Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Whining About Grand Theft Auto V, Part 2: Gunplay and Power Fantasy.

Grand Theft Auto V DLC just announced.
This is the second part of my big, scattershot critique of Grand Theft Auto V. (Part 1 is here.) Things it did well. Things done not so well. Ways it could have, with minimal effort, made the flat parts much more interesting.

My problem with Grand Theft Auto V is not what it tries to do. It's that it doesn't do a good job of doing what it tries to do. Grand Theft Auto V tries to sell this badass thug life fantasy, but it undercuts itself at every turn.

The main reason I'm howling into the void like this is because I want Grand Theft Auto VI (or the next game to sell the same thing, Saints Row-style) to be better.

This is who I want to play.
A Brief Note About Stories About Scumbags

Writing a story centered around criminals and killers is hard. Making these characters likable is really hard. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of success. The Sopranos. The Godfather. Quentin Tarantino movies (especially Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction). Wolf of Wall Street does a great job of it, and it's in theaters now.

How do you make a scumbag likable? It's all about fantasy. They don't have to be witty, but it helps. They don't have to have lots of fun, but it helps. What you need is a feeling of power and of getting to live outside of society's suffocating rules.

The most important thing: You have to believe that, for all of the danger and the fear, these characters LOVE the life they live. They wouldn't have it any other way.

But what if your criminal characters are constantly miserable and dour and gray and joyless and you would rather spend a lifetime as a Walmart greeter than five seconds in their shoes?

This brings us back to Grand Theft Auto V.

My favorite was the unhappy one.
Three Characters. Kind Of.

It was huge news when it was announced that Grand Theft Auto V would have three main characters. As if this is an exciting development in storytelling, which it isn't. The Seven Samurai came out decades ago, and it had SEVEN characters! (Not to mention Ocean's Eleven.)

It really only has one playable character: An unhappy, crabby criminal who wants to score big robberies to get rich. There's the young version, the old tired version, and the midlife crazy version, but they're basically the same character. (With the crazy version coming closest to being a fully realized, believable person.)

The sameness of the three characters is a sad missed opportunity. Here's my suggestion: Why do all three have to be on the same side? Why couldn't one of them be a corrupt cop trying to bring the other two down (like Vic Mackey in The Shield). When you play him, there are corrupt-cop minigames like shaking down drug dealers. Then, when you switch characters, the game would actually change in a meaningful way.

Or, want to keep the three criminals working together? You could make the whole thing twice as interesting in a second by making the young black striving criminal a woman. (Want to know what I'm picturing? Kindly Google Pam Grier. Or watch Jackie Brown. Yeah, I know. Tell me that wouldn't be awesome.)

Of course, then you run into the problem that some young male gamers are afraid of playing female characters, which is weird. Still, awesomeness is its own reward.

Do You Want To Be These People?

I can't remember any gaming story as dour and joyless as Grand Theft Auto V. It's these three miserable, clueless people, griping at each other and failing at everything they do for hour after hour. These people just aren't fun to watch.

This game needs a lot more Pulp Fiction. As it is, it's like watching some 60s French film about the Meaning of Sadness.

A Brief Side Note About Video Game Stories

By the way, a quick tip for the uninitiated. When people say a video game has "a good story," what they mean is that it has "a story." When they say it has "interesting characters," what they mean is that it has "characters."

These things get graded on a curve.

My Perfect Example Of the Problem

The game constantly rubs your nose into how powerless your power fantasy avatars are. Favorite example: The minigame in which you can fondle strippers during a lap dance, but only if the bouncer doesn't see you. If the bouncer sees you, you get thrown out.

Let us set aside for a moment that a game where you are groping women who doesn’t want to be groped is just super-ultra-gross.

But seriously? You're playing these awesome psycho badasses, yet they don't have more juice than a strip club bouncer?

You think Tony Soprano ever gets thrown out of a strip club? I'd like to see some dude try. They'd be pulling chunks of him out of the Hudson River for years.

OK. I put the box on the other box. When do I get to shoot all of these people?
About the Heists

One of the big features of GTAV was the heist system: You would choose a target for a huge robbery, and then you would laboriously go through all the steps of planning it out. Sounds cool.

But why were the steps of planning the heist so tedious? Drive across town to buy a mask. Drive back across town to steal a truck. Wander around a jewelry shop and take pictures. At one point, I swear to god, you pretend to be a dockworker and use a crane to move boxes around.

