After much internet-crashery and website-cloggery (it took yours truly an hour of trying), Rockstar Games unveiled a one minute and three second trailer for the eleventh game in their flagship series, Grand Theft Auto IV. Rockstar's product earns them gamer adoration and lands them in hot water with parental watchdog hysterical types in pretty much equal measure. The short of it is that in terms of subversive, uncouth expression of social dissatisfaction and rowdy satire, Rockstar is the game development equivalent of The Sex Pistols. Puckish rude humor permeates GTA, from visual gags to the plot and game geography itself; the last installment, San Andreas is set in an elaborate, detailed recreation / parody of 1990's Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, with miles of environs in between. Everybody may get chortles from shootouts in front of pastiches of the Hollywood sign or Circus Circus casino, but the locals-only in-jokery deepens as you drive past buildings modeled on the Warner Bros. lot, Randy's Donuts, the Watts Towers... and is anyone outside of the Hollywood area supposed to get excited that the tiny, storefront Tiki Theater, the city's last straight porn theater, is lovingly reproduced? Do kids "get it" when they fly a helicopter into the Chemosphere from Body Double? It's some kind of brilliant joke, the design of this dream Los Angeles, with all the boring parts removed, and renamed "Los Santos", but it's hard to explain. It's satiric city planning.
Speaking of far-flung satire, difficult to unpack, there is the matter of the Grand Theft Auto IV trailer.
For some reason, the GTA IV trailer is modeled on Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi. Seriously. It's funny at first, but the dramatically framed images of the Grand-Theftverse New York City stand-in, Liberty City, are honestly beautiful, the Philip Glass music is sobering enough, that it slides out of parody into something effective, exciting and epic. Then it becomes funny again, because one is inevitably left to wonder: insofar as this is a joke, who is it for?
Q: I've never been able to buy a Philip Glass record, but is that really his Koyaanisqatsi score, or a sound-alike?
A post last November at Dr. Mabuse's Kaliedo-Scope, concerning "Video Games as Art" left me sighing a little. The gist of it is that David Bordwell and Roger Ebert think video games are inherently limited in artistic possibility and cannot achieve the "stature of art" (Ebert's words). I don't have a pressing interest in New Media studies ("I can't figure out the Old Media! Call me when somebody figures out how to program this furshlugginer VCR!"), and I can't believe anyone still bothers getting embroiled in "but is it ART?!" arguments, but the residue of critical bias against video games among popular film writers is irritating. It's unfortunate that Bordwell particularly, who is well-schooled in early cinema, doesn't recognize the parallel to the motion picture art form's struggle for legitimacy. Two points. Or maybe they're questions:
-What does the film critic or theorist have to offer video game studies?, and
-How can other critics play, if we can't, you know, play?:
Now, I have time to play maybe one modern game a year. I'm not purporting to come from some gaming culture insider standpoint. I am aware that some fascinating work and/or warring is going on in the field of game scholarship, regarding the relative value of investigating games as a storytelling medium, or as, er, games. Whether these lively polemics are fruitful or not is someone else's problem. I see major hindrances for critics, commentators and theorists from any other discipline hoping to horn in on the arena or assist in its development.
The first problem is unfortunately "Is the critic good at video games?", and there are sundry corollary problems regarding how we can approach a text that requires mastery of extra-disciplinary talents, a text which fundamentally changes, or is incompletable for different "readers". The sense in which Finnegan's Wake or Gravity's Rainbow (or, say, Salo or INLAND EMPIRE) are "difficult" is pretty different than Metal Gear just being too goddamn hard to beat. How can I hope to say anything about Metal Gear if I can't play for more than 10 minutes? Finishing San Andreas probably took me 100+ hours. The ending of the mission-based storyline (for the game is eternally playable after the narrative proper is concluded, the story-matter remains unexhausted) is rather key to evaluating the game's moral ambiguity... so if you don't see what happens as James Woods' sarcastic CIA agent grows to respect your slovenly gangbanger character... or the realistic way in which crack tears apart the neighborhood community, and thrives on depression and poverty, or any number of other late-game plot points, how can you undertake a thorough reading of the text?
This is all fraught with practical, logistic peril, probably exciting to some, but it kind of gives me a headache. Furthermore, I suspect the games theorists are correct, and the structures and techniques video games use to tell stories leave the rest of the lit crit community stymied. Just because game cut scenes use imitative cinematic language doesn't mean the whole game is cinematic, or the narrative has necessary foundation in film narrative... right?
Rockstar's trailers for 2006's Bully were frankly funnier and more clever than any motion picture comedy coming attractions of last year. The trailers are built on modern film trailer models, with emphasis on narrative, character and cinematic mise en scène; there is no indication of what the screen looks like during play, of play mechanics, or game tasks. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a cheeky/decadent pastiche of Scarface and Miami Vice, and San Andreas parodied/celebrated/criticized -- was immersed in -- '90s black urban cinema. San Andreas demonstrates a deep understanding of the lineage of African American film from wild and woolly '70s blaxploitation to the earnest films of of John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers. The Bully trailers play with tropes of the social commentary black comedy, coming-of-age film, teen sex comedy, and youth nostalgia picture. The GTA IV trailer promises a sort of Moscow On the Hudson with a human traffiking twist, and the trailer is styled after a renowned documentary film. It all points up to fact that film critics could, should, and shall be useful video game commentators.
Film studies is not going to be the key to indigenous video game theory; game theory is. But simply perusing the cursory list of examples above, it is clear that the ladies and gents with a bent toward film genre studies and aesthetics are specially equipped for the job. Game narratives are fundamentally different in structure than film narratives, but they are informed by film genres from surface iconography, to the raw tissue of story. And games have unique methods for investigating genre storytelling that requires a specialist's finesse. I mean, when Rockstar advertised Max Payne 2 "a film noir love story", and is publishing L.A. Noire, a sepia-toned game set in a perfectly reconstructed '40s Los Angeles... well... Never send a ludologist to do a film theorist's job.
So Back to Me: I see I've rambled more than I intended; I was planning on proposing that the open-world "sandbox" structure in the Grand Theft Auto car-chase,-crime-and-mayhem franchise is a close cousin to the amoral landscape of exploitation films. In general, sandbox crime games and exploitation movies suspend or exaggerate real-world rules in favor of colorful metaphor. The resultant carnivalesque space is playful and wild, but the symbolic weight it affords every action lets us seriously investigate our core concerns as human beings -- life and death, love and sex, jet packs and zombies, power and ethics -- in more vivid, envigorating ways than realistic dramatic storytelling allows.
-Bonus Rhetorical Question: Pet Peeve or Legitimate Problem with Lazy Writers?: Comparing a film's plot, in some vague, general sense, to a "video game" is frequent perjorative shorthand for film reviewers. You will see these writers complain when editing seems inspired by "MTV", or when action sequences are like "a comic book." They're using shorthand for media with which they aren't familiar and/or are unwilling to understand. Therefore, don't trust those people.
Update: Okay, so thanks to Wikipedia, there are no in-jokes in the world, and everybody gets the Koyaanisqatsi reference in the GTA IV trailer. Whatever, Wikipedia!