Turn on, fit in, punk out

Jan 12, 2005 at 12:00 am

Watching Qu’un Toi, my Asian mail-order bride, roll through The Urbz: Sims in the City (EA), I wonder how much of a role her cultural background plays in her intuitive understanding of the game. Coming from such a socially regimented culture, she loves the conveniences and freedom of expression here; she experiences snow cones and halter tops as autonomy. I look at all the freedom and see shit-for-brains assclowns trolling for a degree in the art of self-promotion. She marvels at the shiny surfaces.

As a result, she’s assimilated perfectly into the matrix — she’s got her Blockbuster card and a driver’s license. This is fine by me, because I like it here inside, away from the numbers. Keep your friends close, your enemies closer? Who’s got the room?

Then again, it may all just be a case of gender. I say that because like its predecessor, The Sims (EA), The Urbz is the ultimate in “playing house,” that blind childhood grope at adult roles and responsibilities. The goal is to build your reputation among your peers, as opposed to its predecessor’s more dreary pursuit of money and a nice house stuffed with expensive crap.

The game city is designed like a miniature Manhattan, complete with a dozen districts such as the Foundry (“The New Black”) and Gasoline Row (“Bad Girls and Tough Guys”). You move your avatar around the city making friends by talking with people and exchanging social “moves” or “tricks” you learn from other Urbz, which allow you entrée into different social circles. You win by building up your reputation high enough to get in to the most exclusive party in town. (Hey, it’s high school). Of course, not every trick works for every crowd; your gutter-punk friends will be impressed by your ability to catch a lofted loogie in your mouth, the denizens of Diamond Heights will not.

Along the way you make money by taking jobs and performing mindless tasks involving the repeated tapping of buttons. Welcome to the information age! Vexing you (aside from the Alvin & the Chipmunks gibberish “sim-speak” of characters) is your constant need to satisfy basic functions. The same kind of basic functions many of the less socially adept so often neglect — eating, bathing, avoiding boredom and finding a bathroom at the necessary times (or bathing if you don’t). In this way, I suppose this is an educational game for many in its target audience.

The importance of socializing and the necessity to establish a wardrobe acceptable to each particular social caste perhaps makes this more the type of thing women might enjoy. Or maybe it’s just culture and temperament. The last thing I want to do is run around trying to impress other people. And, really, don’t you have to wonder about any game that periodically requires you to relieve your character’s boredom while playing it?

Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 (Activision) on the other hand, is my kind of game. Skate around different locales, competing against a cartoonish cast of skaters, destroying stuff and vandalizing public property, all while defying any manner of authority. The sound track’s an awesome array of new and classic artists including Johnny Cash, X, Dead Boys, Joy Division, Atmosphere, Brand Nubian, Jimmy Eat World, Cut Chemist and the Distillers. It’s a joy just to listen to. Now if I could only figure out how to play.

The game’s deceptively simple to learn initially. But there’s a real art to it, unlike most fighting-and-killing games, which devolve into a flurry of button presses. Tony Hawk relies on timing and the ability to interact with your surroundings in order to pull off the astounding stunts.

However, much like The Urbz, there is a lot of humor within the game, which enriches play. Catering to an underground aesthetic, both feature a variety of jokes and sight gags skewering mainstream pop culture. Both games are somewhat open-ended, but the cross-country skate-off story that drives Tony Hawk is ultimately more than chasing social validation. If I wanted that, I wouldn’t play video games.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]