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December 1, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»gta

The Chinatown Episode

At some point, every American television series does The Chinatown Episode. This is particularly true for cop shows, because crimes that take place in Chinatown are always exotic entryways into an inscrutable foreign culture, while those in immigrant neighborhoods of, say, Latino or European extraction are just garden variety crimes of a Real American nature. Sometimes the showrunners will substitute another nationality of origin--Koreatown, most likely. This is because someone has told them that Asia is not a single country.

So it was probably inevitable that Grand Theft Auto, a series whose main schtick is to recycle every possible variety of gangster movie into interactive form, would do its own version of The Chinatown Episode. The surprise is that it's actually pretty good so far (I'm about halfway through, I think). Despite the name, Chinatown Wars is not really based on the immigrant experience (or some screenwriter's shallow appropriation of it). Its roots are more in Hong Kong crime dramas like Infernal Affairs, even if its ambitions are markedly lower.

I've spent a fair amount of time here picking out faults in the race or gender politics of various games--enough, perhaps, to seem a bit like a scold at times. And I didn't expect much from Rockstar, frankly. So it was a nice surprise to find that Chinatown Wars acquits itself fairly well. Nobody speaks in a chop-socky accent, and hackneyed talk about honor or faux-Confucianisms are, when used, rightfully dismissed as shameless politicking and clearly-marked irony (these are low bars, but ones which are regularly uncleared in pop culture). When the dialog is funny (and this is a funny game, albeit in a typically crude way), it's because of the exaggerated character flaws of each individual (the head gangster's idiot son, for example, or the power-hungry lieutenant) and not at their expense. There's even a few jokes about stereotypes, like this (paraphrased) exchange between the main character, Huang, and a corrupt cop:

Cop: we'll work to take down the Wonsu together.

Huang: Yeah, that's great. One question: what's this Wonsu thing you keep talking about?

Cop: It's the name for the leaders of the Korean gang.

Huang: Right. Why would you assume I know that terminology? Racist idiot.

This is not to say, as I've continued to play through, that it's all sunshine and kittens. There's still a fair amount of sexism, a near-total lack of actual female characters (the most interesting of whom is killed about 30 seconds in), and some jokes that edge into homophobia. A lot of the material also probably falls under "satire," which I'm normally happy to engage with, but at some point in Rockstar's career the satire excuse has started to seem a little strained, particularly given their geographic location (the UK) and resulting distance from the material they're satirizing.

I haven't played a lot of GTA, for one reason or another, so from a purely mechanical perspective it's been interesting so far. The series is often described as being "sandbox" games, but I think that's a misnomer. They give you a big level to play in, sure, but it's less wide-open and more just non-linear--you don't have to jump on the main quest right away. At one point, maybe that was more revolutionary than it is now, I don't know, but with every game I play these days offering about a million collectibles and side missions, I'm not exactly suffering for choice. Besides, when I think of a sandbox game, I think about something that lets me build, like Simcity. There's not a lot of building or world-changing in Chinatown Wars.

The real genius of it, and maybe what leads people to use "sandbox" as a description, is the mechanic for the wanted meter. The rules for when the meter goes up or down are simple and easy to understand, and the cop AI is (intentionally) stupid and suffering from tunnel vision. You can raise the heat, wreak some havoc, and then clear out the meter and keep going, which is a nice way to blow off some steam. This is probably why every time I've seen someone play GTA in the past, they're usually going for a joyride in a tank and seeing how far they can get before the SWAT team takes them out.

This is something that was always frustrating about Assassin's Creed (the first one, the second is currently sitting outside my apartment door), because losing your pursuers was more complicated--more "realistic"--than it needed to be. There were places you could hide, which wouldn't always work, or you could run far enough away, depending on the size of the alarm, but it was never entirely cut-and-dried. The result was that you felt less like an invisible killer and more like a grade-schooler playing hide-and-seek. Realism, counter-intuitively, becomes the enemy of immersion. GTA's wanted level, like the combat system in Arkham Asylum, is all about taking skilled actions that are appropriate for the main character and making them fun and easy for the player to accomplish. Developers should simulate for the narrative feel, in other words, not for the nitty-gritty.

And seriously, let's make a promise: after this, no more Chinatown Episodes in games. There's only so much cliche a single medium can take.

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