I Know, It’s Only Retinal Candy, But I Like It, Like It, Yes I Do . . . But I Like It, I Like It

Grand Theft Auto IV is officially the largest media release in history. It earned more money in its first day, weekend and week than any movie, CD, book or other video game. But, as Roger Ebert once opined, some still believe good code and narrative can never be art — as for example, his favorite Russ Myer movies such as “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens” or “Faster Pussycat Kill Kill”.

Let’s move beyond Ebert. It’s a staple in videogame lore that visual aesthetics aside, when the games began to evoke deep emotional responses from players as well as “twitch” or puzzles, then art began to take form. And for most, the touchstone moment was Final Fantasy VII. There, a much beloved female character, Aeris, died at the hands of the arch bad guy Separoth. True tears were shed by millions around the globe, male and female. Circa 1997 or so. Legions upon legions of fans (of all genders) played the game several times tying to avert this death. Some even tried to hack the game to prevent it.

Most game designers today still cite this date as the breakthough moment that proved Ebert off his mark. So what’s this got to do with GTA IV? Not so much directly. It is not aiming for that gentle provocative moment. Our friends over at Feministing have some commentary that is pretty balanced on the whole controversy — is it art? They quite rightly note that the “sandbox” nature of the game — i.e., the character can roam the City at will, and make moral choices (or not) — take it away from the traditional rail game. Feministing’s major points are that the game is premised on violence and does not allow a player, for all the vaunted ‘freedom’ to escape an essentially misogynistic role. And naturally it all comes down to corporate manipulation.

OK, this is unhelpful

OK, This Could Be More Helpful

What the Stiftung finds so amusing about it all (and yes, we do consider GTA and HALO art) is that GTA is written by foreigners looking in on America. Vice City (Miami), San Andreas (LA-Vegas) and now IV (NY City) are all not only the product of a small, young (read hormonally active) set of developers (how does Feministing know they are all straight?), they also happen to be from Europe, looking at America. That young Europeans do not embrace Feministing’s social agenda should be no surprise, nor should it be a basis for misunderstanding the games as a critical (or uninformed) view of our fair continent. Regardless, for many around the world, this is what you get in the Land of Plenty.

Movies, like games, are in the end about the spectrum between art and commerce. Final projects intentionally or unintentionally fall along that spectrum. It would be interesting to hear Feministing’s idea for a game that would attract the venture or other financing to get their vision made that would incorporate their artistic and social notions. Along with a business plan. It’s not enough to denounce the mere presence of a business plan, alas, as a sign of dread ‘corporate’ presence. Even Indie films have one, albeit often on a napkin. Money will go where it has some return on investment — either actual ROI, relationship development or in pursuit of some political/perceptual change.

What exactly would a feminist ‘sand box’ game look like? Or for that matter, any type of game? Would Okami qualify with its stunning visuals and non-traditional play? ICO? Katamari Damacy? Or are we talking women doing the same thing, ala Tomb Raider ad nauseum. What exactly is a feminist video game? Perhaps there really is a market niche waiting.

We actually agree with most of what Feministing has to say here. It’s just a shame the post left off when it was about to get the most interesting.