Grand Theft Auto III and Gamer Memory

A transcript/just a script that I read:

Grand Theft Auto 3 looms large over the past fifteen years of gaming. It sold itself on the idea that you can do everything, and it broke the concept of “open world” into the common imagination, a feat matched only by Farmville clones and match three games today. It presented itself as a hyperviolent crime drama that ripped off cinema’s finest tropes and stereotypes from the latter half of the twentieth century, and history has mostly been kind to it. It lives on in fond memories as a distant relative of contemporary well-loved games like Assassin’s Creed or Shadow of Mordor. But it is just that for most of us–a memory–and it exists like a fossil in a museum that no one goes to. We’re content in the knowledge that it merely exists in a crate somewhere hidden down in the gaming history depths with Zork and Adventure in that giant room from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I’ve been guilty of this veneration as much as anyone else. When Grand Theft Auto 5 came out, I lambasted it for being less successful than Grand Theft Auto 3 had been in the realm of satire. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so confident of that. Or, rather, I know exactly why I was confident–GTAIII’s legacy is as burned into my head as it is in everyone else’s–but I’m not sure why I was so uncritical in my reflection.

Gamer memory is a collective memory. It allows us to have complex group dynamics around a shared love and frustration for Super Mario Bros. It connects people who seemingly have nothing in common. The fact that mentioning Oregon Trail can make a group of strangers into a group of comrades means something, and when gamer memory is evoked in positive ways it feels like something close to magic.

Gamer memory is also a poison. It makes us celebrate games and experiences that are borderline punishment. It allows us to create hierarchies of taste, of skill, of ability, and of privilege and to root them in the very heart of our enjoyment. Gamer memory papers over problems in favor of a mock universalism that deifies Metal Gear Solid or Metroid or Final Fantasy at the cost of not taking hidden object games, or Farmville clones, or celebrity simulators, or most popular contemporary genres very seriously. It puts certain nostalgia-laced experiences at the very top of our collective ranking of importance and has very little room for new additions.

Grand Theft Auto III is as clumsy in its application of satire as the newest game in the series, but gamer memory obscured that fact. In my head, supported by the opinions of lots of other people, it was a beautiful experience that struck a balance between gameplay and social commentary. What I didn’t remember was the chat radio station that lampoons concerned Leftists for being afraid of telephones and treats Conservatives as if they’re all pro-gun, pro-child beating hillbillies. What I didn’t remember is a protagonist killing the woman he saves in the final mission because she’s too annoying. What I didn’t remember was the brutally hard difficulty that seems less like purposeful design and more like arbitrary difficulty spiking to keep players from completing the game too quickly.

Gamer memory kept me from remembering. Tinged with nostalgia, fueled by my own tween memories and those of everyone around me, I forgot all the mistakes and only remembered the strengths of Grand Theft Auto III.

I don’t want to suggest that we should throw Grand Theft Auto III under the bus. It is undeniably historically significant, and on the whole it is an excellent game that laid the groundwork for some of the most important and entertaining developments in blockbuster games. I don’t think that’s even arguable.

Rather, I think we should take the time to vigorously interrogate gamer memory. We currently have unprecedented access to videogame history through Playstation classics, the Nintendo virtual console, PC releases through GoG or Steam, and emulation of all sorts. Gamer memory is fueled by group nostalgia, and I want to crack through it to find something different. I want to make new memories with forgotten classics instead of retreading the experiences that provide the fodder for top-ten games of all time lists. I want to see those top-ten lists implode with the realization that the games of our sliding-scale youth weren’t as great as so many of us seem to remember them being. And to do that, to interrupt collective gamer memory, we need to play these games again.

Take a break from the newest Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. Go back, play a game from your childhood, or your teenage years, or from before you were born. Form an opinion of it. See if it holds up to the image that gamer memory has created for you.

Posted in PLAYER KNOWLEDGE, PLAYER/KNOWLEDGE, Video Games | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

On Interview With The Vampire


I finished reading Interview With The Vampire the other night and I just wanted to take a second to reflect on it.

I grew up loving weird interactions with Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. I never read Interview or the following few books, but I loved the film (and I have a deep, strange love of Queen of the Damned and its very-dated official soundtrack). My cousin read them all over and over again, and he would tell me about the plots and connections. He explained who all these weird vampires were and why they acted the way they did.

I eventually read some of them. I wandered through Pandora and suffered Vittorio and had an excellent time with a vaguely familiar character in Blood and Gold. These were stories about weird times I hadn’t really read about (I was in middle school) combined with a lot of Very Adult Content to which I quickly adapted.

Reading Interview With The Vampire brought all of that back to me, or at least brought it back to the forefront of my mind. I can see the roots of my beliefs about homosexuality in the love-based relationships of the vampires. I can see early versions of my own thoughts about religion in the vampires’ ultimate confusion about whether there is or is not a divine presence.

What I mean by all of this is that Anne Rice’s vampires (along with a thousand other cultural objects) set me on a path that was open to kinds of lives and experiences that I could never experience in the rural South. The language that she uses for vampiricism–the constant refrain that life for them is wholly unlike human life–did not and does not dull me to empathizing with them, for feeling with them, and for having a strange, awe-like respect for the characters.

I have to say that this is a particularly weird place for me to be in after finishing the book. I spent the couple weeks it took me to read it actively decrying the writing, the characters, and the plot. It seemed to go nowhere. There are interminable scenes of how Louis feels without really presenting any stakes for those feelings other than a modulation of his intense interiority. I spent weeks reading the novel and thinking I was superior to it.

