Greg Stacy’s FAT LOT OF GOOD

February 14, 2007

Life without Flash is a gas, gas, gas

Filed under: Games and tech,Geekery — gregstacy @ 9:50 am

I am about to make your internet experience so, so much better.

What if I told you that with the click of a button, you could make all of that horrible Flash go away? No more blinky banner ads. No more “punch this monkey and win a brand new car!!!!” No more three-minute trailers for the latest Ashton Kutcher movie sneakily downloading themselves to your desktop. No more dealing with an internet that increasingly resembles one huge, noisy, ugly-as-hell MySpace page. 

Well, that sounds great, you say, but what about when you actually need Flash? Like, to see stuff on Youtube, for instance? What about that, then? Huh?

Ah, friend, I’m not talking about doing away with Flash altogether. (Although that idea is certainly tempting.) No, I’m talking about the the power to turn Flash on and off at will. You turn Flash on to see somebody’s grandma breakdancing on Youtube, then turn it off so you don’t have to look at all the winky, blinky, noisy crap everywhere else! Just imagine it! It’d be an earthly paradise!

Well, friend, you don’t have to imagine it… just click here and take you first step into a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

December 19, 2006

Pop! Culture: Getting lost on the streets of San Andreas

Filed under: Games and tech,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 12:51 pm

(Printed in OC WEEKLY, December 23, 2004)

I was racing my scooter through an alley, taking a shortcut on my way to deliver a pizza, when I pulled over to check out a shotgun I’d spotted near a dumpster. I trotted up a nearby staircase to the roof of a grungy, two-story hotel. On the street below, a homeless man shambled by, muttering to himself. I took aim, fired, and blew his head off with one clean, beautiful shot. Pop! I chortled at the way his suddenly headless body danced for a moment, blood gushing from its neck, before it fell lifeless to the ground.

Next, I took out two hookers, an old lady and an uptight-looking businessman before the cops showed up. First, it was just a few squad cars, crashing into one another and running over pedestrians in their frenzy to take me down. Then there was a great whooshing from above as the police chopper arrived, raining bullets down on me until I collapsed on the rooftop, dead in a pool of my own blood. Three seconds later, I was resurrected across town, back on the streets and ready for mischief.

Video games are the hottest thing going in American entertainment, and the Grand Theft Auto series is the hottest thing going in video games. The series began in the late ’90s with two crude, 2D, almost-diagrammatic titles, and then in 2001, Grand Theft Auto 3 arrived and changed video games forever.

You were now free to explore an entire, 3D, virtual city; you could wander for miles in any direction, following the story as the game presented it or going off to look for trouble on your own. GTA 3 was dozens of games (shooter, racing game, flight simulator, etc.) in one shiny package, but as impressive as its technical features were, its apocalyptic, satirical take on violent, gluttonous, hypocritical, dumb-assed modern America was even more stunning.

The game’s vehicles all played a selection of radio stations, and mixed in with the cool tunes were sharp talk-radio parodies and bogus commercials that were both funnier and smarter than anything Saturday Night Live has done in years. (“I’m a marketing manager who lives in the suburbs and commutes to work on the highway. . . . I live alone, so of course I needed a car that can seat 12 and is equipped to drive across Arctic tundra.”) The black comedy permeated the tiniest detail; newspapers littering the gutters boasted such headlines as “ZOMBIE ELVIS FOUND.”

The characters in the game’s main story sometimes called in to the radio shows, the radio DJs would refer to things you’d just done, and it was all so astonishingly intricate and interactive you could lose months of your life to this thing. Some of us did.

It seemed unlikely any sequel could top it, but 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City took the franchise to a whole other level—the playing field was bigger, the gameplay more addictive, the satire even more biting. Set in a very Miami Vice/Scarface 1980s, the game featured the perfect ’80s gangster-picture cast (Ray Liotta! Dennis Hopper! Philip Michael Thomas, for crying out loud!) and succeeded as both a savage critique of that long-gone, pastel era and a nostalgic kick in the head.

There were long, quiet moments as you drove to the location of your next atrocity, when the radio would start playing Tears for Fears’ “Pale Shelter” or the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” and suddenly you kinda felt like crying for reasons you couldn’t quite explain. It was at such moments you realized you were officially Not Young Anymore, yet there you were, playing a video game at 1 a.m. and having the time of your life.

