Saturday, January 13, 2007

Musings on Video Games

That psychotic Gamer Theory (I'm sorry, G4m3r 7H30ry) site sparked a shadow memory from the deeper reaches of my subconsciousness. Back in junior year of high school, I bought "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City." For those of you fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with that particular masterwork, it's a game designed in what's known as a "Sandbox" model - that is, unlike early video games, which functioned in "level" format, "Vice City" places you in a digital environment (in this case, a city modeled after "Scarface"-era Miami) and lets you run around. There are missions, and the more you play the more things you get, but the "space" of the game is essentially complete in itself from the moment you start playing.

Anyways, the article really hit on something that was at the back of my mind the whole time I played Vice City - how the gameplay in Vice City is considerably less important than the environment. At some strange core, most of the pleasure in the game comes from just BEING (as in, existing) in Vice City. There is something wonderfully close to heaven about the game - you don't really have to be anywhere, you can steal a car and nobody cares, you can't ever die, you can fire a gatling gun at a police helicopter or drive a motorcyle off a building. Even after I completed all of the "missions," I found myself playing the game for hours and hours - not accomplishing anything but mindless exploration of zones of digital environment I'd already passed through several dozen times.

There is no real "story" in Vice City - there are several cutscenes in between missions, but they are presented in cinematic terms and feel divorced from the pseudo-reality of the game proper. But I think that the aesthetic of the game speaks volumes about the nature of storytelling on the Internet. Whereas the classical mode of storytelling (inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement) progresses forwards, we have become used to stories that progress inwards, discovering new worlds within worlds. This is the whole hypertext tradition: reading about Theodore Roosevelt on Wikipedia, you click on a link to William McKinley, to the Gilded Age, to Tammany Hall, to New York City, to New Amsterdam, to Dutch Colonies, and further and further down the rabbit hole. It's similar to the lunatic tangent aesthetic that's much beloved of hysterical realist authors like Thomas Pynchon (who will occasionally veer away from the narrative for 30 pages to present the entire history of a character who was just introduced and who promptly disappears back into the ether).

"Vice City" is ultimately a somewhat unsatisfying experience, because it is a single-player game. By the time you're finished with it, you have essentially become the God of Vice City, but you're the God of nothingness - faceless automatons who keep on jumping in front of your car. It's interesting to compare to some of the Massive online games, like "World of Warcraft," which is all about interaction (sometimes violent) with other people. There's a fascinating video that started some controversy a few months ago. Basically, a girl who played lots of "World of Warcraft" died in the real world. Apparently she was very well known inside the realm of Warcraft, so her team decided to hold a funeral for her - inside of the game, nearby a beautiful icy Lake. Several "people" showed up - you can see them in the video, all lined up. The whole affair was apparently quite somber - people from all across the world honoring the passing of a friend they probably hadn't ever actually met, except when they were fighting orcs. And then, out of nowhere, another team attacked the funeral and killed everyone there, then made a video of it and posted it on youtube. On one hand, this is very disturbing; on the other, I think it shows the fascinating depth of possibility that lurks within a digital realm when you insert the variable of other people - I mean, an attack on a funeral? That's positively Shakespearean.

This was a long and rambling post. I had a point, I swear.


Pico Alaska said...

What you said about the environment of the games told me a lot. And it makes sense. I have yet to come to any conclusions about the violence of the games (I have not played any so don't really know what's out there). Naturally I've heard about Grand Theft Auto and others and their bloodthirstiness, but I'll reserve judgment until I know more.

Adam Johnson said...

Darren, that video you posted was tense and terrifying--the crosscutting between somber serenity at an icy lake and a rampaging murderous hoarde was scary as heck. The music and editing had a lot to do with the effect, but when the slaughter began, it was like watching a genocide from a satellite. Bewildered figures were mowed down, and when they ran, they were hunted. It was a sickfest, and yet . . . they were avatars of fictional figures in a virtual world based on magic--four steps removed from "real life" as we know it, and yet they were all extensions of real people. I read many of the responses ot that youtube posting, and the range was so great (from horror to humor) that it was clear don't really have a sense of their relationship to this kind of human representation. Thanks for the cool, thought-provoking post.