My Five Favorite Games in 2021

My tradition continues: below are my five favorite games that I played in 2021.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2

I only started playing RDR2 in the latter half of December. I’d heard great things for a long time. I expected to find it enjoyable, probably better than the first Redemption. I’ve in fact been absolutely blown away by this game. It’s an incredible balance of Western simulator and heartfelt narrative vehicle, and I can’t get over how well that balance is maintained. Rockstar games typically favor the simulation side, creating big open worlds with tons of activities and locales, densely packed with AI inhabitants, awaiting you to create your own stories through the dynamic interactions with that world as you sow chaos or simply walk through it. Those games are often paired with stories about Big Ideas and memorable (and occasionally even complex) characters, but the story and gameplay often undermine each other. I’ve written about this before. But RDR2‘s open world and story don’t feel in contrast; they feed off each other. Your choices matter. Small choices create ripple effects, in and out of missions. How you act in the larger world determines to some degree how Arthur acts in missions and how the story plays out.

A lot of this is the richer Honor system pulled in from RDR, but not everything is simply tied to morality mechanics. The constant presence of characters who matter to the narrative helps, as well. You spend a lot of time at camp, and there are rewards and incentives for doing so. You get to know the camp members, who are well-written and well-acted; all but one or two of the most despicable have redeemable characteristics, and there are characters I found easy to relate to and care for. There’s a real sense of community, and that helps guide my actions as protagonist Arthur Morgan. But there’s always enough nuance in Arthur’s demeanor to justify a more honorable or more dastardly version of the character, and all versions feel within a reasonable range for this character as he is depicted.

There are also optional systems that provide additional depth to the stoic and gruff (though far-from-silent) protagonist; for instance, Arthur updates a journal to sketch places he’s visited, animals he’s studied and hunted, and interesting personalities he’s encountered, while providing his perspective on events in the game and his own (partially player-guided) actions. That journal feature is omnipresent, and when there’s an update, a notice briefly appears, but one never need spend time in the journal. I love to view it whenever it’s updated, though, as it adds much greater richness to the game’s story, providing a window into the inner life of a protagonist who isn’t always particularly inclined to tell people how he’s really feeling. Arthur’s defined personality traits but broad range of reactions has allowed me to find my own version of the character, one who tends to help those in need, who looks after women and children, who can be a bit too trusting, but who is also quick with a gun, willing to rob and loot, willing to turn a profit especially if it helps his outlaw community, and not out for blood but never afraid to get into a fight or even to kill if it serves his goals. He’s an interesting gray character–genuinely interesting, and not just the erratic set of disjointed choices that might normally define a “chaotic neutral” type of character.

The simulation side has engaged me far more than RDR, GTA IV, or GTA V, as well. I enjoy fishing and hunting. I enjoy seeking out a great buck, slowly stalking it, attempting to cleanly and mercifully kill it, and then collecting its carcass for a ride back through mountains, valleys, forests, plains, and rivers to share it with the outlaw camp’s quartermaster/cook for the benefit of the community. I enjoy simply riding my horse down wide roads and up narrow, winding paths. God, do I love the horses. There’s a button prompt to comfort/praise/reassure your horse, and I abuse the hell out of it. We’re closely bonded. And you can praise (or scold) cats and dogs, so I of course praise them when I can. You can pat dogs, so I do that often too. I suppose you could shoot them, but why would you? There are plenty of rewards in being a good person and treating the world like a real place, and I imagine there are rewards for those who want to play a far more violently aggressive personality as well, though I seldom see them.

There are also systems to punish wildly out-of-character behavior. There are harsh penalties to crime sprees. It’s inevitable–simply following the game’s story will get you involved in at least some criminal behavior, and my Arthur isn’t a saint. But the Wanted system combined with the lingering Bounty system and resultant posses of bounty hunters and lawmen that will follow you in territories where you’ve wreaked havoc provide for additional experiences to test your skills but also remind you that you shouldn’t push things too far, that the game’s “society” has clear rules and will demand you adhere to them or face dire consequences, locked out of most of civilization and on the run.

There are a lot of fascinating random events and strangers to run into. One time, I saw a fight to the death between territorial bucks. I’ve helped escaped prisoners and women captured by marauders. I’ve been ambushed by rival gangs. I’ve gotten swept up pursuing an impressive pronghorn buck or elk, or a legendary beast whose territory I innocently wandered into, ignoring for a while whatever my immediate goal had been. I’ve been invited to search for dinosaur fossils (an awesome acknowledgment of the rapid expansion of paleontological fieldwork and the wild characters involved from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). I’ve collected some treasure for a quest and stopped by a nearby abandoned cabin late at night, only to find skeletal remains everywhere and a message from a cult, with a sudden green glow and eerie thrumming to throw me off even further, my brain sounding alarm signals of fear before I realize I’m being buzzed by a UFO overhead just as it takes off. It’s a wild game.

