Welcome to the official website of freelance writer Mark Hill, created because I’m not popular enough to have an unofficial fan page. You can find links to my work and my contact information above, or read my personal work below. Enjoy!
I entered your bright white fluorescent hell like a lost soul entering a strange and despotic land. I needed new earbuds and I needed them urgently enough to brave your tangled maze of poor choices and suspiciously named in-house brands imported from only the least discerning Chinese factories. Nexxtech sounds like an anime produced by a discount Korean sweatshop animation studio and GnarlyFish like a Phish cover band that the other cover bands look down on. What sane man desires to sully the soundtrack of his life with headphones that make it seem as if your music is being piped through an unusually long air tunnel?
But amidst the wasteland of electronic detritus designed to take advantage of the ignorant, the desperate and those whose last major technological purchase was a phonograph so they could enjoy the musical stylings of that young up and comer Bing Crosby I managed to suss out some headphones that appeared as though they would allow me to hear my music without simulating the effects of deafness, tinnitus or, somehow, both. And they were only overpriced enough to make me feel like I had been tricked by an experienced shyster, not taken complete advantage of by an incompetent conman who nevertheless somehow managed to play me for a fool. In your Kafkaesque Best Buy that constituted a “deal.”
I was heroically able to complete a transaction with your surly cashier despite the fact that she seemed less intent on taking my money than she was on demanding my email address, as though it were the last piece of the dark ritual required to raise the shambling corpse of Circuit City from a Lovecrafian nightmare realm of dead but dreaming corporations, and not a means by which to send me newsletters for television sales that the Amish would recognise as rip-offs.
I of course also turned down her offer of an extended warranty, despite her pleading assurances that it would give me three years of coverage on everything from water damage to all-devouring plague of locusts. While I realise that you are probably holding her children hostage until she forces enough of these bad investments onto hapless consumers willing to take on the financial burden simply to cease her incessant braying, her dead eyes betrayed the fact that she no longer has any love left to give her progeny. If they are lucky they will somehow escape your nefarious clutches and spend their formative years in an orphanage, or perhaps they will simply be granted the sweet embrace of death instead of being trained to slave away in your call centres, answering questions from easily confused grandparents for what will feel like endless eons.
What seemed like a prudent financial decision would prove to be my downfall, aside of course from the obviously poor decision to offer my patronage in the first place. If entering your store was my Anschluss, declining the warranty was my Stalingrad. That may seem like a tasteless analogy, but I feel it is appropriate considering the quality of neither your electronics nor your service would feel out of place in Pavlov’s House.
I left your store like Lot left Sodom, only had I been accompanied by a wife I know she would have had no desire to look back. But less than an hour later I found myself returning to prostate myself before my nemesis, to grovel in the faintest hope that this soulless harpy would show mercy on a man who was cursing her beneath her breath.
You see, it seems as though your crude packaging is made from two kinds of plastic. One has the strength of mithril and would be better put to use manufacturing bulletproof vests than in safeguarding your products from the orcs that you apparently think wish to steal them. The other kind has the strength of thin cardboard that’s been left out in a rainstorm overnight and then urinated on by a horse that had really been holding it in. That’s how, after spending several minutes trying to penetrate my new headphones’ defences with about as much success as eunuchs have in penetrating women, I sliced through the plastic, an earbud and very nearly my finger. Fierce resistance wasn’t ended that abruptly since the Death Star was destroyed.
While I admit that I am not what society generally deems to be “competent” or “intelligent” I don’t think it’s immodest of me to brag that I am usually capable of opening a package without rendering the product within useless. You don’t see me pouring a glass of milk by running a steak knife through the carton or making an omlette by smashing my fists on an egg carton and collecting the yoke that dribbles out. And yet that is essentially what your shoddy packaging forced me to do.
Under the circumstances I didn’t feel it was unreasonable to ask for a replacement or a refund, in-so much as your cold corporate heart has any concept of reason. Yet my protestations were met with nothing more than repeated statements about how my request was only covered under your extended warranty. Under other circumstances I would have taken this as the company line spouted by an apathetic employee with no desire to risk being fired for breaking protocol. But this employee knew I had erred. There was a glint in her eye, a mocking tone in her voice, a suggestion that I had fallen into a classic pitfall and instead of throwing me a rope she was going to rain down poisonous snakes.