I totally see what they were going for here. They want to show how these big crimes come together and give the player the feeling of putting something big together. It just doesn't play well.

A Final Thing. The Gunplay.

Grand Theft Auto gameplay has two dominant components: The driving and the shooting. The driving, as I discussed in the previous post, is awesome. Sadly, the shooting is kind of a mess.

I'm far from the first person to observe this ... here's how the combat works. You press the left trigger, and you will be auto-aimed at the center of the torso of the nearest enemy. Press the right trigger to kill him. That's it. Left trigger - right trigger - left trigger - right trigger, until you win. It's not that fun.

GTA apologists are already storming to the comments to angrily point out that you can turn on free aiming in the settings. Well, yeah, you can. But so what? 95% of players never dig into the Settings. The default version of the game IS the game.

But even if lots of players knew about and used this option, isn't this weird? I mean, why is such a fundamental part of how the game plays left to a check box buried in Settings? I mean, isn't that kind of peculiar? Why is that?

I think the real reason for the simplistic combat becomes very clear whenever you're in a fight where autotargeting doesn't work. In other words, in one of the many fights where it's nighttime and you have a sniper rifle and you NEED TO SHOOT THAT ONE GUY RIGHT NOW OMIGOD NOWNOWNOW!!!!!

And I'm desperately looking through the scope into the darkness, trying to figure out which gray patch on a gray patch I need to shoot to not instafail the mission. Honestly, so many of my mission failures happened because I was squinting at the screen trying to find my target.

This is the problem: Because of the art style and the huge variety of targets, settings, and times of day, you will often be in fights where you just can't see your enemies clearly. It works, though, because the magic left trigger always finds them for you. Left trigger - right trigger - left trigger - right trigger.

I don't know how to solve the problem (which existed in GTA4 too), but having an aiming-free shooter isn't a great solution.

You see how badass and non-depressed these people look? I'll come back when I can play them.
In Closing

For all its supposed edginess, Grand Theft Auto V is the most conservatively-designed, risk-averse computer game I've ever played. Is the content edgy? Maybe? I suppose? Kind of? In 2013, selling a game to teen boys where you fondle strippers and torture swarthy foreigners is not a big risk.

Of course, there's no way they will care about my criticism. Nor should they. It's not my risk, not my hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into the game. And because this game is massively successful, the next Grand Theft Auto will be the same thing. Same lavish setting, same nihilism. Honestly, the best thing Rockstar could do for the next game in the series is a three-word design document: "Same thing again."

However, this leaves an opening for a canny competitor. The Saints Row games have thrived by keeping the sense of fun and silliness the Grand Theft Auto games abandoned years ago.

My main problem with Grant Theft Auto V is that it was just a huge downer. It was sad and dour and all too frequently tedious. It never did what the Grand Theft Auto games were always so good at: making me smile.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Yes, It's a Game. They're ALL Games. STOP ARGUING.

Yes, in fact, I do have Know Your Meme bookmarked. Why do you ask?
I've been taking a long break playing through the dozens of unplayed indie games in my Steam queue. My biggest surprise was that all of my favorite experiences were what I privately call Storytelling games: Games with minimal gameplay, that mainly exist to tell a story.

You've been hearing about them for months. Gone Home. Stanley Parable. Papers, Please. (In my opinion.) To the Moon. Amnesia: Machine For Pigs. Storytelling Games really broke big in the last year.

But it's still the Internet. There is no conversation so interesting and new that someone won't break in and try to derail it into a pointless argument. So ...

Stop arguing about whether a game is a game or not. It's a useless distraction. STOP IT.


When someone says, "That isn't even a game," they are actually saying something else.

One. It's Impossible to Define What a Game Is.

No, seriously. Try it. Whatever definition you come up with, half of everyone else will disagree. The other half will instantly poke a ton of holes into it.

We're talking art here. Getting a firm definition of anything is impossible.

Consider Big Fish Games, a hugely successful publisher of casual games. Think of it as Steam for your grandmother.

Have you looked at casual games lately? One of the biggest categories on Big Fish Games is Hidden Object Games, which is exactly what it sounds like. "There is a squid somewhere on your screen. Click on it."

This is an activity that doesn't involve pwning a dozen robotorcs while cycling through a dozen hotkeyed abilities at top speed, so plenty of hardcore gamers wouldn't consider it worthy of the lofty title of "Game." But Big Fish Games does sell games. You can tell because they have "Games" right there in their name.

