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A Matter of Literacy?

May 6th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 13 Comments · Gamers, Industry, Me

This will probably be my only post about Grand Theft Auto IV, a game which has been dubbed not only “great”, but “important” by a number of very savvy critics. Seth Schiesel’s review in the New York Times epitomizes the form, being (as usual) well written enough to persuade my wife that GTA4 is something we should try and wide ranging enough to put the game in a convincing societal and design context.

But, like I said, we haven’t tried it. Like many people, I suppose, I’ve never been attracted to the gang warfare/criminal themes of the GTA series but there is a growing sense that I have missed what could be one of the most important game franchises in the history of the industry, both in terms of design creativity and cultural importance.

I guess it comes down to gamer literacy. As a critic I play as many things as I can, but I’m a genre specialist so I’m more concerned with trying marginal Euro-RTSes than I am with, say, marginal Euro-FPSes. Games are expensive, but I try to use my media credentials for good instead of evil; I suppose I could get a lot more stuff for free, but I feel weird about getting games that I *know* I’m not going to review or preview or write about. Now that I write columns, though, I guess that attitude can change. Of course, to catch up and be literate I’d have an even larger backlog to get through than I already do.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite here, too. I’ve often said that no one can meaningfully comment on film comedy unless they have seen Dr. Strangelove, The Producers and Some Like it Hot. I have similar lists for other pastimes.

If GTA4 is important because it does new things with narrative complexity then anyone who thinks about storytelling in gaming is required to play it. If GTA4 is important because of how it uses emergent gameplay, then anyone who thinks about games as more than rulesets is required to play it.

This isn’t an issue of GTA4 being “canon“; it’s too soon for that in any case. But as a professional, I am obligated to play it, right?

So how do I get around my personal ethical issues with the game? I like ethical complexity and gray areas in games, and I’m not one of those blue stockings who thinks that the games are dangerous, but I will confess to being uneasy about car jacking, especially considering where I live – not exactly a low crime area. (I will nuke the French though, without much thought. Strange how our calculus works…). I also hate driving games, because driving is no fun in the real world either.

Of course, it’s easy to say “suck it up” and play, but this is a fifty or seventy hour enterprise we’re talking about. Every hour spent getting up to speed on the latest Important Game is an hour taken away from work that I know I can sell or from that book that I still have to finish.

So I ask you, gentle readers. What are the limits of gaming literacy? Is this an entertainment division that is impossible to stay on top of?


13 Comments so far ↓

  • Alan Au

    There are seminal games in each genre that a well-rounded “insider” should play, if only to understand the breadth of the industry. After all, it’s hard to talk about GTA-style gameplay if you haven’t played one. Then again, you’re a “strategy” guy; the knowledge you are expected to have is different from a MMO guy or a RPG guy.

    In that context, I think it’s completely possible to maintain “gamer literacy” despite having played only a limited subset of games. That is, I think literacy is more about understanding the underlying causes and trends of game culture, and less about having played a certain game. Of course, a lot of this is just me rationalizing my lack of WoW-playing experience.

    Should you play GTA IV? There’s probably a minimum amount of exposure you should have in order to understand how it fits in with modern game culture, but at that level it’s just a data point to use for comparison. That is, if you want to talk about GTA IV specifically, then you should probably invest the time playing it. However, for general gamer literacy, the requirements are much more flexible.

  • JonathanStrange

    I believe you should try GTA IV and try it with an open mind. I remember I used to have an aversion to the previous GTAs; perhaps because I associated them with my idiotic cousins who played GTA seemingly with the sole intent of running down pedestrians or killing policemen on a bigscreen TV. I’d watch and think, OK, the guys have some bloody videogame that can play while drunk or high. Hilarious. Yet years later I tried it and loved it: you don’t have to be always laughin’ and blastin’. I’d go on long motorcycle roadtrips or race my car down citystreets soaking in the atmosphere. I created my own radiostation and just relaxed. I believe I could navigate San Andreas’ streets to this day.

    I really believe GTA shouldn’t be dismissed just because a gamer thinks he can only be true to his turn-based, “thinking man’s” strategy games.

    Try it, Troy, you don’t have to go all gangsta…

  • Scott R. Krol

    If viewed from the “professional” standpoint of a reviewer then yes, I think it’s important for reviewers to have a high percentage of gamer literacy. You don’t see Roger Ebert only reviewing one type of film, yet far too often game reviewers tend to be too narrowly focused. Being able to draw upon a wide range of experiences can be helpful. For example, suppose you’re playing a sandbox-style CRPG. Having played something like GTA IV you can compare and contrast how the sandbox is handled.

    From a personal standpoint though? Eh, life’s too short to waste on games that you don’t have an interest in.

    So far my personal view of GTA IV is it’s definitely not TEH BEST GAME EVAR, but it’s not bad. It finally arrived yesterday so I haven’t put too much time into it, but I can already tell I’m not going to make a shrine for it or anything. :)

  • Chris Nahr

    You could play Assassin’s Creed instead of GTA4. People say they’re similar, and I’ve played a bit of both AC and GTA3 (I think) and hated them both, so that proves it.

  • andrei.dumitrescu

    Having played more than halfway through the game I guess that all the “revolutionary” talk when referring to the story and gamplay comes from people that only have experience in playing FPS titles. Because any RPG and/or adventure gamer could tell you that the GTA IV plot is mediocre at best, certainly not “the Citizen Kane of gaming” (I belive I actually read that somewhere)…

  • Ken Wootton

    The answers to your questions about GTA importance are yes and yes. It is important because of those things. However, what’s really important is that the game has become a cultural phenomenon. It’s a game by which the media and non-gamers view the entire industry, your Euro-strategy games included. It’s also a game that your audience is rather likely to have played. It’d be wise to at least rent that bit of perspective.

