Back in 2007 Realtime Studio’s Crackdown limped onto the XBox 360. Originally intended for release on the original XBox, Crackdown had been beset by technical hitches and a series of disastrous decisions during the development process. Despite Realtime receiving quite a bit of aid from Microsoft, the game’s testing did not go well. In fact, it went so poorly that Microsoft decided to package the game with the Halo 3 demo in a desperate attempt to boost sales and recuperate some of the money spent during the game’s epic development cycle.
Originally conceived by David Jones — one of the developers behind the original Grand Theft Auto (1997) — Crackdown was intended as an attempt to go one better than the GTA franchise. Where GTA had you running around a sandbox-style city causing chaos and climbing the ladder of the criminal underworld, Crackdown gave you super-powers before letting you loose on a similar sandbox-style city. The reviews were surprisingly positive, because Crackdown managed to capitalise on one of the great joys of GTA: ignoring the plot and blowing things up. Crackdown was all about the fun.
Three years later, and the much-anticipated Crackdown 2 (2010) arrives in our sweaty little palms. It’s undeniably a good and fun game, but it is good and fun for precisely the same reasons that Crackdown was a good and fun game. In fact, Crackdown 2 is an almost identical game to Crackdown… but whereas the latter’s blend of anarchy and weak plotting offered a surprising escape from the cod-Scorsese seriousness of GTA and its clones, Crackdown 2‘s distraction-based game experience left a sour taste in my mouth: since when was saving the world such a terrible chore?
Crackdown 2 is set in Pacific City. A sprawling west-coat metropolis scattered over a series of islands, Pacific City has been torn apart by a conflict between a human gang known as Cell and a population of nocturnal mutants known as Freaks. By day, Cell roams the streets with its customised cars and its arsenal of automatic weapons; by night, the freaks come out of their underground caves and force the humans into cover. Trapped between a rock and a hard place and no longer in control of their own city, the population of Pacific City and their Peacekeeper police force call on the Agency for help. The game’s protagonist is an Agent, a super-powered enforcer with the strength and the skills to destroy the freaks and reclaim the city from Cell. However, we never learn anything about the Agent: we never hear his voice, we never hear his name and even his physical characteristics are shrouded in mystery, as each time you die you are offered the chance of re-spawning as an agent with completely different face — thus suggesting that the Agent is not the person on-screen during the game but rather some gamer-analogue sitting in an office somewhere, working the controls as his cybernetic avatar blows huge holes in Pacific City.
Crackdown 2‘s gameplay is intriguingly fragmented: the game’s main aesthetic framing device is a story about the Agency having to reconquer the city from Cell and flush out the Freaks by activating a series of beacons that flood their underground lairs with sunlight. This framework results in a non-linear episodic form of play in which you move from place to place, carefully tackling a series of very similar and ultimately quite repetitive tactical instances. Pacific City is a beautifully rendered space, but the battles that take place within it are all a bit samey, as is also the case in Koei’s structurally similar superhero-against-the-horde franchise Dynasty Warriors.
The second aspect of the gameplay is carried over from the original Crackdown, and was largely responsible for that game’s reputation for fun. As an Agent, your character is hugely strong and agile to start with, but he can become even more so by picking up orbs that are scattered throughout the city. Pick up enough agility orbs and you can jump higher; pick up enough strength orbs and your Agent will grow and become able to throw cars and trucks about like toys; pick up enough firearm, explosive and driving orbs and you unlock not only new weapons and vehicles but you become better as using the toys you actually have. Seeing your character progress and grow more powerful is arguably the Crackdown franchise’s most tangible in-game reward. As you wander round the city, the desire to pick up more orbs forces you to explore new areas, climb tall buildings and get involved in a series of pointless fights, races and stunt challenges that do absolutely nothing to advance the plot… but which prove to be hugely amusing nonetheless.
The fragmented style of the Crackdown franchise’s gameplay sheds some interesting light on one of the central tensions in the design of sandbox-style games: namely, why should one give a shit about the plot?
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) opens with a beautifully written and frankly hilarious picture of the thug life. Having returned home after a long absence, CJ finds his once-powerful gang mates tooling around on BMXs and tagging walls like a bunch of over-sized teenagers. Despite being murderers and criminals, the gang-members are an engaging bunch because they are underdogs and buffoons; you are led through the game’s plot because it not only gently introduces you to the game’s world, but also allows you to help your friends get back on their feet. By the time you have reclaimed your ‘hood, the game has allowed you to feel a real sense of accomplishment. Grove Street Families FTW!
As the game progresses and CJ becomes more powerful and influential, it becomes harder to maintain the human motivations that drove you to follow the early episodes of the plot, and so San Andreas shifts to a different register by having you engage in a turf war with some of your local rivals. The more land you control, the more money you earn; the more money you earn, the more stuff you can buy for your character. Again, one follows the plot because it is in one’s self-interest to do so. However, by the time CJ has been dumped in the middle of the woods by a corrupt police officer, that vein of self-interest has become somewhat more difficult to see. (This is when I spent an entire afternoon riding bicycles, motorbikes and camper vans off the side of a mountain purely for the joy of base-jumping over the scenery. Yes, CJ had to get revenge and to save his family… but who cared? That shit was fun!)
This same tension resurfaces in THQ’s highly derivative but hugely entertaining GTA:SA clone Saints Row 2 (2008), a game that tacitly accepts that nobody cares about the aesthetic framing of sandbox games. Its missions are not so much attempts at reconstituting a cinematic genre in the form of a video game as they are rides on in a theme park with an organised crime motif: ThugWorld! Saints Row 2 has you flinging poo at your enemy’s offices, crashing UFOs into prisons and blowing up monster trucks with cannons. It maintains your interest in the plot through nothing less than bribery, by not only re-using GTA:SA‘s territory mini-games but also allowing you to upgrade your hide-outs and gang members. But despite all of these attempts at keeping your attention on the plot’s aesthetic framing, Saints Row 2 is still essentially a game about refashioning your avatar to make it look like an obese drag queen (and tricking out your sportscar with a ludicrous paint job and pneumatic suspension).
