of bananas, inexplicably taken by alligator pirates, who should, theoretically, care very little for bananas. In the second, Diddy and Dixie Kong need to rescue Donkey Kong and the bananas. In the third, Dixie and Kiddy Kong need to rescue Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong.
You get the idea.
Some call those days the golden age of videogames, you must understand. Some call these when things were different. When things were "better". That, for the most part, they're not wrong is a large part of what we might call a problem.
Let's speak to Joseph Conrad for a moment. Said he, long ago, of "Viva! Pinata":
"Viva Pinata" the television program is fucking chaos. It's the most focus-tested, banged-out trash that can be produced. It's filed down to such a sharp, sucked-out candy-cane point because it's computer animated, I suppose; back in the old days, we can hypothesize, Walt Disney only chose to animate "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" because it was a very old story that had entertained children at bedtime for many centuries -- Disney wouldn't dare try to animate a story that hadn't been remotely as tested by time. Hence: Disney fairy tale adaptations becoming a staple, becoming something Disney does. Because all of the fairy tales have been sucked dry, and because we have computers now, we have to rely on focus groups, so we get "Viva Pinata", which probably shows weekday mornings at six-thirty on UPN (I'm not gong to look it up). It's about talking animal pinatas in a pinata town. Apparently they may at some point fill themselves with candy, show up at kids' parties, and get beaten until they explode, scattering candy everywhere, satisfying children. Then they trot off back to town and begin the candy-filling process again. The episode I watched contained none of this context; rather, the pinatas were preparing for a festival in their own town. One pinata, shaped like a cow, was growing berries with the help of a large light bulb. She was quite proud of the light bulb setup and convinced she would make a big splash at the festival. When some renegade pinatas tried to eat her berries, she got seethingly angry; then, those pinatas turned into purple and went crazy because of, I suppose, something in the berries makes pinatas turn purple and go crazy. Later in the episode, a malicious, horse-shaped pinata who had been stealing all of the bookings for another horse-shaped pinata, who was also a model in the world of pinatas, would eat one of the berries and turn purple and crazy, just before the horse pinata beauty pageant in the festival, which the good horse pinata had been afraid he wouldn't win. Of course the good horse pinata -- "good" in that, yes, he's favored by the writers because he has a name -- would win the pageant, because the bad horse pinata was too busy being purple and wild and crazy. The stereotypes in the "Viva Pinata" television show are so deeply rooted and taken for granted that, as a flowing piece of media, it's actually kind of breathtaking. Why is this horse pinata a model? Why does the bear pinata talk like he's a surfer dude? At one point, the horse-model pinata's agent, who happens to be a monkey pinata, of course, walks in with her cellular phone to her ear. "You can't cancel!" she says. She hangs up, and then delivers a little microcassette-recorder to her mouth with her prehensile tail: "Note to self: triple cancellation fee." For one thing, a microcassette-recorder is pretty old technology that the kids watching "Viva Pinata" will never use, because by the time they're old enough to "need" such a device, they'll already possess mobile phones or iPods with gigabytes of voice-memo recording space. Why include this hint on the lives of adults whose era is ending, encoded like this into an entertainment supposedly for children? Is it for the entertainment of the adults, munching dry toast and drinking orange juice in the presence of their children? The only thing that's certain is that, like the one juror in "Twelve Angry Men" managed to convince the other jurors that the defendant was actually not guilty, someone on the writer's team was able to drop this idea -- a monkey pinata with a bad attitude, a cellular phone, and a tape recorder with which to make notes to self -- and be not questioned once. The road from brainstorm to actual computer animation is long, you see; the filters along the way, one would imagine, would eliminate anything that wasn't the best idea for creating characters who make money. Again, we come back to the gross overestimation of entertainment in general. That's the real problem.
You know, the first kid in line to buy Final Fantasy XII in Tokyo back in March, 2006 was given a chance to shake the hand of Yoichi Wada, president of Square-Enix, a man who had nothing to do with the production of the game. In front of TV cameras, he was offered the chance to speak words of thanks to Square-Enix for continuing to make, well, if not quality products, then products that at least sell a lot. The words that eventually came out were these: "Please remake Final Fantasy VII for PlayStation 3 thank you very much." The man had never played Final Fantasy XII -- and probably knew very little about it, since Square-Enix had revealed very little actual information in Japanese -- and here he was, already dead convinced that it would not and could not be as good as Final Fantasy VII, convinced that he was speaking for the world (and lord, maybe he was). Kids on the internet used to complain that they want a sequel to such and such a game because it needs a sequel because it was so good; some level-headed individuals would say to such people, if you like that game so much, just play it again.