There’s so much to do, and so many of the situations in the main narrative and the random encounters can be shaped by your personal input. While this could easily reward replay of the story, the game is just so damn big, the choices so many and varied, that I imagine I’ll see the completion of the game as the completion of the story for My Arthur; no replay would be needed. (Plus, if I still want more when I’m done, there’s Red Dead Online.) I’ve played for just over thirty hours and appear to be just under a third of the way through the story, so there’s more than enough game in the single-player mode alone.

There is so much to RDR2, but the nature of the game, its story about a struggling community and the efforts to find safety and purpose on a fading frontier, allow for such a wide-open story. Unlike the first game, I don’t get a feeling of bloat (which is really crazy when I complained about completing RDR in 46.5 hours, compared to my 31.4 hours for less than a third of the story in the sequel). There are certainly excessive systems, but the game wants you to live in it, and the story is about living in this community. There is no burning rush for revenge, as in the original. Instead, it feels like a story in which you’re simply trying to hold out as long as you can with the ones you love and the ones who rely on you, even as the noose slowly tightens around you and your found family. (Oh, also unlike the first game, RDR2 has so far provided a quite diverse cast of characters, from some of the central figures to the many background parts, and they’re provided much greater nuance and, at least for the main characters, individuality and complexity than in any other Rockstar game. I’m really impressed by this development.)

Finally, the customization options for accessibility and UI appearance are quite welcome. I like keeping a minimalist overlay presentation, inviting greater immersion into the game. The one feature I often keep up is some version of a navigation system in the lower left corner of the screen. If I’m moving through familiar territory or not particularly concerned about direction, I turn it off. If I’m heading toward a goal, I keep a simple compass on so I know that I’m at least not riding south when I need to be going west. If I’m in a territory where I’m wanted, or if I’m on a mission, I tend to turn on the normal or expanded versions of the minimap with its associated markers and route guides. All of this can be done without even pausing the game, pressing a couple of button prompts the same as you would to rotate between your weapon options. It’s impressive.

Then again, this whole game is impressive.

2. Jurassic World Evolution 2

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I loved what Jurassic World Evolution evolved into with its DLC. I was eagerly awaiting the sequel. It has not disappointed. I’m sure I’ll be returning to challenges and sandbox modes for quite a while yet. And I’m hoping for some further story developments post-Dominion!

3. Book of Travels

Another title that shouldn’t be a surprise on this list. This is a game that focuses on the things I like most about roleplaying. I haven’t given it the attention it deserves, but the time I’ve spent in it has been delightful.

4. Halo: The Master Chief Collection

I got into the co-op with a friend toward the end of this year. I also started playing solo playlists of missions. Maybe I’ll get into the multiplayer? Then again, I imagine most people have moved over to Halo Infinite. Either way, it’s been a fun and nostalgic time.

5. Star Wars: Squadrons

This was a go-to toward the start of the year, but my friends and I slowly burned out of this. We’ve idly talked about getting back into it. It really brought the sense of cinematic Star Wars space battles to life and personally invested you in it as a starfighter pilot caught up in the middle of it all. Multiplayer matches were chaotic and intense. We had one really strong player (not me–I was maybe the worst), but matchmaking unfortunately veered toward unbalanced rounds against incredibly skilled players or players who clearly didn’t know what they were doing at all, so we oscillated between fantastic victories and crushing defeats. I never got very far into the story, and the limited multiplayer maps could feel repetitive. But all that said, it was a way to socialize with friends during some of the worst of the pandemic while experiencing authentic Star Wars.

Review: The Many Saints of Newark

With The Many Saints of Newark, “the movie was not set up as a Tony Soprano origin story. It was a story about Dickie Moltisanti and it still is. It’s a gangster movie. It’s about gangsters in the late sixties, early seventies in New Jersey, both black and white,” David Chase told interviewer Alan Sepinwall with Rolling Stone in August. This provides a clear mission statement for the intended plot and themes of the film. While I think that goal is clear enough in the final product, it still is fundamentally an origin story, in part for Tony, but also in part for the entire Sopranos series.

In that same interview, Chase expressed some clear frustrations about the project: that he was not ultimately able to direct, that the movie was released immediately on HBO Max alongside the theatrical release, and that the movie was marketed as A Sopranos Story and as an origin story for Tony. But he also made clear that he pushed back on actual changes to the movie itself, and he said that he did not add more to Tony’s plot despite studio pressure and the remarkable ability of Michael Gandolfini to embody his late father’s appearance and mannerisms. So I think it’s safe to say that The Many Saints of Newark is more or less the movie that Chase as writer and one of the producers, cowriter Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor set out to make.

