The Character Assassination of Molly Schultz

Grand Theft Auto has always been framed from a leering male perspective. There are the indulgences in violence and sex, of course. Women mostly appear as idiotic bystanders or vulnerable sex workers. Protagonists (outside of the custom player character in GTA Online) are all men.

Even named female characters who appear in the games in supporting roles are typically treated poorly. There aren’t a lot of named female characters in these games to begin with, so I could probably go through them all. Not sure that would be valuable, though. In general, I think you could break them all into roughly three character types: sex objects (Mercedes and Candy Suxxx in Vice City, virtually every girlfriend from San Andreas forward), victims of violence (Ilyena in IV, Patricia in V), or deranged personalities who end up dead or imprisoned (Asuka and Catalina in III, Elizabeta in IV). Some happen to take on characteristics across types (Maria in III is both a sex object and a victim of violence, and Catalina remains the deranged personality in San Andreas but also takes on elements of the sex object type).

Oftentimes, story-significant girlfriends seem close to breaking the mold, although their relationships with the protagonists typically boil down to sex rather than a personality match or a deep bonding. In addition to girlfriends who simply fit other character types than the sex object (Patricia and Catalina, for instance), there are others whose lives are guided by plot. Niko’s two major girlfriends, “Michelle” and Kate, are not exactly presented as sex objects, though he pursues both of them (potentially with success with “Michelle,” but held at bay by Kate). “Michelle” is actually an undercover agent, and while she escapes from any repercussions from her actions, she does appear to have fallen for Niko and is hurt by having to burn him. Meanwhile, Kate serves as a somewhat obnoxious conscience for Niko, and one of the two game endings results in her death. Johnny’s girlfriend Ashley still manages to pull him along by his fondness for her, even as she abuses drugs and sleeps around with other men. In GTA V, Franklin is frequently sexually propositioned by one drug-addicted female friend, while he is dealing poorly with a breakup from another (who, like Kate, intrudes as an external conscience late in the game, although she has no other story appearances and no other role in the plot). Meanwhile, Michael struggles to maintain a relationship with his wife (a sex object he’s now physically and emotionally distanced from, who now has frequent affairs with other men) and attempts to prevent his daughter from becoming a sex object (though he fails).

There are at least a couple exceptions that I can think of. Let’s consider, briefly, Maude and Kendl.

In V, the bounty hunter Maude gives a few jobs to Trevor. Maude and Trevor have a friendly relationship, and Trevor treats her with relative respect. She gives him good information for his targets. She is not presented as a sex object. She is never at risk of violence. She does not come across as particularly depraved, and she doesn’t end up dead or in prison. In fact, at the end of her run of missions, she retires. But she is largely defined by being repulsive and sardonic. She has a dark, dry humor. She seems to lack any empathy. She is depicted as grotesquely corpulent and plainly ugly. At least one character mocks her smell. And she doesn’t have a very big role in the story.

Most significantly, there’s Kendl in San Andreas. She’s a sex object type, definitely, always depicted in scantily clad attire and at first defined by her relationship to a member of a rival gang. But she and Sweet hold about equal sway over their brother. Carl isn’t really the brains of his story, he’s the muscle. Sweet motivates him to work for the gang, to stay loyal to his hood, and to pursue the criminal life. Kendl encourages the development of legitimate businesses and nonviolent resolutions. Kendl is a big reason why Carl ends up in a much better place by the end of the game. But while she’s given a primary role in the plot and is given a more nuanced personality than one might initially expect, she is nonetheless a more elaborate take on the sex object character (though obviously not a sex object for C.J.).

There are some other, small exceptions. But even when women don’t fit one of those types exactly, they fall into other tropes, like Luis’s codependent mother in TBOGT. It’s true that many male characters also fall into particular types in these games. But there are so few women, and so many men. I was briefly impressed, for instance, when I could take along two female crew members for a heist in V, but then realized that it was in a mission with three other male heist crew members, plus the three male protagonists, and I’d selected all the female characters available. (Neither of those female characters appears to fall into one of the common types, but they have very little personality anyway.)

There also doesn’t appear to be any real effort on the part of Rockstar’s creative team to change any of this. The use of tired tropes and misogynist stereotypes in GTA games is hardly an original observation. The ability to hire prostitutes, then kill them and retrieve your money, has been a controversial element since at least III (though in Rockstar’s defense, nothing in the game explicitly encourages you to do this, and it’s certainly not a behavior I take part in when I’m playing–at least not since I was like 12). That long thread of misogyny has only been reinforced in V. And it’s highlighted by one of the major female characters in the story: Molly Schultz, lawyer, corporate vice president, and girl Friday to billionaire Devin Weston.

Molly is presented as ice-cold, analytical, and loyal. She is emotionally reserved and reveals little of herself. She dresses smartly and professionally (though in true GTA style, her pantsuit business wear nonetheless reveals cleavage and clings tightly to her buttocks). She is quite comfortable assigning less-than-legal and dangerous tasks to unpredictable criminals. She has a confident, take-charge attitude. She is a contrast to Devin, who attempts to cultivate an enlightened, progressive, friendly air despite being a high-strung psychopath.