I will begrudgingly admit that you have technically done nothing wrong, at least not in the legal sense. Morally you are doing wrong simply by continuing to exist. But if your reaction to a consumer suffering from a product’s design failures is so robotic and unfeeling that I now assume the term “customer service” is what you use to refer to the handjobs you give each other while recounting this experience then I see little recourse. I am not an angry man. But you have roused a dark part of me from a deep slumber, and soon the only “Source” you know will be the source of your constant suffering. I am that source, my friends. You will sing laments of my coming, and I will make ensure you can hear them only in mono sound.
Time Zone Adapting
Fluff Media Coverage Endurance
Excessive Patriotism Displays
Uninformed Criticism of Ice Hockey Lineups
I don’t remember how I learned about death. It may have been when my grandfather died, or it may have been when I lost Goldfish, my beloved pet goldfish. I don’t remember when I learned how to not name things like an idiot, either.
But however I learned about it, I quickly became obsessed. The concept of death, of simply one day never waking up because you’re dead, sucker, gripped me with a terror even worse than the fear I associated with class presentations and the constantly looming threat of having a video game save file accidently deleted by some mouth-breathing friend. I’m pretty sure you could have locked me in a room with the sex-offendingest looking guy you could find and I would have been more at ease than I was when I thought about death. At least until I realised that I would probably be murdered after the sex offender was done sex offending. Then I would panic.
At night, when I assume other children were spending the time it took to fall asleep thinking about unicorns or winning the Stanley Cup or winning the Stanley Cup with a team of unicorns, I developed a habit of working myself into a frantic, death-obsessed feedback loop. First I would lie perfectly still and take slow, deep breaths to pretend I was six feet under. Then I would think about what it would be like to stop existing and never exist again, to reach a point where not even hockey playing unicorns who also fought crime and did your homework and were your best friends could save you.
I would imagine going to bed and not waking up, I would imagine years and decades and centuries going by without me, and I would imagine the whole world forgetting that I ever existed. All the while my breathing would get quicker and quicker as the thoughts made me more and more anxious. Eventually they’d overwhelm me, at which point I’d sit up straight and gasp like people do in movies after they have a nightmare, and yes, I’m aware that this sounds like I was getting off to some unusually depressing pornography.
After one particularly panicky instance I started crying and ran downstairs for some mothering. When my mom asked what was wrong I choked out “I don’t want to die!” in-between sobs. I assume her first reaction was to make sure I wasn’t being chased by an axe murderer, but after she performed a perimeter check she gathered me in her arms, rocked me back and forth, and tried to comfort me with words that I’ll never forget. “But that won’t happen for a long time!”
Damn, Mom. Look, I understand that I put you in a tough position. When you’re in the kitchen making tea in preparation for a nice, relaxing night of watching Jeopardy!, tactics for helping your son confront his Lovecraftian existential horror will not be at the forefront of your mind. If I was in your situation I would have either said, “Well then you better get your stupid tears off my shirt and get the fuck back to bed,” or yelled, “Go talk to your mother!” before hiding under the nearest blanket and faking a bout of narcolepsy. I’m proud of you for not panicking and trying to find a Berenstain Bears book that covered the situation. The Berenstain Bears and the Terror of the Infinite Void would really fly off the shelves.
But talk about not being comforting. There were no platitudes about going to heaven or wild speculation about medical technology one day being able to put my brain in a computer or cryogenically freeze me until science invented immortality. Not that I would have expected you to go in that direction, but I like the idea of a parent’s comforting words being loosely inspired by Demolition Man.
No, what I got was a kick the can down the road, deal with it later mentality, which works well for me as an adult when I’m feeling too lazy to do the dishes, but less so as a child facing the most terrifying thing he’s ever learned about. I understand the strategy, because kids are dumb at time. To a kid, the week before Christmas is an eon. Ask a child to comprehend the seventy or so years it will take for them to become a wrinkled old person hanging out on death’s front porch and you can watch their brains seize up. They understand in theory that it’s really long, but the concept of time means about as much to them as the concept of money. They know it exists and it’s important, but they can’t begin to explain why it’s in limited supply. Incidentally, Mom, you never did give me a satisfactory explanation as to why we couldn’t just make everyone rich by printing lots of money.
Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a message of “It won’t happen for a long time, so worry about it later” was interpreted by me as “It won’t happen for a long time, so you better worry about it constantly until it does.” I’m good at worrying. I do it a lot. If I don’t have anything to worry about I worry that I’ve forgotten something. Or, if I’m feeling meta, I’ll worry about how much I worry. Right now I’m worried that I’m talking about my worrying too much. How’s that for meta?
So I went right back to having my little panic attacks. But guess what? Panicking about death became so routine that it started to not scare me anymore, or at least no more than I was scared of anything else in my life, like French homework or girls. I worried myself into a state of tedium. “Ugh, it’s just another night of fretting about the horrible implications of eternal oblivion. I wonder if we’ll play freeze tag tomorrow?” I worried myself into freedom, and while that’s probably the least inspirational story of someone overcoming their fears in human history, it was good enough for me.
Thinking about dying still unnerves me, but no more than I imagine it does most people. So thanks, Mom, for advice that was far more brutally honest than you probably meant it to be. I’m sorry for forcing you to get philosophical on such short notice. I don’t know if our conversation was the sort you’re taught about after “Where do babies come from?” at parenting classes, but you acquitted yourself well.
P.S. I’m also sorry about the time I rolled my foreskin down as far as it could go while I was having a bath and then called you in to look at my amazing accomplishment. Those were my wild days before I began to fear the cold embrace of the grave.
Do the laundry.
Look for a new job.
Launch a successful, rewarding career.
Find true love.
Raise children well.
Have a full lifetime’s worth of accomplishments, experiences, friendships, moments of awe, and love.
Make a difference in the world.
Come to the grim realisation that no matter how much of a difference we make there will always be tragic inequalities between nationalities, races, genders, sexualities, classes and other dividers, as some people are predisposed to prejudice and as we try to support a growing global population on dwindling reserves of resources amidst the problems of climate change conflict and exploitation will be inevitable.
Deal with the despair that comes when we accept that major events in our lives are dictated by chance, and that the whimsies of fate that planted us in this day and age control the course of our lives as much, if not more than, our own actions.
Know that no matter what I do with my life my very nature will prevent me from feeling anything other than dissatisfaction and a vague sense of unease.
Become an angst-ridden old man, bitter over never taking the risks I knew I should have taken, knowing that my cowardice prevented me from achieving the dreams I held as an idealistic but nervous youth.
Feel guilty about my bitterness, as regardless of what course my life takes I will enjoy a higher quality of life than the vast majority of people in human history.
Accept that I will one day go to my death in tremendous fear and panic, assuming I’m not abruptly snuffed out in a manner that prevents me from even having the chance to acknowledge that my time has ended.
Come to grips with the fact that in the grand scheme of things we are less than specks of dust, doomed to be forgotten first by our fellow man and then by reality itself as the aeons pass and the dying universe consumes humanity, rendering existence ultimately meaningless.
Catch up on the latest celebrity gossip.
Be disappointed in Olivia Wilde’s new hairstyle.
I’m not someone who apologises for thinking big. I don’t have failures—I have learning experiences. I believe that no dream ever ends—it just gets put on the backburner. But as the year draws to a close, I am forced to acknowledge that some of my resolutions were not as realistic as they could have been.
First and foremost, I was unable to realise my vision of adapting the classic Boxcar Children novels as a series of Hollywood blockbusters. It turns out that today’s kids aren’t big on the Boxcar Children, or boxcars in general. Also, I had no qualifications or movie industry experience. But I’ve written scripts for the first two movies, plotted outlines for the next five, and come up with some mock merchandise, so the project is all set to go once the right producer gets a look at it.
My attempt to adapt The Boxcar Children into a series of modern young adult novels for today’s urban youth ran into trouble as well. I hope the petty lawyer that killed Subway Kidz on the ridiculous grounds of copyright infringement can sleep at night knowing he denied children access to a series of scandalous murder mysteries, thrilling drug den busts, and sizzling arson investigations. Not to mention the relatable struggles the heroes will face, including Henry’s battle with alcoholism, Jessie’s sexual awakening, Violet coming to terms with the death of her beloved Watch, and a special entry in the series where Benny is molested by Uncle Andy. Because “The Man” has a problem with encouraging children to read, Subway Kidz will instead be made available through fanfiction.net. While this is a step down from the bespoke folios I originally envisioned, what’s important is that the stories will be told.
