I’m not exactly doing current affairs on this blog. Most of it could have been written 10 years ago. I don’t even read the gaming news, except bits that surface on Twitter. I stopped reading the news because, after — I don’t know — 15 years? 20? I realised there was rarely anything very interesting going on. I mean, stuff was happening — the world has lots of great people in it, and some of them are doing games — but it mostly wasn’t in the news, and you had to dig through a lot of crap to find what was.
So the following rant on the state of gaming isn’t about the “gamergate” travesty, but it was inspired by it. That’s as topical as I get.
I spent between 5 and 10 years in the wilderness, not playing games. I missed just about all the mainstream action between GTA San Andreas and GTA V. That’s what I came back to — GTA V — and god, I was disappointed. I mean, it was truly depressing. It was empty. It was a huge artistic vacancy. There was a perfect space for thoughtful exploration right in the middle of it, but time and again, when I was led to that space, I was let down by sheer, oppressive nothingness.
Case in point: the character of Trevor. He was the literal embodiment of every preceding GTA character as actually portrayed onscreen by teenage boys and drunks. What a perfect tool for commentary on the GTA series and gaming as a whole! But the tool went unused, as if the developers had made it accidentally and hadn’t even noticed.
My walkabout outside games put everything in a new light. I saw the whole history of popular gaming as a horrific mutant growth, germinating in happy childhood optimism and warping into a dark and troubled trauma that isn’t like me any more. The GTA series, in fact, is a microcosm of the broken state of mainstream gaming. Let’s do an abridged history and I’ll show you what I mean.
In the beginning there were very basic little games about blobs and ASCII characters clunking about and booping and blipping. They were proofs of concept. They were not great works of art or even entertainment in themselves, but they represented possibility. The whole future of videogames was ahead of us. We were optimistic.
Games like GTA (the first) were smashing down the limiting walls of early game design left, right, and centre. Imagined possibilities were now realised possibilities. You were so free in those cities, running about and driving cars. Yes, there was some questionable stuff in there — the violent crimes, the “Gouranga” for ploughing down all the Hare Krishnas in one go — but the crude themes were excused for two main reasons. One, crude as they were, they were only vaguely realised. Blocky top-down pixels struggled to offend all that much despite their best efforts. Two, we were kind of impressed that the game was working at all. It was pretty cool that DMA had built this whole little city you could race about in — and I mean squishing pedestrians almost seemed like an inventive solution to the problem of mixing “Hollywood style” driving mechanics with a living city.
When GTA went 3D, it was pretty cool. We were almost back to the tech-demo type of cool again. It was very rough around the edges, but it represented potential. They’d taken a challenging game concept and re-imagined it from the beginning to get on board with the future of videogame technology. Some of the unpleasant little quirks — just little things like murdering prostitutes — were, again, so awkwardly implemented that it was all too easy to ignore them and say that wasn’t what the game was really about.
And that 3D living world represented so much potential. Even though GTA III was a shit game, it got fantastic reviews. I can only imagine people were bowled over just by the fact that someone had managed to do it at all.
Vice City did something pretty cool, too. Its world wasn’t bigger, it offered no more variety, and the graphics were not technically improved by any great amount. But it gathered everything in GTA together and built a thematically coherent game. There was a plot that matched the world and the gameplay, a character who had some definition about him, and a visual motif and soundtrack that created a real atmosphere.
Vice City took the technical achievements of its forebears and added a touch of artistry. Its theme was lazy and derivative, but it had one. This was a real step forward — a statement of intent: we have the technology, but what are we going to do with it?
As gamers, we stayed optimistic, we forgave the crassness of it all, because it was where things were going that excited us.
Suspiciously, though, Vice City got slightly worse reviews than GTA III. Was that a vague sign of something somewhere going off the rails?
Next up, we got a special show of the PS2’s late-in-life capabilities. San Andreas was much bigger — four times the size! You know all the stuff in GTA III? Well can you imagine all that but more of it? So all of that, then all of that again — the same — and then again, and maybe again. Hmmm… That’s actually pretty easy to imagine.