Molly is an impressive career woman and could have been an impressive crime boss or secondary antagonist. However, after setting her into motion, the game quickly works to undermine her. Protagonist Franklin accuses her of being in love with Devin and says that it will never work out, because of course the loyal female character must be in it for the love of a man. Then, late in the game, Molly helps Devin in his plans to shut down a movie to collect an insurance payout and gain leverage to purchase a controlling interest in the movie studio so that they can tear it down for new development. Protagonist Michael arrives to aid the producer, and Molly leaves to deliver the film to an offshore site for storage. Devin calls Michael, warning him that Molly’s “highly strung,” suggesting that she will become unhinged if pursued. That’s exactly what happens. She gets spooked, and when the police arrive to escort her to her private jet safely, she panics, driving erratically and resulting in the destruction of several police cars. In the end, she abandons her vehicle and is pursued by Michael. She flees into the path of a jet turbine and is sucked in, ground to bloody pulp in an instant. All to escape Michael with a film reel–and not only did Michael never intend to kill or seriously harm her, but it turns out that there were digital copies, such that the fate of the film reel didn’t matter at all. It is somewhat incomprehensible to me why Rockstar developed a capable female character and then drove her into the ground. It is almost as if the all-male Rockstar writers could not comprehend a woman retaining her cool under pressure, as though they really believe that most if not all women long for love over all else and will become hysterical if threatened. The plot development was shockingly retrogressive and disgusting.

Even when served up the archetype of a capable woman on a silver platter, Rockstar can’t help but tearing that woman to shreds–literally, in some cases.

Meaninglesness and meaning in Grand Theft Auto IV, and (Failure of) Satire and Theme in the GTA Franchise

When GTA IV came out in 2008, I was in college. I was initially blown away by the huge surge forward in graphics, the densely packed traffic patterns, the highly detailed streets and buildings down to litter and graffiti. The character designs were on another level altogether, and the characters themselves felt different. More mature, I thought. This story was darker and edgier. It wanted to say something, about the failures of the American dream as viewed from an illegal immigrant trying to make something of himself in the land of opportunity.

Niko felt different for a GTA protagonist, as well. He was brooding and moody. He mourned his past; he was scarred by it. His course through the game was the result of his efforts to run from and violently confront that past. The opportunity to spare some enemies on some missions, and occasionally encountering them later to show the effects of that mercy, allowed for a more nuanced protagonist. He wasn’t just a mindless killer. He regrets killing, even as he accepts it as his necessary lot in life.

Then there was the ending. The player is allowed to read into the story a myriad range of motivations for Niko. The opportunity to spare or kill certain key figures led to different dialogue and different interactions, even if on a small scale, that could guide the player to see Niko’s path differently. The level of actual player agency and influence on the plot was minimal, of course, and Niko often fell into old habits as the story dictated, but these small touches gave weight to your final choice at the end. The one big choice: do you choose to seek revenge for a betrayal by an early associate, or do you put the past behind you and opt to work with the snake for one more deal? Revenge could send the man’s entire criminal organization after you. Working with him opened yourself to the potential for more betrayal. (Choosing to select neither option, of course, prevents the story from moving forward, but the game also encourages choice because there is the narrative threat that the failure to act at all could trigger events that would send all parties after you.) Regardless of your choice, one of Niko’s most loved friends would die.

That all sounds interesting on paper. But on my recent playthrough of GTA IV, I noted more than ever the dissonance between plot, ambient narrative, and the player’s playground space.

Yes, the plot tries to be edgy, dark, complicated, and morally gray. In some ways, it succeeds. And the incredible length of the game–it’s a little too long, a little too bloated, with a little too many predictable betrayals and failures–gives the player ample time to observe Niko, to grow familiar with the character in cutscenes and in moment-to-moment gameplay. Niko’s arc is a slow burn, and left to player choice in the end, but the amount of time spent chronicling his journeys makes that arc feel earned, regardless of how it all plays out.

Still, Niko is ultimately as much a blank slate as any other character. While the outings you can go on with his friends over the game provide times where he opens up about his past, he is typically rather tight-lipped about his history and present emotional state. He is stoic, and the player is invited to read into that stoicism whatever they want. Perhaps his protestations over killing are merely a social nicety, something he adopts because he recognizes the badness of his behavior but is unwilling to change. Perhaps he hurts deeply with every killing but feels trapped by his life choices, the debts and obligations he is bound by, such that he can only continue to do what he knows. But that’s all determined by what the player reads into the game. On some level, the ambiguity is a reflection of the game’s writing and the voice acting, but on another level, it’s merely a byproduct of embodying a character whose inner thoughts are concealed. We can similarly read a considerable amount into Link or Master Chief or Mario if we so wanted, attempting to read an inner life based on outer actions.

Furthermore, the brooding antihero was such a fixture of dramatic entertainment in the 2000s. Think shows like The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy. The bad guy who does bad things, the sociopath who is moody in place of a personality, is a cliche now. It was already a comfortable and popular trope by the release of this game. And V suggests that this has become Rockstar’s new favorite character type.

