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Satire In Gaming: What Works, What Doesn’t
One of the earliest examples of satire in gaming comes from Japan circa 1986. Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan’s biggest celebrities, teamed up with Taito to design a game for the Famicom that examined what Takeshi felt were pointless tasks found in most video games. The result was the infamous Takeshi no Chōsenjō (Takeshi’s Challenge), a game purposefully designed to be dreadful. The awful game mechanics, painful mini-games and senseless violence that make up the crux of the gameplay are exaggerations of the arbitrary activities Takeshi hates. Since its release, Takeshi no Chōsenjō (pictured above) is often viewed as one of the best worst games of all time.
Recently, more developers are taking a cue from Takeshi by creating games that not only satirize culture and politics, but deconstruct video games themselves. The kinds of satire found in these games vary wildly from humorous, politically incorrect pop-culture commentary to subtle takes on more serious issues. Much of the satire has proven to be successful, but a lot of it hasn’t. I’ve decided to explore some recent examples of satirical games to see whether or not their satire worked or failed.
BioShock isn’t just a great game, it’s also a wonderful look at philosophy. As BioShock creator Ken Levine stated recently, the game serves as a Rorschach test . The game uses Ayn Rand Objectivism as a backdrop for its story, and many essays have been written claiming that it either endorses her philosophy or shuns it altogether. Neither is the case, however, as what’s really being presented in BioShock is an examination of philosophy as a whole, and that strictly adhering to a particular ideology is a close-minded and dangerous way to live. Indeed, the world that BioShock’s antagonist Andrew Ryan created was supposed to be a utopia but wound up causing it’s own destruction.
Failed: Lollipop Chainsaw
While not really marketed as a satire, various critics and even the game’s writer James Gunn have implied that Lollipop Chainsaw is a commentary on female objectification. The articles I’ve read on this subject usually point out the way Nick, Juliet Starling’s boyfriend, is portrayed in the game. While Nick (who’s just a head) is objectified to a certain degree by Juliet and her sisters, the primary focus of Lollipop Chainsaw (other than killing zombies) is Miss Starling’s sexuality. Granted, the exploitative writing in the game, which is similar to Gunn’s work at Troma Films, is over-the-top and not meant to be taken seriously. However, this by no means makes Lollipop Chainsaw an effective form of satire as it only seems to reinforce the stereotypes it supposedly mocks.
Worked: Grand Theft Auto IV
The Grand Theft Auto series is ripe with satire. Every game is filled with commentary on American culture, politics, violence, video games and pop-culture. Early on the satire was more of the tongue-in-cheek variety, but Grand Theft Auto IV took the writing in a more insightful direction. The fact you play as a character who is completely new to America helps to hammer home points about immigration and the American Dream in a way the other games couldn’t. The game also effectively points out problems with the digital age and technology obsession, and takes numerous stabs at liberal and conservative politics. Rockstar’s satire is typically a bit in-your-face but it’s always poignant and topical.
Failed: Far Cry 3
Oh, Far Cry 3. How I wish I could have liked you more. In many respects the satire on the white colonization trope and the noble savage works, but only slightly. The writing is so unfocused that it completely loses any impact it may have had. This could have been remedied by making the game shorter, putting more attention on Vaas and forcing the game to end instead of letting the gamer pick a trite ending that ultimately says nothing. In fact, both endings only serve to hurt the satire as they both seem to condone the negative cliches Far Cry 3 is supposedly taking to task. While I do love Far Cry 3’s gameplay, and don’t find it to be racist, I really wish the writers would have used the game’s exploration of insanity as its primary vehicle.
Worked: Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line is probably the best example of how satire can be effective in video games. Not only is the game a discussion on war, post-traumatic stress disorder and global politics, but it’s a great satire on modern first-person shooters. The Line’s game mechanics are dated and demonstrate the sameness found in numerous other titles in the genre. The confusion surrounding who the real enemies are in The Line deceptively showcases the lack of worthwhile context that is given to the violent actions on display in many military shooters. This moral ambiguity is even more apparent with various decisions that must be made in order to advance the plot, some of which aren’t easily discernible. Spec Ops: The Line truly is the crown jewel of satirical video games.
Failed: Duke Nukem Forever
While Duke Nukem Forever is essentially a self-parody, the writers attempted to satirize everything from celebrity-obsession to the supposed fratboy culture that surrounds first-person shooters. Instead, Duke Nukem Forever is an example of everything that is wrong with testosterone-fueled action games. Furthermore, games have matured a lot since Duke Nukem 3D first hit the scene in the 1990s. Perhaps instead of trying to recreate the sophomoric aspects of Duke Nukem, the writers could have made Duke Nukem Forever a satire on nostalgia and the game industry. This game really didn’t need to be bad, but unfortunately it was.
It’s clear that many game developers are trying to add more sophistication to games by choosing to use satire to tell stories. This is a welcome trend and I hope it continues, even if these satirical efforts don’t work out in the end.