The latest batch of killer videogames
Last week, I slaughtered Wookiees. Don’t blame me! George Lucas made do it. The game is Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, teen-targeted entertainment that finally lets fans indulge their inner Sith. In the prologue, you are Darth Vader, cutting a bloody swath through the walking fuzzball world of Kashyyyk to find and fight a Jedi. Then, you become Vader’s secret apprentice. Your job: Kill more Jedis! Chop them with your lightsaber. Zap them with lightning. Or just bash them repeatedly against the ground with the Force. Don’t worry, there’s a shot at redemption — provided you successfully mass-murder your way to the end.
Am I being cynical? Maybe. My sampling of The Force Unleashed came at the end of a bleak week test-driving Grand Theft Auto IV, Mercenaries 2, and several other videogames with a reputation for wallowing in the murkier realms of moral ambiguity. Popular and fashionable stuff — so much so that it makes me wonder if The Force Unleashed is a bid to keep Star Wars cool with a generation that’s come of age on the dark side of post-9/11 culture.
GTA IV, released in April, moved 6 million units its first week alone, much to the chagrin of worrywarts who fear its havoc engenders appetites for real-life destruction, or at least desensitizes players to it. In fact, according to a survey on WhatTheyPlay.com, moms and dads are sweating the influence of videogame violence more than ever — it outranks drinking and pornography. I can relate. Recently, my 7-year-old son came home from school and asked, ”Daddy, what’s Halo 3?” Apparently, the gory, M-rated first-person shooter (8 million copies sold) is all the rage among the second-grade set. Birds and bees and megabyte mayhem — such are the tricky-to-explain facts of life in the Xbox era.
Defenders of violent videogames like to say they are satire, or reflect our lost terror-fried times, or are no more violent than other pop culture. Me, I just think they’re fun — but I do need a big dose of humor, a well-drawn central character, and a detectable level of intelligence in order to feel comfy with myself. Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, for example, uses contemporary Venezuela as the setting for a wickedly winky story that pokes at our oil-mad global economy. Its cover-boy protagonist, Mattias Nilsson, is an unabashedly cartoony sociopath, a former Swedish biker gang hooligan with ”an insatiable desire for anything fast and dangerous.” When Mattias stands still for too long, he picks his nose and complains bitterly. At least he’s honest.
Where do I draw the line? Here: The Godfather: Blackhand Edition. It’s a Wii game that turns Francis Ford Coppola’s classic saga about moral corruption into an exploitative interactive fetish. In Blackhand, you are a barely sketched wannabe Mafioso, motivated by childhood injustice (because deep-seated vendettas justify anything), who must muscle his way up the Corleone crime family masthead by punching, choking, and breaking the necks of turf-stealing rivals and protection-paying shopkeepers. Fun? Not when you’re vigorously simulating this violence by shaking the Wii’s wireless wand. Working up a sweat trying to crush a windpipe, I found myself having a Michael Corleone-esque What have I become? moment. If that’s the point, then it’s redundant. I saw the movie, kids. Sooooo much better.
My biggest beefs with games anchored by ethically challenged heroes and wanton wilding — and I’m including The Force Unleashed, too — is that they rarely allow you to be anything but a bloodbath-loving delinquent. That Grand Theft Auto IV tries to give the player some flexibility to be good or bad at almost any given moment makes it a cut above the rest. Yes, your character — the impressively nuanced Niko Bellic, a war-shaken, redemption-starved Eastern European émigré with dark secrets and skewed American dreams — can carjack, mug pedestrians, harass women, worse. But why would you? Outside the confines of its scuzzy crime-genre plot, GTA IV challenges you to remain true to Niko’s character — and your own.
Star Wars: B-
GTA IV: B+