As much as video games strive for “realism,” there are some things that game characters still rarely do. They hardly ever eat. They can run around for days on end without ever stopping to drink, sleep or go to the bathroom. And they almost never heave themselves down on a couch to relax and watch TV.
“Well, yeah,” we hear you say. “Watching a game character on your TV while they watch TV is boring.” Well, it certainly sounds boring, but the operative phrase up there is “almost never.” A handful of games have opted to buck the idea that watching TV in a game is stupid, and a few of them have even been right. The ones we’ve listed on the following pages, then, can be considered the most right. Or maybe just the least boring. Take your pick.
7. Heavy Rain
No matter what you’re doing in Heavy Rain, there’s always a sense of urgency behind it. Even ignoring the fact that you’re trying to find and rescue a kid who’s slowly drowning, seemingly every activity is on some sort of timer as you rush to stay one step ahead of cops, killers, fire or some arbitrary time limit set by the psychopathic Origami Killer. Even in the game’s early parts, you’re nudged to use the limited “free” time you have to draft some architectural plans, or make sure your son does his homework and eats dinner on time.
So it’s easy to miss the fact that, if you want to, you can ignore your responsibilities and just sit and watch TV. (Or sit and watch your characters watch TV, whichever.) The televisions in Heavy Rain aren’t too complex – most just show a loop of two French animated shorts involving pirates. (There’s another short, called Cocotte Minute, that plays inappropriately during a tense scene later in the game, but you can’t just sit and watch it, unfortunately.) However, those shorts are stunningly animated, kind of arresting to watch, and easy to miss if you’re fixated on being a responsible parent for some reason. Pfffft.
Above: Taking responsibility for the welfare of a child isn’t really the reason most of us play games
It’s short, it’s repetitive and the characters don’t seem to realize that they’re watching a loop and can’t change the channel, but much like the game itself, Heavy Rain’s TV programming is beautiful. And it’s nice to know that, for all the game’s urgency, you’re free to sit and choose inaction, if that’s what you really want to do.
6. Alan Wake
You can’t change the channels in Alan Wake, either, but at least the surreal lit-horror adventure offers more to watch than just a looping animation reel. As you make your way through the increasingly dangerous town of Bright Falls, you’ll stumble across assorted TV sets, many of which snap on automatically when you get close enough.
The TVs air an anthology show called Night Springs (very clearly a Twilight Zone parody), which eponymous author-hero Alan Wake used to write for. They’re often more goofy than chilling, but they relate vaguely to the things going on in Bright Falls, and they’re an interesting diversion from all the monster-killing and flashlight-poining (even if they’re sometimes spiked with ads).
Sadly, Night Springs didn’t make it back for the sequel, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, although the TVs themselves did. Here, we get to watch live-action videos of Wake’s evil doppelganger, Mr. Scratch, taunting Wake with on-camera murders and grinning threats of violence.
Above: Fascinating and funny, but just not the same
5. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
A cult-favorite action-RPG that played like a Deus Ex for the goth set, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines presented players with a version of Los Angeles that was more or less an open, living world, albeit a very small one. As such, it wanted to feel as “real” as possible to players, so it filled itself with incidental characters, optional sidequests, radio shows and, yes, watchable TVs. Unlike in the previous two entries on this list, though, these TVs didn’t show anything more interesting than a newscaster, who reported on events related to the plotline, as well as ones caused directly by you.
So that’s not terribly unique, right? Lots of games have TVs with newscasters who repeat their reports and update them as the plot progresses. But VtMB’s mustachioed anchorman is special. Not only does he bring a spirit of deadpan comedy to the uniformly bizarre news he has to report, but if you’re playing as a Malkavian – that is, a member of a vampire clan characterized by congenital insanity – you’ll actually be able to hold conversations with him.
All of the TVs on this list feature something special, but this is the only one you can interact with – or at least, the only one you can “interact” with because your hallucination-prone character is crazier than a shithouse rat.
4. The Sims 3
The Sims has always been largely about making mundane people do mundane things, so it’s no surprise that one of those things is watching television. And as the series has steadily marched on through sequels and expansions, that television has gotten progressively more elaborate and watchable. Cut to The Sims 3, which features 10 channels of repeating clips, each one tailored to a different set of Sim interests.
While each channel is vaguely annoying and meaningless after a viewing or two, they’re surprisingly entertaining for the minute or so they’re on, meaning that watching your Sim watch TV is more than just an opportune time to question the stultifying direction your life has taken. Also, the clips frequently end with slapstick moments in which Sims fall victim to terrible fates. And really, who doesn’t like seeing Sims suffer terrible fates?
3. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
Years before Alan Wake, developer Remedy honed its fake-TV-show skills in Max Payne 2, which featured several complete (but short) TV series, including a British costume drama and a cartoon starring the Max Payne series’ kinda-sorta mascot, Captain BaseBallBat Boy. And while they were really just slideshows with voice-overs, they surfaced in ways that complemented whatever was happening around Max at that moment – like this clip, which airs after Max wakes up in a hospital near the beginning.
While every show related back to Max’s situation in some weird way (none more clearly than the outright parody Dick Justice), the centerpiece of the programming was Address Unknown, a surreal crime drama about a man on the trail of his serial-killer double in the city of Noir York.
Eventually getting a segment of a level themed around it, Address Unknown features a few ideas that should be familiar to Alan Wake fans, like an evil double tarnishing the “hero’s” name and the uncertainty of whether the main character is trapped in an extraordinary situation or just insane. As fun as they are, the Address Unknown clips air out of order (probably because much of MP2 happens in flashback). Luckily, the episodes have been collected on YouTube, so you can see the insanity for yourself:
While Max Payne 2’s still-image slideshows aren’t nearly as visually impressive as some of the other entries on this list, it nonetheless earns a high placement for being arguably the most meaningful use of a TV ever to appear in the game. This isn’t just random entertainment (although there are plenty of silly ads for weird products); it’s calculated to taunt players, and to push us to draw eerie parallels between what Max sees on TV and the reality of his situation. Where TV is a random diversion in other games, here it’s a storytelling device (albeit an indirect one), and that makes it pretty important.
2. The Darkness
On the other hand, The Darkness proved that you don’t need to relate TV to your material in order to make it an effective device for telling your story. Sometimes, as demonically possessed mob hitman Jackie Estacado showed us, it’s all about what’s happening around the TV. Take, for example, one of the game’s most poignant scenes, in which Jackie simply sits on the couch next to his girlfriend, Jenny. Would it have been quite as memorable or effective if, at her insistence, they hadn’t been watching the opening of To Kill A Mockingbird?
The Darkness uses TV as more than just a backdrop for one of the most relatably emotional scenes of the current console generation, though. What made it especially impressive was that – had we actually wanted to sit and view it on a fuzzy, postage-stamp-sized screen – we could have stayed and watched the whole movie with Jenny. All of it. In its entirety. And it wasn’t the only one, either. If we had enough patience, we could stop and flip through six different TV channels, which showed films like The Man With The Golden Arm and The Street Fighter, as well as an old Flash Gordon serial, some Max Fleischer cartoons and a handful of music videos.
Sure, they were just low-fi video clips, but they were visible throughout the world, and they were there in full – which was more than most other games had attempted in 2007. It was a simple touch that made the world much more concrete, believable and relatable, and it’s something we’re surprised more games haven’t emulated. Sadly, not even The Darkness II copied its predecessor’s taste for superfluous TV channels, replacing them with static images and closed-circuit cutscene footage.
Oh, well. At least we’ll always have To Kill A Mockingbird.
1. Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t use television to tell its story. In fact, its TV is kind of unconnected to the story. It isn’t something that’s shoehorned into the open world to make it seem more real, and it doesn’t parallel your exploits in any way. It’s just a diversion that you can sit down and watch whenever Niko Bellic (or Johnny Klebitz, or Luis Lopez) is hanging out at home near a TV.
So why’s it at No. 1? Well, because it features a whole lot of original content, and that content is, for the most part, awesome.
Above: Especially that bit with Bas Rutten. Dude is nuts
The channels are structured seemingly at random – it’s not uncommon to be watching a show, change the channel to get a burst of static, and change back to see a completely different show – but the ads, short shows, and slow-pan-over-static-art documentaries are (almost) right up there with GTA’s radio stations in terms of quality and humor. And nowhere are they better than during Republican Space Rangers, a bizarre parody of Halo and that simultaneously pokes fun at post-9/11 politics:
While the in-game TV was already pretty noteworthy, it got even better in The Ballad of Gay Tony, which expanded not only the game but its TV channels as well. Aside from new episodes of Republican Space Rangers, it gave us the somewhat odious anime parody Princess Robot Bubblegum, which broadly lampoons Japanese animation’s more horrifying tropes while still managing to be outright brilliant:
So while they might not have added hugely to the gameplay, GTA IV’s TVs feature a lot of original programming, most of which we’d actually want to watch even if it weren’t in a video game. Really, what more can we reasonably ask from TV?
Obviously, there isn’t enough room in a Top 7 to cover all of gaming’s most significant TVs; the ones on the preceding pages are just the best. Even so, there’s a lot of noteworthy ones we didn’t include, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s Picus broadcasts, or Travis Touchdown’s TV in No More Heroes 2 (pictured above, and notable mainly for showing the Bizarre Jelly 5 anime intro, which does semi-subtly what Princess Robot Bubblegum does blatantly).
Did we leave one out that you feel particularly attached to? Let us know in the comments.
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