Wednesday, May 28, 2008

True confessions

Random thoughts while trying to figure out why the blogging muse has taken a sabbatical:

-The more I hear the advance buzz about Metal Gear Solid 4, the less I want to play it. Pre-release 10/10s and "game of the year" accolades have become a warning sign. I don't care how good it ends up being, when I'm sitting through a 60-minute cutscene, I'll be thinking: "Is this the game of the decade, like GamePro said?"

-I haven't played Grand Theft Auto IV since filing my review. That would seem to undercut the basis for giving it a 9.0.

-The thought of playing games online with strangers makes me nervous. I try my best to avoid it.

-For all the smart things Nintendo has done in the past few years, I can't figure out why they don't price Wii points on a sliding scale. It's ten bucks for 1,000, twenty bucks for 2,000, thirty bucks for 3,000, and so on. I have 200 points sitting around, and I needed 1,000 to get LostWinds. The game costs 1,000 points. I would like to take advantage of that remaining 200 somehow. If I could have gotten 2,000 points at even a slight discount -- say, $18 -- I probably would have. But there's no incentive to pay more. What are they thinking? They're handicapping their own revenues here, which is not something Nintendo usually likes to do.

-I think if you read between the lines of most of the reviews I write, you won't learn whether the game is good or not. You'll learn whether I was good at it or not.

-I scored Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin too low (8.0).

-I scored Manhunt 2 too high (1.5).

-Sometimes I wonder if I should hold shorter, downloadable games to different standards. Then I remember Portal.

-Which is the most aggravating to follow: video games, politics, or sports? They all come with so many douchebags.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One size Fits all

Consider me stumped as to WiiFit's appeal. The game -- er, "lifestyle product" -- doesn't even officially come out until today anywhere except the Nintendo store in New York, but it's safe to say it's going to be a hit. Anecdotal evidence suggests that non-gamers at general-interest publications, to use the scientific term, are going apeshit over it. It happened at the Phoenix, it happened at MTV, and it's probably happened everywhere. Why?

Don't get me wrong: I'd like to play it, too. I'm a sucker for gimmicky video games, and the potential for future games to utilize the Balance Board is intriguing (I would love a Board-compatible update to Nintendo's own 1080 series of snowboarding games). Further still, I'm always interested to see whether Nintendo's Wii experiments can pass the ultimate test of appealing to my non-gaming fiancee (so far, nothing has). Unfortunately, the WiiFit feeding frenzy left me on the outside looking in, so my only option is to buy it.

And, I've got to say, the thought of spending ninety bucks on this thing is somewhat less than tantalizing. Partly, it's because I already exercise regularly, and one of the biggest benefits of doing so is being able to sit on my ass playing video games all night, guilt-free. Still, if WiiFit were fun -- fun in the way that, say, Guitar Hero is fun -- then I'd be happy to do it. But I'm not convinced.

See, exercise isn't fun. It's one of many things I do every day not because I want to, because I have to -- like waking up, or going to work. It's one thing to do something genuinely fun that also has health benefits, like team sports or snowboarding. It's another to do push-ups and get yelled at by a virtual trainer. (Not to mention getting called fat, thanks to Nintendo's dubious inclusion of the Body Mass Index.) There's a reason why people are always signing long-term contracts with their local gym, only to spend two weeks exercising, and fifty weeks feeling guilty.

If WiiFit somehow succeeds in making fitness fun, then it will be the greatest trick Nintendo ever pulled. Call me a cynic, but I think what's really going to happen here is that the Balance Board is going to end up on heaps of discarded NordicTracks and treadmills in basements around the world.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I played The World Ends with You

I didn't really like it.

I know a lot of other people are loving this game. I'm not trying to talk you out of it. It just seemed like way too much for me, and I did not get the hang of the touchscreen controls at all. Maybe with some more time to play it, I might have been able to break through whatever wall I was hitting, but now that the review's over I can predict with confidence that I will never play it again. I think I will survive, somehow.