All that said, it is not possible to separate this movie from The Sopranos. It’s not just a gangster movie. One of the four people I saw the movie with had not seen The Sopranos, and the surprise reveal at the end of the movie mostly left her bemused, not impressed and certainly not surprised. The characterizations in the film, with its colossal ensemble cast, largely rely on familiarity with the existing characters; while virtually all of the actors are allowed to bring their own takes to these well-known figures, there’s certainly a degree of impression baked into each portrayal of a younger version of a familiar character. That means that someone without knowledge of the show, or who maybe hasn’t watched it since it came out, will miss out on the foundation provided by the original portrayals of these characters, likely finding most of the performances to be too brief to provide more than superficial personalities. I’d also suspect it would be difficult to track the characters; I watched the show over the past year or so, and I still was uncertain about who some of Tony’s same-age friends, barely if ever mentioned by name, were. (Here I’m actually grateful that this was simultaneously released for home streaming, because I’m sure to watch again with subtitles on to pick up on more dialogue and see if some elusive character names are provided.)

The film also adds a tremendous amount to one’s understanding of the characters in The Sopranos. There’s plenty to unpack. Young Tony sees Dickie’s aging father bring home a beautiful Italian immigrant and beams up at her; it’s hard not to draw the connection to his hallucinatory Italian beauty decades later. Dickie and Tony have a relationship that mirrors, in many ways, Tony’s later mentorship of Dickie’s own son. A younger Livia looks somewhat similar to Carmela. The movie is an exploration of Tony’s boyhood psyche.

We see more clearly the forces at work in Tony’s life, pulling him many ways. While Livia’s borderline personality disorder is just as disruptive to her family’s lives as ever, it’s also made crystal-clear that Tony’s idealized vision of his father doesn’t match the thuggish and violent figure of his past. As a nice example of this, in a late-series episode of the show, Janice tells a drink-infused story about how Johnny once shot a gun through Livia’s hair when they were driving home from a dinner; Tony is quickly angered that Janice brings this up at all and denies that it ever happened. But we see this scene in the movie, and it’s truly horrifying, an abrupt switch from Livia’s constant complaining to the loud blast of the gun in the night and the brief moment when everyone in the car is sitting in shocked silence. That scene also provides an example of where the events depicted don’t quite line up with the story as told in the series; in fact, we even see some scenes from the series’ flashbacks that don’t quite happen exactly the same way, or events that don’t seem to match up with the suggested timeline of what happened in the show. It’s an interesting portrayal of the slipperiness of memory, the subjectivity of perspective. Even the movie itself shouldn’t be interpreted as the “canon” events of the Sopranos story, with its sparing use of surreal imagery and the frame narrative that is Christopher Moltisanti (voiced again by Michael Imperioli) telling the tale of his father from the grave.

It’s also not really about “black and white” gangsters in equal consideration, or about the Newark riots. At the core of the movie, this is a story about the relationship between young Tony and his “uncle” Dickie. There is a B plot involving the Newark riots, white flight, and anti-black racism from the police and the Italian-American community. That B plot has a lot of heady material but does not delve deep enough–I wonder if such an effort was even necessary at all in a movie about a particular Italian-American crime family, and I would argue that the result is largely a distraction from the main narrative. Despite providing a rival black mobster, Harold, (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) to follow as he breaks away from working for the Italian-Americans and launches his own numbers racket, we don’t truly see much from a black perspective. We see the riots, even up close, from a mostly outside perspective, often tinged with fear as the characters focus on the chaos and violence rather than the underlying racism and racial tensions that led to the riots, or we see them as the Italian-American mobsters use the riots as a smokescreen for their own illegal activities. Again, this would be fine if the movie were about the Italian-American criminals’ perspectives only, but it’s ostensibly about viewpoints from both sides of a racial and cultural divide.

As it is, the story is about Dickie, and we don’t really get enough time to understand Harold’s motivations or end goal. The Italian-American characters often have moments to talk to another character in moments of vulnerability, signaling their deeper emotions and concerns even if not stating them outright, and I do not recall Harold getting many such moments. It is a struggle to even sympathize with Harold, as he serves more as an antagonist stealing away from Dickie than an active agent in his own right. His turn to starting his own criminal empire is largely motivated by black empowerment performance art, leaving a spoken word session with the determination not to help his community but to get rich off his black neighbors through vice on his own terms. Certainly there was no need to make Harold more heroic, or smarter, than the Italian-American characters, but it was clear that his choice would lead to a lot of bloodshed and suffering for the people close to him, and it was unlikely that there would be any scenario where Harold would win big in a war against a much more powerful enemy. Additionally, in a moment that has very little setup in the film, we find out that he’s having an affair with Dickie’s own mistress, which seems more primed to reflect fears of interracial mixing or a slide away from the establishment of a white middle-class identity for Italian-Americans than anything that actually seems relevant to the characters’ experiences. In general, Italian-American racial attitudes and fears were provided ample screen time, while there was not really anything that felt like an authentic black perspective–although it’s worth noting that Leslie Odom Jr., the great actor that he is, found personal resonance in the role of Harold and attempted to bring a rich portrayal to what David Chase wrote.

It was not hard to remember that this was a movie created by older white men (making the recurrent use of the N-word by black characters a little cringeworthy, given who wrote the dialogue and made the choice to employ it). There are still plenty of stories to be told about protests, riots, injustice, and race relations then and now, but that story certainly wasn’t shared very coherently here. If anything, this subplot felt like a distraction from the core story, which very much was a Sopranos prequel. And there are stories to be told about the many lived experiences of black Americans, which can include tales of organized crime–in fact, the third-act appearance of Oberon Adjepong as real-life gangster Frank Lucas in a mostly cameo role is a reminder that there is already at least one good, complex portrait of a black crime lord in American Gangster.