While I never like to write off a project entirely, the less said about my “Build Your Own Boxcar” kits the better. Apparently having a life-sized boxcar on your front lawn brings down property values. Which is bullshit, because having judgemental neighbours is what should really bring down property values. If everyone in a community did it there would be no problem. But that’s not realistic, at least not until CarKidCon 2014 rolls around and I host my Boxcar Fan Relocation Project Panel. At the very least, I’m optimistic that the kits can be salvaged and turned into novelty desktop figurines to be enjoyed for generations.
On that note, CarKidCon 2014 may be cancelled. But if you’re one of the smart investors who bought a weekend pass at the early bird price of just $279, consider it valid for 2015.
Let’s look at a few of my other resolutions. “Cat Navy.” I don’t know what that means. We’ll make this one a lower priority for now.
“Petition the White House to create a national Gertrude Chandler Warner Day.” Well, I made the petition. It’s not my fault only 17 people have signed it. I can’t solve voter apathy in America alone. But we’ll brainstorm ways to drum up interest during the next BoxKidCon.
“Finish writing Working Hardy, or Hardy Working? An Analysis of the Hardy Boys’ Mystery Solving Methods.” I didn’t finish, but only because I started working on The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of How They Solved Mysteries. But writing half of two books is basically the same as writing one complete book, so let’s call this a success.
“Publish Nancy Drew and the Secret of The Baby-sitters Clubs’ Sapphic Romance Parties.” Apparently prudish publishers consider this to be “unmarketable” and “immoral.” I don’t know what their problem is, I aged all the characters up to 18. I guess it’s too avant-garde, but someday the world will be ready.
Never let it be said that I consider myself above criticism. 2013 was full of disappointments, and it’s fair to point that out, but I’m not disappointed in myself for aiming high. Some might call me foolhardy for being equally ambitious in 2014—I say they’re the ones who’ll feel like fools when they read my forthcoming essay on the subliminal incestuous themes of The Dana Girls franchise.
Everyone Thought This Young Man From Nazareth Was Crazy. Then People Started Listening To Him.
The Romans Didn’t Take This Slave Leader Seriously. They Won’t Make That Mistake Again.
An Inventor Calls It A Light Bulb. I Call It Amazing.
These British And German Soldiers Were Told To Shoot Bullets At Each Other. They Decided To Shoot Soccer Balls Instead.
You’ll Never Believe Where This Influenza That’s Infected 500 Million People Began
Don’t Read This Jewish Girl’s Diary If You Don’t Want To Cry
They Tried To Make This Heroic Woman Sit At The Back of The Bus. She Decided To Stand Up Instead.
This Black Minister’s Dream Is Way More Inspiring Than Any Dream I’ve Ever Had
The President Wanted To Give A Stirring Speech In Dallas. But This One Awful Man Had Other Ideas.
I Loved The Graffiti On The Berlin Wall. But I Loved Watching What Happened To It Today Even More.
Wow, You’ll Never Guess What Political System Completely Collapsed Today
The First Performance Review
I Saw Three W-8BEN Tax Forms Come Sailing In
Unenthusiastically Gathering Around the Christmas Tree
Away in the Filing Room
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like We’re Going to Miss The Project Due Date
Go Tell it on the Interoffice Memo
Silent Night of Unpaid Overtime
Go Where I Send Thee or You’re Fired
It’s Past Three O’Clock, Please Let Us Leave
Meh to the World
I work three jobs. I volunteer at the soup kitchen, the homeless shelter and the doggie daycare. I go to yoga and Pilates and a fusion class that combines tai chi with French cooking. My calendar is so full that if you want to have coffee with me you’ll have to do it in mid-2015. I’ve trained my eyes to lubricate and cleanse themselves so I can Tweet during the time I used to waste on blinking. Despite being late for at least four appointments I’m going to drop everything and condescendingly talk about how much busier I am than you.
You say you only sleep five hours a night? I only sleep two. Most of the plasma in my blood has been replaced by caffeine. I haven’t had a proper sleep in seven years. I consider this a point of pride and not a cause for concern.
I’m the president of several clubs that I don’t actually have time to attend. I’m learning Spanish so I can travel to South America and have an authentic experience. When you mention that you had a nice time at a Mexican resort I’ll interrupt you with an anecdote about my time living with a Chilean shepherd. I’ll explain how I used the skills he taught me to make the alpaca wool sweater I’m wearing. Then I’ll politely ask you how much weight you gained from eating all that resort food.