Games like Saints Row 2 pander to the infinite distractability of the contemporary gamer. They realise that their writing is not brilliant, but rather than seeking to improve their writing and engage the player with a proper story, they provide you with a fun-creation toolbox that allows you complete freedom to act out your weird desires and frustrations. So effective is this pandering that when it comes time for us to reign in our attentions and focus on a fixed plot, it can be surprisingly difficult to do so.
Red Dead Redemption (2010) is an attempt to transplant the GTA formula to a different period, that of the old west. You begin the game as an injured cowpoke bent on revenge and redemption, and the plot sees you making friends and building contacts as you regain strength and build yourself a reputation that will allow you to capture your lawless brother and bring your family out west to start a new life. However, unlike GTA:SA and Saints Row 2, Red Dead Redemption simply assumes that you already care about bringing the bad guys to justice: the game’s aesthetic framing is not particularly well-realised, and the missions are frequently so repetitive or dull that it’s often easier to spend one’s time in either roving the countryside and getting into fights or playing poker. Red Dead Redemption not only tries to reign in the gonzo theme-park aesthetic of games like Crackdown and Saints Row 2, but also highlights quite how poorly equipped most game developers are when it comes to taking on this creative challenge. Narrative video games, as a form, are clearly in trouble — and if you don’t believe me, go and ask the millions of people who buy the Nintendo Wii’s grab-bags of minigames.
This issue of how easily distractable we have become is addressed by Nicholas Carr is his latest book The Shallows – What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010). In his book, Carr argues that the ease with which information is available online has resulted in a change in the ways in which we engage with written information; he suggests that the plethora of hyperlinks that inhabit online texts (and the icons and pictures that surround them) make it harder to focus. So instead of sitting down and reading an article from start to finish, we skim read it, or maybe we take a break from the article and follow the links for a while before coming back to it… or maybe we read the title, read the introduction and skip to the conclusion before reading through the reaction comments at the bottom. As the author Jonah Lehrer puts it in his New York Times review of The Shallows:
- “The incessant noise of the Internet, Carr concludes, has turned the difficult text into an obsolete relic”
If we take Carr’s message as it is intended, then Crackdown 2‘s failure to keep us focused on the main plot is a failing on our own part. Perhaps if we were less easily distracted we would be more willing to invest the dozen or so hours necessary for the plot of Red Dead Redemption to play out. Maybe if we could focus a bit more, we wouldn’t need designers to bribe us for following the plot in the way that the developers of Saints Row 2 did.
For my money, this idea of the ADHD gamer falls down on two points:
The first is that the plots of video games are not difficult texts, they are simply time-consuming texts. There is nothing conceptually inaccessible about Crackdown 2‘s plot coupon-based narrative, and Red Dead Redemption‘s plot is so weighted down with cliches that even someone that had never seen a western would struggle to find anything fresh within its delicately-rendered digital walls. The key to keeping people’s attention is to not be shit. If games had better writers, we would be less prone to distraction.
The second problem with applying Carr’s analysis to gaming is that Carr is effectively buying into the concept of a neurological golden age: a time when humans would sit down and read huge slabs of text without lifting their eyes, never failing to engage with what they were looking at. I don’t think that this age ever existed — and even if it did, I do not see why it would be inherently superior to the age we have now. As Lehrer points out in his review, research suggests that playing video games can actually increase the length of your attention span, and that the changes that take place in the brain that allow children to learn to read actually come at the expense of their capacity to extract information from the natural world. So while a case can easily be made for the fact that the internet is changing the way our brain functions — and even for the fact that the internet is affecting our attention span — the changes may well prove to be more complex than a simple shift from “good” to “bad”, from long attention spans to short.
When the poet Tan Lin put out his collection Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004 The Joy of Cooking (2009), he set out to deconstruct the traditional mode of engagement that people have with a work of poetry. Upon picking up the book, the first thing you realise is that you are looking at the back cover rather than the front. Upon opening the book, you find the title page in the “wrong” place, the Library of Congress information inserted seemingly at random, and fragments of text, poetry and photographs seemingly scattered throughout the book at random. When Colin Marshall interviewed Tan Lin on his podcast The Marketplace of Ideas, Lin stated that his goal with the book was to produce a work of poetry that functioned with the grain of the on-line reading experience. So instead of picking up the book and reading through it one page after another, as you would a “normal” book, Lin wants us to pick the book up and skim it, to flick back and forth and generally allow our child-like attention spans to wander where the winds of chance carry them. The result is not a reduced or a simplified work, but a work that is genuinely challenging, forcing us to confront the ways in which our brains work.
Maybe Carr is right: maybe the internet has changed the way our brains work and, as a result, we struggle to keep focused on a single narrative or train of thought. Maybe this is true… but who cares? If the human brain is becoming less hospitable to traditional narratives, then it is the job of artists and writers to seek out new forms that fit our current neural environment. Seen in this light, Crackdown 2‘s problem is not that it fails to make us care about its narrative, it’s that it bothers to have a narrative at all! In the future, maybe we will look back on narrative in the same way as we now look back on the orchestral overtures at the beginning of operas, or on the greek chorus: a product of an entirely different time, for consumption by an entirely different audience. A product which — despite being interesting — is not only archaic but fundamentally alien to the way in which we now relate to art.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]