Gangsta Gamin'

Rage Against the Machine in KingPin's Urban Underworld

In the early days of video games, circa 1980, players fell in love with Space Invaders, and the simple act of moving green polygons away from red polygons. The red shape was supposed to be a cannon and the green ones aliens, but nobody who played really believed he was fighting extraterrestrials. In most of today's games, the aliens are rendered in sharp detail, yet it takes a hyperactive imagination to see them as really threatening. Getting scared is still much easier at the movies.

Partly, it's hard to suspend disbelief because the stock characters of role-playing and shooting games never seem to change. To act out a role in make-believe mayhem, your choices are basically limited to edgy space pilot, daring ninja, trigger-happy mercenary, or spell-casting druid. No matter how vividly these archetypal characters are drawn, they remain essentially fantastical.

All that could change with KingPin. The game, released last month from Interplay (and designed by Xatrix), is the first shooter to take place on a stage with deep social resonance: a ghetto. More than just a background, the ghetto serves as the entrée into a rich realm of hip-hop and gangsta riffs, the likes of which have never before appeared in the mostly white world of computer gaming. Not only is KingPin a crossover game, but it exploits the mythologies of the present—a thug and his crew in a dark urban world—rather than some science fiction twaddle or Dungeons & Dragons rehash. By doing so, it pulls video games out of their insularity and drags them right into the center of the culture.

Imagine racing down alleyways covered in graffiti, hearing the footsteps of a gang in pursuit. You pass a wino slumped near a cardboard box, who begs you for booze. Then you come to a street where a woman loiters under a lamppost. She advises you to "get strapped." No more laser phasers and silly rockets—this is life inside a Cypress Hill video.

Indeed, several Cypress tunes play in the background as you negotiate this hostile urban environment. To survive you have to interact with other characters, using a limited vocabulary of pseudo-street slang. "Yo, what's the commotion," you can ask a friendly "bitch." Or "hey, fuck you," if you want to get in someone's face.

All this amounts to a riveting play experience, but what makes it work is the dose of urban blight. It's a role-play that mirrors the way we live today, or at least the way some wiggas wish they lived. As one player, who goes by KGB, puts it, "I'm white ... and have friends of all colors....I play shooters to indulge in the fantasy put forth by the game fo sho. I tend to think of it as 3D real time role playing. Get in my face and call me a wigga, I'll at least dot you in the eye."

Other players, however, think of KingPin as just another shooter in which role-playing is a secondary attraction. "I am white and I like this game, and no, it doesn't involve a 'gangsta' fantasy on my part," says an avid KingPin gamer who goes by SweetNlow.

That reaction may soon be outmoded, as better rendering and crisper dialogue make role playing an essential part of the first-person shooter experience. In the future it will be impossible to play a shooter without identifying with the character, just as it's impossible to watch a movie and ignore the personas on screen.

Already, PC games borrow heavily from movies, and KingPin in particular makes use of cinematic conventions to impart its sense of realism. The dialogue is pared down Pulp Fiction talk, and the cut scenes that demarcate stages in the action are overtly modeled on that Tarantino classic. Drew Markham, the game's developer, does a voice-over in the opening scene that pays homage to the Ving Rhames character Marsellus Wallace.

But it would be wrong to think of games like KingPin as movies in the making. By cinematic standards, the game's accomplishments are meager. The plot development is very Dick and Jane, and its special effects would be on the cutting-room floor of any Spielberg project. But computer games are unique—not just synthetic blends of older mediums. Somewhere in the intersection between interactivity and realism lies the raw material of a new form waiting to be ignited. If KingPin is any measure, that form will soon explode.

 
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