I’m going to complain that I never have time to do anything fun, and then I’m going to complain about having to spend all weekend preparing for my scrapbooking club’s fundraiser. I will not recognise the irony. We’ll raise less than 100 dollars.
I’ll tell you about the three cocktail parties I’ve been invited to tonight, and how it’s such a pain to have to decide which one to attend. I will then insist that I don’t have much of a social life because I’m too busy to socialise.
I’m planning to sign up for a night class on a subject I’ll never have a practical application for. I will stress out about my tests and assignments even though it’s an introductory level course that’s impossible to fail as long as you show up. I will insist on having my textbook with me whenever we hang out so I can study when you go to the bathroom or talk about something I find boring. While I’m studying I’ll make Facebook posts about how difficult and time-consuming being an academic is.
I’ll claim I’m not addicted to my smart phone but will panic when it’s out of sight for more than 10 seconds. I’ll spend half of our time together ignoring you because I have hundreds of emails to respond to. I’ve written more text messages today than you have in six months. I’ll text you to ask why I always seem to find myself short on time.
I’m dictating this message to my phone while I run on the treadmill, watch E! and listen to an audiobook about the latest fad diet. I get all my food from a vegan co-op that specialises in fair-trade produce, despite not knowing what fair-trade means. I’m going to cook recipes from the new diet books I bought. When I don’t see significant change within two weeks I’ll switch to a different fad and buy a new set of books. I will complain about how I never have enough money.
I will follow current events enough to be able to start conversations, but not enough to be able to contribute in any meaningful way. I will use sentences like, “I heard on the radio when I was going to an art appreciation seminar that something’s happening in Syria. It sounded bad.” I will believe that this constitutes knowledge.
I’ll attempt to win every conversation on the subject of time by dismissing the schedules of anyone less busy than me as “basically wide-open.” I’ll complain about how stressed I am, then act offended when you suggest I drop one of my commitments. I will consider myself to be a sacrificial martyr who keeps society running so that other, lazier people can enjoy their free time. I will generally be insufferable. But I’ll be a better person than you. Because I’m busier than you.
Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, thank you for joining me today. Since the dawn of civilisation humanity and Pokémon have worked together for mutual benefit, and yet despite our long history there is still much we don’t know about our friends. While we have domesticated and bonded with many type of Pokémon, the violent, volatile and often downright bizarre nature of hundreds of wild species makes researching them difficult and dangerous, if not outright impossible.
But no more. I have invented a device I call the “Pokéball,” which will allow us to capture and befriend even the most hostile of Pokémon. The Pokéball, when thrown at a wild Pokémon weakened through battle, will convert and store the Pokémon as a form of energy. The Pokémon will live in comfort inside the ball until it is brought out by its trainer, and it will return to the ball on command.
The implications of my invention are, as I’m sure you realise, ground-breaking. We will have access to Pokémon at a level unheard of in human history. We will be able to capture Pokémon once thought untouchable, and study and bond with them in ways never before imagined. But with so many wild Pokémon now able to be captured, how can we in the scientific community avoid being overwhelmed by new knowledge? I can give you the answer in one word: children.
I’m seeing a lot of blank looks in the audience. Allow me to explain. I propose we take children of grade school age, give them Pokéballs, a Pokédex and a weak Pokémon to call their own, and task them with wandering the globe in search of wild Pokémon. The data they could acquire would be invaluable to our research.
I admit that this sounds unorthodox. “Shouldn’t children stay in school to get a proper education?” you ask. Well, I say there’s nothing school can teach you that you won’t learn from nearly being roasted alive by a Charizard’s fire spin. What good is being able to read and write beyond a fourth grade level if you can’t defend yourself from a swarm of angry Beedrills? Will books keep you safe when you’re being chased by sentient swords?
I see concern in your eyes. Well, let me be the first to say that yes, there will be dangers associated with sending untrained, inexperienced children into the wilderness alone. They will get lost in forests and caves and abandoned power plants. They will encounter agents of the criminal gangs that run rampant across the world. Many will, to be blunt, die.
But those that survive will learn. Learn, not just how to survive in the wild, but to live as an adult. To balance a budget and make responsible fiscal choices and to not get murdered by sexual predators that prey on naïve, unaccompanied children. They will learn so much.
