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The reference there is to the role of prostitutes in the game (sleeping with them regenerates your health) and the now notorious ”option“ to kill them and retake their earnings after working sessions in your stolen van. This is indeed possible, but most gamers point out that it’s not necessary, and it does not add to the game. It is, for better or for worse, a function of the ability to kill any character you encounter, and it sure as hell is not fun. For gamers, this distinction is critical; GTA III is about opportunity and choice. It provides a virtual world of total freedom, one that cuts to the core of video-game culture, which is the ability to do things you can‘t do in real life, whether it’s fighting off a zombie bum rush, pulling inhuman snowboard tricks or running amok as a hood in Liberty City. This, of course, is little consolation for those who see GTA III as a freestyle carnage arena, grooming our youngsters into little sociopaths.
As the debate continues, Rockstar and Take 2 have added fuel to the fire with their latest release, a purer distillation of free-for-all violence called State of Emergency. Embedded somewhat awkwardly in a vaguely political setting, the game is basically a simulated riot. It is the near future, and the world is run by the Corporation, which lulls its ”citizens“ into complacency with burger coupons and consumer products. You control one of five ”resistance“ fighters, who each have their own axes to grind (literally) with The Man. (In the original design, the political message was more specific to the current anti-globalization movement; instead of a global business corpus replacing the body politic, the enemy was the American Trade Organization. But that was toned down after September 11.)
If State of Emergency‘s story is weak, it’s because the real purpose of the game is to showcase its rendering engine, which can keep up to 200 individual and autonomous rioters, looters, scared civilians and Corporation goons onscreen, at 30 frames a second, without slowing down. A noteworthy technical achievement, but unfortunately it hasn‘t been put to use for interesting gameplay. State of Emergency has none of the variety or detail of GTA III. Your character runs around. The screen buzzes with little guys and various weapons with which to dispatch them. Every so often phrases like ”CRAZY PEOPLE ATTACKING!“ appear on the screen. At heart, the game is a rehash of arcade classics whose lineage can be traced back through Smash TV to Robotron 2084, without much improvement since. Unless you count the ability to wield dismembered limbs and severed heads as weapons as a bona fide gaming advance, this is 8-bit gaming at 75 million polygons per second.
State of Emergency lacks all the things that make GTA III great. GTA III synthesizes three whole categories of gaming -- driving, action, exploring -- into one seamless interface, and manages to suffuse its world with enough of what gamers call ”depth“ that it never gets dull. In Liberty City you can find over 50 vehicles, each handling differently, and a dozen weapons, and hear bits of conversation in the street. State of Emergency plays out in just four small levels, with not much to find and little development over time. And that leaves no room at all for the well-placed irony, homages and cultural winks that are GTA III’s clever finishing touches.
Nevertheless, State of Emergency is a sales phenomenon. It‘s the top-selling game in the U.S. and the U.K. (pushing GTA III to second place). And not only has New Line written a check for the movie rights, but the project is already in pre-production.
Predictably, politicians have been quick to criticize a game that is graphically violent and seems to glorify the Battle of Seattle. But decrying State of Emergency’s so-called politics misses the point. If anything, the game‘s faux anti-capitalist veneer is ready-made for an essay in The Baffler: It’s another corporate co-option of dissent into >> a profit machine. A safe outlet for simulated rage at $50 a pop -- and capitalism wins again.
More telling is the less-noticed division in the gameplay. There are two basic modes, Revolution and Chaos, and there‘s little difference between them, except that Chaos is more fun. I started in Revolution, and after about five minutes switched over to Chaos, without ever turning back. Why wait around for the resistance when you can toss grenades into storefronts now? Which is precisely what those manning the ramparts have always feared about revolution -- that it necessarily devolves into mob rule. In that sense, the game is almost pro-establishment. If there is a message of comfort for Seattle councilmen in State of Emergency, it’s that the virtual world seems to prove both Bakunin and Burke right: Revolution and anarchy are shades of one color.
What‘s explicit in State of Emergency’s design is also the unintended subtext of GTA III. In Liberty City, too, the baser instincts prevail. Rampaging, one discovers, is better fun even than crime. Gamers fancy the interactive autonomy of GTA III, but with that comes the same paradox that plagues freedom in reality: How much is too much? In the quest for full virtual freedom, the game makes disturbing crimes possible. And without the repercussions of the real world -- no cop, no stop! -- what emerges is the intrinsic human tendency toward the state of nature. As much as I like GTA III, the game inevitably plays out as an unsettling little social experiment. It acts as a virtual civilization of discontents -- program out the superego, mores, laws and ethics, and the unrestricted electronic id is left to find its conclusion, which turns out to be mostly apeshit mayhem. Or sometimes ghastly deeds. And this is probably what should disturb polite company the most: not that the game allows you to kill hookers, but that players and critics alike realized it was a tempting possibility.
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