(Of course, whenever anyone says, "That isn't a game," it's just thinly disguised bragging about how awesomely hardcore they are. Whatever the filthy casuals are doing over there, it doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the cool kid stuff we do.)

Personally, I think a Hidden Object Game barely even counts as an "activity." But it's still a game, and if a Hidden Object Game is a game, everything is.

A screen from the delightfully aggressively named Witches' Legacy: Hunter and the Hunted. Now click the squid. Click, it, DAMN YOU! CLICK IT!

Two. Dividing Games Into Games and Not-Games is Useless.

I mean, why would you even want to come up with categories like Game and Visual Novel and whatever? It wouldn't do any good, as everyone has a different idea of what a game is.

You know something? I've decided that I don't think simulators should be considered games. Gone Home is like a Hidden Object Game, so it's a game, but Call of Duty is a war simulator, so it's not a game. So there! (Drops mic.)

What did you think of that last paragraph? Do you think I sounded like a crazy person? Well, that's how YOU sound if/when you say Gone Home isn't a game.

Coming up with different ghettos to stick games into doesn't do any good, and it keeps us from doing what's really interesting: Talking about the works themselves.

Three. You Really, Honestly Can't Come Up With Something Better To Talk About, Seriously?!?!?!?

This is a time of wonders for gamers. 2013 saw the release of a huge number of fantastic, innovative, and ground-breaking titles, on the indie and AAA level. It was a year of delights. Even games I had a lot of problems with were still super-fun.

We should be spending out precious and limited time talking about the games themselves. What they did right. What they could have done better. What is still technically or budgetarily impossible for them to do. (The last one is a really important, under-discussed topic.)

That someone could be greeted with all of these delights and all they can do is pick a semantic argument? The art form is growing fast now, guys. It's way, WAY too early to start pigeonholing things yet.


As always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Whining About Grand Theft Auto V, Part 1. Cars Are Awesome, and Girls Are Icky.

Sigh. OK. Let's do this thing.
"[GTA V] is the endpoint of the American dream."
- Dan Houser, Rockstar Head Writer and VP

I think we can all agree at this point that Grand Theft Auto V rests comfortably at the absolute pinnacle of the game industry.

Its Metacritic score is an impossibly high 97, head and shoulders above any other game anywhere ever. It took only a few days to garner over a Billion-with-a-B dollars in sales. While it's nowhere near as dominant in the Game of the Year awards as I expected (perhaps some of the lavish acclaim has been rethought), it is still doing respectably well.

Is there any standard, critical and financial, by which this game can't be considered the finest our industry has to offer?

And yet, is there anyone who can look me in the eye and tell me that it is not a flawed piece of work? Now that the dust has cleared, will anyone step forward and give an unqualified endorsement of it? Practically every lavish review comes with a huge qualification. "It's a fantastic experience, just ignore the [boilerplate missions/flat characters/hideous torture scene/misogyny]."

I played through about 2/3 of the GTAV storyline before I lost interest.  This pains me greatly, because I am a huge, HUGE Grand Theft Auto fan. I have unapologetically defended the series for years. You know how serious a fan I am? I finished Grand Theft Auto IV! The whole thing! Who did that, seriously?

I found fun bits, parts that are done really well, and a lot of stuff that just doesn't work. It is an important, ambitious title, and it deserves a solid dissection. Not just a "Fine. 10/10. Whatever. Is Battlefield 4 working yet?"

I've read a million reviews and analyses of this thing, and I have a few critiques I'd like to add (not that anyone from Rockstar will ever read them or care). Not as some moral scold. I'm not morally better than this series. I'm just a dedicated gamer who wants to love these games again.

At least we now know how Rockstar pictures their fans.

Don't Blame the Reviewers

Reviewing a game like Grand Theft Auto V is an incredibly thankless task. You're flown to a hotel. You get the disk. You let out a long sigh. You play for 10 hours straight. You go out for a stiff drink. You give it 93/100. You go out for a stiff drink.

What's the alternative? If you actually engage the flaws of the game, you get millions of belligerent (and even threatening) messages, and NOBODY enjoys that. Then there are demands that your site does a new review. Then you might lose your advertising dollars (and your job).

A perfect example is the Gamespot review by Carolyn Petit. It's a lavishly positive 9/10 review, that just happens to mention that the game is "profoundly misogynistic". (Which it is.) The comments thread on the article is, as of this writing, over 22000 (!!!) posts of rage.

Reviewers are humans. Editors are humans. Having this much anger directed at you, even from anonymous ghosts over the internet, is shaking, even before you consider the real business punishment that can result from actual criticism.

