Overcome the overwhelming sense of futility in video games with this one weird trick
Not long after I spent a couple of days complaining about Grand Theft Auto 5, I started to wonder if I’d been overthinking it.
I still don’t think any of that is wrong: representation is important, even if it is just representation for the sake of representation. And I think it’s lazy to spend millions of dollars trying to get natural lighting and weather patterns to look realistic, but then slather the whole thing in a bunch of tired stereotypes. And I still think that “it’s just a bunch of over-sensitive feminists trying to ruin everybody’s fun yet again” just makes the speaker look like an idiot. It’s time to stop being so frightened that you’re losing control of the treehouse fort and acknowledge that the girls want to play, too.
So I didn’t think it was wrong, but I started to wonder if it were irrelevant. What caused the second thoughts?
First was this “Clueless Gamer” segment in which Conan O’Brien and Aaron Bleyaert spend ten minutes goofing off with the game. The shot of Conan pointing and laughing at a character’s frustration was a perfect reminder that for a lot of players — maybe the majority of the audience — the forgettable story is exactly that, and they want nothing more than a toybox with cars to drive and helicopters to fly around shooting missiles at strip clubs.
Second was playing the game. After an introductory tutorial, your Tony Soprano knock-off is in a therapy session with a caricature of a psychiatrist, and he complains about how the therapy isn’t getting him anywhere. The therapist responds with something like, “Don’t worry, an overwhelming sense of futility is all part of the process.”
That almost kind of passes as subtle commentary, sort of. A reminder from Rockstar that they’re not taking any of this seriously, so we shouldn’t either. I played some more and saw the game taking shots at both genders, and at least a dozen different ethnic backgrounds, political persuasions, and social classes. It all blended together and then faded into the background, setting the tone of a world where you were free to do pretty much anything you wanted, because nothing in that world mattered.
And after several hours of that, I turned the game off for the night. And then never went back to it.
Defenders of the GTA series like to make it out as if anyone who doesn’t like the games just can’t handle the raw realness of it all. In this set of “landscape photos” taken within the game, Phil Rose calls out the “pearl-clutchers.” Sick burn, Phil, but the problem wasn’t that I was offended. The problem was that I didn’t care about any of it, at all.
It’s Not You, It’s-a Me!
During the time I was busy not getting back into GTA 5, something remarkable happened: the new trailer for Super Mario World 3D. It’s essentially two and a half minutes asking, “Remember when games used to be fun?”
Here’s a game that lets you choose one of several different cartoonish stereotypes of characters from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. You can explore a huge world, inflict violence on the natives, and occasionally steal their vehicles. It’s even got that pointed social commentary in the form of torture scenes that gamers crave: the game locks you in the room with a suspected kidnapper and doesn’t let you continue until you’ve stomped on his head three times. Plus, it lets you play as a female character, presumably because Nintendo wasn’t saddled with GTA’s “hyper-masculine” storyline of driving around in a convertible listening to the radio, shopping, choosing outfits, and constant texting.
I’m only half-joking with the comparison, too. All of us who played GTA 5 clutching our pearls with one hand and holding our noses with the other have to ask ourselves: why are we doing this? I’m sure there’s a large portion of the audience that genuinely does get off on the violence and pretending to be a thug. And it’s almost too depressing to think about, but I’m sure there are people out there who are genuinely aroused by getting lap dances from imaginary polygonal naked women. But are there 300 million dollars worth?
Reviewers have given the game near-universal praise, but it’s been pretty consistent what they’ve been praising: how big the game world is, how well done the weather and lighting effects are, and the sheer variety of content included. The reviews I’ve read either don’t mention the trademark-of-the-series crassness, or they acknowledge it while making it clear that they’re interested in something else.
And of course, one reviewer gave the game a “superb” 9/10 rating, and a horde of worthless little shits on the internet decided to make her life miserable for a few weeks afterwards, ostensibly because she dared mention the game’s misogyny, but really because she’s transgendered. (I didn’t see such a reaction to the male reviewer at Polygon who gave the game a 9.5 and also pointed out its misogyny, down to including an infographic in the video review — maybe it’s the 0.5 that keeps you from getting harassed by losers?) Among those assholes, the most disingenuous were the ones who feebly tried to defend their abuse by saying that “politics” don’t belong in video game reviews. It’s just a game, after all.
Which is a pretty good trick on Rockstar’s part: they don’t have to answer for any of the objectionable material in their game because it’s “satire,” and if you ask any of the questions that real satire is supposed to make you ask, they can shrug it all off because it’s just a game. Don’t take any of it too seriously.