The entertainers of the present -- that is, the creators of television programs like "Viva Pinata" -- are creating entertainment simply because it is what, semantically, as "entertainers", they have to do. It's like, at the dawn of man, there was a rock higher than all rocks; the first man to stand on it would have the attention of all those below; the first single sound he decided to make with his mouth would shape the future of mankind. Faced with the opportunity to speak words that would shake centuries, our forefathers have instead belched and waited for it to echo, and though they might have done so in purely scientific interest, there's no stopping the apes from thinking it's a hilarious sound. And now we live, all filler, everywhere; the degree of the rot this is causing is nearly unfathomable; it's ridiculous to try to explain. The rot is ubiquitous; it's in the air; it's everything we own, everywhere we go. And there's really not much we can do about it at this point, aside from ignore the poison and, well, start setting good examples. "Start setting good examples" -- how naive is that? people would say I'm thinking too hard about this. Yeah, maybe I am. At least I'm not not thinking at all, here, as the "Viva Pinata"s of the world continue to be weaved, behaving with the mind-track of rusted robotic dogs with centuries-rotted slippers in their teeth, standing in a doorway in the ruins of of a nuked-out mansion millennia in the future.
Are videogames terrorism? I believe that was the question. Is anything not terrorism, if you think about it hard enough?
Everything is all potentials; we could call a bowl of cereal terrorism if we spill enough words into it; if a game decreases a child's opinion about human life so that it causes him to take up a sniping position in a clocktower -- if that videogame begins with a disclaimer that reads "This game is the dead honest truth" and stars a good cop who one day needs to kill 100 innocent people with a sniper rifle to score the bonus points he needs to get a new badge star, and if Jesus comes down from Heaven and flashes a thumbs up and says "Sniping people is good for the soul!", then maybe we can at least finger the game as an accomplice to reckless violence; if you consider things like, say, the War in Iraq to be reckless violence, and if you deduce that terrorism spurs on wars like that, then hey, in some cases, the trigger for reckless violence can be considered terrorism. Terrorism isn't just violence: it's something that makes us violent. Terrorism isn't just something that makes us violent, it's something that makes us forget the meaning of violence. Again, compare videogames about heroes who can kill a civilian and keep walking to television programs where even the baddest of bad cops would never shoot up a liquor store.
I hope that, at least, in this article, that I have proven in some way that games yet lack a certain artistic conscience that movies and television possess. (Duh.) That doesn't feel like a perfect conclusion. It's really hard to arrive at a perfect conclusion for an imperfect issue. I'd love to end this piece with some really well-thought out bit that calls Square-Enix terrorists for not letting you skip the opening video of Final Fantasy XII until precisely the instant the "SQUARE-ENIX" logo fades out, about ten seconds in, though I haven't done enough homework into religious histories. I guess the most I can say is that the chance of games, at some point in the future, wielding an artistic conscience is not at all out of the question.
For example, let's say this, and be done with it: I have betrayed a girl, just once in my life. I betrayed one girl for another; the next girl ended up betraying me in precisely the same fashion. Now, "betray" is a strong word, really: I forgive the girl who betrayed me. She gave me some nice context for future behavior. Anyway, what are the chances that you, someone who has never betrayed anyone, might betray someone in the same way as I did? What are the chances that I'm less trustworthy a person than you? Ignoring the fact that the weight of the guilt from having betrayed someone might make me reluctant to betray anyone in the future, we can say that before I betrayed anyone, I was a person who had betrayed no one. In other words, in our little example here, the only people who had ever betrayed people were those who had never betrayed people. The only people who've ever eaten strawberries are people who had, at one point, for an extended period of time (in an animal sense), existed as people who had never eaten strawberries. Looking at it this way, we can say that pretty much anything in this world is possible. Isn't that a fantastic feeling? It makes this world look like a wonderful place to be alive. It makes me want to take a hot bath in water heated to my precise body temperature, and think about nothing, and then, maybe when I get out, I'll be thinking about rock and roll instead.
Let's hope I just don't feel like writing about it. That would be terrible.
[next: the phoenix had never burned]