Enough has been written about Grand Theft Auto V in the week since its release that I’m hesitant to attempt any kind of incisive criticism; the best writers in gaming have been at work on that since long before I even got my hands on the game.
I have been trying to sort out for myself, as I’ve made my way through the first part of the game, why I am enjoying it so much. Why I have always enjoyed this series. Why I feel affection for its protagonists, even though they are unquestionably Bad People by any reasonable metric. Of course it’s possible to feel sympathy for the Devil, but I’m somehow uniquely susceptible to it in this medium in a way that I haven’t encountered in others. I don’t watch Breaking Bad. I’ve never really been a fan of Scarface. Niko Bellic, on the other hand, is a character for whom I have considerable love.
I have been trying to understand why I am willing to invest myself in characters like Michael and Franklin (not so much Trevor, yet, I’ve just gotten to him and thus far I don’t like him very much) when I am so resistant to do it in other media. I think I’ve finally boiled it down: GTAV is a grotesquerie, both in its world and in its characters.
The first thing that it is important to note is that the world of Grand Theft Auto is unambiguously horrible. It is horrible in some of the same ways that the real world is horrible, only more so. There has been a lot of talk amongst games writers about Rockstar’s “failed satire,” but I don’t even know if satire is really what they’re going for here. I think that the aesthetic of the Grand Theft Auto series has drifted completely away from satire, if it every truly fit the term. From where it stands now, I think that it would be more accurate to call GTA a grotesque.
Both the world and the characters of GTA are meant to elicit both disgust and pity in the player. The counterpoint of those two emotions is what makes a grotesquerie so compelling: the player (or reader, or viewer, or what have you) wants to continue the narrative because they want to see whether or not the characters come to a place that’s less disgusting, less pitiful.
In Liberty City or Los Santos (or the rest of San Andreas, or even in Vice City), the subtext of commercialism, materialism, and capitalism that runs beneath our everyday lives is made explicit. The radio spews vile filth almost unceasingly. The billboards are suggestive and woefully adolescent. The people you pass on the street are vapid and superfluous, by design as much as by the convenience of programming. If this were satire, there would be some narrative commentary, some pointed suggestion as to the meaning of such excesses, but in GTAV there is none. It is the worst of the world made uglier, turned up to eleven, and presented to the player with barely a raised eyebrow. Again: grotesque. This is America-as-gargoyle.
In the world of GTA, sexism is rampant and horrible because the whole world has been crafted from a male perspective. Whether this implies a narrow, insensitive worldview on the part of the developers (likely) or a conscious decision to recognize the omnipresence of the patriarchy and depict it as even more omnipresent (odds are slim), the effect is the same: the disenfranchised are now nonexistent. The complex and interesting women who populate real life and so often go unrecognized by those with privilege are here less than invisible: in Los Santos, they simply do not exist. All of those angry dudebros who lashed out when critics gave GTAV less than a 10? This is their perspective given form and verisimilitude. And, like everything else in the universe of GTA, it’s horrible. A grotesque. An exaggeration that turns what is wrong into what is unconscionable.
It might be possible to set a GTA in a world that was not horrible in these ways (it would, in all probability, be more interesting), but this hideous fun-house mirror of real life makes it considerably easier to empathize with our protagonists. Oftentimes, they’re the least horrible guys in the room. But these three miscreants are grotesques, too, in the traditional sense: they are characters who simultaneously evoke disgust and empathetic pity.
Franklin’s kind of sad. Michael is sad, like, profoundly sad. Trevor, well, Trevor’s a whole ‘nother animal. But he’s pretty pathetic himself. (And, hey, while we’re on it– Niko Bellic is pretty sad, too.)
These are the kinds of characters which I would probably have a hard time watching on television (or–and I shudder to think of it–on stage). I think that my disgust would probably overpower my pity pretty quickly. Something about the medium of games, though, makes me give these guys a second look (it might have to do with how much, on a mechanical level, I like Shooting Bad Guys and Driving Fast Cars).
But I think there’s more to it than just that. In a world which is orders of magnitude worse than our own, we’re allowed to partner up with them and try and guide them toward being better–helping them to have more control over their lives, helping to dig them out of the pits of misery in which they’re entrenched–even if the journey there is over the bodies of wave after wave of thugs.