As always, feel free to berate me in comments.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

Nothing worth mentioning about the upcoming weekend. Plenty to mention about the past week.

-Where are my manners? Earlier this week, I posted about a Village Voice Media story without mentioning their newish blog, Joystick Division. It's jam-packed with high-concept pieces, the best of which may be Nate Patrin's attempt to play 24 games in 24 hours. Consecutively. There's even a video.

-The latest New Yorker has a story about an experimental treatment for Iraq war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome: a modified version of Full Spectrum Warrior. This is heartening to hear, and it sounds like preliminary results are encouraging. But it makes me wonder: If it could be scientifically proven that games could affect someone's psychological makeup in a positive way, wouldn't it logically tell you that they could also be psychologically damaging? The difference, of course, is that someone suffering from PTSD is already damaged. Perhaps that makes him more susceptible to this sort of conditioning.

-Gene Koo alerted me to the existence of Valuable Games, a joint venture between Harvard and MIT that aims to, as he put it, instill some "pro-social" values into gamers. Besides their blog, they also meet monthly for discussions. Next Wednesday, they'll be discussing Grand Theft Auto IV. Now that I seem to be off the hook for reviewing anything next week, I just may go. If I do, I'll be sure to report back here.

-If it's not murder simulators teaching kids how to kill cops, it's WiiFit telling them how fat they are. The BMI is a useless tool for measuring fitness, but it's also quick and easy, and that's probably why Nintendo chose to use it. Whoops. I doubt this will turn into a bona fide controversy, but considering how people seem to be going apeshit for this "lifestyle product," who knows.

-Matthew Gallant ponders the upcoming BioShock movie. Count me as cautiously optimistic about this one. I actually think that there's plenty of latitude for the filmmakers to change what's there, while still keeping true to the spirit of it. I'd like it if they went with practical effects for the Big Daddies, but they'll probably be CG. Easy prediction: Dr. Tennenbaum's role will be expanded significantly.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV Review: Citizen Kane? Or 'Citizen You'?

It's the moment you've been waiting for! My Grand Theft Auto IV review is up now at You'll notice it's a bit longer than my usual, which still proved to be not nearly enough words to cover everything I wanted to. Still, I think it's pretty good.

Because this review is running later than most mainstream coverage, I tried to avoid talking about the game in terms of whether it was good or bad -- although I think it's pretty clear that I thought it was good. Instead, I tried to look a little more deeply at why it's so good. Why is this game resonating where so many others don't, especially with people who aren't full-time gamers? I think it all comes down to player choice. There are some ways in which the framework Rockstar gives you is more restrictive than it appears, but I think their most impressive achievement is giving the player so much control over his own destiny. There are millions of ways to beat most missions, and we've all had several little moments in the game that probably won't ever be replicated by anyone else. That's really why we play.

By the way, that four-star review actually translates to a 9/10 in the paper. You don't see this critic getting swept up in the wave of hype!

What, I thought we were supposed to congratulate ourselves for that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Supreme Court rules Supreme Court rules

Above: Grander theft auto

My arch-enemies at Village Voice Media* have posted their review of Grand Theft Auto IV. They are fairly bold in giving it a tepid write-up. It's still positive, but it's certainly the lowest rating I've seen for the game thus far. The reviewer, Gary Hodges, gives it an 8/10, and spends the bulk of the text highlighting some of the gameplay problems.

They're good points all, and I can't say I disagree with any of them. In fact, the unflattering comparisons to Crackdown are well taken. If I had to say which was the better game, I'd go with Crackdown. It doesn't try to do as much as Grand Theft Auto, but as a result it's tighter and more playable. The makers of Crackdown opted to do a few things exceptionally well, rather than try to do everything passably.

For all the ways GTA lets you explore the open world of Liberty City, Niko and the environment never seem to mesh perfectly. He looks like he's being filmed against a green screen when it comes to scrambling up hillsides and other areas with irregular footing. By contrast, in Crackdown, characters really could go anywhere and do anything. If you noticed a little outcropping on the side of a building, your character could jump up and grab it. He could pick up any objects, provided his strength level was sufficient. The entire environment was usable. In Grand Theft Auto, much of it is ornamental.