Like many of my fellow Not Young Anymore gamers, I’ve spent the past year or so giddily awaiting the latest (and possibly last) edition in the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Now it’s here, and well, it’s certainly bigger than the earlier games. And they give you even more stuff to do: you can shoot pool, dance, play basketball, play video games within the video game, etc. It’s big. But it was six months or so before real life became more interesting than Vice City, and after just a few days in San Andreas, I was already keenly aware that the hours I was spending there were hours I’d never get back.

The game is unwisely set in a pseudo-California of the early ’90s, recent enough that there’s no way you’d know the game is set in another era unless you’d read it on the box. Besides, that’s a time most of us are happy to forget. Who the hell gets nostalgic for the LA riots, grunge or O.J. hysteria? It was one of the most volatile yet paradoxically least interesting times in our nation’s history. I remember long nights searching the radio for anything listenable; eventually I’d grow so bored with the rap and metal I’d end up stuck with Art Bell’s loony conspiracy theories. It’s an experience San Andreas re-creates with depressing accuracy, right down to a so-so Art Bell parody.

There’s only one talk-radio station in the new game, and the shows are rushed and unmemorable—no comparison to the twisted theater of the mind that was the Vice City dial. While Vice City felt like it was made just for me (apparently, a lot of people felt the same way), San Andreas feels like it was made for those 15-year-old suburban honkies you see copping Eminem poses down at the mall, kids who were just being born in the era when this game is set, come to think of it. Holy crap, am I ever Not Young Anymore.

The Grand Theft Auto games all carry a mature rating (17 years of age and up), but somehow those sneaky kids do manage to get ahold of the things, as do their little brothers. So, while Mommy and Daddy are at work, Junior whiles away the afternoons setting virtual gangbangers on fire and getting blowjobs from virtual whores.

Of course, outraged parents across the land are convinced these games are going to turn their little darlings into psychopaths. But here I must impart the dirtiest little secret of these dirty little games: Grand Theft Auto is only as twisted and evil as the people who play it. It’s true. Yeah, you begin each game as a man with a troubled past, but you essentially have a clean slate and you’re free to go out and earn a respectable living in legal ways. You can drive a cab, you can deliver pizzas, and there are fun mini-games set up for any number of career possibilities. It’s called free will, and if your kid ends up setting people on fire, it’s because your little darling likes setting people on fire.

And sometimes setting people on fire is a fine way to spend an afternoon—within the context of a video game, I mean. The Grand Theft Auto games are real life without the consequences. Some cowboy asshole in an SUV gives you a hard time in traffic? Pull him out of his car, beat his brains in and steal his cash. Why not? Hell, steal his car, too. Drive it off a pier and drown in it, commit suicide. You’ll just re-spawn anyhow. In a world where every damn thing we do has consequences—and those consequences seem to grow more dire all the time—it’s a lovely thing to have an alternate universe where we can fuck up as much as we like and laugh at the horror of it all, knowing that when we push the off button, it all goes away. Pop!

November 25, 2006

Played: The Games Hollywood Plays

Filed under: Games and tech,Movies,OC Weekly — gregstacy @ 11:00 am

(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, February 10, 2005)

I apologize in advance, really I do, but it just begs for the obvious play on words: if you went to see Alone in the Dark, when you got to the theater you were almost certainly alone in the dark yourself. Nobody went to see this thing. Months before the film hit theaters, I already knew poor Christian Slater’s comeback was doomed. After all, this was a) a movie based on a video-game series and b) a Uwe Boll production. The instant Slater signed that contract, he doomed himself to a life spent fighting Patrick Swayze for starring roles in USA Network thrillers and direct-to-DVD turkeys.

Boll, as any gamer geek will be only too happy to inform you, is a stunningly awful director who somehow keeps managing to talk people into giving him millions of dollars so he can make stunningly awful movies based on video games. Beginning with 2003’s House of the Dead (which featured actual video-game footage incorporated into the story), Boll began a reign of terror that won’t end until 2006 at the very earliest: even as studio heads are still rolling over the critical and commercial disaster that was Alone in the Dark, this German auteur is hard at work on the post-production stage of Bloodrayne, in pre-production on Hunter: The Reckoning and already drawing up plans for Far Cry.

