That Thing…

My Problem with GTA4.

I’ve got plenty of posts I’ve written over the years that I (apparently?) never bothered posting. Let’s post a few!

Also? Spoilers abounds!

The GTA3 series was about gangsters. The first one had “thugs” and “mafioso.” Vice City was more the latter, with San Andreas more the former. But GTA4 was more daunting. It wasn’t about style, it was about SOMETHING. It was about the pursuit of the American dream, freedom, and Niko’s quest for freedom from his past. But it failed for me. The culprit was the mis-marriage of narrative elements and gameplay. I think Rockstar bungled it by trying to make the narrative highpoint something it shouldn’t have been. To me, it was pretty evident where the emotional highpoint was in terms of gameplay. And that’s what they should’ve went with for the narrative as well.

First, the “point” of GTA4. In one of the earlier missions in the game you’re given the freedom to kill, or to not kill, someone you’ve chased down. The freedom of choice is a recurring theme in GTA4. Niko talks about choosing a new life, after he cleans up a few loose ends. His cousin Roman constantly chooses to get in over his head in attempt to get ahead. In the game you’re given choices in multiple missions. In at least three distinct places during the main narrative you’re given a choice between killing one of two strong supporting characters. (Francis McReary/Derrik McReary, Dwayne Forge/Playboy X, and Pegorino/Dimitri.) And then there’s what is, to me, the biggest choice in the game, foreshadowed from the very beginning of the game.

Note: The player CHOOSES to shoot Darko Brevic here. You don’t have to. Purely optional. But for me, this is undeniably the highpoint of the game emotionally and for gameplay, given that it’s a choice the player makes. That was the moment that you, the player, decides who Niko is going to be from that moment forward. You decide what kind of man he will be. (Sure it’s odd thinking “I let the man who killed my friends live and I’m mowing down dozens of passersby while driving down the street.” but that’s acceptable in GTA, and not indicative of the narrative. Those people are pellets in Pac-Man. This man, is just that. A man.) What I have a problem with is that this is not the end of the game.

The narrative continues, picking back up a completely unconnected plot that was interspersed in a lopsided fashion throughout the game. And then Niko is offered another choice, his final. You have to take a side in a mob dispute.

Wait, what? A mob dispute? I go through some deep emotional issues, dredge up the deaths of my entire fucking village back in Eastern Europe, and my childhood friends who died in a war? And deal with the fact that it was made possible by the only other surviving friend from that time, who is completely unrecognizable to me? And then… A mob dispute? What the fuck? It’s like your mother dies in a car wreck and your boss says “So, uh, the funeral’s Thursday? You’re uh, going to be able to come in this Saturday to fill in for Bob, right?”

After this monumental moment for Niko, which has no bearing on the rest of the game, you choose between helping Pegorino or Dimitri. Depending on which you kill, either your cousin or your girlfriend is killed, and you are forced to kill the remaining mobster. Forced to kill. Even after you just (potentially) let the man who got your entire army squad killed for a thousand dollars, live. The killing of your goddamned annoying cousin, or the girlfriend who was as interesting as a (blank brown) cardboard box, is the straw that broke the camel’s back? And for that you end on the down note of your decision to not have really mattered after all.

Allow me to offer a different suggestion. Something that should have happened before Darko Brevic was delivered. FIRST you do your requisite mafioso bit. Go ahead, make me choose. Kill one of the people I somewhat remotely feel something that could almost be considered an obligation to. Piss me off. Get me angry. This fucker, this Godfather-wannabe thinks he can kill the woman-I-(am-forced-to)-love/my-cousin-(that-annoys-me-but-fuck-it-he’s-family-you-know-what-I-mean-you-have-a-cousin-like-that-too)?! Fuck that noise, let’s jack a car and go kill some goddamn virtual bad guys!

Bam. Cut to the end. Done. I’ll miss my cousin/girl. They meant a lot to me. Well, to Niko/me. THEN… *ring* “What, what’s that? My phone? Hello? What? You found Darko Brevic? Where is he?”

(Skip to 4:15.)

Because goddamn it, that’s an ending. If you’re going to bother giving me a choice? Let it mean something.

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The Podcast II.

So, that’s over with. Game Industry News (GIN) didn’t last as long as I’d like, but, few good things ever do last as good as you want them to, y’know? I wasn’t able to put the time into writing it that I wanted, or try some of the other methods of distribution, so rather than throw time into something I didn’t feel I could do justice, I backed out. Justin, the host, didn’t feel like keeping it up, so he backed out as well. Dude’s doing two jobs and another podcast right now (the awesome Gamer’s Garage,) so I can’t imagine it was too painful for him.

That said, I did write a goodbye that the slack bastard (I kid, I kid; I love the guy, he knows that,) never got around to recording, so I thought I’d post it here. (Seriously, it’s not like there was a huge following, so it’s no big deal.) I wrote the majority of them “as him,” so to speak, so here it is:

Welcome to the Game Industry Newscast for this Friday, August fifth, I’m Justin, and it’s last call.

