Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ten year anniversary of Grand Theft Auto III

"I know a place on the edge of the Red Light District where we can lay low, but my hands are all messed up so you better drive brother."

With those words, us gamers were introduced to the morbid Grand Theft Auto saga. As depraved as the series may be, Grand Theft Auto also represents a genius reflection of society. The series isn't just a playground for sadistic playing but also a statement about society as a whole. The storyline itself may not of amounted to much more than the standard vengeance and mafioso story. But the masterpiece of the games have never been the plot line. Instead it's the world building that has allowed the franchise to last a decade. Liberty City isn't just a a bunch of unexplorable buildings. It's a cynical representation of modern society as a whole. And exploring the American dream through the city has never gotten old.

It's not a game it's an experience.

I've never played the first two Grand Theft Autos and I doubt anyone my age has either. I've seen them in the bargain bins of game stores, but they never had the allure that the third entry did. GTA3 brought with it a maturity not really seen in games at the time. There were better looking games and more compelling games, but few games matched the anarchic fun of the original. Even today the game is fun to play because of it's simple wish fulfillment. I'm not saying that everybody that picks up the game is a sadist in training, but there is something empowering about the freedom allotted to the player. There are main missions and even side missions, but a lot of people never even bothered playing them. Instead we were instantly attracted to the ability to cause whatever chaos we imagined in the game world.

Now that I'm older though, I can see what upset my mother so much.

Released on Oct. 22, it's hard to believe that it's been ten years since the release. I still remember sitting in middle school lunch and hearing with morbid curiosity my friend's ability to run down old ladies in a stolen taxi. Those that accused the game of being a murder simulator didn't really give the gamers any credit. Yes even those my age were a bit too young for the levels of violence, but we understood the line between fake violence and real violence. None of us were impressionable enough to take the violence at face value, we knew it was all fake. Despite what Jack Thompson may argue, the game had no ill effects after the system was turned off.

Jack Thompson, failed anti-video game activist.

My first taste of GTA was sleeping over my friend's house. He showed me with great glee the ability to run around and cause mayhem. Violence wasn't even our goal. We were more interested in exploring the game world because it was nothing we've seen before. Sandbox games are ubiquitous now but then it was a revolution. Rocket launchers and tanks weren't weapons of destruction but tools we used to test the freedom the game world allowed, just like the radio stations and fast cars were. And while virtual cops tried to police the city, they were nothing but another level of the game to compete against.

Trying to survive against SWAT teams was part of the fun.

To this day I don't think my mother knows I owned GTA, I think she still believes I'm borrowing it from my friend Joe (sorry ma). But that inherent sense of wrongdoing every time I popped the disc in my PS2 only added to the allure. I knew what I was doing wasn't wrong, but the idea that it could be wrong was simply seductive. My friends and I wasted a lot of afternoons passing the control around and topping each others acts of violence. We would see how many cars we can collect in one parking garage or defend a parking lot from waves of police. Even seeing who can pilot the Dodo aircraft for the longest led to competition between me and my brother.

He was the better Dodo flier, I'll admit.

It's hard to defend such actions as paying a prostitute and beating her up to get your cash back (which I've done in the video game, it's just good economics), but unless you played it you don't know how little a deal it was. Shooting people and stealing taxi cabs was violent but also encouraged, even if it wasn't a part of the main mission goals. Not to say the missions weren't fun, but it was how you completed the missions that was the real treat. Now the gamer could dictate how they prepared for the mission, even if it meant piling up eight tanks in the street "just in case you needed them." That's where cheats came in.

It's a shame that video games has lost it's way in this respect. Nowadays, cheating is both frowned upon and penaltalized in games. But back before the gamerscore it made for some of the best game experiences I've had. There's a reason why I still have all the cheats from GTA3 memorized to this day. It simply added to the fun. Something as simple as weapons and health cheats opened up the game world to more mayhem. My personal favorite was the riot and "everybody has weapons" cheat. There is nothing more exhilarating than driving around and watching bagladies with RPGs. I just wish videogames still supported such user freedom.