And that's okay. Part of the reason GTA is so successful is that it puts the character in a living world in which he isn't always the focal point. Liberty City is full of citizens going about their lives. They don't know or care who Niko is. To them, he's just another stranger they'll encounter out of thousands -- you know, unless he happens to be running from the cops with guns blazing.

The Voice's criticisms of GTA are well taken, and I think any honest observer would have to admit that they are fair. In fact, it's strange to me that such a negative review still resulted in the 8/10 score, but I know from personal experience that sometimes the score you give a game and the review you write don't necessarily match up, even if you believe in them both. We in the alt-weekly biz have little space in which to work, and that sometimes means choosing one thing to focus on at the expense of balance.

Hodges does seem to give himself a 10/10 for his own critical prowess, devoting his introduction and conclusion to belittling the across-the-board perfect scores the game has gotten (this is mentioned off-handedly in my own upcoming review), and congratulating himself on standing against the tide of mainstream opinion. I'd like to be bothered by this a little more, but, damn it, he's pretty much right. The Metacritic score for the PS3 version is holding steady at 99, and the Xbox 360 version is just one point lower. That's crazy. It's crazy for all the reasons Hodges points out.

I've heard a lot of people praise the controls as being such a huge step forward for Grand Theft Auto, but they're exactly as far behind the curve as they were in past GTA games. Compared to San Andreas, sure, the shooting controls are phenomenal. Compared to Gears of War or Rainbow Six Vegas, not so much. Given how important shooting is to the game, you'd think this would have bothered somebody. No, it doesn't ruin the game -- not by a long shot -- but it's hardly compatible with "best game ever" accolades. If somebody wanted to catalog every legitimate complaint a person could have with this game, they'd soon have a novella.

So, Gary Hodges, I salute your vainglorious iconoclasm. You and your VVM cohort may have won this battle, but the war is far from over. The Phoenix will crush you!**

*Not really.

**Not really.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

When is a game finished?

Today's brain food comes from Stephen Totilo at MTV Multiplayer, who wrote a post called "A New Theory: Maybe Game Reviewers Don't Need to Finish Games." Frankly, I didn't realize they did need to. Even Gamespot's own review policy says they don't necessarily finish everything they play.

I wrote a fairly long comment on the Multiplayer post, if you click through, but I want to focus on another point that I addressed only obliquely: Just when is a player "finished" with a game, anyway? Sometimes, the answer is pretty obvious. Take BioShock, for example. Although that game gave you several ways to make it to the finish line, everybody who played had to follow the same basic path through the story. There were no other gameplay modes besides the single-player campaign. I think most people would agree that playing through the story to the end credits would count as finishing BioShock.

What about Grand Theft Auto IV? You can play the main missions and still miss a hefty chunk of what the game has to offer. I would argue that ignoring the missions altogether is no way to play, but lots of people do just that. They set up explosive interactions in the game world like kids with a chemistry set. They don't care about structure or narrative, and they wouldn't have it any other way. Some people will never be finished with this game in a definite sense. That's part of the design.

Finally, take it all the way to the extreme: When is World of Warcraft finished? When is Tetris finished? When is The Sims finished? These are games that don't actually end. Or, more accurately, they end when the player decides they do. The ending isn't built into the game; it comes from the player.

This brings up, again, one of the inherent pitfalls in reviewing games. We don't all approach games with the same set of expectations. One of the things that actually sucks about reviewing something like Grand Theft Auto is the temptation to charge through the story in order to finish the game. That's missing the forest for the trees. It wouldn't feel fair, either, to ignore the game's numerous scripted events and missions, and just see how many different ways you can murder bystanders. But there's always going to be a huge group of players whose interests don't align with the reviewer's, because of all the different reasons we play.

