Released in October of 2004, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series of games, developed by Rockstar Games and distributed by Take Two Interactive. This installment outsold its already best selling predecessors (Grand Theft Auto III, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City respectively), taking place in a fictionalized variant of LA in the early 1990âs. The game’s encouragement and emphasis of in-game violence had already caused a considerable amount of uproar from several advocacy groups, but did not receive its true level of infamy until early July of 2005, when a “mod” was discovered called “hot coffee” that allowed the player to participate in a sexual act, which was construed as a violation of its Mature game rating (instead of Adults Only), and has sparked a flurry of lawsuits, media attention, and reactionary legislation against video games in general.
Before I discuss the game itself, let’s address the Hot Coffee scandal a little more directly. The content within the mod is overtly sexual, though nothing is actually seen beyond the player’s character behind his in-game girlfriend, making sexual movements. Because of this, it is true that the game should have received an Adults Only rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), had the content been available to players. The only way to access this content is through manually altering the code through external means (on the PC, this involves physically altering game files; on the Playstation 2, this involves using another device such as a “Game Shark” to manipulate the game data or downloading and installing a patch on a system that has no direct method of downloading or installing patches). Insisting upon an Adults Only rating because of this content is roughly akin to insisting that a movie be given an NC-17 or even X rating because of a scene that was filmed but then cut from the final version of the film. Given that the game’s rating was already Mature, which has the same requirements for purchase or to watch as an R rated movie (age 17 or higher), this uproar becomes even more ludicrous. It has unfortunately caused a flood of knee-jerk legislation and use as a political tool by those seeking re-election, despite clear first amendment violations within the proposed laws that have already shut down early attempts at similar legislation. The overwhelming amount of bad press and shoddy handling of the situation on the part of Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive has caused company assets and stock value to plummet, inciting an additional string of lawsuits by the companies’ own stockholders. Regardless of whether or not any of this furor is merited, it may well mean no more Grand Theft Auto games, and potentially hard and restrictive times for the game industry as a whole.
While my personal focus is on story-centric, or narratological games, I would be remiss to not also address some gameplay-centric, or ludological games. Without some ludological elements, a game would not be a game; it is essential to the definition of what a game is, and good gameplay is often pivotal to an immersive storytelling experience. With this in mind, I’ve decided to take a closer look at Katamari Damacy, which was published by Namco in 2004, and is arguably one of the most pure modern examples of a ludo-centric game.
The basic premise behind Katamari Damacy is simple and surreal: your father, the King of All Cosmos had an accident, and destroyed all the stars in the sky. Your task is to gather up material to recreate the stars, using a rolling ball called a “katamari” that picks up any object smaller than itself. The game starts by rolling up items around a house, collecting push pins and ants and stamps and pencils and tape dispensers, and proceeds to target larger items as the game progresses, until you are able to roll up cars and people, and then even buildings. In the final stage, the task is to recreate the moon, which involves creating a katamari so large that you are able to roll up the islands themselves. The story is really an excuse for the gameplay, which is itself an evolution of an early gameplay pattern seen in games such as the Pac-Man series (navigate an environment collecting objects, try to avoid running into things you can’t pick up). The game is simple, but engaging and more fun than its description suggests.
While I may comment on the unfortunate lack of effective narratological games, that does not mean the field has been entirely devoid of effective titles; I would be hard pressed to make an argument for greater narrative in games if there weren’t games that have done so in the past with varying degrees of success. Most of the Final Fantasy games are good examples, though they are not the only ones. In my estimation, one of the best narratological games to date is not in fact a Final Fantasy game, though it was created by the same developer. Released quietly in 1998 by Squaresoft, Xenogears quickly gathered a cult following, due in large part to quite possibly the most epic and involving story yet attempted in a video game.
Xenogears is actually part of a larger storyline known as Xenosaga, of which Xenogears is episodes 5 and 6. (In a similar fashion to the Star Wars trilogy, the prior episodes had not been developed or released; also similarly, these earlier episodes are now in the process of being developed and released, though with nowhere near the critical acclaim and fanbase the original had.) The game starts with an animated sequence that takes place 10,000 years prior to the events in the game, showing a starship being overrun by some unknown force and being destroyed, the remains crashing onto a nearby planet. The game then shifts 10,000 years forward, in a small village, where a young man named Fei lives, who is the central protagonist in the game. Fei is asked to collect some things for a wedding to be held the following day from the doctor who lives above town. After making his way to the doctor’s house, on the way back the village, a large “gear” (a mechanical piloted robot) flies by and crashes into the village, pursued by other gears. Fei rushes back to the village, where a fire fight between the gears has ensued. While helping evacuate the village, Fei notices that the gear that was being pursued was now unmanned, and impulsively leaps into the device to try and defend his town. Things are going well, until an event occurs that causes Fei to lose control of the gear, which causes a blast of energy that utterly decimates the village. Upon waking up, Fei is exiled by the remaining villagers, which begins his journey into the larger world.
The Final Fantasy series of games, developed by Squaresoft, have proven to be one of the few places one could consistently go to for a reasonable narrative within a story. The games are simple in terms of interface, and ludologically speaking generally don’t need a great deal of timing or frenetic pace. Final Fantasy IV was originally developed by SquareSoft in 1991 for Nintendo’s Super Famicom game console. Shortly afterwards, it was localized (translated), and brought to the U.S. as Final Fantasy II for the Super Nintendo (the original Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III never left Japan). This was really the first console based video game to heavily emphasize narrative, and enjoyed moderate commercial success for it.
Final Fantasy IV is a story centering around Cecil, a dark knight in the service of the king of Baron. After questioning a particularly brutal order, Cecil is stripped of rank and sent off on a courier mission, which ends with the destruction of a village. This is the last straw for Cecil, and he begins his quest to put an end to Baron’s villainy. The plot takes several twists and turns, and ultimately ends on the planet’s moon, where an evil being known as Zemus has been manipulating the chain of events transpiring on the planet. As far as subtle and complex story lines go, it’s pretty simplistic. The dialogue is on par with a high school fantasy adventure, and none of the plot twists really take you by surprise at all (I should mention that I can say this about even the first time I played this game, when I was 11). Yet it still managed to immerse the player, encouraging attachment to the characters you enlist the aid of in the course of the story.