Even the newer GTA games prefer you not to cheat.

Rockstar is one of the leading game designers today because they earned that title. GTA3 alone revolutionized gaming today with its social commentary, sandbox design and top quality production. GTA3 forced other game companies to catch up and for good reason. Even something as simple as quality voice acting set the game apart from everything else in the market. And the series is still going strong ten years later because shooting a random pedestrian in the face still has it's charm. Not to say it isn't wrong, but the gameworld of GTA has its own rules. We were just living in it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Don't call me Millennial

It's hard to sum up a whole generation. Especially in this day and age, where lifestyles vary and differ so greatly, it is increasingly hard to come up with a name for my age-bracket. Sociologists love to stick a label on something and just like with every other field, I assume, it's a race to be the person to come up with that label. Everybody wants to be the next Gertrude Stein, summing up a whole group of people whose only common factor is the span in which they are born. But while the title of the "Lost Generation" is poetic, each passing generational label has tried and failed to grasp at its resonance.

I love the word resonance.

Those born between the mid-1980s-to-1990s are just too young to be truly defined with one title. All the other generations were allowed to prove themselves a bit. There is no doubt that the Greatest Generation (or, less dramatic, the G.I. Generation) earned their title. Baby Boomers, sadly, were named only by the degree of their propagation. Generation X's general dissatisfaction and outgoing spirit led to both their name and a romantic comedy starring Winona Ryder.

The early 90s film market was saturated with films like this.

The fact is, these past generations didn't look for names, the names found them. But, even before my generation filled out, naming attempts have been made. Lame attempts like Generation Y or Generation Next have been coined but none has stuck. Generation Y is insulting in its insistence in describing us as simple continuations of Generation X, but it's hardly the worse name. The name I hate the most would be Millennial. Millennial is just one more sad attempt to identify a group of people that has yet to identify themselves and it insults us.

It's the biggest cultural insult since Kidz Bop.

We are not the Millennials. To label my generation Millennials means that our only definable trait is the fact that we were born around the year 2000. While we were all born around that time, it's hardly reason to name us after it. It's an unnecessary nickname that means nothing to anyone. It tells nothing of our character or general disposition. Instead it traps us into mediocrity, like a schoolyard nickname.

Some people never get over being called MC Pee Pants in elementary school.

What scares me is the name might actually stick. It's been passed around enough, social analyzers and talking heads wearing it like a new pair of pants. We as a generation cannot let them lazily refer to us as Millennials though. Because we are capable of so much more than that. Though they claim otherwise I can't imagine someone from my generation actually coming up with the term Millennial. It just rings soulless and hollow. It's just too early to reflect on the younger generation. It's like when VH1 ran I Love the New Millennium back in 2007, before the decade was even over. Let the identity sink in before you feel the need to commentate on it. Let us instead find ourselves.

I just hope we don't become the "Occupy Generation" in a year.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Network television rips off Mad Men

Update: I meant to but I forgot to include The Hour, a BBC series that's similar to Mad Men.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It allows us to remember the past in a purely crystallized way. Thanks to nostalgia, we actually remember All That! as being a funny show. Thanks to nostalgia, we all had excellent relationships with our fathers and our girlfriends were the sweetest women in the world. Recently, network television has been trying to tap into the market of early '60s nostalgia, which Mad Men previously cornered the market on. In doing so though, what they're really attempting is to bring nostalgia to a time period that never existed.

Look at the fun they're having in the past.

The '60s were turbulent times full of great change and conflict. The whole decade was really just one glorified transitional period from the button-downed '50s to the wild '70s (with some drugs thrown in for good measure). And we even went to the moon. The networks have since created a prepackaged illusion of the '60s, popularized by Mad Men and bowdlerized baby-boomer stories. Pan Am and Playboy Club don't offer a respective look at a different time. Instead they offer a snow globe of kitsch, with some period-appropriate drama whenever it's convenient. Hell these are the television networks that ban smoking on most shows. How could they ever properly represent the '60s?

