Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Real Bigotry in Gaming



Lately, I've been seeing a bunch of articles complaining about bigotry in gaming.  Articles about racism, gender discrimination and even about homophobia (literally: 'fear of man' - see how incoherent these modernist labels can be?) in games.  Now, for the most part, these complaints all came from the usual suspects: individuals who often come from the left wing of the political spectrum and are obsessed with a vision of a Utopia where radical egalitarianism reigns supreme.  When Mark Levin summarized the Big Government Statist in Ameritopia, I think he also hit upon the essential characteristics of  this personality type - a not surprising coincidence since most radical egalitarians are usually Statists, too:

"It is observed that the Statist is dissatisfied with the condition of his own existence....He is angry, resentful, petulant, and jealous....The Statist searches for significance and even glory in a utopian fiction of his minds making, the earthly attainment of which, he believes, is frustrated by those who do not share it."

Thus, the mindset of the professional victim, and his resultant crusade against perceived worldly injustice that seemingly hides under every rock and mattress in the land.

While I agree there is bigotry to be found in gaming, it isn't with these favorite discriminatory hobbyhorses of the left.  Rather, I think there are two actual bigotries that need to be confronted by gamers: anti-religiosity (often anti-Catholicism to be specific) and age discrimination.  I won't deal with the former today....


But that latter one...it's everywhere.  Gaming, like Hollywood, is obsessed with that "teen spirit" to the point of often freezing out older gamers.   Ask yourself this: when was the last time the protagonist in a game wasn't some twenty-ish (maybe 30-31 at the outside) character with 2% body fat and chiseled abs?  Or, conversely, when was the last time a game's main protagonist was middle aged and out of shape?  I really can't think of one.  I've always thought this a strange oversight considering America is getting older as a nation (albeit, gaming is still on the younger side of things).  Granted, gaming is often about fantasy - when we game, we like to portray our in-game selves as the ideal version of our real self.  Fine.  But does every game have to be that way?  What about a more realistic presentation of people?  Why is every game so similar to an after school cartoon where it's the kid that saves the day when the grups are impotent? 

This was something that came to me while I was recently playing Volition's Saints Row: The Third.  I recently snagged this title while it was on sale on Steam.  To be honest, I didn't think it was going to last long on my rig as the presentation of this game when it was originally released was...well, let's just say less than mature (ironic, considering its 'M' rating).  It seemed like a completely juvenile farce that took the worst aspects of GTA4 and combined it with the type of humor that only a thirteen year old would find funny.  Truth be told...that might still be true.  LOL!  But, despite these shortcomings, I have, ultimately, fallen in love with this title.  And here is why:

Saints Row: The Third (SR3) has a strong Sims element to it in that you are given a fantastically diverse selection of customization elements - from facial features, to clothing, jewelry and tattoos - with which to craft your customized character.  Not surprisingly, if you troll the web looking for the types of characters being created in this game, you are going to find a lot of images of "Fitty Cent"- styled 'gangstas' - i.e., the aforementioned young action hero with 2% body fat and chiseled abs.  Understandable, seeing how this game was largely pitched at such a young demo, as well as subject matter dealing with the type of hijinks usually associated with "urban youth".  Truth is: I even started to design such a character as this.

Blame it on my contrarian nature, or blame it on my sense of real life, but I just couldn't complete my young action hero. So, instead, I designed one more reflective of modern day America. You know, a mid-forties looking character who is overweight and dresses in variations on corporate casual (see the top screenshot). Let me tell you something: this instantly made SR3 a heck of a lot more fun precisely because it is so rare to see such an unlikely action hero in today's culture.

Saints Row: The Third has some truly fantastic action set-pieces. I mean, really fantastic. Call of Duty fantastic! But unlike CoD, which takes itself too seriously at times, SR3 has a wonderful sense of whimsy that gets you to swallow the over-the-top antics that might otherwise just get you to roll your eyes. They also served as excellent experiments to test out my unorthodox character design.  Can a paunchy 40-something carry his...er, weight as an action hero?  Results:  yes!  In fact, when you  replace your standard Hollywood-esque young hipster action hero with such a fellow as mine, those action sequences become even more epic (this effect is especially pronounced seeing how SR3 renders whatever character you design directly into its set piece mini-movies)!