As a Sopranos prequel, this movie excels. I’ve already talked about this, but it’s worth emphasizing that Many Saints adds new layers to the characters and events of the original series. Of course, if there were a single protagonist in the movie, it’s not anyone named Soprano, but rather Dickie Moltisanti, portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, who effortlessly swings between affably charming and murderously enraged. Dickie has a large influence in The Sopranos, despite being dead for decades by the start of the series. He’s representative of the good old days that are past. Tony’s explanation for Dickie’s death and the quest for vengeance he gives to Christopher are important late-stage moments in their fraying relationship. Finding out who Dickie was and what actually happened to him proves to be a worthy subject for an addition to the Sopranos narrative. He proves to be as tragic, gifted, and flawed a character as Tony ever was, sympathetic even as a criminal yet prone to horrific and inexcusable conduct when enraged. The return of his abusive father with a beautiful young Italian woman as his new stepmother sets off an Oedipal narrative that ends as wretchedly for Dickie as it did for Oedipus. There’s plenty of psychological subtext throughout the film, and Dickie’s conflicted feelings regarding his stepmother and his father–redirected toward guilt-assuaging visits to his father’s twin brother (with both brothers played by Ray Liotta) after the father’s death–are an essential part of his story.

I saw some critics complain that the movie does not offer a convincing turn to organized crime for Tony. But the movie ends with him only beginning to make that commitment, not through literal action but through an unspoken vow. A lot is left unsaid. A lot still must happen on Tony’s journey. But this is not a flaw of the film. There is enough to wink at Sopranos fans, but this movie is not, and never was, an origin story for Tony’s entrance into organized crime. Yeah, I’d watch a sequel with the cast assembled here reprising their roles as younger versions of iconic characters to actually depict that journey, but I also don’t need that movie. Yes, this is an origin story, but more than the specific path Tony took to becoming a mobster, this movie gives us even more insight into the roots of his later-life neuroses and provides a riveting tale of the tragic end of Dickie Moltisanti and the turbulent time that would be remembered by Tony and crew through rose-tinted glasses years later as the good old days.

Summary of GTA Series

I apparently never summarized this series when I originally prepared it, so, as I’ve been reorganizing some things following the conclusion of my most recent series, I wanted to get this a little more orderly. Here’s the series:

For the sake of completeness, I’m also linking to my much older post discussing the filmic influences on the games.

Review: Sasquatch (2021)

Sasquatch is a moody, unnerving documentary on Hulu that has very little to do with Bigfoot at all, and I’m here to recommend it. The three-part series follows investigative journalist David Holthouse as he pursues a story based on a wild conversation overheard on a weed farm in 1993: allegedly, a couple of guys working for a weed farmer in the Emerald Triangle of California stumbled on the aftermath of a Sasquatch massacre in which three men were killed. Of course, that’s not the real story, and decades later, Holthouse tries to find out what actually happened. He never finds a certain answer, but he does produce a couple likely options, including a version of events that, while still rather far-fetched, probably represents something like the truth.

The first episode does spend time with the Bigfoot myth, interviewing local Bigfoot hunters to lay some groundwork for the bizarre and obscure rumor of the Sasquatch triple homicide. But the narrative quickly settles in the dark underbelly of the black market cannabis trade in California, finding its home in paranoid Back to Landers, violent Hells Angels, unreliable tweakers, quick-to-vanish migrant workers, and other oddballs and outcasts. All of this is intermixed with hauntingly beautiful footage of the northern California forests, with their moody contrasts of dark and light beneath old growth canopies. Here is a land where anything could, and apparently does, happen.

The myth of Bigfoot and the rumors traded within this uneasy community of weed growers become intertwined as the miniseries progresses, and Bigfoot returns to prominence as a figure of myth toward the very end to be juxtaposed with the monsters and contemporary myths that Holthouse has encountered. All are surreal and frightening conjurations of the outsider. The nuanced intermingling of myth and reality at the end offers a fascinatingly complex bit of philosophical musing to cap the show off. But Holthouse remains grounded and down to earth throughout.

Anyone who’s a fan of true crime or has an interest in obscure, even seemingly alien, alternative cultures should give this docuseries a viewing. It’s sort of the anti-Tiger King, focused on another bizarre, drug-fueled, self-absorbed, and ruthless counter-culture operating at best in the gray areas of the law, but without the mockery of its principal subjects that last year’s social media darling show delighted in. Sasquatch humanizes even as it shows us the monsters who live just outside of our view.