The '60s ran on paranoia and nicotine.

The comparison to Mad Men is unavoidable. Four years ago a slow-burn drama set in the '60s sounded like a bomb waiting to happen. Hell, all the networks passed on it. Even HBO and Showtime didn't want to gamble with it. AMC took Matthew Weiner's show in and it has payed off wonderfully for the channel. Having just won its fourth straight Emmy for Best Drama, Mad Men is the undisputed critical darling. And now, four years late to the party, ABC and NBC want to cash in on the era.

Amber Heard's hotness couldn't even save Playboy Club.

This is usually the portion where I predict the failure of both shows but Playboy Club already beat me to it. It took just three episodes for the show to fall flat on its face. Terra Nova even succeeded in finding an audience and that's just a Jurassic Park/Avatar mashup (Stephen Lang plays the same dude in both productions). And the funny thing is, Playboy Club and Pan Am are just as fanciful as Terra Nova. It's just further escapism. Critics and audiences seem to prefer Pan Am though.

The show is bolstered by Christina Ricci's big-headed appeal.

These two shows premiering right next to each other just shows how behind the networks are creatively. They're forced to ape previously existing successes, but with their own spin to make it their own. What they don't realize is that if they took chances with original programming than they could be the trendsetters, instead of having to go by what cable successes dictate. Even coping successes can turn into colossal failures, such as Playboy Club, so the network should take this as a lesson. That and everything that could be said about the '60s is already being done wonderfully on Mad Men (whether it be sexism, racism or general pigheadedness). What's the point of loading up a plane with forced-feminist when Mad Men's Peggy Olsen does it so much more effortlessly? If the shows had anything new to say than the story would be different but that's just their problem. The stories aren't different, only the settings.

I'll just watch New Girl instead. God I love Zooey.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Always Sunny loses its charm

I've always enjoyed It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Being from South Jersey, I hold the area and Philly very close to my heart. The city of Philadelphia itself has always been a place of good memories to me. Philly is by no means a large city, but that's why I like it. I feel like the city has a lot more charm than New York City. Yes, North Jersey folk may refer to NYC as "the city," but us real Jersey people know what the real city is. If you have never gone on a Philly adventure, I highly recommend it.

This picture is submitted without comment.

With my love of Philadelphia, I was excited when I first heard about Always Sunny. The first season was perfect and, with the addition of Danny DeVito, the second season even blew the doors off the first. Somewhere though, the show lost it's way. I wouldn't dare say that the show jumped the shark (a phrase that holds no meaning anymore), but the show has definitely lost it's spark. Which is a shame, because last season I thought it was a step in the right direction. But now with the new season, they have resorted, once again, to senseless shock. The following is an article I wrote for my school paper about last season's premiere. I post it now because I feel it perfectly illustrates what I think makes a good Always Sunny episode (plus I have too much homework to write anything new).

Who seriously thought this was a good marketing poster?

The show that launched a million green men is back. It’s pretty much impossible to go to a sporting event anymore without seeing a person wearing a green spandex bodysuit. It’s all thanks to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The sixth season of the FX show premiered on Thursday, Sept. 16.

Ever since the show made its debut in 2005, it has been known for its edginess. This year’s premiere lived up to the standard of a show that’s referred to itself as “Seinfeld on crack.”

The first episode dealt was jammed pack with issues, such as gay marriage, slavery, suicide, the Bible and even the safety of eating food found in alleyways. However, it’s not the issues that make this show so much as its characters. It’s Always Sunny has been an ensemble-driven show since the start.

The show deal with worldly issues, but only on the personal level of the five main characters, referred to in the episode titles as “the gang.” Having them deal with their situations in their own patented way allows for the individual characters to shine and become fleshed out. Although they sometimes devolve to cartoonish levels – Charlie especially falls victim to this – their personalities still shine through each irreverent storyline.

The season premiere represented a return to the character-driven comedy that defined the series early in its run. At points in last year’s season, the shows’ plot lines became somewhat ridiculous. While it still made for good television, the crux of the show was lost in its willingness to venture into the absurd.