When we look at the game world, though, we don’t see a dark, grim, gritty reflection of Niko’s own proposed journey. These games invite chaos. Walking down the street could lead to a brawl or a gunfight. No one’s going to spend more than 5 minutes attempting to obey the rules of the road when police in-game only care about striking pedestrians or cop cars. You get easy access to weaponry and a delightfully zany, “living” world to cause mayhem in. There’s a gratifying feedback loop to the chaos. Things happen at player direction–colorful explosions and vivid animated acts of violence. Killing the right targets can reward you with money and extra ammunition. Police chases are a delight, with higher levels of police interest broadening the area of red-and-blue-flashing minimap you have to escape from. It’s an interesting series of player-directed challenges, and the open-world nature makes it all a bit more unpredictable.

But even if you were to adhere to all the rules of civil society in the open world, the game’s story has plenty of violence and anarchy on its own. To get through that story, Niko must kill a lot of people. Many might deserve it, including treacherous and psychopathic gangsters. Many others don’t. (Although the depths of depravity the player must participate in to complete the story are easily topped in GTA V with its infamous torture sequence.) The nature of the base gameplay and the story missions undermines whatever Rockstar might be trying to say about its protagonist or about the immigrant experience.

Rockstar can’t seem to separate its gleeful in-your-face impulses from its attempt to cultivate “deeper” themes. One hyper-focused example: Niko can date a variety of women in the game, including one lawyer who has a history of obsessing over her criminal defense clients (she has a propensity for dating them, a serious ethical violation of course played for laughs). She believes that the police in the city are barbarous and corrupt, inclined to unfairly target immigrants. Niko uses this to his advantage, as he can call in her help to lower his wanted level if she likes him enough. Her political beliefs are a joke–yes, the police target Niko the immigrant because he is in fact a very dangerous criminal! Whatever could have been said about the authentic immigrant experience is lost in conflating immigrants with crime and failing to offer any alternative narrative.

Furthermore, despite the attention to detail in architecture, city design, and a sense of lived-in grime, the game is still populated by the over-the-top personalities and products familiar to any player of the earlier titles. The ads are blown-up parodies of real-life commercials. The game’s producers seem to sneer at the hypocrisy of a prudish American culture in which sex nonetheless sells. Billboards for Pisswasser beer (an obvious knock on domestics like Budweiser) lean hard into sexual imagery, with sleazy models in exaggerated sexual positions, pantomiming sex acts with bottles of the beer in question. Radio segments laugh at American obsession with convenience and selfish decadence, parodying online delivery services with products like Babies Overnight (itself an in-joke exaggeration of the Pets Overnight product/service in earlier games). There is a parody of conservative talk radio, hosted by a jingoistic idiot who believes in violating the liberties of others to preserve “freedom,” who speaks of sexual purity while suggesting a closeted homosexual life. For that matter, a major political figure who ties into the game’s main story is a gay-bashing conservative who has a secret homosexual lover (a friend of Niko’s, in fact). And on the other end, the public radio option has snobbish liberals interviewing vapid celebrities alongside preening politicians, the programs descending into virtually unintelligible chaos. In between the political extremes, Lazlow is, as always, Lazlow.

GTA IV pretends to be a serious story, but most of your time in game is defined by the basest sort of satire. And I think that the Grand Theft Auto games fail as satire largely because they never really have anything interesting to say. They create straw men, fill them up with the wildest speculation and cruelest stereotypes, and guide them through a series of orchestrated hijinks. Left, right, and center are all foolish, they say. Corporate America is the enemy, but so too is any activist effort. Everything is bad, and trying to fix the bad things is worse–it’s hypocrisy. The only right answer is to adopt a nihilist perspective; enjoy the chaos, because you can’t ever hope for anything better, and if you do hope for something better, you’re an ineffectual clown.

GTA IV, like the other Grand Theft Auto games, is undeniably satire. It certainly mocks human folly. But its effort to shock and subvert everything ultimately feels inauthentic. It suggests that its creators have no real beliefs. Efforts to burn everyone, to shock the audience, mean that no institution or value is left standing. The worldview of the games is one in which everything is bad, corrupted. Its criticism is often shallow; it’s fine tossing out the worst homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynist vitriol so long as it’s put in the mouth of a character who is implicitly “wrong” for saying it. In standing for nothing and mocking everything, it feels a bit try-hard in its irreverence. Keeping in mind that it’s a massively successful video game in a very popular franchise made by a large game production empire, it’s as if Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do, fellow kids?” had become a real-world corporate ethos.

Maybe it’s an unfair standard to hold any satire to, but if it’s going to be successful satire, it should endeavor to say something! Grand Theft Auto‘s anti-corporate nihilism reads as increasingly cynical and yet naive, especially given that Rockstar is a tremendously successful company that produces a product very much so in the vein of the unnecessary luxury goods that the GTA games love to lampoon. Its angry fuck-you to the world feels increasingly feigned, especially from the point of GTA IV and onward, once the franchise had become a juggernaut and produced increasingly polished gameplay, elaborate plots, more developed characters, and detailed and expansive worlds. GTA IV refuses to have a true philosophy. It hates the left and the right, the politically detached, the politically ambitious, the philanthropists and the selfish, the rich and the poor. It hates cops and criminals, and it hates those of us just trying to get by within the system too.