Review: The Guilty Die Twice

The Guilty Die Twice: A Legal ThrillerThe Guilty Die Twice: A Legal Thriller by Don Hartshorn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a potential review. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of writing a review that is ultimately unfavorable, even though it’s more likely than usual that the publisher or, even worse, the author might read this. I don’t think I was the target audience for this book after all. If you like legal thrillers or law dramas, I think you should stop right here. My review isn’t going to do you any good! You might well enjoy this book, especially as a breezy weekend read! But if you tend to find your tastes might align with mine, then feel free to continue on. (Note that some spoilers will follow.)

The eye-catching synopsis on the back of the book begins, “Two bullet-riddled corpses. Two attorney brothers. Two sides to the story.” One would anticipate family rivalry, high drama, courtroom antics, and perhaps a morbid tale of murder and moral compromise. But the book sketches this in only the broadest strokes, and at the end of the day, there is really only one side to the story.

The two brothers are Jake and Travis Lynch. One’s a prosecutor, and the other’s a struggling attorney handling mostly pro bono work in private practice. They had a falling out over ten years ago because of the events surrounding a capital murder investigation and trial. Now they’re forced back together, as Jake prosecutes the cringingly named “Rich Kid Murders” and Travis defends the kid from the other side of town charged with their deaths. The book is basically split between the perspectives of Jake, Travis, and the alleged murderer, Sam. Its central tension revolves around two mysteries: who actually killed the “rich kids,” and what happened between Jake and Travis? As you might imagine, a novel hung on mysteries that are easily answered by the three viewpoint characters reads as annoyingly drawn out. And it’s not much of a mystery about the murders, as we have everything that happened but who pulled the trigger early on, and Sam is an unrepentant sociopath. So my primary motivation in reading was to figure out what exactly happened between Jake and Travis.

Here’s the thing, though. Travis is presented as a moralistic crusader who refused to compromise his conscience even though it cost him his family. But the truth is anything but that. Spoiler: as a law clerk, he began to doubt the justification of the death penalty, and he used that doubt as its own justification to unethically obtain and conceal evidence from his brother to fruitlessly attempt to prevent the conviction and execution of an irredeemable sociopath. Ten years later, he once more finds himself handling another irredeemable sociopath, having decided that this was somehow important and uniquely his responsibility. Never mind that he has never prosecuted or defended a capital murder case in the intervening years, or that he seems in way over his head, or that he desperately needs paying clients and his pregnant wife is increasingly anxious because he’d rather devote himself to every pro bono cause (to the point that he puts off a scheduled appointment at one point because some non-paying walk-ins showed up!), or that there are surely better choices for a defender in Austin. And by the end of the book, without much reason to do so, he finds himself questioning his opposition to capital punishment after all, while dropping his self-enforced exile from his family and considering getting into the family business. In other words, the final moments show that he’s been engaging in a bit of poverty tourism for a decade, living in a poor part of town by choice and forming romantic notions about the lives of the impoverished, only to be prepared to jump right into the benefits of his family heritage as soon as anyone from his family makes more than a half-hearted gesture to bring him back into the fold. His bitterness about his family’s lifestyle chafes even more in retrospect, knowing where he ends up by the end–especially since he also spends quite a bit of the book denying the substantial privilege of his upbringing that even a life of pro bono work simply would not erase.

You’d think that I had something against a person like Travis, or that I’m perhaps fervently pro-death penalty. No, I have my own family drama, and I too can be a bit of a bleeding heart with an opposition to the death penalty. But Travis’s pigheaded, narrowminded perspective made him a drag to read.

On the other hand, Jake is initially presented as a raging asshole prone to heavy drinking. He is those things, but he’s also a devoted husband, father, and son. He’s clever, he’s analytical, he’s good at seeing through motivations. He’s surprisingly willing to see the talent in others, including a transparent ass-kissing lackey in the office and even his own brother. By the end, Jake had become my favorite character. Still, I was tired of the toxic masculinity oozing from Jake, Travis, and Sam. They all were arrogant, overconfident, and prone to expressing only anger openly.

The moments where Jake and Travis interacted with their family were probably the best in the book and felt the most honest. Family dynamics are complicated, even when they shouldn’t be, and author Don Hartshorn does a good job of portraying that. But even though they are the most interesting and have the most emotional stakes, they unfortunately don’t occupy as much of the novel as sections engaging with local politicking and the murder case.

Hartshorn almost inadvertently wrote two potentially very interesting women. One is Christine Morton, a hard-as-nails reporter who unfortunately is mostly described as blonde and attractive, even as she does a great job as an investigator, and she is treated with hate and derision by both brothers, although the novel never provides a great motivation for that hate. Toward the end, Christine and Jake almost become allies, and I imagined a more interesting relationship for them in which they were professional rivals (bloodhound journalist versus prosecutor with an iron grip over his office) but had a reluctant, almost weary respect for each other. That never quite materializes, and even though Christine helps Jake, she’s left to seem “foiled” by him in the end. The other interesting woman barely appears at all. Bonnie Wong occupies a single scene as a defense attorney for one of the other kids charged with the murders. She’s presented as antagonistic, at least from Travis’s viewpoint, but she offers a good if obvious strategy, while Travis enters the meeting apparently deciding the best way for his client to win is to simply blame everything on the co-defendant without much support. Bonnie doesn’t like Travis. She clearly views him as an inferior attorney. She remembers how he withheld the evidence, and he obviously hasn’t made any waves since then. But she still tries to treat him with courtesy and tries to extend an olive branch to build a better case for both defendants. She’s not actually allowed to do anything else in the book, though, as her defendant quickly exits the picture for reasons I won’t disclose here, one of the few twists I won’t touch on in case you do decide to read this.