I mentioned money. Where, you’re no doubt wondering, will these children even get money? How will they not starve to death or die of exposure within a week? It’s simple—we encourage the general population to compete in Pokémon battles where the loser must surrender half of their cash. And we’ll make it illegal to refuse or flee battles. We can’t run from cancer or loneliness or the other battles life throws at us. Why should Pokémon battles be any different?
You ask what good could come from legalising bloodsports. The answer is character. A 10 year old that strolls down the road unmolested is a child. A 10 year old that’s forced to fight a series of brutal battles, a 10 year old that, just when he thinks he’s managed to scrape through the gauntlet unscathed is forced to watch his precious Capterpie be ripped to shreds by a Houndoom, is a man.
Pokémon mastery is everything in this world. Our children don’t need state capitals and long division—they need vengeful ghosts and colossal whales that will obey their every whim. Nobody will make fun of a child’s functional illiteracy when that child could unleash a Blastoise capable of breaking every bone in their body with a spray of highly pressurised water.
Lesser minds will doubt the wisdom of putting Pokémon that could destroy buildings or commit mass murder with ease in the hands of a child. “Can we trust a kid to properly raise an Alakazam, a Pokémon whose incredible mental acumen makes our human minds look like primitive adding machines?” Absolutely. For with great power comes great responsibility, and our children will quickly learn just how great this responsibility is. Yes, mistakes will be made. But we all know the old saying, “When you fall off a Ponyta, you remember to put on Kevlar pants before you get back on.” We live in an age where organised criminals that dress like background dancers from a 1980s music video are trying to destroy the world. How could our children do any worse?
Now, what of us? The educated professors, the intelligentsia? Our role will be to encourage these future Pokémon masters, to guide them from the comfort of our laboratories. We’re the greatest minds of our generation. Why should we risk our lives in the field when willing and eager youth could do it for us? I’m not about to try to avoid being trampled to death by wild Taurus that keep popping out of tall grass. That’s a young man’s game.
I believe that the Pokéball will herald a new dawn of knowledge and understanding between human and Pokémon. And I believe that sending uneducated children into the wilderness without any training or supplies on a mission to capture the most dangerous creatures known to man will lead to better life lessons than anything a “school” could teach. Our children and their Pokémon are the inheritors of Earth. Do we want any but the strongest amongst them to lead humanity forward? Geometry class isn’t going anywhere. But the wild dragon that shoots lasers from its eyes could be caught by another trainer. Would you rather your children master chemistry, or master Pokémon that can control the primal forces of the universe?
Thank you for your time. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go give three of my Pokémon away to aspiring young trainers. I will then encourage the child that chooses the fire Pokémon to battle the child that chooses the water Pokémon. Watching your new best friend immediately be beaten to a pulp is just another way of learning to grow up.
This piece is a column I sold to Cracked that never ran because of a scheduling conflict. While I generally try to keep to my own style on this site, I didn’t want to let this one go to waste.
Grand Theft Auto V is the entertainment event of the year. It raked in over a billion dollars in just three days, a record for every form of media. By the time sales start to slow the developers at Rockstar will have enough money to make Scrooge McDuck’s fortune look like chump change. If they make it rain in the club, everyone will drown. They’ll need to hire a maid whose only job is to clean up after their money fights. The game’s a big success, is what I’m trying to say here.
But while GTAV is certainly fun, it’s not without its flaws. And that’s worrying, because these flaws aren’t just little bugs—they’re examples of everything that’s wrong with modern gaming. So in-between taking prostitutes for rides in helicopters that you then crash into other, less fortunate prostitutes, see if you notice that…
4. The Industry Still Has No Idea how to Connect Story with Gameplay
Everyone, I’d like you to meet Michael.
Michael, one of GTAV’s three playable characters, is a retired criminal who’s drawn back into the lifestyle by boredom, family problems and the fact that playing a game where you do nothing but watch a guy drink scotch and reminisce about the old days would be called Sim Visit Grandpa. Since he robs banks for a living he’s obviously no boy scout, but he’s still an affable guy that tries to keep his criminal acts clean.
In the game’s first mission, Michael and I killed 26 cops.
To put that in perspective, only two police officers were killed in California (the state GTAV is set in) in all of 2012. I’ve killed more than two cops in GTAV by accidentally backing over them.
The bodies pile up like they’re in a Rambo movie because having more people to shoot is more fun. It wouldn’t be an exciting bank robbery if you only had to tie up a couple of underpaid, apathetic guards who are just trying to work their way through night school. You can’t ramp an exploding motorcycle onto the jerk who stole your parking spot in reality, so why should a virtual robbery be any more realistic?