But it doesn’t have all that much to say about that system, or about the cops and criminals it concerns itself with. It jokes about police brutality, but it doesn’t critically examine the issue. Police are presented as brutish and corrupt in the game, which only gives greater justification to fleeing from and shooting them. Even if you wanted to be law-abiding, every game in the series eventually turns to missions that involve shooting legions of police officers. (Perhaps its biggest fantasy is that you could kill even a single cop without becoming public enemy number one, your days numbered as you merely tried to stay one step ahead of the law.)

It doesn’t have much to say about what makes people criminals, either. All the games in the series I’ve played–IIIVice CitySan AndreasIV and its two expansions, and V–feature protagonists who are already hardened criminals. Some of them are trying to get out of “the life,” like C.J. in San Andreas, Niko in IV, and Michael in V. Some of them are career criminals who have no doubt about their chosen lifestyle, like Tommy in Vice City, Johnny and Luis in The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, or Franklin in V. Trevor, the third protagonist in V, is just a hedonistic, ruthless, unhinged psychopath, while Claude in III is a voiceless enigma. While some of these characters’ backstories are developed over the game in dialogue, we only get a vague portrait of their lives before the games, and there is the disconnect between the character we know and play as versus the character they once were or view themselves as. Frequently in GTA games, characters express remorse or sympathy, but the hectic and violent lives they lead in missions and while the player simply explores the cityscapes are often at odd with these expressed attitudes. One thing though: these games want us to know that criminals are always criminals. You don’t tend to run into innocent people. If anything, the games message that even seemingly good people are fundamentally bad, twisted, depraved.

And another thing: cops are treated as somewhat universally cruel. Bad people become cops in GTA games. They abuse their authority. That abuse of authority is broadly applied in all contexts. There isn’t really any place for acknowledging actual systems of oppression, abuse, and imbalance, such as systemic racism, within the game systems or plots of GTA games. While the games have introduced more diversity in their protagonists over time (though still always male, cisgendered, and heterosexual), the presence of black and brown leads hasn’t seriously brought the unique challenges to those communities to the forefront of the games. It could be done–consider what the team behind Mafia 3 designed. But the closest we get are the corrupt cops harassing gang members in San Andreas, culminating in the game’s own version of the 1992 LA riots. Even then, the cops are simply corrupt, abusing their authority for profit, while the black protagonist and his black and brown allies are admittedly thugs, murderers and drug pushers, and the pressure from the cops often seems appropriate.

A pet theory of mine is that the GTA games are thematically concerned with natural law as a guiding concept beneath the veneer of nihilism. It’s really outside the scope of this essay, but I do find that if the games say anything, they say that a man of principles is honest with himself and those around him. He does not suppress elements of his personality, no matter how awful they are. He should expect loyalty from others for exhibiting his authentic, toxic self, and he should be loyal to others in turn. A betrayal of loyalty is the biggest sin. For instance, in GTA IV, much of the conflict in the games is guided by a protagonist loyal to a friend, or a friend’s lack of loyalty to the protagonist. Many of the twists and turns in the games are marked by betrayal. Its triad of stories as shown through the perspectives of Niko, Johnny, and Luis could be described as tales of loyalty in the face of addiction. But those often feel less like deliberate themes and more the necessities of attempting to create some sort of virtue within fundamentally unlikable, bad people.

Satire largely fails in these games because they do not attempt to project any deeper narrative or thematic concern. They attack and trivialize everything they touch, and in so doing, they suggest that everything is valueless.

A GTA Series of Posts to Come

All the recent hours in Grand Theft Auto games has the series, particularly its themes and characters and locales, taking up a lot of mental real estate for me. As such, there are a series of topics that I want to explore. For now, that includes:

  1. Why I believe the games fail as satire;
  2. How Grand Theft Auto V let down its female characters;
  3. The ways in which Grand Theft Auto V references, celebrates, and mocks its predecessors; and
  4. How removing the HUD and radar radically improved my San Andreas experience.

I’ve already posted a relatively long essay that could be boiled down to why I prefer San Andreas over the other games. It probably also functions as an introduction to this series of essays and why I feel motivated to write them. I hope to continue to post them over the next week. Why the planned increase in posting frequency? For one thing, the topics are fresh in my mind, and I’d like to get them down on paper (or in a digital file, more likely) as soon as possible. For another thing, I’m most definitely not going to make this blog primarily about Grand Theft Auto. Many people love the series. Many others hate it. I happen to be among the former, but there is a lot that I dislike about each game I’ve played in the franchise. They’re deliberately distasteful, and their edginess often comes from punching down and reliance on broad stereotype. I don’t want to be in a GTA head space forever. And for those who can’t stand the games, I’ll hopefully truncate the time in which you might see me posting excessively about them. Then again, we’ll see how I do with time and motivation over this week.

If you have to tune me out for a while, I’ll understand. But I hope you’ll give one or two of these posts a try, even if you can’t stand the games. Thanks, everyone, for reading!

A couple trips around San Andreas

I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto lately. It’s been something of an obsession, playing these games again. I played GTA IV and went through the ending in which Roman, instead of Kate, dies. This was a first for me, and so I started playing The Lost and Damned to continue exploring old content that I hadn’t given a chance before. I finished that story, so I played The Ballad of Gay Tony, which I’d never touched at all before.