A key task for any reviewer is to identify what a game is trying to do, and judge it accordingly. Sometimes a story is perfunctory. Sometimes a multiplayer mode is tacked on. That doesn't necessarily mean that the game's core strengths are lessened. The best games do find a way to succeed on several levels, but it's simply not a requirement for your garden-variety good game to excel in several different areas. Doing well in one is usually enough.

I would argue that storytelling is but one of a few crucial elements, without which GTA would be a different game. So while it's important to get a good sense of the story (and it is very involving), completing the storyline at the expense of exploring the city, building relationships with the characters, and trying some multiplayer would certainly not be the same as finishing the game. Frankly, I'm not sure what would.

What do you think? With so many games designed to be played and replayed endlessly, when can we say we're finished with it?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

This bugs me every time

It's been confirmed that Grand Theft Auto IV pulled down over half a billion dollars in revenues in its first week. As always, one of the first things the publisher has to say about this is the comparison to a movie's box office:
Grand Theft Auto IV's first week performance represents the largest launch in the history of interactive entertainment, and we believe these retail sales levels surpass any movie or music launch to date.

Well, sure. I don't want to downplay the significance of GTA's success, because those numbers are ridiculous. But it's not really an apples-to-apples comparison. A video game costs almost ten times as much as a movie ticket. When a game grosses $500 million, that's not the same amount of popular success as a movie that grosses the same amount. The movie had to sell significantly more tickets.

Look at it this way: At $60 a pop, you're looking at approximately 8,333,333 units of Grand Theft Auto sold. That's not counting the more expensive collector's editions. Assuming an average ticket price of $6.88 (which seems really low to me), the same number of movie tickets would sell for just over $57 million.

Iron Man crested $102 million in its opening weekend (clearly, Grand Theft Auto did not impact its performance). Still using that average ticket price, that's about 14.8 million tickets. In other words, almost twice as many people saw the movie in three days than bought the game in one week.

Then again, $60 is a much higher barrier to entry than $6.88. It's asking more of a consumer to buy a game than to buy a movie ticket. By that standard, GTA's performance is even more impressive. Even so, it doesn't represent a cultural penetration that rivals that of a blockbuster movie. We're not there yet.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Shell on wheels: Mario Kart Wii review

I don't want to pretend that my personal experiences prove any kind of general point about everybody else in the world. Well, okay. I do want to do that. So, anecdotally, it seems to me that everybody is underwhelmed by Mario Kart Wii.

I brought the game with me to a gathering of about a dozen people last Saturday. These are friends of mine going back over ten years, with whom I spent countless sleepless nights in high school playing Mario Kart 64 until we couldn't see straight. So after we played some single-player rounds to try to unlock all the tracks, we started in on four-player.

And stopped after two Grand Prixes.

I was a little surprised. The game sat there, idling at the character select screen, and nobody seemed interested in giving it a go. Not the hardcore gamers, not the casual players that have been such an integral part of the Wii strategy. Nobody saw the Wii Wheel and said, "I gotta try that!"

Then, our host brought out Rock Band, which we played non-stop until almost 2 AM. I don't know what conclusions to draw from this. We already knew Rock Band is awesome, and it's even moreso when you download some additional Queens of the Stone Age and Smashing Pumpkins.

Clearly, we're still into video games. But whatever allure Mario Kart once held for us seems to be gone. I'm sure we would have played it more if there hadn't been such an appealing alternative. I like the Wii version, almost unreservedly. I imagine I'll play it again. Still, whatever secret sauce used to bind its parts seems to have faded a bit.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Let's nitpick about Grand Theft Auto IV

I've got problems with Grand Theft Auto IV. I appreciate its ambition, and the storyline is suitably engrossing. Overall I'm enjoying it a bit more than I expected to. Yet it's far from perfect. I don't think a perfect review score means a game lacks any and all flaws, but when those flaws undermine what makes the game good, a perfect score seems more like wishful thinking. There are small things that take me out of the world of Liberty City, annoying gameplay quirks that may have been unavoidable but still smack of poor design, and, most regrettably, a sexist and homophobic streak that gets close to crossing the line for me in some ways.