But think about this in terms of storytelling. I don’t care if you’re the bastard child of Jeffrey Dahmer and Cobra Commander; killing 26 people is going to mess with your head. Michael shouldn’t be kicking back in a sundrenched mansion, he should be a depressed, PTSD-riddled alcoholic.
And that was just the prologue. By now I’ve single-handedly lead the funeral industry into a golden age, but there’s no indication that Michael is bothered by it. He never even mentions that he’s created enough widows to form a weirdly themed baseball league, because if he did he’d be drawing attention to how fundamentally ridiculous the game’s violence is. But his indifference makes this likeable guy I’m supposed to care about look like a murderous sociopath.
As long as video games fail to weave gameplay and story together every character is going to come across as schizophrenic. In an early mission with a different character, Franklin, he gives his buddy shit for always getting them in trouble while he’s trying to keep a low profile. This is after I arrived at the end of a 10 minute police chase in a stolen car, during which I accidentally mowed down at least three pedestrians. Triple vehicular homicide is generally frowned upon, but Franklin and the game treated it as if it had never happened.
GTAV is far from the only game to suffer from this absurd disconnect (BioShock Infinite, for example, is the tale of a man who rescues a girl by murdering an entire city), but its wild success and rave reviews means that this is what the mainstream media and casual gamers will associate with good storytelling. And if we let this be the standard, the video game industry isn’t getting its Citizen Kane anytime soon.
3. The Industry Still Doesn’t Know how to Portray Women
When you boot up GTAV the first loading screen doesn’t show you the main characters or a sweet ride. It shows you this:
Now, I’m no prude. I masturbate to my video games just like you do. But that image sums up the role of basically every single female character in the game. They’re either strippers, hookers or sluts, or nags and adulterers keeping men down with their buzzkilling vaginas. I haven’t finished the game yet, so maybe I haven’t met the happily married mother of two who works in marketing and volunteers at the soup kitchen in her spare time, but I’m pretty sure if that happens it will turn out she’s a sex worker who caters to clients with an oddly specific fetish.
The gaming community has gotten better (okay, less awful) at discussing gender, and GTA games are known for their sharp social satire. And yet they’re tone deaf when it comes to women, and few reviews have mentioned the massive gender gap. That sends an uncomfortable message: it’s all well and good to debate the portrayal of women in dinky little games, but when a blockbuster comes out you should run along with your cute little concerns and let the manly bro dudes ogle virtual tits.
And man, there are tits to be had. I’m pretty sure they spent more time working on boob physics than they did on their shitty cover system. Now, as the women I make uncomfortable on the bus know, I have nothing against looking at boobs. But if the best you can think to do with women in your game is to take their tops off and expect me to giggle because ha ha, breasts, I’m going to be insulted. I’m not 12 years old, you’re not blowing my mind. I’m looking for good characterisation—if I wanted to see breasts I’d use the webcam I hid in my neighbour’s shower.
It’s a frustrating problem because it’s so easy to fix. You don’t necessarily need a female protagonist—one of the bigwigs at Rockstar said GTAV has no leading ladies because “the concept of being masculine was so key to this story,” and that’s fair. But how hard would it be to throw in a woman or two that’s not awful?
At the very, very least, the topic of strip clubs and prostitutes is ripe for comedy. GTAV pokes fun at almost every subject you can think of, and yet anything sex related is played oddly straight. Players are watching virtual pole dance routines, and I haven’t received this many pretend blowjobs since I first became old enough to fantasise about sex instead of owning a robot that made cotton candy and helped me solve mysteries. We deserve to be mocked.
2. Game Journalists Still Don’t Know What Journalism Means
Gaming journalists have always been a little too buddy-buddy with developers. You may remember the scandal where a Gamespot editor was fired for giving a bad review to a game that had paid for lots of ads. If you thought things have improved since then, you haven’t read IGN’s “10 Crazy, Awesome Things I Saw and Did in Grand Theft Auto Online.”
Previews are important—they let journalists tell gamers if all the amazing claims developers are making are true or full of more shit than my OKCupid profile.