On finishing that, I took a short break from the series before launching into GTA V. I did some things differently and encountered some new content I’d missed before (it’s a very big game), but I certainly didn’t touch everything, and there are still some heist options I’ve never selected. Still, I finished the story. I chose Option C again, working to save all the protagonists and taking out all their enemies, because it’s the only option that feels right to me, after hours playing as all three of the protagonists, and leaving the choice to Franklin, who reads as primarily a loyal follower throughout much of the game and who had just overcome a selfish urge to abandon his old friend in an earlier mission. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to betray a friend after that, especially a mentor. And everyone getting something close to a happy ending feels right.

I took another very brief break before returning to the land of San Andreas in the game with the same name, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It’s been quite a while since I’ve interacted with this game, and it holds a special place in my heart. It was certainly my favorite of the original 3D era, and even now in the HD era, it’s probably still my favorite title in the whole franchise (with the caveat that I haven’t played any of the 2D games, any of the side Stories titles, or Grand Theft Auto Online, which has certainly become its own thing instead of a multiplayer component to V).

There are many reasons that I’ve always favored San Andreas. For one thing, it’s an incredibly expansive game. There are three major cities and quite a lot of countryside in the game. There’s a whole system within the game of slowly conquering territory in Los Santos to expand the Grove Street Families. It was the first game to allow the protagonist to swim, but it added and refined a variety of other features, like flying planes and riding dirt bikes and parachuting and using jet packs. It also gave the player a lot of choice in what to do, with a range of activities scattered about. And while the entire series’ signature is providing a massive, open world to wreak havoc in, San Andreas leaned heavily into roleplaying territory. You could customize your appearance and work to improve stats. There was even a hunger/energy system that required you to eat to stay alive and healthy but that could also result in your protagonist getting fat if you didn’t stay active enough.

Furthermore, I think the game benefited from being focused on a hyper-specific setting, like Vice City. Whereas all GTA games are dark satires with absurdist elements that often disrupt any emotional depth to the stories, Vice City and San Andreas at least feel like they represent something more than violence and anarchy. Vice City is very much so a parody of Miami in the eighties, and the focus on developing the aesthetic and sense of time/place gives the game what feels like a bit more substance. It helps, too, that Vice City leans hard into particular pop culture elements instead of the usual hodgepodge of crime narratives, benefiting from stories and themes drawn from products like Scarface and Miami Vice. Similarly, San Andreas attempts to emulate Los Angeles in the nineties, and it too draws from specific works, notably hood films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society for its first act.

In addition to all the above, I just really like C.J., the game’s protagonist, and the cast of acquaintances he makes. C.J. is defined by loyalty to his family and friends. He’s a little goofy, has a bad sense of humor, and doesn’t always make smart decisions or think things through. But he is quick to trust those he likes, and his trust is usually rewarded (with two very big exceptions). C.J. wants to better himself, and a lot of the story is about him finding ways to grow beyond the impoverished urban life he came from (it’s a GTA story, so those ways largely involve crime and corruption). And this is the only GTA title I’m aware of to build toward a single, cohesive happy ending. In comparison:

  • In III, silent protagonist Claude is motivated by revenge against a former lover. He makes few friends and seems to have no close relationships. Most of the people around him end up dead–often at Claude’s hand. He betrays and is betrayed repeatedly. And even his triumph at the end feels hollow. The whole game delights in nihilism and dark satire, and that’s reflected in the story. Its misanthropic themes play out to the very end, when it is suggested that he kills a romantic interest he rescues, merely because she annoys him. He is a pure sociopath and develops no true connections with others.
  • In Vice City, Tommy Vercetti is considerably more charming than Claude, but he’s still a thug and a sociopath. He rises to great heights, carving out his own empire in the titular city, but he makes few true friends and mostly succeeds by killing off the competition. In fact, the game culminates in his betrayal by his partner, Lance, who worked in collaboration with his old mob boss. Sure, Tommy ends the game with a small circle of “friends,” most notably the drug-addicted, weaselly mob attorney he connects with at the start of the game, but it’s still a tale that traces its roots to the tragic arc of Scarface, trading out a final death for material triumph.
  • In GTA IV, Niko is repeatedly betrayed throughout. He has at least two friends left at the end of the game–Little Jacob and Brucie. But the game’s endings result in the death of either his cousin, who is also his best friend, or his girlfriend, who is implied to be the love of his life. And Niko never really makes it to the top, no matter how much money he makes. At best, he can scorch enough earth around him to hopefully reach a point where no one is sending hitmen after him anymore. But it is clear that he will remain haunted by his past.
  • In TLAD, Johnny has taken down most of his biker gang. He has only a few close associates left. He’s cut his codependent, drug-addicted girlfriend out of his life. He’s killed some friends and lost some others. And he doesn’t have much going for him. The whole story feels bleak, a narrative of a fall rather than a rise. And given that Johnny and his remaining friends are all killed off by Trevor Phillips early in GTA V, it turns out that there’s no happy ending after the credits after all.
  • In TBOGT, Luis and Tony end up basically where they started. They have the nightclubs and they have each other. But they haven’t really gained anything from their experience.
  • In GTA V, the ending depends on player choice. But only Option C seems like a really happy ending, since a protagonist ends up dead at the hands of Franklin in the other options. I’ll concede that Option C is a happy ending, but it feels more like tying up loose ends in response to plot twists guided by a series of structured heists, the repercussions of Michael’s past actions, and Trevor’s chaotic and unpredictable interventions. Michael and Trevor might be on relatively friendly terms, but there’s still a lot of unresolved hostility between them. And Franklin keeps his mentors and his close friend Lamar, but he still lives alone in a big house. Given that he complains that Michael’s life alone in a big house when his family temporarily leaves him is depressing, it stands to reason that Franklin might be wealthy but still feels as empty as he did at the start of the game.