San Andreas traded thematic coherence for superficial variety, and selectivity and style for more, more, more. It was fantastically well received. You couldn’t have done that before. People didn’t know how, or hadn’t succeeded in building a world as vast and varied as San Andreas. All that artistic bullshit in Vice City could have been done any time. I mean people have been doing art for ages — that’s like books, and things your parents like! Yuck! New tech wins.
But the possibilities were dying. GTA III made us imagine what could be done. Vice City looked like an attempt actually to do some of it. San Andreas was offering more to work with, but undoing the work that had actually been done with what we had before. It was tech for tech’s sake. Where is gaming actually trying to get to, guys?
I remember, as I write this, my friend in secondary school explaining to his dad the benefits of the new graphics card he had just forked out for. Tomb Raider seemed to look just the same after all. “Her breasts are more curvier,” he said, pointing at the bulbous CRT. I don’t believe his dad upgraded the graphics card again.
So I went away from gaming, and when I returned, GTA V was waiting. What on earth did we have here? We had San Andreas again, basically. This was the biggest, bestest, most GTA-est GTA ever. You want mountains? YEAH! Have some mountains! You want to drive a quad bike out of the back of an aeroplane? YEAH! Drive a quad bike out of the back of an aeroplane! You want to touch nude women in a bar? Um… Touch nude women in a bar! You want to get so good at touching nude women in a bar that they have sex with you? Sorry I think I came to the wrong— KEEP TOUCHING THE WOMEN! You want to control a crazy man, a black man, and a normal man? What do you mean by— That’s right! You do!
It turned out that when those Hare Krishnas got squashed — and we thought it was a bit silly, and it was kind of a proof of concept, and just a suggestion of the kind of thing that you might do in a game, and that there was a lot of potential, and really that was just an example — that was for real.
The two passes we issued back in the day — a pass because the crude themes were only vaguely realised, and a pass because the tech showed artistic potential — expired in 2002. Now we have vivid portrayals of sick activities, deliberately and careful created, and reiterated until they’re just right, using basically the same tech that every other game under the sun has been using since we went 3D. Now we’re just perverts.
Fantastic, talented people are working in large, coordinated groups, with the latest technology and piles of cash, to make systems for pretending to do horrible, horrible things.
Jack Thompson was right!
Let’s not get carried away. Games are not “murder simulators” (murder being only one of the gross things they sometimes simulate). I will defend them on that point because almost none of the prime suspects — the AAA console mega-sellers — seem to have been made with enough deliberate artistic direction to be anything meaningful at all. In short, I don’t credit them with the sophistication to be murder simulators. That’s the best defence I can offer, which is sad.
So are gamers dickheads now?
If the gamers are the ones still gulping this down, still feeding it in return, then they’re the lords of the flies. They’re the lords of the flies in their little beach paradise that has got out of control. They haven’t stopped to look at themselves in their (accidentally homoerotic) blood-soaked loincloths, to ask each other “What have we become?”
Meanwhile, a lot of tourists are visiting that island now, and they’re all saying “Man, I like the beach, but those guys are kind of crazy!” Unfortunately, some also get spears thrown at them from the undergrowth.
The good news is that the tribesmen are relatively few, and the beaches and the tourists and all the Game Boys in their pockets are the whole wide world. I’ve no idea what will happen. Will we just go to other beaches instead? Will we somehow rehabilitate the tribesmen and help them rejoin society? Will they die off? Or will we kill them? Is there any room for some monkeys and an elephant in this analogy to lighten the mood a little? The most certain thing is that the savages are not going to take over the world. The biggest question is how unpleasant a curiosity they’ll end up being.
Nearly at the end — just try not to contradict yourself
I had a lot of fun playing the GTA series. And even if it was as rotten as I made it out to be, that can hardly drag down the whole of gaming and all the creative people making brilliant things. But part of me hates what gaming really is, at its popular core, while another part still gets excited about the potential for better and better things. Another part of me enjoys even the GTAs, but it’s time to stop brushing things under the carpet. The old excuses can’t be used any more: it’s time to grow up and take some responsibility.
Now I don’t know if this rant was really about gaming, or about myself. I’m not sure if that makes me a gamer or not. I don’t think I feel proud enough of videogames to call myself that any more.
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