Grand Theft Auto And The Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ludonarrative Dissonance

Red Dead Redemption is the latest opus from Rockstar Games. The “open world sandbox emergent gameplay” style is the most popular form of game today (it’s not hulking no-necked muscle men, who have been around since video games were created, and OWSEGP has even begun sneaking into their little kingdom), and Rockstar is the master. They’ve grown alongside the technology, from the top-down mayhem of Grand Theft Auto to the Scarface tribute that was even better than the actual Scarface video game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and finally reached an apex with Grand Theft Auto IV, an incredible realization of New York City in (cop) killer form. They also made some stupid games about being mean to kids, table tennis, and a rogue cop who shoots his way through a massive conspiracy (twice), but why would I play a video game about things I could do in real life????

GTA IV was impressive and a blast to play, but not without flaws. Sure, you had the City That Never Sleeps to play around in, but you also had about twelve virtual “friends” who would call at inopportune times, demanding that you go bowling with them while discussing The American Dream. Compared to the Grand Theft Auto game immediately prior, San Andreas, the terrain was less varied, the clothing choices for your man (as moms everywhere call all video game protagonists) duller, and there were no bicycles or planes to dick around with. Oh, and the ludonarrative dissonance*.

*I actually just read that here today. So don’t think I’m all that much smarter than you.

Ludonarrative dissonance is a fancy way of saying that there’s “a conflict between a game’s story and the mechanics the game uses to tell that story“. Grand Theft Auto games are, at their heart, about running around a city killing innocent civilians and cops and basically being one great big domestic terrorist. In fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid it. Pedestrians have a tendency to jump in front of cars, it’s easy to scrape a police car and set off a high speed chase by accident, and if you play nicely and follow traffic laws and right of way… you might as well watch grass grow.

So you’re watching GTA IV‘s various cutscenes (Rockstar always does these well, so they’re not a chore), Niko Bellic the eastern European immigrant expounds on his desires to leave criminality behind, to start fresh in America and become an honest man, to give up violence forever. Then the cutscene ends and you run outside and shoot an old woman in the head, causing her to drop her grocery bag. You hijack a car and turn on the death metal radio station and drive on the sidewalk, mowing down entire families. It cheapens the story Rockstar’s trying to tell, to say the least.

"Somewhere, a Jamaican stereotype is calling me, asking if I and I would like to shoot some darts. Later on, Jacob. Later on."

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What The Fuck, Seth Schiesel?

Originally there was going to be a preamble here, a little somethin’ somethin’ so I didn’t just launch into the meat of the issue.

But fuck that. Check this out.

Yes, Mr. Schiesel, a man whose Opinions on Video Games matter to me, has decided that the best use of his limited space is to discuss the latest FarmVille. If you don’t know what FarmVille is, how did you even find this website, grampa? I bet your modem is just a handwritten page of binary handed off to the Pony Express man, addressed to The Internet.

Sure, as far as video and computer games go, FarmVille is huge. And I’m sure FrontierVille will be just as huge (although possibly not since they’re asking their market to commit to two big time sinks).  I can see the merit of some reportage on this. But surely, Mr. Schiesel, there have been at least a few big releases in the past month. Couldn’t you have better spent your time and ink on those instead?

The Characters of Nier

Way, way back in the mists of time (May 27th, to be exact), I concluded my barely literate and amateur level analysis of fatherhood in video games with a post on Nier. But one post is never enough, so let’s talk about Nier some more. Guess what? We’ve got spoilers ahead, children. As the atheist said to the pope, deal with it.

Today we’re discussing the characters. Later this week (he said, uncertain of the veracity of the statement) we’ll do a breakdown of the first two endings and what makes them some of the most satisfying video game endings I’ve seen recently. And after that, we’ll move on to other pastures.

With me? Good.
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Father Knows Best – Nier

This is the third in a series of articles dealing with fatherhood in video games. If you want to read the articles on Bioshockand Bioshock 2, go for it.As always, spoilers abound below.

In Bioshock, fatherhood was something you observed more than actively participated in. The Little Sisters and their Big Daddies were a happy little unit, until you came along and ruined everything.