In contrast, C.J. ends his journey considerably wealthier and surrounded by friends and family. He has found not just material success but happiness. While he had to deal with the consequences of some very close betrayals, his loyalty is largely rewarded, and he ends his adventure having broadened his family to include many new and interesting friends.

That all said, every GTA game is a satire. Every game wants to be loud, shocking, and crass. In attempting to push the limits, the games often veer into shock-value territory populated by shows like South Park or Family Guy. There are way too many “jokes” that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. Even in a game modeled after hood films and following a black protagonist, there is no serious effort to deal with systemic or everyday racism, and to the extent that racist systems are acknowledged, they have no real impact on game systems and often are handled via offhanded comments. (In other words, it’s very clear that these games have been creatively shaped by white, cisgendered, heterosexual, middle-class male Gen-Xers.) Every game tells a larger-than-life story full of violence, depravity, and mayhem. Even the most mentally balanced of protagonists can be led through wanton destruction between missions under player control, and every game has big set-piece missions involving the killing of dozens of cops and gangsters. These are not games set in a morally just universe, and they are not games about good and true heroes. But San Andreas came closest to telling a story about a hero trying to do the right thing for people he cared about–and actually succeeding.

The Jedi Academy Reopens

I was quick to pick up, and play through, the Nintendo Switch ports for Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Outcast was a title I’d never really played before and didn’t have much of an attachment to. Academy, on the other hand, was the game I had played a lot in high school. It didn’t get as much multiplayer time as the Halo games or Far Cry, but I thoroughly enjoyed the lightsaber combat and the sense of deep immersion within the Expanded Universe.

I had great fun with both games in their new lives as current-gen console ports by Aspyr. But my nostalgic connection to Jedi Academy made this the game I was more excited to revisit. I found that the lightsaber combat was a little more frustrating than I remembered, although after spending so much of Outcast without a lightsaber, it was great to come into the game with that signature weapon and some basic Force powers readily available. And I have evolved as a person and as a Star Wars fan, so while I still liked the cute references to the old continuity, I wasn’t as enraptured by these nods and winks, and I focused more on the story itself. It’s too bad, because the story is very mediocre.

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Academy hits many of the same beats as Outcast. You’re improving in the use of the Force while hunting down a band of Dark Side cultists preparing to take over the galaxy. There is a pivotal duel with a secondary antagonist in which the protagonist must wrestle with the temptation of the Dark Side. There is a final battle within a temple as the primary antagonist attempts to tap into an ancient power. And there’s weird stuff about pulling the Force from people/places. The secondary antagonist of Outcast even becomes the primary antagonist of Academy. Plus, Kyle Katarn remains sarcastic and bordering on the edge of having a real personality, though he moves from protagonist to mentor/support character.

Academy mixes things up by focusing on customization and choice. That plot point about facing the Dark Side is actually a player choice in Academy, resulting in a Light or Dark ending–which had been a feature of Outcast’s predecessor. (I don’t think I’ve ever played through the Dark Side ending, because the choice is either killing an unarmed and pathetic former “friend”/rival or sparing him.) And the larger plot is told over just a few bigger levels, with the majority of the game coming in the form of available missions that you choose from. Before each mission, you pick your starting weapons and level up Force abilities. And you can choose to complete all the missions within a given chapter of the story or skip the last one to go onto the next big story quest. These choices are meant to provide a sense of customization and non-linearity, but they result in only trivial variation in order rather than real impact (and as far as I can tell, you’re just missing out on an extra Force point by skipping a mission).

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The biggest player impact on how the game appears is through customization of the protagonist. You can choose the gender and species of your character, Jaden Korr; can select from several face, torso, and pant options with clothing trim color choices; and can pick a lightsaber hilt and color. Later on in the game, you can even choose to dual-wield lightsabers or carry a double-bladed saber. But while your lightsaber choices at least feed into combat, the other choices are purely aesthetic. And for that reason, it’s very bizarre that the game limits you to certain races for men and for women. You can be a human male or female, but you can only be a female Zabrak or Twi’lek, while you can only be a male Kel Dor or Rodian. On top of that, there’s only one male voice and one female voice. This means that, when I played through the game this time as a Kel Dor, the wry, clear voice of a human male was jarringly inserted, without any sort of filtration or mechanization, over the blank staring of my protagonist. With Plo Koon’s deep, muffled voice in mind, it was quite the disconnect to hear a voice apparently unrestrained by the respiratory apparatus over Jaden’s mouth, and a lot of character moments were oddly muted–especially since the graphics don’t allow for any expression of emotion in the character’s brows. If you’re going to just assign the same voice to every race of the same gender, why limit the race/gender pairings at all?