    Limits in gaming literacy are inherent in the form. There just isn’t enough time to play everything and the skills required to play two different games can vary widely. But you can take care of the gaping holes — the World of Warcrafts and GTAs of the world. In fact, I’d expect you to.

  • Alan Au

    So, to follow up on my earlier comment, I think you should spend some amount of time playing the game. To that end, I recommend visiting a friend who has unlocked some of the later content and taking an interactive tour of Liberty City.

    While there’s no substitute for actual experience, I don’t think you need to sink 50 hours into the game to “get it” if you have some previous experience with GTA-type games.

    Also, if you feel like you’re suffering through the game, you’re not going to get an accurate picture of why people enjoy it.

  • Dave

    All good comments above, although I don’t agree with the Assassin’s Creed/GTA comparison– AC is beautiful, but a *far* narrower game than GTA, especially GTA IV. Once you went through one city in AC, you realized that everything was exactly the same, just with different dressing. The GTA series has at least, IMHO, taken great pains at including far more diversity in its missions than AC.

    The good news is, I think that particular criticism of AC ended up being nigh-universal, which may lead to AC2 being far more diverse in its “sandbox” options.

    As for GTA IV– count me as skeptical. . . UNTIL I bought it. I put down GTA and Vice City fairly quickly– not out of boredom, but mostly because it was very hard to remain focused on the core gameplay. Mostly because the simplest things in the game were far harder than they needed to be. In a game with 40+ hours of content, I like a challenge, but nothing insurmountable, let alone so frustrating that I find myself stuck at any one point for too long. The earlier versions of GTA were annoyingly difficult at points, and I got frustrated and gave up.

    GTA IV, however, isn’t so much revolutionary as the evolutionary, but it’s been a damn good evolution. Everything is far more polished, far more immersive, and far simpler than in previous games. The cell phone mission system, the improved ease of driving, the improved shooting system (dunno why it’s still not perfected– how old is Gears of War now?– but it’s MUCH better). . . all of these elements make GTA IV a far easier game to play. And an easier game to play allows for easier immersion into the story, which isn’t great, but is fun enough.

    As for the violence factor– your moral choices are your own. The main mission requires some pretty brutal tactics, but you *are* playing a criminal. The side stuff, like car jackings and random killings? You could play the whole game without doing any of that– take a taxi, steal empty cars, drive carefully, aim better, etc. In fact, I’ve been playing a lot of it while my GF watches (she actually enjoys the story– like watching a TV series, she says), and she’s acted as my “conscience” a number of times along the way (I still recall her preventing me from killing the little sisters in Bioshock– she’s no damn fun ;-).

    Anyway. . . go play it. The idea of finding someone who has played a lot of it, so you can just kind of “soak it up”, is a good one– you might find you still don’t like the game, but at least you’ll get a better idea of just how big its sandbox is (huge, really, and far more diverse than stealing cars).

  • steve

    I’d disagree with the person above that thinks the plot in GTA IV is “mediocre at best,” particularly when you compare it with the cliche-ridden RPG genre, but it certainly isn’t an amazing new direction in game narrative. Well, I suppose it is if you ignore GTA 3, Vice City, and San Andreas, each of which had sprawling plots.

    At the same time, it’s an interesting exploration of the immigrant experience, something that normally isn’t explored in gaming. Well, maybe if you’re playing an Elf in Dwarfville in an RPG, and everyone attacks you or something. But the character of Niko has a bit of complexity and depth to him you don’t normally see in games.

    However, chances are you’ll never get to experience most of the story bits because the game is hard. I can’t imagine how hard it’d be for someone who doesn’t dig driving games, or isn’t a console action guy.

    I’d still recommend it, if only to experience the world simulation and see some pretty cool examples of emergent gameplay. Like last night, I decided to steal a bus and drive to the airport… or at least on the airport runway, which triggered an immediate “4-star Wanted” scenario, where helicopters, police vans, etc. chase me. I hightailed it out of there, ended up running head-on into a cement barrier (um, buses don’t corner that well), get ejected through the windshield into a small gap in another cement barricade, and another car plows into that barricade… where my exposed head happened to be, instantly killing me.

    That was pretty damn funny.

  • steve

    And another point about trying it; playing something more free form like GTA can’t help but make you think, “Hmm, if only this style of gameplay was applied to [genre].”

  • Michael A.

    I suppose my question, looking at GTA4, is whether it is sufficiently different from the previous examples of the genre that one has to have played it? It’s bigger, it’s better, it’s more alive, it has a better story… and?!? I’m sure it’s a great game (and I liked GTA:SA too), but I’m still missing the compelling argument for why this particular iteration is going to be a landmark.

  • Kieron Gillen

    I echo everything Steve said really. I think even hardcore genre critics should dabble with other ones, if only for the thought experiment of applying that approach to another genre.

    That goes for designers too, for the record.

    However, I’m not as sure as the concept of Canon. Games aren’t film reviewing. Film reviewing is relatively easy to be comprehensive. Games are big, y’know – but it’s worth having a crack at a variety of stuff, even for a few hours.


  • Troy

    It’s not that I only play strategy and wargames (I play RPGs, the occasional shooter, sports stuff) but my appreciation of one genre’s history and design philosophy dwarfs others. Go to school with a bunch of like minded nerds and you find yourself absorbed in Populous and Links more than Quake and Drug Warz.

    I’m friendlier to the idea of canon, though at this point I can probably say that I have played every undisputed canonical game from, say, 1983 to 1997. After that, the explosion in games and platforms makes it pretty hard to keep up.

    I wish I hadn’t canceled that Gamefly account, though. Then I could give this a proper shot.