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BG 15 – GTA IV : Exploring the Mundane

May 27, 2009

Futurismic have my fifteenth Blasphemous Geometries column.

It is not only the first of the columns to appear under the new direction the column has taken, it is also my first piece of video game criticism.  I had been looking forward to writing this piece for a little while and when I finally got round to writing it, I was surprised at how pleasant and natural an experience it was to play a game and think about it critically.  The more I played the more aware I became of where Grand Theft Auto IV fits into the history of game design.

Having filed the column it occured to me that I had left out one very obvious example of the mundane in video games… Shenmue.

Shenmue was something of a commercial failure at the time of its release on Dreamcast and it is now remembered more as a cult game or a curiosity than a design mile-stone.  I think that part of Shenmue‘s problem was in its failure to deal with what I call the rubber band of realism.  Far from being rooted in the real world, Shenmue was a genre piece.  To be precise, it was a Wuxia melodrama : Kung-fu villain kills boy’s father, boy investigates father’s death while learning kung-fu along the way, boy confronts villain and defeats him because of the training his father once gave him.  It’s a plot line that pops up all over the place.  A lot of the game-play is about this piece of aesthetic framing; you learn your various techniques and your ability to defeat the game is ultimately dependent upon your skill at kung-fu.  However, the designer poorly managed the mundane elemtns of the plot, throwing them into the genre narrative in a jarring manner.  You wanted to go and kill the guy who murdered your father – what you got was waiting for buses, part-time jobs and hour upon hour of inane conversation.

Had the game’s pacing been better handled then the mundane elements of the game would have supported the themes of attempting to reconcile a desire to be a hero with the demands of 20th Century living.  Instead the mundane elements felt like dull and pointless speed bumps in between the more interesting bits.  The fact that you could collect miniatures seemed to acknowledge the fact that the mundane elements of the game were not in the least bit fun or thematically appropriate.

UPDATE : I was just informed that the Futurismic piece was linked to by Bruce Sterling over at his Wired magazine Beyond the Beyond blog.  The title of the post?  “The Best Videogame Review I’ve Ever Seen”.  That’s from Bruce Sterling.  Author of Schismatrix, co-author of The Difference Engine and editor of the Mirrorshades anthology.  Vincent Omniaveritas himself.  I am incredibly honoured and really quite speechless.  Thank you Bruce :-)

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