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This game feels very much of its era, down to female characters in skimpy and outrageous outfits, including a Zabrak woman wearing boots with heels as displayed in many of the loading screens. As one might imagine, hetero teenage me didn’t mind that so much, but now, it’s some uncomfortable baggage.

But importantly, even with my critiques, and even with my occasional frustrations with a particular opponent or scenario in the game, I still had a lot of fun. I liked playing a Kel Dor hero. I liked exploring planets from the movies and the EU. I liked the references to Luke’s early students like Corran, Tionne, and Streen. I liked the goofy weirdness of the plot and its insistence that players be familiar not just with the previous game’s story but with a dozen other stories and characters as well for maximum appreciation. The New Jedi Order series ended in the same year that Jedi Academy came out, so this was the peak for wild, weird, edgy, self-referential Star Wars, at the very edge before I finally got burnt out. I was reminded of that feeling and that setting when I played the game again. And I got to swing a lightsaber a lot, so it was still worth my time. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need me to sell you on it. And if you’re not a fan, the loose controls, dated graphics, and casual density of background lore might not be appealing. I guess this post was just for me, and others like me, who maybe could use a little escape into nostalgia during a particularly dark time for America.

Guest Essay: On Coffee Talk

My wife, Samantha, has her own blog/podcast (link here) in which she discusses her struggles and triumphs in dealing with mental illness, advocates to reduce stigma and encourage active engagement in addressing mental health concerns, and shares stories from others. She has also become incredibly addicted to indie visual novel game Coffee Talk (developed by Toge Productions). I’ve watched her play this game for hours and hours and hours over the past few weeks, and I asked if she’d be willing to write about her personal experiences with this game. Without further ado, her response follows.


For quite a few people, the ability to sit down in their kitchen with a hot cup of coffee in the morning is one of the most serene, comforting, and refreshing things that they can do. It’s the best way to start the day off on the right foot, including for myself. To have some perspective, there is always a box of k-pods in my desk drawer at work that I restock on the regular. So what is it about coffee culture? Especially for those that drink coffee in the afternoon or night?

While the game Coffee Talk doesn’t give an answer, it gives us a peek into what a piece of this culture could be. Particularly, those who are regulars at a local coffee house. 

I was introduced to Coffee Talk (CT) by a tweet from someone in the mental health community of Twitter. 

“Play this game!”

“It’s perfect for those who have anxiety!”

“It’s not stressful at all!”

At first, I thought that these claims MUST’VE meant that the game was boring, but after a serious anxiety attack I had, I gave in and purchased the game on the Switch. I then was drawn into the recursive storyline and lives of the Toge Production team’s characters: Baileys and Lua, Hyde and Gala, Aqua and Myrtle, Hendry and Rachel, Jorji, Neil, and finally Freya. It’s a big cast of characters, but the pacing works well enough. There is clearly an arc that wins out over everyone else’s, and that arc is the Love of My Life arc with Baileys and Lua. This is outside of the frame story of Freya’s novel-writing.

I don’t want to give spoilers because the story is the game. CT is kind of like a visual novel, except the results of the conversations and ending are totally dependent upon your drink-making. If you don’t make quite the right beverage, it will affect the ending and your friendship level with the characters. That being said, probably the “most stressful” times are when you are making new drinks for people, especially when you don’t have a clear recipe, but it still manages to be low stakes. This is because you are caught in what we can assume is a time loop (THAT IS ALL I’M GOING TO SAY ABOUT THE ENDING) and you get the chance to fix any mistakes you may have made. I wouldn’t say that it’s intuitive that you know to restart with the same file, but the game explicitly has at the end of the credits that the main story has been completed but there is still more content to discover. I still haven’t 100-percented it, but I’m pretty close. It’s a short game after all.

So on top of the peaceful lo-fi music and comfy coffee shop design, I found the arcs pretty compelling. There are a total of six arcs; Jorji is mostly used as comic relief and as the wise black man. Here’s a breakdown of the arcs:

  1. Baileys and Lua: An interracial relationship with disapproving parents
  2. Hyde and Gala: A friendship between a vampire and a werewolf, and the werewolf’s struggle to control the damage that he could cause
  3. Aqua and Myrtle: Another interracial duo that we can assume is in a developing lesbian relationship
  4. Rachel and Hendry: A father-daughter relationship dealing with growing pains and the loss of a loved one
  5. Freya: Just a girl trying to finish a draft of a novel in three weeks
  6. Neil: the alien on a mission

Each of these pique my interest with regard to mental health: grief, acceptance, PTSD, anxiety, self-harm. My favorite? The Hyde and Gala arc because it is quite explicit in the representation of self-harm and PTSD. The only thing lacking in this arc is how Hyde fits into the picture in the present-day.

