Blood on the Joystick

>> Witness the predicament of the contemporary video gamer: ”I have a problem that I have dubbed Max Payne Syndrome. Whenever I walk back from gym class, I take this really deserted long hallway. If I see a few people coming from the opposite direction, I start walking slowly, and then I think the world is moving slow. I start to strut, in a manner like . . . YOU CAN’T KEEP UP WITH MY MOVES, BITCH.“ So goes a mea culpa by a pseudonymous poster named Septum, who continues: ”Today was the worst. I actually dropped my backpack and laid down on my knees, bobbing my head back and forth pretending I am dodging bullets or something.“

Septum‘s experience is not limited to him or to the game Max Payne. Every kid could offer a confessional about having weird thoughts while stumbling out of the arcade or trying to sleep after marathon sessions on a PlayStation 2 or at the PC. But as games get better, those thoughts get weirder.

I myself have been fighting some sinister yens after just two days of playing Grand Theft Auto III, a new game from Rockstar and Take 2 Interactive that is as seductive as it is violent and as innovative as it is controversial. I’ve wanted to shove my way through stopped traffic -- with the hood of my car. I‘ve had the urge to ram passing black-and-whites. The other day I saw a transport truck loaded with rebar and wondered how well it would handle speeding off the roof of a parking garage. This subtle distortion of reality, while slightly unnerving, is also a testament to the quality of the game’s design. As society debates the merits of a pastime that makes me want to sail my Jetta off the 110105 interchange, the fact that it does only adds to the growing consensus that the game is probably the best release in years.

GTA III, as it‘s called in gaming argot, allows the player to assume the role of a nameless escaped-con protagonist and take him through the underworld ranks of a fully realized urban dystopia called Liberty City. The best mode of transport is to carjack passersby, and the game’s 200-plus missions require you to pick up extortion money, assassinate stoolies, do in rivals, chauffeur hookers and other like activities.

But the real allure of the game is what you don‘t have to do. Unlike most video games, which are sequential and narrowly circumscribed, GTA III is nonlinear and open-ended. You can complete the missions in any order, or not attempt them at all. The game designers have made Liberty City an eerily detailed environment, with A.I.-motivated pedestrians and traffic filling the streets, engaging in their own spontaneous contretemps -- an environment full of potential. Steal a cab and drive fares around, earning a (somewhat) honest buck. Take a cop car and help reduce the rampant crime by going on a brutal vigilante spree. Go to the hospital, grab an ambulance and become a lifesaver (if you don’t run down any pedestrians, that is). I actually drove around Liberty City for over an hour once, checking out the town and listening to Chatterbox, its local talk-radio station. As I was writing this paragraph, a high school friend wandered by, and when I told him I was writing about GTA III, he came back with, ”That shit is tight, fool! There‘s a whole world in there!“

The best -- and perhaps most insidious -- part of that whole world, however, is what could best be called ”rampaging.“ That’s when you unleash your weapons against pedestrians and police, trying to escalate your fugitive status and still stay alive. As you go from simple desperado to public enemy number one, survival gets harder: Three stars in the upper-right corner of the screen bring out police choppers, four mean the SWAT team shows up, five call in the FBI. If you can get to six stars, the National Guard arrives, armed with military hardware and tanks. There is a whole culture on the Web of posters bragging about particularly hairball rampages, or giving advice about where to make your final stand. I personally have spent hours on end rampaging, taking down dozens of cops and innocent bystanders with each try. When I finally stole a tank from the National Guard, my only regret was that my friends weren‘t there to see it.

All that bloodshed has aroused the notice of the self-appointed family-values overseers. When GTA III was released in October, after a small delay in consideration of the post--September 11 sensitivity to violence, it instantly became a best-seller. And right away Senator Joe Lieberman, the National Institute on Media and the Family and other cultural watchdogs started denouncing it. A Los Angeles Times review likened it to a technically excellent snuff film. Segments about the game’s excessive violence started appearing on local news programs and morning shows across the country. By January, GTA III had been banned in Australia, ”on grounds of sexualized violence,“ according to that country‘s Office of Film and Literature Classification.


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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