However they’ve done it, it’s worked. On me, at least. Even while I was objecting to every meaningful aspect of GTA 5, I still bought a copy and still played it. Because, I figured, that’s just how games are these days. To see the state of the art in game development, you’re just going to have to spend time shooting cops and innocents and objectifying women and flinging out constant racial slurs, in an environment in which the developers and the characters all acknowledge that everything and everyone sucks. Because to do otherwise would be taking it all too seriously.
Not to mention the fact that I never quite felt like a bad-ass given the ultimate freedom to operate in a world where I was above the law, since even with the “improved” driving, I spent more time running into street lights and pedestrians than anything else.
I realized I’d spent $60 on something that just wasn’t even remotely fun. And what’s worse: I’d been beaten down to the point where I thought that was just the state of things.
To Infinity And Best Buy
It’s not entirely GTA 5‘s fault; that was just the most obvious offender. I’d just finished BioShock Infinite, and I thought the art was phenomenal and some of the ideas behind the game were excellent, but the game was ultimately joyless. The story was a near-incomprehensible mess, only made worse by turning into The Scary Door in the last act. And the combat — presumably the mechanic that would be strong enough to justify the clumsy combination of a message about racism and religious fervor with a lead character who rips policemen’s faces off with a sky hook — turned into such a tedious slog that I dropped difficulty down to “easy” in an attempt to fast-forward to the end.
Not long after, I decided to take a breather from single-player games and find something that would be fun co-op. My choices came down to the predictably self-important and humorless Diablo III, and Disney Infinity. I got Diablo III more out of loyalty to the franchise than anything else, and it turned out to be the entertainingly pointless endeavor that it’s always been. (On the Xbox 360, it’s a decent and completely forgettable way to pass a few hours).
I also got Disney Infinity because, well, because of course I got Disney Infinity. I’m the target audience for that game. As a 42-year-old man with an obsession for both Disney and video games, a compulsive desire to complete sets of collectibles, and more disposable income than common sense, I may not be the target audience Disney likes to talk about, but I’m still the target audience.
You can tell that for at least some of the people involved in that project, their hearts were totally in the right place. It really does try to spark that sense of fun and creativity that comes from an actual toy box. They’re careful to emphasize play throughout, always making your reward for playing a standard video game be the parts you need to make your own video game. And I’ve heard a lot of Disney-produced spiels about magic and imagination over the past year, but the one at the beginning of Infinity is one of the only ones that’s seemed at least somewhat sincere.
But, of course, there’s no getting around that business model. Disney’s always been happy to take your money while they’re serving up your fun, but it’s rarely as transparently crass as a system that’s designed to keep you buying more and more toys. The toys are well built and well designed, so if you’re a collector, it’s easy enough to ignore the fact that they’re nothing more than codes that unlock content that already exists on the DVD you bought. But the “blind buy” packs of “power discs” are just gross. I wish they hadn’t even been included, because they kind of taint the spirit of the entire game, making it impossible to forget the real reason the game exists in the first place.
And still, as much as I complained about it, I still had a sense that this is just the way games are these days. Skylanders and Infinity and in-app purchases and downloadable content: it’s all about compromise. They’ve got to run a business, after all. And even if what you’re playing now seems kind of shallow, you can always buy something else that makes it interesting.
Wii Would Like To Play
Through it all, I would keep watching that Super Mario World 3D video on a near-constant loop, and remembering, “Oh right. Nintendo exists.” I’d gotten the Wii as a Christmas gift one year, and it really did have the whole family playing Wii Sports just like in the commercials. But it had been at least a year since I’d even turned it on, much less played anything. About six months ago I finally took it off life support, unplugging it and watching the blue light finally wink out.
Watching the new video reminded me of Super Mario Galaxy, though, and how the last time I remember laughing out loud from sheer joy at a video game was playing through a level and seeing Mario get shot out of the top of a volcano. And I remembered when the Nintendo 64 first came out, and people — most of them adults — would gather around the display at the Toys R Us to watch someone playing through one of the underwater levels. And how that game gave you a whole castle to explore, but you could still have fun just running and jumping around in the garden out front.
I found myself wanting a Wii U, just to get ready. The Wii U hadn’t even been on my radar. And that’s not my typical Electronic Guilt Ritual, either, vainly trying to talk myself out of buying some new gadget before inevitably picking one up. I had no interest in the Xbox One; that whole business is like a textbook example of how not to do a console launch, from the confusing and contradictory opening announcements, right down to the name. Plus it’s ludicrously overpriced, and the lack of backwards compatibility is so user-hostile it’s as if Microsoft is blatantly testing us to see how much we’ll put up with. But I found a promotion to order the Xbone for slightly less than retail, and with the same weary resignation that surrounds so much of video games in 2013, I ordered one.
