Bad timing, good game

One of the games I played in the early days of the pandemic was Plague Inc. I haven’t done much with that game for a while, after a couple days of many, many rounds at attempted world domination. It was interesting, not a genuine epidemiological model but a clearly expressed way to communicate to a layman like myself how a germ is spread, with plenty of gamified bits added on to keep the player engaged, like the ability to deliberately evolve your pathogen. I liked playing it. It felt sort of ironic and subversive at first, to be playing the game while we were all packed away in our houses. But now is just not the time.

I can say that the human response in the game, even on the easiest setting, was robust enough that humanity typically won. Yes, that means I’m bad at the game. But it was also kind of encouraging. Every time I lost, humanity won. It’s not easy to wipe us all out, thankfully.

Now isn’t really the time for a review of a game like that, though. I don’t blame the game or its makers. It came out 8 years ago. I don’t blame anyone who is playing the game now or having fun in said game or wanting to talk about the game. But I’ve done what I can with it. And now I’ve said what I can about it.

Why’d I choose to write about it even a little bit? Well, I kept thinking I’d get around to talking about it. The right time never seemed to emerge. Now isn’t the right time. But I’ve been feeling paralyzed with anxiety whenever I try to sit with my thoughts this weekend. It was already a topic I’d thought about touching on. With nothing else coming forward, I was left with this. I went with it. Maybe a bad decision, but I’ll live with it.

Stay safe out there, everyone.

 

TCW 7.11: “Shattered”

Wow. Order 66. Even knowing the outcome, even knowing for years now thanks to Rebels that both Rex and Ahsoka made it through the Clone Wars, this was an intense and anxiety-inducing episode. The score was anxious and melancholy, occasionally punctuated by the tunes from Revenge of the Sith that accompanied its own depiction of Order 66. The pacing was incredible, such that we couldn’t believe that almost a half an hour had passed by the end. And there were so many moments that felt, again, like a slightly different action, a moment aside with a character, a more frank conversation, could have changed everything. It was really cool to see scenes and moments from the movie bridged right into the episode. And Maul, after being put in his place and sent on his way by Ahsoka, is absolutely terrifying–and brutal! I don’t know what the final episode might do; I don’t know how you can conclude it all in just one more episode. This is wild. This is great TV. This is great Star Wars.

Apparently, the final episode is set to air a little earlier. This Monday, it looks like. That’s still too far away!

TCW 7.10: “Phantom Apprentice”

This Siege of Mandalore arc is adding so much nuance to Revenge of the Sith, which is already an above-average Star Wars film.

I love how much Maul recognizes and has figured out Sidious’s vision–how close he was to figuring it all out in time, how much he realizes he was just a pawn in a grandmaster’s game, how he could have almost destabilized it all. When he is foiled, because Maul is always foiled, I could sort of feel for him. He knows what is coming and he’s going to fail to stop it.

I love the moment when Maul and Ahsoka have something approaching a parley, and how that moment feels like one of the critical shatterpoints (to use Mace Windu’s preferred term) of the entire saga. Someone on Twitter suggested the following quote from the Revenge of the Sith novelization as the epigraph for this arc, since these episodes have eschewed that Clone Wars tradition:

This story happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is already over. Nothing can be done to change it.

I found myself thinking about that in relation to the episode. It fits so well, and it really pops in context of the Ahsoka/Maul confrontation. You can’t help but feel that if Ahsoka had sided with Maul, everything could have played out very differently. Maybe the Sith would have still ruled, maybe the galaxy would have descended into chaos…or maybe a weary and battered Jedi Order would have been able to rebuild the Republic (or something better) over time. I felt as though Ahsoka was facing options that could have completely reprogrammed the outcome of Revenge of the Sith–but of course, her fate and the fates of her friends are already set in stone. There was fantastic tension, not only for this story, but for the bigger story whose outcome we already know in full.

I love how Obi-Wan was really trying to reach out to Anakin. He knew the Jedi Council was wrong and felt awful for giving Anakin the assignment of spying on the Chancellor. That much was clear in Revenge of the Sith. But it’s heartbreaking that Obi-Wan tried to turn to Ahsoka, knowing she would understand how Anakin felt in facing the hypocrisy of the Council, hoping that she could get through to him–heartbreaking because we know she’ll never get that chance.

I love the beautiful, wild, jaw-dropping lightsaber battle between Ahsoka and Maul. The mo-capped choreography is incredible. The wide-ranging setpieces used to host the sprawling fight are impressive, as well. The final high-beam fight has a dangerous, acrobatic energy comparable to Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fight.

I even love the tacky episode title, living up to the spirit of the goofy serial names of the other films, nodding to The Phantom Menace of Sidious’s grand plot against the Republic and the Jedi, and (it would seem) ultimately referring to Anakin, who has been groomed to be Sidious’s new apprentice all this time, as Maul now knows.

I love so much about this beautiful, exhilarating, emotional episode. Only two more left, and then The Clone Wars will be complete!

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.

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.