Most of the other characters are forgetful, though I mostly remember the women–unfortunately, especially the brothers’ wives–as deceitful, manipulative, and interested in vicarious power and wealth. Not great. There are other problematic moments. Hartshorn, who is white, largely writes white characters, but he has depicted Sam the killer as Korean. We don’t get to know Sam that well, and we don’t really understand his family background; his parents are supposed to be sympathetic, and yet they somehow raised not one but two sociopathic criminals who end up entangled in the criminal justice system for crimes they gleefully committed. Hartshorn makes awkward choices in how he describes Sam, for instance having Sam observe early on his “unmistakably Asian features in the rear window” of a car. More broadly, Hartshorn seems interested in making stabs at complicated issues like socioeconomic and racial inequities and the imperfect nature of the justice system, but the only one really taking any time to reflect on these issues is Travis, whose views are remarkably shallow and self-centered (as I’ve described above), and the individuals allegedly crushed by an unfair society who are now lashing out in rage are both portrayed as sociopaths with no particular motivation for their violent lifestyles.

Another bizarre element is that the book almost feels like a 2000’s period piece, even though it appears to be in the present day. The law offices are very reliant on paper still, for some reason, and at one point a character literally closes a cell phone, like it’s an old flip phone. The bizarre, amorphous time period stuck out to me. But it doesn’t warrant more comment than that.

The Guilty Die Twice isn’t painfully bad; while I didn’t often have much motivation to keep reading, it wasn’t a struggle to turn the pages when I made time for it. But its weak points crowd out its strengths, and when we all have such limited attention spans and so many sources of potential entertainment, I just don’t think that I can recommend this particular one.

View all my reviews

Wrapping up these GTA posts

This GTA post is to say that I’m done with the GTA posts. If you were avoiding the site because you’re just annoyed by this game series (or even justifiably upset with or disturbed by it), then it should be fine to return to it after today.

I’ll still be playing San Andreas for a while. Maybe after this, I’ll get back into some of the newer games I’ve been playing or wanting to play. We’ll see. It’s also possible down the line that I might have another post or two related to San Andreas. In writing these posts, I’ve thought a little more about how GTA games–especially in Vice City and San Andreas–provide the player with the opportunity to engage in an amoral tourist trip through the life of a career criminal engaged in organized crime, but while that’s already quite artificial in concept on its own, the artificiality is further inflated both by the intense parodic nature of the games and their starting point as stories based on pop culture representations of criminals and organized crime. In other words, the portrayals of the Mafia or street gangs are about as authentic as Olive Garden. I’m not sure that there’s a full post there, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. And I might just want to recap my experiences with San Andreas whenever I finish this playthrough. I’d be particularly interested in writing about Carl’s goofy personality or the heavy use of foreshadowing employed to communicate the true natures of Big Smoke and Ryder and to set up certain plot beats. But any such post, if it ever happens at all, is a long ways away.

For now, I’ll settle back into something more like weekly posting. And I’ll write about other things. I got whatever this past week’s set of posts represented out of my system.

Now, if you like San Andreas or have actually been reading my posts with some level of interest, I’d like to close out today’s post with a series of screenshots I’ve taken from my time in HUD-free play. Enjoy–or don’t! And stay safe out there, everyone.

Relearning San Andreas

On my most recent return to the world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I’ve played around with the options quite a bit. It’s been sort of vital–I’ve been playing on PC, and with a 360 controller, requiring frequent tweaks of the game’s controls. I also encountered a baffling glitch of the game colors, requiring some forum trolling and game resolution tinkering before that was solved. In playing with the options so much, I also played around with options related to display and sound. One of the best decisions to come of that has been the removal of the minimap, radar blips, and HUD.

Removal of the HUD and other extraneous UI features immediately focuses me on the game world. It’s certainly an aged game, but that game world is still often quite beautiful, bizarre, and fascinating. Plus, I haven’t lost much in the removal of those UI features. Mission-critical information is still displayed as needed; for instance, if a mission is timed, a countdown timer still appears. And I can still quickly switch on the HUD through a quick dive into the options menu if I want to. And there have been a couple occasions when I have wanted to, to check the time or my health bar, but I’ve become less reliant on seeing those hard metrics. I’ve become better able to interpret day and night cycles, I’ve better learned how to navigate the city, I’ve gotten in the groove of taking C.J. for regular meals, and I’ve learned to adjust to working with less information that causes me to focus on what’s actually happening in the game instead of monitoring feedback about it.