As I play the game, I don’t murder civilians for no reason. I try not to get anybody killed if I can avoid it. When I’m playing as Michael, I have him call his wife after every mission, hoping against hope that now that he’s back in the game and feeling more of a purpose to his life, he might start to treat her a little more humanely, and a genuine relationship might emerge. (Pretty sure this one’s a futile hope on my part. Gonna keep trying.)
GTA is complicated. At the same time that it glorifies hideous violence and makes the player complicit in it, it asks them to pity its miserable characters and try and guide them toward a place where they’ll be happier. But those two dueling emotions–disgust and pity–are the basis of any classical grotesque, from Frankenstein’s monster to Caliban to Smeagol, and it’s why even those of us who cringe at the hideousness of Rockstar’s ugly universe can buy in.
Looking at the game as an example of the grotesque doesn’t make the problematic elements go away, but for me it’s been a lens through which to understand my engagement with it.
Hey, folks. I heard about Maddy Myers‘s game jam, “Towerjam,” an effort to get some games made about characters that are usually not the focus–NPCs, captive princesses, parents and children left behind, and the like.
I’m no designer, but I HAVE been meaning to mess around with Twine for a good long while, and this was the catalyst for me finally getting off my butt and making it happen.
So, I wrote a (brief, abstract, somewhat circular) Twine adventure. It’s about Chrono Cross.
Why not give it a go? While you’re at it, check out the rest of the Towerjam submissions. And maybe go replay Chrono Cross!
I was listening to a couple friends yesterday talking about the replay value in Chrono Trigger stemming from taking different party members through story sequences in order to see what dialogue they added to the proceedings, and I couldn’t help but furrow my brow. One of the reasons that Chrono Trigger has such high replay value, I suggested, has nothing to do with the multiple endings or the various dialogue possibilities–or anything to do with the story at all.
Because Chrono Trigger has such a limited playable cast (seven characters is relatively small when stacked up against, say, Final Fantasy VI, with its fourteen playable characters), it can get away with a detailed and intricate combo system. In fact, probably 80% of the actions you’re going to take in any given battle are techs, unless you (like me) have a perverse insistence on just hammering away at bad guys with physical attacks.
Because every different party combination has its own unique set of combo attacks, and because each of these sets of attacks is functionally different (that is, some of them are area-of-effect, some of them attack on a line, some do massive damage to a single enemy, etc.), every party you take through a given dungeon will have a slightly different way of dealing with the baddies.
It’s like playing Mass Effect as a different class–replay value stemming from evaluating gameplay options with a different skillset in each playthrough.
Abandoning this template for a more Suikoden-like approach to playable characters was one of the big mistakes that Chrono Cross made, in my opinion, and is one reason that the game is weaker than its predecessor. Without combination techs, the characters become much more interchangeable.
So, after a several-weeks-long vacation in which I had nearly zero time to devote to gaming, I finally managed to sit down and polish off Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Once the credits had rolled (for the fourth time, actually, due to the multiple-campaign story structure), I came to a realization about why I continue to be invested in the series despite the fact that I find myself frequently rolling my eyes at its absurd, nonsensical mythos.
Japanese RPGs that are plot-centric have (almost) always operated with a certain structure in the way that they reward their players: the payoff, plot, comes after the player has conquered a certain amount of gameplay (often in the form of one or more dungeons, a couple boss battles, etc.). With the advent (no pun intended) of Final Fantasy VII, these plot rewards were often paired with the promise of a visually-impressive cinematic sequence: Finish this dungeon, beat this boss, watch something awesome happen that totally wouldn’t be possible to communicate within the confines of the game’s engine.
As someone who grew up with JRPGs, Final Fantasies in particular, I don’t agree with those who believe there’s something inherently flawed with this system of rewarding the player. Though I’ll certainly grant that there is a purity, a compactness, an immersive ideal that is possible when the gameplay itself is the reward and plot development never wrests control from the player, I certainly don’t believe that all games need to strive for that ideal.
I don’t mean for this to be a discussion about the merits, or lack thereof, of cutscenes. What I want to point out is the particular quirk that Kingdom Hearts puts into this formula, a unique and engaging (though sometimes frustrating) spin on the idea of rewarding your player with plot.
When I monitor my engagement with games in the Kingdom Hearts series, I don’t find myself more engaged in the story than I do in the gameplay. Whacking on Heartless/Nobodies/Unversed/whatever with a keyblade is an absolute delight, and each new entry into the series has further refined and deepened the game’s core mechanics.
