So far I’ve managed to make my way, through, oh, the first 5% of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas so far – I’m still doing the initial gang missions and all. From what I hear, it’s not really one of those games that anyone ever bothers to finish, so I’m not too worried about it.
I actually brought it up while talking to The Lady last night, and she mentioned that all she had heard about it was that it was a horribly irresponsible game, because it doesn’t really teach about the consequences of taking certain actions. Actions like stealing cars, killing people, eating nothing but fast food, provoking the National Guard, and so on. Which is true, for the most part; it sets you in a somewhat realistic world and lets you go wild – things like committing felonies or getting killed are inconveniences readily remedied by reloading an earlier save. Cars are in endless supply, so why bother driving safely? For that matter, so are people, so who cares if you accidentally run over a few people while pulling out of the driveway?
As anyone reasonably boned up on their pop culture knows, it’s exactly this irresponsible escapism that irks so many people: once you get past the sensationalist ignorance like “it’s a rape and murder simulator!” or, more recently, the whole “Drunk driving is rewarded in GTA IV!” gaffe courtesy of the Parents Television Council (who?), what scares people about this game is that it’s so easy to kill, maim, steal, etc. when we’re controlling a virtual avatar in a virtual world that has no real permanent consequences whatsoever.
To people who play games, however, this isn’t really news to us at all. We should all know by now how easy it is to be horrible to other people who are actually on the other end of the TV screen (see: every instance anyone has been called anything derogatory on XBox Live, ever). Why would it be surprising that some polygons might be steamrolled because they stood between me and the Cluck ‘n’ Bell in San Andreas? But once the rules change so that our behavior affects the way we play the game, people are, by and large, just as nice as they can be. That is to say, if we made San Andreas issue in-game moving violations, people would behave better, and the rest of the game would have to be redesigned to make it not be boring, because right now, the game has been designed with a certain set of rules, one of which goes something like “it’s totally okay if the player drives irresponsibly.”
Since San Andreas is set in a realistic setting (well, compared to other video games, at least), the violence raises controversy. DOOM raised controversy oh-so-long-ago because people called it a “murder simulator”, but the days in which people would pick fights over that alone are over. Now, killing zombies, aliens, Nazis, etc. is for the most part, if not approved behavior, at least not something that would make the evening news. If the games we’re playing take place in something remotely resembling the real world, on the other hand, people go nuts. This marks a dramatic shift in the public’s common sense: it is less the action (shooting things with guns) but the action’s context that people are responding to. Phrased this way, it seems like even the critics are developing a more refined way to read and respond to video games. If I were a parent – and I say this as someone who has played video games practically since I could walk – I imagine I would be ever vigilant about the games my children played. And as they grew up, and matured, I think I would be less worried about the generic actions involved in the video game, and more concerned with the context in which the actions occurred. No Postal for them.
But what would happen if we were to offer a different context for the violence? After all, the use of violence is still a highly morally contentious issue. San Andreas doesn’t really give me much of a morally compelling context for driving like a homicidal maniac or performing drive-bys because the game is aimed at white people who want the escapist thrill of living in the urban jungle known as The Streets, where violence is a perfectly permissible way to deal with anything. Everything – the setting, the dialogue, the missions, christ, the CARS – it’s all cribbed from ’90s gangsta rap and Friday. But where all that spoke to actual experiences, San Andreas takes them as “authentic” packaging and sells it to white boys who just want to have an excuse to say “nigga” a few times to their also-white friends. Really, I bet white people love this stuff because Ice Cube could be gangsta (N.W.A.-era Ice Cube, not Are We There Yet?-era Ice Cube) even while he’s in his twenties and still living with his parents. That just doesn’t fly with white people these days, I guess.
So let’s take parts of San Andreas and complicate it a little bit. Let’s give the game a reason to be violent, and let the player choose to be violent, but don’t make it easy for him or her to do so. Let’s tell a story which is controversial not because people can be violent in a realistic-looking video game, but because the violence itself is controversial.