Unless you’re IGN’s Ryan McCaffrey, in which case the definition of journalism is apparently “take your subject’s word for everything without investigating for yourself.” McCaffrey’s piece read like an advertisement written by Don Draper on mescaline. His GTAV experience was supposedly so “wild,” “breathtaking” and “stunning” I’m amazed the guy didn’t have a heart attack. Look, I don’t care how big of an erection a game gives you—your job as a gaming journalist is to set realistic expectations for gamers. It’s fine to be enthusiastic, but if you don’t have a single word of criticism or tempered realism you’re writing a press release, not a preview.
That’s doubly true if you’re just making shit up. Let’s take the number seven crazy thing Ryan saw and did, which was go to the movies. He hypes it up, but he also says…
Sadly, I wasn’t able to visit a theater during my hands-on time, nor would Rockstar provide any additional details, besides confirming that 16 of you can pack the theater.
So you couldn’t go to the movies, and Rockstar wouldn’t give you any details. So it wasn’t exactly a crazy awesome thing you saw or did, was it? But it’s cool, Rockstar told him it would be great. Well, writing previews just got a whole lot easier! The company said it would be awesome, so it totes will be! Don’t even worry, guys! It’s not like they might lie or exaggerate the quality of their own game to encourage sales!
Was this an isolated incident? I don’t know, and that’s the problem. Reviews of GTAV went on about how cool the elaborate heist missions are, but most failed to mention that 90% of the game in-between heists is driving from destination to destination to perform menial bullshit. In one mission I spent over 20 minutes doing nothing but drive, move fragile shipping containers with industrial equipment and wonder why I had spent 60 dollars on a simulation of a job I could be paid to actually perform in real life.
Maybe they just didn’t think it was worth mentioning, or maybe they were encouraged not to. Either way, annoyances like that are the entire reason people read reviews. If you’re not going to point out a game’s flaws you’re at best a lousy critic and at worst an ad-man in disguise. Or you’re one of those ad-lizardmen that run the government, but that’s a topic for another day.
1. Gamers Still Care About Technology More Than Gameplay
Spend any length of time reading about GTAV and you’re likely to come across the phrase “technical achievement” (or some variation of it) more often than you’ll find it in articles about the moon landing. And indeed, the game is an amazing technical achievement—Rockstar has created a living, breathing city that’s arguably the most detailed setting in gaming history. But everyone’s so caught up in talking about how your flip-flops actually flip and flop they forget to mention if the game is, you know, fun.
Now, don’t get me wrong—GTAV is fun. I only stopped taking days off work to play it because I ran out of grandmas I could claim had died. But in-between all the sweet motorcycle chases there’s enough frustration and idiocy to bring the experience down a notch.
For starters, a major plot point is preceded by a yoga mini-game, I guess to cater to GTA’s core fanbase of white suburban soccer moms. I failed a recon mission of a jewelry store because I had the audacity to walk behind the sales counter, despite being given absolutely no indication that this would immediately ruin my criminal career. Then there’s an entire series of missions based on driving a tow truck, after which I’m surprised I didn’t have to fill out tax forms to document the income.
When I tried to land a plane for the first time I crashed into a mountain because I was distracted by crazy camera angles and instructional text written in size 0.5 font, forcing me to redo the entire approach while listening to the exact same dialogue. After several tries I finally managed to land the stupid thing, and my reward was unlocking the flight school. Well, shit, that would have been handy about a dozen new curse words ago. I guess none of the femurfucks at Rockstar thought that one through.
These are flaws that would be easy to correct, but Rockstar has no incentive to. Review after review gave GTAV a perfect or near-perfect score on the basis of how amazing the technology is. Go to a forum and you’ll see gamers talking about how seeing shadows filtering through tree branches blew their minds. That’s great, but I didn’t buy GTAV to marvel at the beauty of delicate leaves caught in the soft evening sunlight. I bought it to make exploding things slam into other exploding things to create explosions that make more things explode. It’s like Rockstar built the coolest sandbox in the world, but for 50 minutes out of every hour the only thing kids are allowed to do in it is clean out clumps of cat piss.
It’s already easier to make a good looking game than it is to make a good game. That will only get worse with the next generation of consoles. But as long we continue to give blockbusters like GTAV a pass on their flaws because of how pretty they are, developers will have no motivation to improve on tried and true mediocrity. Which means in GTAVI we’ll all be amazed at how we can see every individual blade of grass get caught in the wind as we complete the mandatory two hour lawn mowing mission.