Saturday, June 21, 2008

Grand Theft Watto

So our fascination with GTA 4: Liberty City continues. It's a fun game. The voice acting is brilliant -- from our tortured mid-gunfight one-liners and acerbic, angsty all-hope-lost worldview, to the impenetrable accent of our Rasta crony, Little Jacob, to the immoderately sleazy enthusiasms of our cousin Roman.

Ah, Roman.

Roman sounds like Watto from the SW prequels... if Watto were rhapsodizing about titties and hamburgers and all things American, and simultaneously pissing his life away. He's funny, smart, and yet self-destructive in a way that makes him an almost classically tragic figure. He is a perfect picaresque foil for our own straight-man bitterness.

He is also eminently kidnappable. Make of that what you will.

GTA4 has a certain surreal quality. On the one hand, its media and entertainment compose one of the most trenchant critiques of the American public sphere that I have ever witnessed. Every commercial is blackly hilarious; every television show is viciously satirical; every billboard, poster, calendar, and simulated website is jaw-droppingly, unkindly, mercilessly a send-up of everything we are doing wrong in real life.

That said, the game has a darkly sexist facet that irks me like a gadfly.

As those of you who are playing the game know, we are introduced to a girl who is tailor-made to be a girlfriend. If we don't deliberately cut her loose, in fact, she will become our girlfriend... despite the fact that she is an unappealing bundle of prim and hypercritical commentary, gloating competitiveness, and troubling neuroses. (Spoiler alert: she grows even less appealing over the course of the game.)

Her name is Michelle.

Michelle pissed us (the players) off when we got Niko a new suit, stole him a fly ride, and went over to take her somewhere nice... and she treated us to a never-ending bitch & moan session about how lousy our clothes were, how she didn't care for this car, and where were our sunglasses that she liked so much? Slow down, you're driving too fast! So we went to the in-game fake Internet dating site, LoveMeet, and started looking for other girls to go out with.

We found a couple. Kiki, a lawyer with neuroses that make Michelle's neuroses look like Zen calm, and Carmen, a self-obsessed nurse who loves fine cars and clothes but is not interested in haute cuisine.

The complexity of relationships in GTA4 is pitiful... something on the order of a Japanese dating sim without the invisible glowing penii. One careful read of the LoveMeet profile tells you what the date will want from you: if she says she is active, wear a leisure suit and take her bowling; if she says she likes the finer things, dress up and take her out to eat or to a comedy club or cabaret; if she says she likes to be noticed, dress up with all your might and go somewhere where you will stand out like sore thumbs... like the BurgerShot fast food restaurant.

Successful dates allow you to "try your luck" (as opposed to "say goodnight") at the end of a date. If you try your luck... well, as far as I can tell, Niko has never been turned down. Our three lousy, one-dimensional girlfriends are perfectly willing to gratify our action-superhero self-image... just so long as it's offscreen. (So far as I know, this is a wink to the scandal surrounding the notorious "hot coffee" player-made mod of GTA3.)

Here's what happens: the camera pans along the exterior of the building and there's a voiceover from the "girlfriend" actress, which playfully alludes to her profession or character. "Talk to me, Niko, tell me more," wails Michelle. "Oh you lucky, lucky man," coos Carmen. "Oh, I LOVE you... you can prosecute me any time," giggles Kiki. (These are samples -- the dialogue is different every time.) And -- here's the weird part -- for 15-30 seconds or whatever, the controller vibrates violently.

That's sex. Never mind that the content in the rest of the game is graphic, sometimes sexually so. We can go to the Triangle Club (as Roman crows, "the titty bar!") and get a lapdance. We can shoot off civilians' heads with a sniper rifle. A weird homeless looking guy in a gimp mask once offered us a blowjob, and dropped to his knees in front of us. (We sort of blundered into him -- not in a sex way -- and he got scared and ran away. Story of our life.) Language is not only obscene but suggestively so: "I'm gonna split your ass like Yugoslavia," yells an opponent in a gunfight. "This ain't nothin but a blood clot, this whole situation is fucked like bumboklaat," growls Little Jacob in a cutscene. And the "tiger shark testosterone versus our flamboyant but closeted friend Brucie's balls" jokes never end (and are hilarious, but I won't ruin them for you).

Once again, as always, I ask what is so bad about sex that it is considered more appalling than seeing civilians burn alive, or any of the other features of the game that we can carry through in vibrant, obscene, stomach-churning color.

Oh well. Not that I care much. I really don't want to see Niko naked, or en flagrante delicto. I'm just not the kind of person who needs that to thrive. It would be a kind of gross, pointless addition to what is after all a remarkably stirring, compelling, and beautiful game.

I am, however, the kind of person who, with morbid curiosity, tries to approach everyone I see in LoveMeet just in order to punish our shrewish virtual girlfriend Michelle. Furthermore, I'm the kind of person who inwardly critiques the shallow relationships we have with these sexist "woman" archetypes: neurotic, self-obsessed, materialistic, and they never say no.

And I guess I am also the kind of person who continues to do so even though there's something pitiful about being dissed on a virtual dating site on a console game. Quite a lot of the time, they ignore our overtures or respond with a barely civil "not if you were the last man on Earth" through the fake site's host.

O satirical makers of gratifying (often gratuitous) self-images, I know that this easter egg has to be just for you. Go ahead, laugh. I don't mind at all.

(The next step will be taking Niko out on some dates with men (yes, LoveMeet has a male for male section). Pathy or anyone, if you've done this already, fess up and tell me how it went! I might have to eat my accusations of sexism if the male dates are equally breathtakingly shallow. The characters are drawn with such skill and verve that I may have surprises to report: Brucie's bizarre behavior tells a story of a closeted life with ... well, if not subtlety, certainly without flashing signs and pointing fingers.)

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