Criminal Intent

And we’re back.

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, but some enterprising youths recently liberated me of my valuable electronic items and I’ve only recently replaced the pilfered devices. The moral of the story: get locks on your bedroom doors.

Play it again, banjocat.

Hat-tip to photoshoplooter.

Having recently been the victim of a crime, my mind now turns to how videogames have dealt with criminal behavior, and no assessment of this would be complete without considering the epic anti-social behavior simulator Grand Theft Auto. The GTA series takes what you might charitably call a laissez-faire attitude towards wrongdoing, gleefully letting you murder, steal and maim to your heart’s content, often to the enraged shrieks of right-wing conservative groups everywhere. The characters in these games, including the character you end up playing, are without exception murderers, thieves, junkies, drug-dealers, hitmen, bagmen, crooked cops, sexual deviants, corrupt politicians and people who fart in crowded Tube carriages. The scum of the earth, basically.

Admittedly, the Grand Theft Auto franchise is not alone in pandering to our cultural obsession with crooks and thieves. The world of film has been all-too-willing to indulge our taste for men on the wrong side of the law, and the narrative arc of most Grand Theft Auto games mirrors the familiar rags-to-riches crime saga structure we all know from movies like the bloody mafia drama Goodfellas.  In fact, the Grand Theft Auto games are excellent pop culture records of how much crime films have infiltrated the popular imagination – Grand Theft Auto 3 and the garish neon 80s fever dream Grand Theft Auto: Vice City both took visual and narrative cues from the myriad gangster flick classics that litter Empire and Total Film Best Film lists. Vice City was one long, interactive homage to Cuban cockroach crime odyssey Scarface (throwing in a bit of Miami Vice retro silliness for good measure) and San Andreas tackled the world of gangland California so often fetishized in rap videos.

Stories about bad men and the bad things they do have always held a particularly fierce grip on our imaginations, and we find ourselves drawn to tales of transgression and law-breaking. In this way, the Grand Theft Auto games are perhaps the most logical extension of film’s throbbing chubby for bad boys (there’s got to be a better way to say that). It’s one thing to watch a film about gangsters and other violent criminals, but it’s quite another to actually play as one. Games about crime, just like films about crime, are transgressive experiences – we thrill in the act of witnessing or participating in something wrong.

The Grand Theft Auto games don’t really punish you for breaking the law, unless of course you count the fact that homicidal or destructive outbursts on Liberty City’s streets will earn you an increased “wanted” level, and subsequently more attention from the city’s law enforcement. However, considering that outrunning pursuing cops in thrilling Bullit-style chases is actually one of the most fun aspects of any GTA game, I wouldn’t say that really counts as an incentive not to commit crimes. It doesn’t help that your wanted rating is measured in sheriff stars on the game’s screen, so every time you run over a granny or fire a rocket at a police helicopter and your wanted level rises, it feels uncannily likes those SHINE GET! celebrations that occur when you collect a star in a Mario game.

Yay! Crime!

Ultimately, though, the GTA games’ nihilistically permissive sandbox worlds are harmless enough, if a little tasteless sometimes. But a healthy amount of knowing humour can be quite disarming, and I find the sly, winking satire of the GTA franchise tends to diffuse some of the ugliness of what you’re doing. That might sound like I’m trying to make excuses for the series’ sometimes shocking depictions of sensationally violent misanthropy, but a useful comparison would be the deliriously cartoonish violence of Kill Bill: Volume One’s Crazy 88 fight sequence, a scene of carnage so hilariously excessive it becomes a kind of parody of itself. Better yet, compare it to the joyless misanthropy of the Kane & Lynch games, a series so pitilessly amoral in its depiction of wrongdoing it’s actually quite unpleasant. A couple of minutes of Kane & Lynch 2 will make you realize how a little bit of self-effacing humour can make pretending to be a criminal feel a little more enjoyable and a little less…depressing.

The Grand Theft Auto series is perhaps the most well-known example of gaming’s forays into criminal activities, but other notable examples include the Mafia franchise, which cunningly disguises the fact it is a Grand Theft Auto clone by being almost identical to Grand Theft Auto, except based on The Godfather this time. There is also the atmospheric medieval stealth-em-up Thief (and attendant sequels), which basically puts you in the shoes (breeches?) of a Dark Ages cat burglar, and the granddaddy of all videogame wrongdoing, the Dungeon Keeper series. This early strategy classic from Bullfrog (rest in peace) cast you as an evil commander of orcs, imps, and other subterranean beasties, pitting you against an army of chivalrous knights and wizards as you attempt to tunnel your way out of the dark and invade the good guys’ homelands. Dungeon Keeper was another game that wisely used humour to lighten the tone and make all the evil you got up to less harrowing. Did I mention this was a game where you could torture captured knights, not for information, but just out of pure, sociopathic malice? Yeah, but the sounds are pretty funny, so it’s ok. Come on guys, be a little be more desensitized please.

You’re not the good guys. Obviously.

I’ve had an idea for a crime video game, actually. It’s going to be called Burglars, and you will play a young man who comes home to find his house has been burgled. This first part of the game will be much like L.A. Noire, where you investigate your flat for any clues that might help you find the culprits, all the while weeping over your many lost possessions. Once you’ve collected enough evidence and located the gang who burgled you, the next part of the game becomes more like Grand Theft Auto, where you can drive to their hideout, fire rockets into their face, run them over, hit them with baseball bats, set them on fire, run over them again, punch them repeatedly, and reclaim the Xbox 360 they nicked from you. If that sounds like an obvious revenge fantasy, then that’s because it is.


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