When I read discussions of the game online, it seems like most people are awed not only by the scale of the city, but for the almost limitless minor interactions with city dwellers. Sometimes I get what this is about. Upon loading up one session, I stepped out of the safe house and heard somebody yelling nearby. I walked across the street to investigate, and found a manic street preacher with a bible in one hand, sharing the gospel with anyone who would listen. It seemed as though I was the only one who was.

Nearby, I saw an ATM, and thought I might see if I could use it. As I approached, another pedestrian cut in front of me and took some money out. I thought about beating him up and robbing him, but it's just not how I roll. Instead, I went back to my parked car and saw someone crouching behind it. Suddenly a cop ran over, gun drawn, and shouted at him to put his hands up. Another police car screeched to a stop, sirens blaring. Man, I thought. This is amazing. It really was. A whole city, teeming with life, regardless of what I was doing at the time.

Then it fell apart.

The criminal, apparently apprehended, never got in the police car. He backed away and put his arms down. The cop, still pointing his gun, seemed to lose track of what he was looking at. The criminal ran about half a block, then started walking as though nothing happened. The cop walked in a circle. What had been an amazing display of dynamic AI seconds earlier had turned into gibberish. And this happens a lot.

In another mission, I was tailing a drug dealer. I was warned repeatedly not to get too close to him, lest I arouse his suspicion. So I was wondering, as I stopped in the middle of the road blocks from a stoplight, how I was any less conspicious there than if I simply pulled up to a red light like every other driver on the road. As I was musing on this, there was something of a traffic jam up ahead. The dealer couldn't get through a couple of stopped cars. I waited a full minute, and they didn't move. I started to wonder if I would have to restart the mission, when suddenly the cars in the intersection vanished into thin air, and the dealer kept driving.

That's one of the problems I keep having. It's not catastrophic to the gameplay, but every time I start to get immersed in the world, something happens to shock me back to reality. Maybe these kinds of problems are inevitable, but it's hard to dismiss them when they undercut the main attraction of the game.

Another thing I'm less than thrilled about is actually intrinsic to the game design. I wish there were checkpoints within missions. GTAIV is actually a big jump forward in this regard, because it lets you choose the option to restart immediately upon failing, and even teleports you back to the starting point. That's helpful. Problem is, lots of missions take place far from their alleged starting point.

For example, in the mission "The Puerto Rican Connection," you have to follow the train as it travels along elevated tracks. But first, you have to drive from Manny's place in South Bohan to a bridge in Algonquin (I think? I can't keep the place names straight). Only then does the chase begin. When you fail, you don't start at the chase -- you start back in South Bohan. That's all added downtime, and it's a problem I've had with open-world games in general. Since this game lets you warp to the beginning of a mission, why aren't there sensible intra-mission checkpoints?

Lastly, I've bent over backwards to defend the content of Grand Theft Auto, even though my reasons for doing so are no longer clear even to me. I had a tough time reconciling one mission in particular, called "Out of the Closet," which struck me as cold and bigoted even within the jokey tone of the game.

I want to be clear on one point: There's a difference between portraying homophobic characters, and homophobic portrayals of characters. Brucie is a good example of the former. He's a shirtless, 'roided-up beast who's constantly angling for bro hugs and chest bumps, and then without prompting proclaims his staunch heterosexuality. It's as though he's trying to convince himself moreso than Niko. I also accepted Manny's continual accusations that I was gay when we were trailing a drug dealer and got too close to our quarry's rear. That's reasonable for the character, I think.

But in "Out of the Closet," you find out that a gay guy owes Brucie money, and therefore needs to be killed. Simply retrieving the money from him is not an option. You set up a date with him through an Internet dating site, which is a pretty inspired idea in itself. The guy shows up at the diner and is, basically, a flaming queen -- theatrical lisp, ostentatious clothing, all that. He chatters at you, still thinking it's a date. He's a little annoying, but nice.

Then you stand up and gun him down. That's it. That's the mission. You lured the gay guy into a trap and killed him. You win.