We’ve had fifty-nine weekday micropodcasts cataloging the day’s game industry news over three months time. The most-listened-to episode has one hundred and thirty five listens as of this recording. The lowest, four. New episodes would get about a dozen listens that day, and a few times that after about a week.

It seems odd to think about it, but many episodes will continue to get a few more listens until this domain expires or they’re taken down. So in a way the podcast isn’t dying, just hibernating. It was a new idea that was never entirely pulled off. A weekday micropodcast that was intended to be syndicated as a weekly news update for other podcasts. Crazy? Maybe. But it was fun, and it was aided wonderfully by friends who chimed in and some talented musicians who let us use their music free of charge. Maybe one day it’ll return, and it’ll work as imagined. But not today.

It’s an idea we may revisit in the far future. But it’s not one that we’re up for doing right now. Last week my producer Jeff decided that he didn’t have the time available to make GIN what he wanted it to be, and in turn decided would rather turn his attention elsewhere. With that, I don’t have the time to do it by myself.

This has been your Game Industry Newscast, I’m Justin, and on behalf of our producer Jeff, here, or elsewhere, we’ll see you in the future.

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Why is MK fighting DC?

(Or, Mortal Kombat : 1-3, apathy : every other game of the series)

Everyone scratched their heads when the game Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe was announced. Everyone thought it was pretty dumb. The question I’m asking, and hopefully answering, is ‘why’? Why did we all, myself included, look at this idea, and just turn away? When you think to ask the question, I think it’s pretty obvious, and I don’t mean “the notion of these properties crossing over is dumb,” we’ve all overlooked far stupider things in games and loved them beyond belief.

What I’m talking about is two places where the Mortal Kombat series fell apart for me. Fighting(MK5) and story(MK4.) “Worried about the story in a fighting game?! That’s insane!” Yeah, I know. I’m not trying to say that it was Dostoevsky or anything, I’m just saying that it ‘worked’. But let me tackle the fighting first.

MK5 (Deadly Alliance) was the first to give each fighter a completely different movelist. Prior to this, everyone’s punches was the same, everyone’s kicks were the same, and everyone’s movement speeds and jumping were exactly. the. same. This was wonderful.

In a typical fighting game some characters are drastically overpowered, some are inherently flawed when used against other certain characters, and some are perfectly balanced. Imagine a chess game where each player has a completely random set-up, some have rooks on the front row, some have their king there, sometimes your king is directly across from an opponent’s rook/queen and it’s almost impossible for you to win, and sometimes? Sometimes you start with three queens. It all depends on both who you choose, and wh you’re fighting. That’s a normal fighting game.

Mortal Kombat 1-4 took a far different approach that was much closer to traditional chess. All of the characters had a first row of pawns, for one. That’s to say that all of the non-special moves were exactly the same. On the back row, however, you start with (roughly) similar layouts, but with changes in location. Sure, the ocassional character is a little stronger or weaker than the rest, but it’s not so insanely disproportionate as the previous system, and it’s usually far more obvious due to lack of complexity.

So, yeah, it was limited, but it was, to me, far more fun.

The story? Well, it just seemed to grow more and more disparate and whimsical.

Typically in fighting games ‘stories’ are only a combination of context and character biographies/endings. (I’m not saying that they can’t be better, but this is all gamers require to consider a fighter to ‘have a story,’ is all I mean.) Imagine a series of threads, a few overlapping in places, but conjoining into a common weave for the game’s duration, and then fraying out again with each thread being each character’s ending. That’s how the minimum writing in fighting games usually works.

For sequels the developer traditionally picks one of the ending threads, decides it’s the ‘correct’ one and fashions a new story. This means they have to bridge the initial threads of returning characters (often including elements of those characters ending threads, chosen one or not,) AND tie in new threads introduced in new characters. Then of course they also have to create new ending threads for all of the characters. The fact that each character has his own thread that weaves throughout the game series opens the possibility for mind-numbing over-complexity, and bet your ass that Midway took this chance to wreak havoc with the MK world.

I’m used to reading comics, so when a character that’s existed for forty years says that he got his powers ten years ago, despite the fact that I’ve read his book for ten years, it doesn’t bother me a bit. I ‘get it’. But why the fuck is Noob Saibot really Sub-Zero I? Why bother killing him off and creating Sub-Zero II at all if he’s going to effectively be the same guy? Why go from a kumite in MK1 to an inter-dimensional war in MK3 if all the gods that held the kumite were in on it to begin with? Just declare war from the get-go.

I understand that the large array of characters was, hell, IS a draw, but seriously, wtf. It’s not like DC comics started out with the intent to become so convoluted as to require Infinite Crisis (much less Final Crises.) But MK seems hellbent on taking minimal requirements for storytelling and making me shake my head and just walk away in disgust. In ending, they really just need to reboot the series.

*In Brett’s Footnotes fashion let me note that I fully plan to give more thought to a class-based chess game now. Also, sorry, I lied, this wasn’t about MMOs, but I do have a notion swirling around in el cabesa, it’s just not coming out yet.

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