[Some minor mission spoilers ahead]

Take, for example, my new favorite action sequence of all time (yeah, that is quite the thing to say!). After being taken hostage by a rival gang, the player manages to escape and finds himself parachuting to earth after jumping out of a massive cargo plane. On the way down, he snags Shaundi, a hot female cohort, in his arms. It all goes swimmingly until that big cargo plane starts looming in the distance and the player realizes that the pilot intends to ram! "What's the plan?" asks Shaundi? The plan is awesome sauce: your character drops Shaundi into free fall (she cries out "you #&@#! ass&#%!") and shoots out the windscreen of the incoming plane moments before it hits him. The player's character then proceeds to sail through the plane like a bat right out of hell, from cockpit to tail - all the while popping off rounds at stunned gang members with their jaws agape in incredulity as you fly on past.  LOL!  Once again the player finds himself falling out the open cargo ramp and sailing on down to snatch Shaundi, eventually popping open another 'chute right in the nick of time. If that sounds awesome, just imagine that cut-scene being rendered not with a trite 20-something Hollywood action hero, but with someone who in all likelihood is suffering from a mid-life crisis (hmm...maybe that explains his predicament!).  Twice as awesome!

There are all sorts of these really cool actions sequences throughout the game. Another favorite: the player has to provide covering fire from a helicopter as one of his gang members runs a mission. At one point in the task, the player's character loses sight of the car he needs to protect and orders the helicopter to land on a nearby apartment building roof. Without so much as a pause to think things over, the player's character - MY character - runs from the helo, ties a rope around his waist, hitches it to the roof, and throws himself over the side so as to get a better vantage on the action below! Now, if you don't think seeing a Tony Soprano stand-in hanging from an apartment building roof, sniper rifle in hand, is not awesome, there is definitely something wrong with you!

I just couldn't help but to cheer on my character during these wonderful action sequences. Seeing an older guy get the glory made for a wonderful change of pace from the youth-centric action heroes Hollywood and gaming has been shoving down our throats for years.

Changing my character to an older feller impacted more than the action sequences, too. Again, this being a youth-centric game, most of your in-game "homies" (ump...almost threw up typing that) are twenty-somethings themselves. Personally, I had a hard time believing that this criminal mastermind organization, one so powerful that the gang leaders are bona fide celebrities, was being run by kids who couldn't even put a coherent sentence together without lapsing into profanities. But with an older hand leading the show...now things change. Now it is kinda believable that the out of control youngsters are being directed by an older, more experienced stable master, so to speak.  Now the Saints go from a frat house to a criminal enterprise....

Making my character older also changed the personal dynamics with my crew. Seeing how Shaundi et alia are about half my age, suddenly the game isn't about a bunch of friends running amok on an extended weekend bender, now the Third Street Saints have become more of a family, with me as the father figure. I actually find myself working extra hard to get my "kids" out of trouble, such as during combat situations. I sure hope no love interests are developed during the course of the game's central campaign...that could be awkward. 

It really is interesting how a simple change to a game's central character can alter the entire flow of a story.  I really believe there is a lesson here for gaming in general.  In our unending hunt to root out all sorts of perceived bigotries, maybe it is time for gaming to grow up?  Maybe it is long past time to stop with the after school schtick and give us grups a chance to play the hero?  My time with SR3 would seem to confirm that this would not only work, not only be more believable, but also make for a refreshing change of pace.  Perhaps it would even tap a growing segment of the gaming community that, so far, has been under served.  And, at a minimum, it would address a real and common bigotry in gaming.


Be that as it may, the actual gameplay of Saints Row: The Third is really packed with stuff to do. As I indicated above, the central campaign, while goofy (think of it as a crazy mix of The Godfather meets The Venture Brothers), certainly has some riveting set-pieces (and some wonderful tongue-in-cheek, if ribald, humor). But besides that, there are all sort of side quests and activities that really keeps things jumping. For example, last night while I was driving around Steelport, looking to score some money, I happened to stumble across a rival gang's hangout. Time to muscle in on their territory! I knew I was going to need backup, so I called in Shaundi for help.
Just park that anywhere, Shaundi

Let's go in guns blazing!