It’s lovely to remove the distractions from the minimap. I have to actually learn how to navigate. I actually pay more attention to directions and place names supplied in dialogue. I’ll go into the pause menu to consult the map, but now I’m driving through the city relying on in-game signage, a sense of direction, and a consideration of how the city is actually laid out. What’s so special to me about that experience is that I’m rediscovering a city I used to know so well from hours and hours spent playing in it years and years ago. It’s nostalgic, yet it also makes me very alert about landmarks and streets that feel vaguely familiar. And it puts me more in the shoes of C.J., who is also relearning his city after being away for five years at the start of the story.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle with the absence of the UI overlay is that I am unable to see my health. This was easy enough to adjust to in theory, but in practice it means that I can never be sure if the next gunshot might kill me. This has been an interesting challenge, and I’ve not yet felt cheated by any combat. It just heightens my sense of risk in combat, making every gun battle and car chase more visceral. I have to take more of an effort to avoid damage, as I’m always facing the possibility of death. I can’t play around with the same level of risk once my reliance on an ever-present metagame representation of exactly how many more hits C.J. can take is removed.

Police presence also presents in a very different way. Before, you could always see a clear indication of how much attention the cops had on you. Especially after replaying the HD games, and getting used to the constant feedback of flashing search areas and cones of view on the minimaps, the complete removal of any indicator of police presence or attention is unnerving. Now, it’s only clear that I’m wanted when I’m being chased by the cops. Escape from an immediate chase doesn’t guarantee that the next police encounter won’t renew pursuit. I find that I don’t want to escalate engagements with cops because of the heat that could be brought down on my head. As a result, my fear of cops in the game is increased–I’m never sure when I see a cop walking on a beat if he might choose to try to take me down. This in turn deepens a sense of verisimilitude. This is supposed to be a game about black gang life in the nineties, but of course, it’s a game led by a team of white Brits writing from the perspective of outsiders who are deep fans of hood films and gangster rap, and it’s in a franchise marked by excessive violence, wild parody, and a mocking disregard for taking any subject too seriously. But when you don’t know if you’re wanted, and you can’t always connect why a cop might pursue you with an immediately previous action, the game mechanics almost accidentally create a system in which cops are always a feared enemy out to get you, even if you haven’t done anything. You can’t trust them, and if you fight back, you’re just asking for a world of trouble.

I’ll close with an anecdote. I guided C.J. to a local fast food joint, and while walking back toward his home, he was approached by members of a rival gang. They quickly took to shooting at him, and he fired back in self-defense, taking them out. The gunfire attracted the interest of some nearby cops, and C.J. fled. I remember thinking I’d escaped them all, only to find another beat cop, nightstick at the ready, coming up behind me down an alley. The imagery of running from this cop, hopping fences and hoping to outpace him, stuck with me. It wasn’t the usual bloody and excessive action of the typical GTA experience. And it wasn’t an “authentic” experience. It’s certainly not reflective of anyone’s actual lived experience. But it stuck with me. And it made me feel that I had very briefly slipped into the game’s alternative world. I can’t fully deconstruct what the experience meant to me, but it fascinated me, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to continue the UI-free experiment.

GTA V on GTA

One of the fun things about the original 3D series of Grand Theft Auto games was how they slowly built out a world of interconnected characters, places, and events. Lazlow was a constant radio presence, with a wild up-and-down career journey over IIIVice City, and San Andreas. Characters we became familiar with in III, like silent protagonist Claude, eventual antagonist Catalina, or mob wife Maria, appear in San Andreas in roles that both act in service to a distant prologue to III and clearly indicate that everyone is the hero of their own story (after all, many would be quite familiar with the player avatar for the earlier game, yet they found him in San Andreas in a peripheral and relatively unimportant role, reframing him from conquering warrior to easily dominated sidekick at the side of Catalina). Other characters slip in and out of the games, creating the impression that they have lives of their own–characters like Kent Paul, Phil Cassidy, and Donald Love.

The HD continuity offered a hard reboot with Grand Theft Auto IV. The interconnected story lines and character arcs were brushed away. The game still felt distinctively set in a Grand Theft Auto universe, with its trio of major cities referenced (Liberty City, Vice City, and Los Santos). And of course, the wide variety of companies and products created to fill out earlier games were often reintroduced into the new game universe–especially the cars. GTA IV added so much, and reimagined Liberty City so completely, that it made sense to do away with some of the specifics, outside of the occasional Easter egg reference and the ever-present Lazlow.

With Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar could start folding in the new continuity established in IV throughout the new game. Most interestingly, in a trend started with the two story expansions to IV, the resolution to dangling tertiary antagonists was left for this title. For instance, annoying Mafia toady Rocco was spared at the end of The Ballad of Gay Tony because he was a “made man” whose death would only further complicate the efforts of Tony and Luis to end the cycle of debt and revenge that was trapping them, but in V, he’s fairly quickly dispatched after a couple run-ins with Michael toward the middle of the game. Similarly, Karen, the true identity of Niko’s double-crossing girlfriend, reappears in along with her unnamed handler as agents of the IAA; while she lives to fight another day, her handler is shot and killed in a massive firefight late in the game. (Or is he? Apparently he returns alive in GTA Online content set after the events of the game–though that whole timeline seems a bit of a mess at this point.)