In Bioshock 2, fatherhood became a larger part of the story. Your actions as you hunted for your stolen daughter influenced how she grew up. It’s fatherhood represented as a series of choices that give you, the player, a sense of agency in raising this girl. Even if there’re only one or two ways it can turn out.

Nier (pronounced Who The Fuck Knows) samples from both of these approaches. Released in April to middling reviews, Nier did get a nice review in the New York Times of a little less than a thousand words. I like to use video game reviews in the Times as a sort of barometer for what might be worth playing. Mr. Schiesel, while he does have a tendency to wax poetic about Video Games As Art (remember, we don’t talk about that here), shares the same sort of sensibilities about games that I do. Beyond an agreement with the reviewer’s judgements, though, there’s also the fact that it’s rare that one of these reviews show up. So when one does, I pay attention. Of course, Mr. Schiesel doesn’t like everything – his Dante’s Inferno review is damning with faint praise. But if he likes something, and I can wade through the lily-gilding, I generally think about giving it a shot.
Back to Nier, though.

"Look, pal, I don't have all fucking day here. Can we get to discussing me already? This sword is real heavy." a big sword joke courtesy of the year 1997

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Father Knows Best – Bioshock 2

NB: This article is going to spoil Bioshock 2 for you, if you care. If you haven’t already read the first part, why not? I’ll wait.

When I left off last time, a little girl was crying over the corpse of her dead father in a ruined underwater city as a menacing figure advanced on her in search of precious ADAM.

me and mah daddy ❤

A little under three years later, Bioshock 2 was released. A lot of people (self included) thought, “Well, this is the sequel that need not exist. The Big Bads from the first are dead and dead. The city’s been all but completely abandoned. What the hell is left to do there?” The only additional feature was the ability to use both a Plasmid (magick powers) and your gun at the same time.

And you played as a Big Daddy. That’s right, no longer are you a Mystery Man dropped into the middle of the crumbled building – instead you’re one of those big hulking things you spent so much time figuring out how to kill. Yawn. I’m already big and slow in real life – I don’t want to play a video game that reminds me of that. It’s the same reason video game protagonists don’t have to stop to catch their breath after climbing a flight of stairs.

I figured, even though I did enjoy the first Bioshock, I could let this one go. Aside from what sounded like a dumb single player experience, it seemed like half of the game’s development had been devoted to multiplayer. I’ve yet to be really impressed with an online multiplayer game lately, since I don’t find much fun in a bunch of teenagers calling me a “gay faggot” as they beat me over and over. Also, I’m terrible at them.

Finally, though, I was convinced by the good reviews and the fact that it came with a shiny foil box to pick up a copy. I took it home, unwrapped it and popped the disc in.
“This… this is good,” I thought.
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Father Knows Best – Bioshock

NB: This post is going to contain ending spoilers for the first Bioshock. It’s also really nerdy.

Let’s get one thing straight here – I’m not here to weigh in on the big weighty question sweeping big weighty nerds all across the internet, as they band together to tell a cancer patient that he’s stupid and wrong. Are video games art? I don’t really care. I think the whole debate undercuts the medium it’s trying to uplift. You can explain to someone who’s never picked up a controller why the death of one of your tow-headed moppets in Final Fantasy 7 gave you honest tears. (For the record, I was much sadder about the supposed death of the cat riding a big stuffed animal.) You can discuss how only capital-A Art could provoke so emotional a response from you, a man who’s watched WikiLeaks videos of soldiers blowing up civilians without batting an eye.

After that, they’re going to link you to this video from recent release and critical darling Bayonetta, featuring two impossibly built and over-sexed women contorting around like strippers in heat.

Look out, Ebert. I'm coming for you. And when I'm finished, all they'll find are Cheeto fingerprints.

My point is, who cares if video games are art? The whole argument sounds like people grasping at making their hobby/obsession Mainstream Credible. If Ebert were to give up and declare video games art, his opponents reason, then all of a sudden they’ll be seen as the same as film buffs who watch and discuss movies or literature lovers who dissect books. This completely ignores that there are plenty of people who watch movies and read books that are just as dumb, greasy, and obese as the current common conception of video gamers. It’s a silly argument and I don’t want to add more words to the pile.

Well, more words than I already did.

Let’s move on.

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