Watching The World Burn

By: Ryan Winslett

Filed Under: Action Editorial Reflections Retro


Retro City Rampage has turned me into a bad, bad person. Bump into me on the streets of its 8-bit city and I’ll likely punch you in the face. Or I might just smash a guitar over your head, shoot you, and then stab you through the spleen with a sword.

Normally I’m a very peaceful guy. If I’m doing poorly in an online shooter, I’m more likely to scream “Ah, poop!” into my mic than a random stream of racist/sexist/homophobic slurs. When a game gives me a moral decision or allows me to choose between a light and dark path, I always take on the role of the hero.

Even in games like Grand Theft Auto IV, where crime is rather handsomely rewarded rather than punished, I tend to only break the law when the gameplay absolutely requires it. Cruising down the streets of Liberty City, I’ve actually said “sorry” to the innocent bystanders I accidentally clip. I’ll kill a dude when a mob boss requires it, but you better believe I’m awfully conflicted about it.

But not so in Retro City Rampage, a love letter to all things gaming and pop culture by one-man studio, VBlank. Usually when an open world, mission-driven game comes along, I stick to the storyline for the first night or so of playing. Once the first handful of missions was complete in RCR, however, I went on a freaking rampage. I killed anything that moved, I ran over cops in a hippie van until the army got sent in, and then I ran over them, too. If one of the countless 8-bit citizens had on a silly hat, I beat them with a baseball bat. I looked for school buses and shot them until they exploded in the middle of the street. I ran around hitting people’s mailboxes with a billy club, for crying out loud.

It wasn’t until about the fourth time I sat down with the game, intent on causing a biblical amount of mayhem, that I realized the game’s missions had gone untouched. It occurred to me—Mr. Good Guy—that I had completely abandoned the game’s actual story in order to spend hours on end pulling donuts in a parking lot before seeing how many pedestrians I could mow down in a single go.

This isn’t me. This isn’t the type of guy I am. I’m the hero, dammit. Playing inFamous 2, I saved the world as a Cole MacGrath who had made so many positive choices that he glowed like a freaking angel. I always find a way to save people in The Walking Dead, even though I know it might cost my dwindling group of friends greatly in the long run. I refused to pull the trigger in Modern Warfare 2’s notorious “No Russian” scenario. Who was this monster I had suddenly become, parading through the streets like some maniacal harbinger of chaos?

But then it dawned on me: I’ve been this guy before. While not nearly to the extreme as when I am playing Retro City Rampage, a little game called Saints Row: The Third brought out a very similar dark side in me just last year.

Being as overly analytical as ever, I found myself pondering why this might be. I know that there are a lot of people out there who like to go evil when playing video games but, like I’ve said, that’s not usually my scene. So what makes Saints Row and Retro City Rampage so different?

I think it has to do with the perceived reality of whatever game I’m playing. Despite the fact that the consequences for vile deeds are pretty minimal in a game like GTA IV, the game’s world and its inhabitants are still pretty close to reality. They usually look and act like real people, and so I have a hard time throwing my moral compass out the window even when I’m working for a crime syndicate in a fake world.

In Saints Row, though, everything about the game was designed with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The characters are cartoony, the humor is often sophomoric and the objectives, weapons, etc. are more “video gamey.” The majority of reality is lost in the city of Steelport, and so I found myself more easily ignoring the concepts of right and wrong. I wasn’t going full psycho just yet, but I was way more likely to clip a pedestrian and chuckle about it while traveling 90 mph in my pimped-out convertible. It wasn’t uncommon for me to assault a random pedestrian, attacking them at a full sprint from behind so that my character would throw them to the ground and ride them like a surfboard down the sidewalk. And I’ll certainly admit to occasionally getting bit by the crazy bug, resulting in an unnecessary amount of violence being acted out against anyone and anything unfortunate enough to be in my general vicinity. But even the city of Steelport bears something of a resemblance to reality, so those wild fits were usually kept in check.

And then there’s Retro City Rampage, a game very much akin to GTA and Saints Row, only so far detached from anything in the real world that it is absolutely impossible to feel sympathy for its digital people or have respect for Theftopolis’ laws. The closest thing to a cry for help in this game is a high-pitched beep. There’s no blood (without a code) and authority figures are about as opposing as a sheet of tissue paper. Even your name, “Player,” helps drive home the fact that you are playing one of the most video gamey video games in history.

Where the semi-reality of something like GTA IV keeps my morals in check and the cartoon antics of Saints Row allow me to stray a bit further onto the wrong side of the tracks, Retro City Rampage does away with the tracks entirely.

In an odd, slightly disturbing kind of way, I think I really needed this. Moral choices and decisions that impact a game’s outcome have been all the rage this generation. Usually I welcome the opportunity for my actions to have consequences, but every now and then I like to sit down with a game for the sole purpose of NOT having to deal with that sort of crap.

A wise butler once told a pointy-eared caped crusader that some people just want to watch the world burn. No matter how good we are in real life or how good we try to stay in the digital world, I think we all harbor a destructive little Joker somewhere deep down in our gut. Retro City Rampage just gave me a guilt-free place to let the guy run wild.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Action Editorial Reflections Retro

About the Author:
Ryan Winslett is an Arizona-based journalist and freelance writer. He is a contributing writer for Gaming Blend and his work has also appeared on Joystiq, Gamasutra and Joystick Division. His only crime is loving too much.

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