The Wii U was different. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested; I thought Nintendo had completely flubbed this console generation, guaranteeing their own irrelevance. I thought that they obviously didn’t even understand where technology was headed: smart phones had already rendered the DS and 3DS obsolete, and now tablets meant that the Xbox’s “Smart Glass” was the only way to go. Putting a touch screen onto the game controller was an almost comically inept case of missing the point.
That could still be the case, but if they’re headed towards irrelevance now, I’m going with them. I got the version of the Wii U that came with the Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker remake, and I’ve been loving it. I don’t know why I never got past the first hour or so of that game when it came out ten years ago, because it’s downright enchanting, and it doesn’t feel dated in the least. I’ve always thought the Zelda series was better in theory than in practice, to be honest, and I wasn’t as taken with Ocarina of Time as everybody else seems to be. But Wind Waker is like playing through a cartoon, and it’s got a sense of imagination and discovery that I’d thought had gone completely missing from video games.
The obligatory Mario game is imaginative but frustrating — I get the sense that they’ve split the franchise somewhat, where the side-scrollers are targeted more at completionists and people who enjoy speed runs, while the full 3D ones are more general-audience exploration. Pikmin 3 is a straight-up delight, and that was another series I’d never been able to get into. Discovering and re-discovering all these games was as if Nintendo was saying, “Welcome back, we’ve missed you these past few years.”
I Want To Be The Very Best
In my Wii U-weakened state, I was no match for the Nintendo 3DS XL sitting on my friend Doug’s coffee table. To be clear: since its release, I’ve been more hard-line anti-3DS than I ever was against the Wii U. I’d bought into the gimmick of the DS — twice! — and it had seen even less use than the Wii. None of the games really took advantage of the two screens, and even the imaginative ones like Rhythm Heaven and Wario Ware weren’t enough to hold my interest very long. When the 3DS was first released, I tried one that a co-worker had brought into the office, and I thought even if the 3D effect had worked, it still wouldn’t be cool enough to be anything other than the final gimmicky nail in Nintendo’s coffin. After the release of the iPhone and the App Store, there was absolutely no reason for anyone over 15 years old to hold a handheld gaming device.
But the new Luigi’s Mansion game, though. It really does feel like looking into a window on a little diorama, with 3D transparent ghosts flying around. And the game has you actually look through a window — moving the device around moves your view, letting you peer around corners and up at the ceiling. And you suck up ghosts with a vacuum cleaner! And Luigi nervously hums along with the game’s background music when he’s idle!
Also there’s already a 3D Mario game out, and it’s been out for well over a year, apparently. And not only can you run around in the Tanuki Suit, but several of the levels take full advantage of the 3D effect. And with the 3DS XL, the 3D effect actually works! Running around and jumping in Super Mario 3D Land was every bit as fun as when I first started the Nintendo 64 game, something that they hadn’t been able to capture since.
And the new Pokemon game! And some tactical RPG from the studio that makes the Advance Wars and Paper Mario games! It’s like opening up an old chest and re-discovering a bunch of beloved toys from my childhood, except where “my childhood” means “my early- to mid-30s.”
I dug up my old Nintendo DS games and popped my copy of Nintendogs into the 3DS. It’d been so long, I’d been expecting the worst: even if I didn’t find an actual puppy skeleton, I’d thought that Virtual Animal Protective Services might’ve taken my dog away, or at least he’d be scolding and mistrustful after I’d abandoned him for so many years. But as soon as I turned the game on, he woke up and barked and ran to the screen for me to pet him, ready to play. That’s as good a metaphor for my rediscovery of Nintendo as anything.
It turns out I can still remember what Pokemon types beat Rock and what’s good against Grass, and I can get just as sucked into berry farming as I ever was. And the feeling I got from paying my home loan back to Tom Nook was almost as satisfying as when I finally paid off my real-life college loans. I still suspect that the animals in Animal Crossing aren’t actually reading my letters, though: I wrote a five-word message to Jay, and he responded that he’d read the entire thing even though it was so long and “such a word work-out.” I get enough of that kind of grief over this blog; I don’t need to be hearing that from a cartoon bluejay.
But the thing is that I’m having good, pointless fun again. Without the self-consciousness, or the compromises, or the need to slather a bunch of “mature” BS on top of it because of some adolescent idea that Nintendo makes baby games for babies. I felt a lot more sheepish walking into a store and asking for a copy of Grand Theft Auto 5 than I did buying Pokemon X. I’ve spent so many years playing, thinking about, and being surrounded by video games, and I still let myself forget what video games are all about.