That’s why the relatively low-key premiere is a good sign for this season. The gang is still a bunch of selfish people looking to milk the system. But the comedy lies in the personalities, not the situation. That’s what makes “It’s Always Sunny” so lovable: not about issues being taken to their illogical extremes, but the characters and their chemistry.

The only issue with the first episode was the blatant product placement throughout. Paddy’s Pub, the bar owned by the gang, sells Coors; there is no need to constantly be reminded about it. When Mac runs into the bar with news about his transsexual ex-girlfriend, the viewer is assaulted with Coors logos. The rampant product placement and even the placement of a Subway restaurant is probably more the fault of the network than anything else, but that doesn’t excuse it.

Despite the advertising drawbacks, the first episode indicates what could be an excellent season for an always enjoyable show. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia airs Thursdays on FX at 10 p.m.

And R.I.P. Steve Jobs

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Next time on Arrested Development...

I am not much of a television watcher. Growing up I absorbed as many movies as I could, however, when it came to television I just watched whatever was on. I have shows that I watch but there are very few shows I watch regularly, much less since the first episode. Yet sometimes a show catches my eye and I am inexplicably drawn to it. In 2003, a show premiered on Fox that I fell in love with (It ranks No. 1 on my all time television list). Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. It's Arrested Development.

My Arrested Development DVDs are prized possessions.

Dysfunctional family had been done before. Hell, on Fox alone shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Titus cornered the market on messed up families. Arrested Development, however, did it with a kind of class like nobody else. What drew people to the show was the characters and storytelling. To say that Arrested Development had one of the best casts around is not hyperbolic whatsoever. Each actor fearlessly became a member of the Bluth family: even if it meant having a crush on your cousin or trying to become a member of the Blue Man Group. And each character brought something that added to the hilarity of the show.

It's so hard to pick a favorite.

Arrested Development was, sadly, ahead of it's time. Although a critical darling, it never acquired enough of an audience to sustain itself. Thankfully though, avid watchers such as myself make sure to force the show upon anybody willing to watch. And you know what? Those people end up falling in love with it too. It's a show about an unlikable family, but it does so with so much charm that it's impossible not to love. Each character is ridiculous but never over the top, even when they have a puppet on their hand.


Not only was it hilarious but its storytelling and continuity rivaled most other shows. To its detriment, most of the jokes required previous knowledge of the show. While these callbacks could be frustrating for some viewers, they also made for the most rewarding jokes for fans. This is why the show plays so much better as a DVD marathon. It's so easy to mainline a season and see the jokes build up for hilarious payoffs.

Pictured: Wrong Arrested Development.

Though it was cancelled, the cast all went on to continued success. Most surprising of all was Michael Cera's blossoming from awkward teenager to awkward post-teenager that hipster chicks claim to love. Five years after it went off the air, Arrested Development consistently remains at the top of most, if not all, lists for best sitcom. With the success of a similarly themed show (As a matter of principle I refuse to watch Modern Family), it's no wonder there are talks of bringing it back.

Come on!

Even before Arrested Development was canceled (the network made a huge mistake) there were rumors of its saving. There was even an episode devoted to begging for another network to take it. But after years of waiting, Arrested Development is finally coming back, and in a big way. The movie has finally been confirmed after years of rumors and there is even talks of bringing the show back for a season. A new seasons worth of shows is probably more of a way for people to get caught up with the show's dense continuity, but that's fine with me. I just want to spend more time with the Bluths.

They taught me how breakfast is the most important thing.

Arrested Development has stood the test of time, not because it is easy to love, but because it gives us reason to love it. The show was a product of the time it was made, with Enron failing and the war in Iraq. The show created a whole world of shallow people and their vapid lives but, in their self-centeredness, they were also the most hilarious people to watch on television. It never took the easy laugh, instead making us work to remember to always leave a note and to always watch out for the cornballer. Just being able to hear Ron Howard's narration once again brings joy into my life.

Cue the ukelele music.