Maybe it would have been better if he'd fought back instead of run. If Niko did something to tip him off and he pulled the gun first. Or if the date had moved to business talk and I had any better idea of what the hell the guy had done to deserve getting whacked. I don't know.

It may be a fair question to ask why this bothered me, and it hasn't bothered me to run over drug dealers or shoot a bunch of cops. After all, gang warfare is a problem in real life. Cops are killed in the line of duty all the time. None of that is any more fantasy than gay bashing is. I can only say that I have mostly understood Niko's motivations in the game to this point, even though I wish they'd made him a bit more reluctant to dive right back into a life of crime. But this mission really seemed senseless to me. At least the victims in the other missions shot back.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Friday afternoon tidbits

A weekend of Grand Theft Auto awaits! But first, a few leftovers from the week.

-Many people had good things to say about my cover story in the Phoenix. Rick "32_footsteps" Healey, of Netjak, was not one of them. He penned a rather scathing critique of the piece, calling it muddled and factually suspect. Although I disagree with many of his points, it's a thoughtful essay with some valuable contributions. If I failed to persuade readers of my argument, particularly due to a lack of focus or specificity, then I can't blame anybody for that but myself. I will try to do better the next time. More important, it seems we agree on the basic premise, and that's a good place to start.

-Last weekend, the Washington Post published a much better story about Grand Theft Auto IV than today's Globe editorial. Which makes sense, because it was written by their technology columnist, and not a grandstanding editorial board. Mike Musgrove actually has hands-on experience with the series, and cites specific published works in support of his perspective. An article that acknowledges the troublesome elements of the game, without stooping to fearmongering and hysteria? Imagine that!

-The tracklist for Guitar Hero: On Tour includes songs by Smash Mouth and Maroon 5. Interest fading... fading... fading... gone.

-I'm actually not quite sure what to make of IGN's ill-fated "Ladies of Liberty City" video. Michael Abbott and Leigh Alexander have their usual well-considered opinions, and I think I agree with them on the merits. Try as I might, I still can't get too exercised about it. Partly, that's because I don't think much of IGN in the first place -- the first I heard about this was in the Multiplayer post. I hardly blame IGN for catering to the audience that's made them such a powerhouse in the first place. But still: They posted it, got slammed, and took it down. I'm not sure what else should be done.

-On Bill Harris's recommendation, I checked out King Leopold's Ghost from the library and have found it engrossing. The Belgian colony in the Congo was the inspiration for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and, as this book makes clear, much of that story was based on cold, hard fact. Reading this book, it becomes even more difficult to ignore all of the history bound up in that Resident Evil 5 trailer. (That's right, I went there!)

-This is the first ever Insult Swordfighting post to take advantage of Blogger's new future-dating feature. Ironically, implementing this functionality has served to bring Blogger, at long last, into the present. But I look forward to seeing how this post comes out -- in the future!

Boston Globe muffs the landing

I was disheartened to read an editorial in the Boston Globe this morning called "Nihilism at $60 a pop." As I've said before, I think there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make about a game like Grand Theft Auto IV. The problem I have with these types of tirades is that they always seem to spring from a place of total ignorance, unsupported by facts. This editorial is typical. The editors make some wild assertions about the content of the game, but nowhere do they cite anything specific in support of their argument. It's just fear-mongering. Let's take a look at it, piece by piece:

WE LIVE in an amoral and violent world: human trafficking, gang warfare, beheadings, rape - oh wait, that's just the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.

I'm not so far into the game that I can say for sure, but in my experience to this point there has been a single reference to human trafficking in the main character's past, no beheadings, and no rapes. There has, however, been gang warfare. One for four ain't bad. Wait, yes it is.

I'm also confused by the implication: Are they saying those things don't exist outside of Grand Theft Auto? Or are they saying we live within the video game? Since a couple of the things they mentioned don't actually happen within the game, it's tough to say. In the meantime, there is more than enough of that stuff to go around in the real world, unfortunately. Which, again, is not to say that such content couldn't be fair game for criticism -- just that this is a sensationalistic way to start, and doesn't inspire much confidence that the rest of the piece will be educated or fair-minded.