To begin with, that’s a shitty way to read a novel. Following from that, it allowed the novel to do something quite dramatic. No matter how I was framing Louis’ emotions, I was still reading them. When he described his relationship with Lestat, I was following along. And when Louis, deprived of emotion and dead on the inside, felt nothing and Lestat begged him to return and love him again, I teared up.

The stakes were precisely in the buildup of those emotions. It was about the superiority-transformed-to-sympathy. When the modulation of that interiority happened, when the character whose only trait was his feeling was unable to feel, it hit me super hard.

It is that layering of affect that shows Rice’s mastery in this novel. It isn’t in the writing or the storytelling. It is setting up a powerful emotional trap that’s fueled by confidence. To bring it back around to my middle school encounters with Rice’s work: this is how I encountered all of these ideas and accidentally had them stick with me. She paints it all on thick, layers of layers of emotion, and by the time you begin to organize them into real feelings you’ve forgotten about the primer layers. Then, years later, you peel away a covering and see that they were down there the whole time.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , ,

On Pancho and Lefty

I think I discovered “Pancho and Lefty” when I was twelve or thirteen. It was the Willie and Merle version, the pop transformation of the lilting, crooked ramble that Townes Van Zandt pulled from nowhere.

I’m certain that my dad was listening to it. He was barely out of diapers when it was originally written, but was some kind of teenager when it dominated the airwaves in the early 1980s. I don’t know how he heard it, if he ever had some kind of strange personal moment with it, but as soon as I could I stole whatever mix CD he was listening to and hoarded it in my room.

I listened to it when no one was around. There was a strange double embarrassment of listening to some “old” country music that my dad listened to, betraying my own then-current tastes of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Outkast. There was also the emotional factor: listening to the words, I would well up with this sublime something that couldn’t quite land anywhere sensible. And so I listened to it over and over again for a long time.

I had forgotten about it until this past weekend. I heard it mentioned, looked it up, and fell down the hole again. There’s not many songs that do this to me–that pick me up, carry me away, fail to let me go: Neil Young’s “Thrasher“; Daughter’s “Candles“; John K. Samson’s “Letter In Icelandic From the Ninette San.”

I can say that all of these songs are haunting in the proper sense of that term. They refuse to leave. They mill about. They pass through and yet remain. That’s something unique to music for me. No film, no tv show, no game manages to linger with me like a haunting song will. A song can infect you with melancholy, using its earworm nature to keep you spinning in its grasp.

Haunting games? Haunting films? Some refuse to leave me, but they don’t weigh on me like a song does.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

May Waver explains cybertwee

Cybertwee is a contemporary foil to Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk of the 1980’s and 90’s  was dark, dystopic, and rejected softness in favor of cold tough hybridity. Cybertwee, which adopts the twee suffix from the music genre of that same era, proposes that  what we need now is a cyborg existence that embraces tenderness as a survival  mechanism, that holds dear our vulnerabilities because they are what connect us to each other. It is a reclamation of emotional complexity and sweetness, characteristics that have been devalued by capitalism’s demand that we be tireless and patriarchy’s demand that we harden in self-defense. Cybertwee is cuteness as retaliation as well as pleasure. “Our nectar is not just a lure, or a trap for passing flies, but a self-indulgent intrapersonal biofeedback mechanism spelled in emoji and gentle selfies.”

– Emily Gaynor, “Artist Interview: May Waver

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Ursula K. Le Guin on the use of the “surface elements” of fantasy

‘Surface elements,’ by which I take it he means ogres, dragons, Arthurian knights, mysterious boatmen, etc., which occur in certain works of great literary merit such as Beowulf, the Morte d’Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, are also much imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork. Their presence or absence is not what constitutes a fantasy. Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid, powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful and coherent story, such as those mentioned, or The Odyssey, orAlice in Wonderland.

Familiar folktale and legendary ‘surface elements’ in Mr Ishiguro’s novel are too obvious to blink away, but since he is a very famous novelist, I am sure reviewers who share his prejudice will never suggest that he has polluted his authorial gravitas with the childish whims of fantasy.

Respect for his readers should assure him that, whatever the book is, they will honestly try to follow him and understand what he was trying to do.

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

– Ursula K. Le Guin, “Are They Going To Say This Is Fantasy?

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Julie Cruikshank on Glaciers

Surging glaciers engage the senses. Visually, they are spectacular. Aurally, they are alarmingly noisy. Hunters, scientists, hikers, and Aboriginal elders all remark on the thunderous cracking and explosive noises they make. Tactile imagery is central to many stories that portray glaciers as bitterly cold but also, surprisingly, as emitting unbearable heat. Glaciers in these stories appear to be sentient themselves. They respond to humans and especially to smells when meat is fried nearby. They are also quick to hear and to take offence when humans demonstrate cockiness by making jokes at their expense. They are apparently equipped with vision when, for example, they are characterized as giant worms “with eyes as big as the moon.” Ambiguous entities like glaciers call to mind other ambiguities. Stories told about glaciers slide into other stories.

– Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? p.69

Posted in Theory | Tagged ,

Announcement: “the bleak” book project

MICROMOLAR is an art collaboration that I am one half of, and during the next few months we are going to be putting together a book around the concept of “the bleak.” We are inviting submissions of essays, visual art, and sound art. Accepted submissions will be paid a (meager/literary journal-ish) rate.

If “the bleak” interests you, please check out the CFP here.

Also, please share this around on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, and all of the other websites where it might gather interest. Thanks so much for reading!

Posted in Art | Tagged ,