Things got hot and heavy, especially when one of the rival gang's cars exploded, sending the wreck flying and killing a bunch of them! 
  

That'll learn ya!

Having accomplished what we set out to do, Shaundi and I stole one of the rival gang's sedans, and speed on out of there. The rival gang wasn't that happy about what we did, so they gave chase. But Shaundi was riding shotgun, so it was okay.

They shot out one of my right side tires! No problem, I cranked up the radio to hide the noise (nothing like listening to classical music while in a car chase!)
I thought it was entirely appropriate that a thunderstorm came in while we were fleeing. 

Having given the enemy gang the slip (and changing vehicles), I resumed cruising around looking for trouble. As I passed one corner a fan wanted a photo of me, so I obliged him:

Say 'gangsta!'
Later that afternoon, I found some real estate the Saints could invest in:

Smile, Shaundi
 I really wish there was more of an economic element to SR3's gameplay. As you can see, you can buy real estate to generate money and exert control over parts of Steelport, but there isn't any real downside to it - no operating costs, or negative effects. For example, a few hours after I bought this shop, I get a call on my cell that the very same gang we just hit in that alleyway was attacking my new gun shop! So I sped on over there....

Kids: don't try this at home
 When I arrive, I see that the other side came packing for trouble. I'm gonna need more than Shaundi this time! So I called in my most recent recruit, the Russian bruiser Oleg, along with some generic recruits from the gang:

Notice the cop running away? LOL! There's gonna be trouble!
And trouble we had! At one point, they even brought in a chopper...which I took care of with a grenade launcher:


 The fight was going my way...until this guy showed up:


They brought in a bruiser of their own! Next thing I know, I am knocked out...only to awaken outside the local hospital. I was hoping that I would have lost the shop as a result of failing the mission, but no. It appears that you just lose out on the monetary reward and XP points. Shame. It would make for more interesting gameplay if you had to fight to keep what you own.

The next day I get another cellphone call (these are random events, btw) telling me that a rival biker gang wants to challenge us to some action. I didn't like the look of the seedy place, so I called Shaundi again (her mouth, while profane, can be hilarious at times, and she is a great help in a fight):


We eventually taught those uppity motorheads a lesson. Check this out:


During the fight, I managed to knock one of the female bikers on the chin and take her as a human shield!  That's rubbing their face in it!

Then SR3 got into a bit dark territory. I learned that the local police force was putting too much pressure on my gang operations, so something needed to be done. I don't like the idea of shooting cops in a game, and this was no different.  So, to console myself, I made up a fiction that these were corrupt cops....

So I scoped the scene:



There are those corrupt cops standing on the corner, probably robbing granny of her social security check for protection....

***CENSORED***

Out of some degree of tastefulness, I didn't take any screenies of the actual violence against the cops. I did, however, take this screenie of a rival gang who just happened to drive by and decided to get in on the action!


Before I knew it, there was a three way fight going on! It didn't take long before the rival gang actually replaced the cops as the primary threat! At one point they even tried to run me over!


Bam! Headshot through the windowshield! Don't mess with me!
 This fight really got out of hand, with all sides bringing in more and more men and equipment (see all the purple jackets and cars in the above shot? I like how your gang will respond on its own to help you out). Eventually, things got too hot and I had to get out of there. Unfortunately, the cops were still in this fight and bringing in heavier and heavier equipment, including an armored vehicle! I was desperate and resorted to my UAV...what? You don't have one?  One of the things I like about this game is that if you want to get all crazy, go right on ahead! 

If you look closely, you'll see the wreckage of the armored vehicle blasted into the side of the building center bottom.

We hightailed it out of there and laid low in one of our "cribs" (urp...).

Later that night, I get a contract to take out a leader of the rival Luchadores gang. Guns, bloodshed...and a final fistfight?!? Hell, yeah! My man can dish it out despite the arthritis! 

This was not a pre-scripted move, I chose to do this
Do yourself a favor and stay down, buddy!  

Boy, I left a mess after this hit!

And then this happened:


 But that is a story for another time....

Amazing what a good character creator, and a bit of unorthodox game character design can do for a game....


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