Remember, this is only the lede! We're already off to a bad start.

Commercial movie theaters are expecting slow sales this weekend because the new edition of the addictive video game, released Tuesday, is expected to keep millions of youngish American males encased in their bedrooms, gleefully blasting people's heads off. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a voluntary industry group, has given GTA's new edition an M rating: "not suitable for players under 17." But there is little monitoring of video game sales, and few believe that a determined 14-year-old couldn't get his hands on the game.

It's interesting that they mention the possible loss of box office revenue this weekend, because you can bet your bottom dollar that the paper would never run an editorial condemning an R-rated movie. But why? There's little monitoring of ticket or DVD sales, and few believe that a determined 14-year-old couldn't make his way into the theater. Yet no one doubts that R-rated movies are intended for adults, even if they do hold inordinate appeal for young males.

I wonder what more the industry is expected to do here. The ESRB voluntarily rated the game and clearly marked it as inappropriate for minors. Retailers don't mess around with this stuff, either -- I'm 26, and I've often been carded at Best Buy when buying an M-rated game. Target and Wal-Mart keep their games in locked cases, and I believe both check IDs as a matter of policy. This isn't sufficient?

And, again, the characterization of "blasting people's heads off" is inaccurate. You can shoot people in the head if your aim is good, but heads remain attached. Triviality? Maybe, but when the purpose of the editorial is to sensationalize the content of the game, I think it's necessary to point out the hyperbole.

This poses a dilemma: No defender of free expression, such as a newspaper editorial page, can easily support censorship. And unlike cigarettes, guns, or alcohol, the danger even to minors of possessing debased video games is a murkier science to prove. Ultimately, parents must be the gatekeepers of the media their children consume.

We at least agree here. There is no data -- none -- that games are harmful to minors, much less that games turn them into zombie killing machines, so the Globe doesn't even attempt to cite any. Although they seem to believe otherwise, this does not strengthen their argument.

Still, the GTA-IV experience is particularly insidious. The very features its fans love - high-quality graphics that immerse the player in a convincingly realistic world - raise the stakes. The targets are not space aliens or cartoon characters but police officers, taxi drivers, strippers, and the occasional innocent bystander. The violence, especially toward women, is unusually gratuitous. There is nothing about GTA-IV that can be considered remotely "socially redeeming" - one of the tests the courts use to judge whether material is obscene.

I agree with the basic argument here, but again the specifics are misleading. Part of GTA's power comes from the familiarity of its setting, and its emphasis on verisimilitude. It's one of the many good reasons why the game is rated M. The characterization of Liberty City's inhabitants as "targets," though, shows the lack of understanding of what the game is about. To the extent that anybody in the game could be called a "target," you'd have to be referring to the drug dealers and gangsters whose elimination is often the objective of a mission.

But cab drivers? Strippers? Innocent bystanders? They exist to populate the world. You can harm them, but it is entirely your choice as the player to do that. This is what seems to bother editorial boards so much, and the implications may be worthy of discussion. Why do so many players get their kicks in this game by breaking the law? Unfortunately, answering that question would require a high-minded, academic look at the issues, and you just can't cram one of those into the short space of an editorial. It's easier to call the game "insidious" and pretend that you get points for going on killing sprees.

Furthermore, I'd say that I'm also bothered by some of the depictions of women in the game. It seems to have a preoccupation with women as strippers and prostitutes. The argument that GTA is sexist is a lot stronger than most of what the Globe is trying to say here. But they have to mischaracterize it and pump it up into something it isn't. Again, I haven't played through the whole game, but so far every bit of mandatory violence I've encountered has been between men. Is that more acceptable? I don't know. But it's a more accurate description of the game.

The other familiar obscenity test is whether something violates "community standards," and here the game may already be lost. Every time another rap song or video game pushes the envelope, it becomes the new standard.