Other GTA characters at least get referenced. Lester refers to an Eastern European guy who was making moves in Liberty City before going quiet, an obvious reference to Niko (and while it could mean he’s dead, I choose to read it as meaning that Niko finally got the quiet life out of crime that he could barely hope for). Packie, a close former associate of Niko’s, can be recruited to be a quite successful heist crew member. Brucie, friend to Niko, shows up in media marketing Bull Shark Testosterone, playing up a recurrent joke from the predecessor title.

There are even nods to 3D characters. The El Burro Heights district in Los Santos alludes to the character El Burro from GTA III. Other characters apparently have stars on the Vinewood Walk of Fame or other small call-outs (continuing similar small references from IV). Radio DJ Fernando Martinez joins Lazlow as a personality holdover from the previous era. A favorite small reference of mine is the mission achievement entitled “Better than CJ” in the mission “Derailed,” which you complete by landing Trevor’s dirt bike on the train he’s pursuing on the first attempt, and which is specifically referring to the “Wrong Side of the Tracks” mission in San Andreas in which C.J. chases a train on a dirt bike outside of Los Santos.

There are exactly two appearances I don’t like in the game: Johnny and Ashley. Johnny Klebitz was the Vice President of the Alderney chapter of The Lost outlaw biker gang in The Lost and Damned. Ashley is his ex-girlfriend, hopelessly addicted to meth. The game is set in motion by the release of the gang’s president, Billy, from a rehab program. Billy’s mania and drug use derail the progress Johnny has made in making the gang stable and profitable. Billy launches the gang into a couple of all-out gang wars before he is arrested by police again. Billy blames Johnny (ironically, it turns out, as The Ballad of Gay Tony makes clear that Billy had actually set Johnny up for a fall just before he’s taken out of the picture). Billy’s loyal and stupid sidekick leads a civil war, and while Johnny takes on the mantle of president and ultimately wins the infighting, most of the gang is killed. By the end of the game, Johnny is somewhat despondent, having seen most of his brothers killed, including his best friend, but he’s cleared the board of those after him, he’s established firm leadership with his surviving crew, he’s taken down the treacherous Billy in a daring prison raid, and he’s cut Ashley out of his life, apparently for good.

In GTA V, we run back into Johnny and Ashley as soon as the player regains control of Trevor for the first time since the prologue mission. In fact, the perspective switches back to Trevor in the middle of fucking a strung-out Ashley over his trailer’s kitchen counter. His hedonistic moment is interrupted when a news report on the TV in the background reveals to him that his old buddy Michael must still be alive after all. Trevor is immediately enraged and sets into motion an insane plan to quickly wipe out all competing gangs in his area so he can turn his attention to tracking down Michael.

On his way to do the deeds, Trevor is confronted by a heartbroken Johnny, who pleads with him to stop his affair with Ashley. Whereas Johnny was a hardened, confident man, a leader who rejected the influence of drugs in his life, and never a pushover, Johnny is now portrayed as weak and craven, quickly talked down by the domineering, alpha presence of Trevor. Johnny also appears to have given into a meth habit in taking back up with Ashley. We don’t ever get any explanation as to how he could have descended so quickly in the span of five years, how he gave up on his principles and ended up with Ashley yet again, living a wretched half-life fueled by Trevor’s drugs–let alone how he ended up in San Andreas all the way across the country at all, with a rebuilt chapter of The Lost MC following him. There’s no time to explain. Trevor launches a surprise assault and bashes Johnny’s brain into the pavement. Then he goes on a rampage against the remaining bikers, killing off Johnny’s two remaining close biker friends from TLAD, and mocking them, as well as their leader and his death, in the process. Ashley can be killed in the aftermath of Johnny’s death, or left grieving. Either way, a news report can later be heard documenting her death.

I recognized Johnny in my first playthrough of GTA V, but while his death seemed cruel and unnecessary, it didn’t strike a chord with me. Now that I’ve played V after completing TLAD‘s story, however, the death isn’t just cruel but incredibly arbitrary for a former protagonist, and Johnny’s depiction seems incredibly out of character. It’s hard to understand what Rockstar was doing here. Sure, it made Trevor seem like an unpredictable agent of chaos, able to practically interfere with the fourth wall. Even someone who you’d think would have protagonist armor is given a swift death (a bit peculiar, when you think of how you can endlessly have him killed and wake up in a hospital when playing TLAD, just like any other GTA protagonist). And it is certainly shocking for anyone who recognizes Johnny. But it seems so very senseless. (And underneath the scandalizing senseless killing in GTA’s open world and media image, the stories are typically big dramatic affairs that follow tenets of traditional storytelling.)

I guess the lesson I can take from this moment is that Rockstar is quite happy to mock and disparage anyone and everyone–even the fans of its games.