It is difficult to overstate just how disliked Boll is by gamers: punch in his name on Google, and you’ll discover a seemingly infinite number of websites suggesting the man should be ground up and fed to hyenas. And that hatred, while admittedly over-the-top and sometimes just plain spooky, is founded on an understandable frustration.

Video games are a massive industry, with players in all age groups. There are articles about video games in glossy magazines. A-list movie stars are now doing voice work for games. Video games are indisputably cool. And yet, within every gamer, there remains that secret fear that we’re really just uncool dorkwads wasting our lives fiddling around with our PlayStations when we could be out getting better jobs or getting laid or something. Being an avid gamer is sort of like being an avid masturbator: it’s all very normal and healthy, and it helps you release stress, and apparently everybody does it . . . yet somehow it still seems kind of anti-social and immature, not something you’d want to talk about with your mom or that cute girl at the office. And doing it too much will give you wrist cramps. Okay, I’ve carried the simile way too far now, but you get my point.

All these awful video-game movies certainly don’t do much for the already-iffy social status or self-esteem of us gamers. Now, when non-gamers (like, say, our moms) think of games, they also think of such big-screen bombs as Super Mario Bros., Wing Commander, Final Fantasy, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, etc. The few video-game movies that have been at all successful—the Mortal Kombat franchise, for instance—are if anything even more embarrassing than the bombs.

Video-game movies often have very little in common story-wise with the games that ostensibly inspired them, and it is tempting to say this is why these movies are such trash. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we must admit most video games are pretty trashy to begin with.

The Tomb Raider games were basically Indiana Jones knock-offs starring a haughty, pistol-packing babe with improbably oversized, gravity-defying hooters, and as such, they would have been right at home as midnight movies on the Sci-Fi Channel. It was their amazing interactivity that made them something special. As Lara Croft, you were set loose in an expansive, 3D environment: you could explore jungle ruins, secret military bases and arctic caves, fighting off wolves, tigers, zombies and dinosaurs. If you were clever, you’d win the treasure, but if you took a wrong step, you could set off some ancient trap and get crushed by those goddamn rolling boulders. It wasn’t high art, but it was the kind of truly immersive fun that Indiana Jones himself, trapped as he is within an immutable, linear narrative, just couldn’t offer. Lara Croft, meanwhile, couldn’t support a movie; the Tomb Raider pictures were quite faithful to the spirit of the games, but her adventures aren’t much fun to watch if you’re not the one pushing the buttons.

For decades, the majority of video games have been Zap! Boom! Pow! stuff pitched at 12-year-old boys of all ages. But in recent years, more adult titles have begun to appear: 2002’s Silent Hill 2 is a game I’ll remember on my deathbed, a horror tale as psychologically traumatic as anything Cronenberg ever directed. The Grand Theft Auto franchise offers a mix of gangsta thrills and scorched-earth social satire more potent than anything Oliver Stone could manage on the best day of his life. These are games that pull you in whether you’re the one pushing the buttons or just watching over a friend’s shoulder.

Inevitably, Silent Hill and Grand Theft Auto movies are now in the works. Both franchises have little to gain and everything to lose by jumping to the big screen, but there’s some reason for hope. The Silent Hill screenplay was penned by Roger Avary, who co-scripted Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino. Avary has pledged to be faithful to the spirit of the games, and if he’s true to his word, he’ll have a classic. And the canny folk at Rockstar, the company behind Grand Theft Auto, are rumored to be bypassing the studios altogether and making the movie version themselves—a far wiser decision than handing their darling over to McG to mangle however he sees fit.

I love a good, linear narrative as much as the next person who earns their living critiquing linear narratives, but even I must admit that compared to the worlds created by the best games, the more conventional storytelling forms of film and TV are looking a little . . . played. I hope there will always be a place for narrative as we’ve known it, but the generations yet unborn may one day look back at the movies we’ve grown up loving and wonder how we used to stand these stories where you had no say in what happened and were stuck looking at whatever some director felt like showing you. Perhaps for them, a movie like Raiders of the Lost Ark will be as endearingly quaint as W.K.L. Dickson’s Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze.

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