The cast of characters work so well together. They begin to interact outside of their bubbles, and you see a community being built. It demonstrates the power of a safe space for people. Whether it be a local pub or a coffee house. But in the case of the coffee house, the drinks, including coffee, tea, green tea, milk, and chocolate, are meant to soothe and comfort an individual. It allows the characters to relax in a way that alcohol from a pub could never do. Barriers are broken down. People advise, motivate, commiserate…It’s its own biome.

If you have the patience to do-over the same scenes and dialogue, the game is pretty fun. I enjoyed figuring out the drinks and discovering new dialogue. I would go as far as to say that the repetition of the game is soothing and anxiety-reducing. You are comfortable with the story because eventually it becomes predictable…that doesn’t particularly seem appealing, but one of the most important things that someone with anxiety needs is consistency. Anything that is out of the norm disrupts everything unless an individual has a good handle over their anxiety.

That said, Coffee Talk isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee), but it has been a fulfilling experience for me. Give it a try, or just enjoy the vibes of the game as you watch someone play it. If anything, I guarantee a chill experience.

For a quick chat about Coffee Talk, you can check out my podcast episode “Coffee Talk “Review””.

On playing Divinity: Original Sin II

I’ve been playing Divinity: Original Sin II on the Switch. It’s a game that often frustrates me, and I love it. It’s a big, sprawling RPG with so many options to approach just about any scenario, and those options spin out into other consequences down the line, yet it still focuses heavily on combat and confines you to (quite large) sub-regions to explore rather than a totally interconnected world. It’s been a long while since I’ve tried to play a traditional CRPG, and this isn’t traditional exactly, but it’s clearly one example of what the genre has grown into, and it also happens to be an excellent example of the genre as a whole. (It’s therefore not at all surprising to me that Larian Studios is developing Baldur’s Gate III).

Many of my friends absolutely love this game, and their high opinions of it got me to eventually try it. I’m glad I did, because it really does stand up to the hype, even though this type of CRPG isn’t usually my cup of tea. So it might not be the tea that I like, but it’s exactly the sort of tea that can make someone reach out of their comfort zone and experiment with something new. That said, I still suck incredibly at it. I’m not much of a tactician, and even playing at the classic difficulty setting, the game kicks my ass all over the place. Thankfully, it’s very generous with saves (auto-saves, user-created quick-saves, and traditional saves at almost any time), and I’ve adapted my playstyle to save early and often. I quick-save during battles so that I can jump back to a moment in time when the luck of the draw is in my favor, or to test a particular tactic and reset if it all goes south. The turn-based combat system encourages thoughtful battle strategies, but the slightly randomized, stat-dependent outcomes and freak occurrences mean that it’s hard to be sure of what will happen next. I like experimenting with powers and abilities, taking advantage of splitting up the party to place units stealthily before a fight, or exploiting (or creating) an environmental effect. But I’m still just not very good at it. (Yes, you can retreat from combat, and I have done so, but fleeing isn’t the easiest thing, and if I fled from every battle going south, I’d just end up with depleted resources and little progress.)

The game is thus frustrating for me. But I keep coming back to it. Often, taking a break has been beneficial, as it gives me time to approach a difficult encounter fresh. For example, there was a particularly horrid witch named Alice Alisceon. This monster could easily one-hit-kill my party. No matter what I tried, even after consulting strategies online, I couldn’t get the fight finished successfully. So I gave up and left the game for the longest time yet: a couple of weeks. When I finally came back to it this weekend, things clicked into place for me, and I had some particularly lucky occurrences, and while it still required a lot of luck and reloading, I finally managed to beat her. This was immensely satisfying, though the effort left the unpleasant side effect of having the battle cry “Bubbling skin and burning knuckle” burrowed into the memories of my wife and myself.

It’s not just combat that can be tricky. I approached a ferryman shortly after. Okay, he was undead and offered shady assurances that he could take us safely through an incredibly lethal type of poisonous fog, but I trusted the video game to only give me the option to ride the ferry if it wasn’t going to kill me without a choice. Sure enough, the game took me across the lake–but dropped me to minimal health, dumped paralyzed on the opposite shore’s dock, with an extended bit of mocking dialogue from the ferryman. And only then did I die. Wow! The game openly antagonized me for metagame thinking–good for it, honestly! But I did not expect the game to let me go that far down a path that led to an instant death without any chance to fight back from it. I like that, and I was annoyed by it at the same time…

I will say that the constant death and retries take me out of the roleplaying. It’s hard to stay on top of motivations, or even to act in an internally consistent manner, when I’m doing something over and over again and dying repeatedly to get through it. It’s weird when I have to arbitrarily turn around or make what feels like an out-of-character choice just to avoid an option that I know leads to certain death. It’s kind of a shame because I actually really love the members of my party (though I’ll save a discussion of them for a later review when/if I finish the game).

I think my experience with the game will continue to be a continued love-hate balance. After finally defeating Alice, I spent way too many hours playing through more of the game, struggling through more battles, over this weekend. It’s why I’m posting so late today. It’s definitely why I decided to write something about it. It’s exhausting and it demands a lot and I keep wanting to feed it. I don’t think it’ll reach my Top Ten of All Time list of games or anything, but I can totally understand why this has become a favorite for so many people.