Let’s set it in mid-1960s Oakland, California, and call it Any Means Necessary.
Let’s make a video game about the Black Panthers.
For those of you who do know what the Black Panther Party was, you’ll know that it was nothing if not controversial. While I believe others could expound on the ideological basis of the organization (their Ten Points might be a good start), I will say that gangsta rap and San Andreas was not the first time people saw black men with guns. Picture this:
The opening scene would give us a shot at a middle-aged black man (voiced by Danny Glover – he was part of the SFSU Third World Liberation Front!) sitting in a prison cell and writing a letter to a loved one. At this point, the details surrounding his situation are vague; all we know is that he is on Death Row for committing some sort of violent crime, and he’s writing his letters both to come to terms with his past and as a form of memoir. These letter-writing cutscenes mark the beginning of major chapters in his life, which correspond to the chapters of the game. As the game progresses, we lead our protagonist through formative experiences that lead him to resonate with the message of the Panthers, eventually leading up to him joining up, starting his own chapter in his neighborhood, and working in all kinds of ways to empower his community.
The gameplay is set in a fairly open-ended environment, like GTA, but with less emphasis on all the crazy stuff you can drive, since the game isn’t solely about stealing stuff. The plot is advanced by missions of varying complexity; instead of taking inspiration from GTA here, I’d prefer to steal a page from Fallout‘s book. When our protagonist has to negotiate potentially violent situations (say, against white racist vigilantes, criminal elements inside the community trying to co-opt the movement, the police, etc.), give him a choice of branching dialogue options that can give him the option of resolving conflicts without violence. Borrow GTA‘s repetition-based skill system (the more you do X, the better you get at doing X) and apply it not only to combat skills but also negotiation, discussion, persuasion, and debate. Anyone involved in organizing knows how many goddamn meetings are involved whenever you do anything; let the player role-play himself and his own politics in in-game conversations that affect the way the plot unfolds.
One of GTA‘s strengths is the incredible degree to which a player can immerse himself in the game-world. The cities of San Andreas are deep, detailed, and easily interacted with. However – with the exception of a gang turf defense mini-game – the focus is less on the communities you inhabit and more about what you can do with your protagonist, C.J. – feeding him, working out, tricking out the car, and so on. Instead, let’s make our protagonist as strong as his community; if the player invests the time to improve his community (along the lines of the Ten Point Plan, perhaps) and forge alliances with other marginalized groups, he’ll be rewarded with stronger skills, more allies, and different plot events that eventually help to determine which ending (oh, there will be multiple) the player receives. Even aspects of San Andreas like eating and working out can be adapted; bonus points for eating well, making proper nutrition more accessible to poor communities, training and teaching forms unarmed combat (“They say karate means empty hand, so it’s perfect for the poor man” – Dead Prez). And if the player’s Panthers turn out to be as male-dominated and misogynist as the real ones were criticized as being, that too would have an adverse effect on the community’s formation as a whole.
As I mentioned earlier, the ways in which the player improves (or neglects) his communities and resolves certain key missions will affect the ending. Because of this, it’d be ideal to make the game beatable in roughly ten hours or so for the first playthrough, but readily resumable (a New Game+ mode, perhaps) so that the player’s community developments won’t reset each time. If you want plot details, though, you’re going to have to help me make this game first. Ultimately, the player would have to decide what kind of vision they wanted to play out, and what role (if any) force plays in achieving that vision. The goal of the game’s design being, of course, to highlight that tension and turn the violence of San Andreas into something meaningful.
Oh, and I’d want Yuri Kochiyama as an unlockable character.
I imagine game designers are pretty guarded about some of their ideas, but I can’t imagine anyone out there is exactly chomping at the bit to make a game that critically interrogates race in the United States. If anyone out there wants to make this game, hire me on as a consultant. I could do this all day.