Birth By Sleep, which not only sports smooth and fabulous swordplay but also adds some cool character-progression mechanics swiped from Crisis Core and Final Fantasy IX, is probably the best-playing game in the series. It’s also high-energy enough that when cutscenes come along, they feel like an appropriate breather from the frenetic action of battle.
As in all of the Kingdom Hearts games, though, story sequences are dramatically divided into two different categories: interactions of the protagonists with the characters in various Disney worlds, and developments exclusively concerning the original characters created by Square Enix.
Almost exclusively, the former are boring as all-get-out, while the latter have the potential to be intriguing and dramatically potent. In almost every case, Squeenix uses each protagonist’s encounter with Disney characters as an attempt to hold some mirror up to them in an effort to show them realizing something about themselves or their friends. Such revelations are usually something along the lines of “never stop believing in your dreams” or “remember the importance of your friends.” Occasionally they are even more abstract, like “never give in to the darkness” or “protect your heart,” which… Ugh.
The Disney characters are almost exclusively reduced to flimsy, weak pantomimes of the events of their original stories, which have neither narrative potency nor any real interest to the player. Seldom are they given any kind of depth.
And so in a Kingdom Hearts game, rather than play through partly-engaging gameplay in order to get to the more-engaging story, the player plows through uncompelling Disney narratives they’ve encountered before in order to get to the original material that they might actually care about.
(As a sidenote, there is some pleasure in setting foot in new Disney worlds for the first time, but Kingdom Hearts II does this much better than anything that’s yet followed it. Going into the worlds of Tron, Steamboat Willie, and Pirates of the Caribbean was delightful.)
However absurd the mythos of Kingdom Hearts may be, it’s a series which does have a mythos–and which loves to tantalize with elements of that mythos that are as-yet-unrevealed to its players. Playing the Kingdom Hearts games to completion, sometimes on harder difficulty settings, offers players glimpses of connections between entries in the series, hints at the nature of the cards in the hand that the developers have not yet shown. If you are the least been invested in the world, as I am, then these narrative bridges become the greatest reward of all for playing the games.
This has been going on since the first game, in which, if players had fulfilled certain criteria, they were greeted with this upon the game’s completion:
This, in a game which ended on something of a cliffhanger, from the people who made Final Fantasy (not exactly a series known for direct follow-ups. …Well, not at the time, anyway).
The secret video at the end of the first Kingdom Hearts drove me absolutely bonkers. Was there going to be a sequel? Why was it so aesthetically different from the entirety of the game? Who the heck was that blonde kid?
When Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories came out, I snatched it right up. Tangling with the plot of this one was even more divided than the first game: not only had I already dealt with the Disney plots in the original movies, but I had already seen them through in the first Kingdom Hearts game! Talk about a snooze-fest! The card-based battle system was pretty engaging, though, and enough to keep me interested between scenes that involved the new original characters, Organization XIII, who were not only intriguing but offered some truly spectacular boss fights.
When the game concluded, I was pretty satisfied at having enjoyed some new plot material, though I wasn’t surprised that they employed the trope of having Sora’s memory wiped at the end. It was a handheld game, after all, and I was pretty sure that they weren’t going to expect people to have played it when they dove into the sequel (which, at that point, was definitely on its way).
Imagine my surprise when, upon booting up Kingdom Hearts II, I found all of that narrative information not only pertinent, but perhaps essential. I still didn’t know what was going on, of course, but the first hours of KH2 were replete with tantalizing clues.
I have no idea how many people out there in the world of gaming are as captivated as I am by this meta-game of piecing together the mythos. I’m sure that many, if not most, adult gamers don’t have the time to invest in a series with a younger audience in mind, especially one that’s spread across at least five different systems.
What I do know is that the final epilogue of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep contains scenes which make no sense if you haven’t played Chain of Memories, the original Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, and 358/2 Days, and it delights me to no end. I’m not sure I can think of another series of games that invests that much time in establishing connections between its different entries, with the possible exception of Metal Gear Solid (you wanna talk about a self-referential mythos, yikes).
Though it’s obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, I think that the Kingdom Hearts series should be applauded for the way it rewards the series-faithful. There is great joy to be found, as a player, in gradually uncovering the pieces to a larger puzzle. I wish more games offered us this pleasure.