"Community standards" is an awfully nebulous term -- but then, this whole article is vague and unhelpful, so why not cap it off this way? I do want to make one humble argument for the community value of video games in general, though. Multiplayer games, especially, provide a social outlet for people of all ages and abilities. They give people a meeting ground, and a chance to engage in both cooperation and competition. They encourage strategizing and decision making. In the case of Grand Theft Auto, almost everything you do involves a trade-off. Yes, you can mug somebody for money, but then the police will come after you. If you want, you can also drive a cab and pick up fares. This is the power and the appeal of video games -- the player gets to choose how to play, albeit within a pre-defined framework.

If we're going to write these pearl-clutching editorials bemoaning the depravity of video games because we think one or two people might be inspired by them to go bonkers, can't we also acknowledge that for millions more they provide a real benefit? With the advent of online play, they're a way for friends to connect across long distances. For people with disabilities, they're a way to feel empowered. For so many of us, they're a wonderful storytelling medium that engage us emotionally, intellectually, and morally.

We wouldn't ban Grand Theft Auto. But the death and maiming in Liberty City are too close to the real lives of too many children. To package that for profit and entertainment is the real crime.

Well, no, it's not a real crime. It's not even a fake crime, like everything that happens in the game. Grand Theft Auto is a crime story, like The Godfather or untold numbers of paperback books with shiny raised lettering on the cover. Again: Kids probably shouldn't play this game. But violence and sex as a part of popular entertainment goes back as far as entertainment itself. Somehow, we've survived. We've even thrived.

I do imagine the author typing out that last line, leaning back in the chair and cracking his knuckles, and congratulating himself on having finally solved every problem in the world.

Damn it, couldn't resist one sarcastic dig. I was doing so well!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Please do not read this angry rant

Let me say, at the outset, that I had several good reasons for choosing to take home the PlayStation 3 version of Grand Theft Auto IV, rather than the Xbox 360 version. My PS3 is hooked up to a 26" widescreen, while the 360 is connected to a 20", standard-ratio computer monitor. I just got a Dual Shock 3 last weekend and I wanted to give it a whirl. Shockingly, I have more real-life friends with PS3s than 360s, and I wanted to play with them. And since Rockstar sent one of each to the Phoenix, if I took the PS3 version then my friend at the office could take home the 360 one. All things being equal, it would have been silly of me not to take the PS3 copy.

But all things are not equal.

The ludicrous amount of pre-install time was bad enough. I was willing to put up with it because it was a one-time deal. I am less willing to overlook a non-existent multiplayer mode. For two days running, selecting the multiplayer option has resulted in an error message. I am not alone in having this problem. It seems to be the rule, rather than the exception, for PS3 owners. The biggest game of the year, as shipped, is broken in a big way.

This may not be the game's fault, per se. In fact, it probably isn't. I don't know how the multiplayer archiecture is set up for PlayStation 3 games, but my understanding is that it's not centrally constructed as Xbox Live is (please enlighten me in comments, if you know). Whether this outage is Sony's doing, or Gamespy's, or Rockstar's, or whoever's, it's inexcusable. Was the server load a surprise? Didn't they test this? Didn't they plan for it? How does this happen?

This shows, once again, why early reviews are suspect. Currently, the PlayStation 3 version of Grand Theft Auto IV has a Metacritic score of 100. 100! A perfect aggregate score! And a major component of it doesn't work! (Exclamation points!) Not one of those reviewers had to grapple with the real-world experience of trying to play this game on the PlayStation 3. Their reviews do not reflect the game that was shipped.

Maybe once this gets fixed, the quality of the multiplayer will be enough to make us forgive this little episode. Or maybe, in the rush to anoint TEH BEST GAME EVAR, we're giving ourselves permission to overlook crucial things like poor controls, suspect environmental interaction, and non-existent online functions. This game is fun, and the mission structure is devious in the way it keeps you playing much longer than you intended. I just can't believe amid the flurry of breathless previews and reviews, it never came up until people had already spent their money on the game that it didn't so much work.

But hey, it's Grand Theft Auto! Quit being such a contrarian.