It's a bizarre system, one determined to punish honest feedback, replacing it with an avalanche of meaningless rating scores.

The next part is the one that'll make people mad. As a calming influence, here is a bunny.

Oh, and About the Misogyny Thing

Every reviewer goes on, rightly, about the incredible scale and depth and detail of GTAV's game world. The game is amazingly big and lovingly rendered. It does an excellent job of evoking real-life Los Angeles.

And yet, with all the money and effort that went into making the world, you know what there wasn't room for? A single female character that wasn't a hooker, a stripper, or a shrew.

And let's be super clear. I'm not saying every story everywhere ever needs to have women in it (or men). But what I AM saying is that GTAV's story would be improved by more variety in the cast. It's all grumpy, bitter dudes grousing at each other for forty hours. It's dour and repetitive, and it needed something to liven it up. (I'll get back to this in detail in Part 2.)

But back to misogyny. Of course GTAV is misogynistic. It's not a bug. It's a feature. It's a selling point. And that is not a crime. Some people simply want their fantasy world to be a He-Man Boy's Club, and Rockstar is making infinite dollars selling it to them.

If that's what you want, fine. It's not against the law. But at least admit it! Don't freak out when someone points out the obvious.

Young men, you already won. You got the game you wanted, and you made it a success. Thus, you will get plenty more of what you want. However, the rest of us are still allowed to say that something is gross. You can't keep us from expressing opinions. That is one thing the game industry cannot bend over backwards to give you.

Yes, I'm about to tie Gone Home into this. This is a Difficulty Level 4 Game Critic Maneuver (DL4GCM). We'll see if I stick the landing.

Some Things GTAV Gets Perfectly Right

No series becomes such an institution without getting some things right, and GTAV has mastered two elements that explain most of its everlasting popularity.

First, the world is mind-boggling huge and rendered to exacting detail. This sort of thing is a huge and expensive job, but it results in a kind of miracle: A world that is fun to just wander around in. See a pretty house up on a hill? You can go up there, poke around, find people sitting by the pool, and murder them.

The transgressive joy of being able to wander anywhere you want is one of the key features of the series. (Just as one of the most fun things about Gone Home is the evil pleasure of simply going through peoples' stuff. And, yes, I did just come up with the long sought-after Grand Theft Auto-Gone Home connection. You're welcome.)

Second, driving around is fun. The weird clumsy driving in Grand Theft Auto IV is gone, and peeling down the roads in a sports car at a zillion miles an hour is a simple good time.

Also, and this doesn't get appreciated enough, the driving AI for the characters is amazing. I played a bunch of missions involving high-speed chases through busy streets, and all of the cars moved perfectly believably and never ran into things in dumb ways.

It's one of those super-fiddly technical accomplishments that's really, really easy to underrate. I can't imagine all of the hours it must have taken to get that to work right.

Every plane offers a free one-way teleportation to the nearest hospital.
But That's Just the Cars

It's a constant of Grand Theft Auto games. They find the person on the team who is the biggest enemy of fun, and they put that person in charge of the planes and helicopters.

I mean, my God. The driving is so forgiving that if you roll your car onto its back (always the insta-fail kiss of death in older GTA games), you just need to waggle the joystick a few times and it magically flops back onto the tires. It looks goofy.

But when you have to land a plane, you better have your ailerons and rudders and propellors and landing gear and what-nots just so, or else! If not, well, you fail and get to try again after five more minutes of flying. If you don't have the patience for an hour of this, I believe the XBox Skip Mission button is the blue one.

(A Skip Mission button is, itself, a confession of flawed game design, but that's a battle for another day.)

Part two. TWO. I can't recommend this video highly enough. Skip forward to 2:40 or so. The delight at spending only a few imaginary dollars to sleep with an imaginary stripper is the opposite of infectious.

Another Thing GTAV Gets Perfectly Right

The wish-fulfillment.

And I'm not talking about the obvious wish-fulfillment, like the violence or the drugs or the ludicrous way you can get strippers to sleep with you.

I'm talking about the little, more relatable things. In particular, I'm talking about how, early in the game, two of your three characters can actually own a house. A nice house, with tasteful furniture, a view, and no crushing mortgage I can never pay off.

You want an impossible fantasy for the young people playing the game? Can't beat actually owning a nice house.

All they need is a side-mission in which you pay off your suffocating college debt, and the game will be complete.

(This is the first half. I go on about the storytelling and characters next week.)