Heist to meet you: the compulsive thieves of gaming

Phil Hartup asks what makes a heist game truly great.

Ever since the Bonanza Brothers sneaked onto my Megadrive in the early nineties, bought on budget rather than at release in the mistaken belief that a game in which the main characters look like dustbins couldn’t be great, I have been waiting for a perfect heist game. Bonanza Brothers was great, but some twenty years later and counting, it’s about time it was bettered. With Payday 2 rolling out this week maybe now is the finally the time for this to happen.

Theft occupies a curious place in the moral pantheon of video games in that it isn’t really considered wrong to steal in most games. Theft will get you into trouble in many games, no doubt about that, but for the majority of games, whether you’re playing as Mario in the Mushroom Kingdom, the Dragonborn in Skyrim, or the hero of a point and click adventure it is a given that if something is there, in the game world, and you can pick it up, you’re generally entitled, even encouraged to have it. In Skyrim maybe the guards will be called if you get caught, but you don’t see anybody getting thrown out on the street because you pinched the money in the chest to pay their rent, or starving to death because you munched all the food in their home like a cross between Beowulf and the Very Hungry Caterpillar.

That player characters are so often compulsive thieves, wolfing packets of snack food out of desk drawers as soon as look at them in the Bioshock series or walking up to any car like they own it in GTA, Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs, often makes game worlds feel a little strange and unrealistic. Is that what sets the hero apart from the masses, his willingness to steal everything that crosses his path? Some of my earliest gaming memories are of playing a text adventure called Juxtaposition: Barons of Ceti V on a venerable Dragon 32, I recall that if there was an item in a room I could have it, it was in fact important to success in the game that no object went un-stolen.

It is only the recent Fallout games that have really acknowledged that stealing is wrong by attaching a karma penalty to it. Steal enough from people and you are considered a rotter by all and sundry, at least until you’ve murdered a few outlaws to balance it out. The karma penalty applies even if you are not caught, which is fair enough, the characters presumably aware that wherever you go, scarcity and want are not far behind.

Perhaps the only other sin that games encourage within their worlds more than theft is imperialism, which is arguably just theft on a larger scale. Chances are if a game sets you up as being in charge of a country one of the first things they’ll want you to do with it is steal the land next door.

But if thievery is par for the course in gaming where does that leave the heist game? In a medium where every hero and his daughter is on the rob near constantly, is there a place for the game dedicated to the art of pinching things? Apparently yes.

There are specific elements that set a proper heist game apart from the casual larceny of ordinary games. First among these is the level design. Any given level in a heist game should be almost completely self-contained, you start on the map at the start, you exit the map at the end, and somewhere in the middle you steal something. Stealth games like the early Hitman, Tenchu, or Splinter Cell titles shared many qualities with the heist game in the early days, but lost their way over the years to become more linear and less thoughtful.

The second defining quality of the heist game is the freedom. A heist game is not defined by its point of view, nor it is played on rails like a traditional linear game, rather it is a small sandbox with a treasure in it. Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine is as much as heist game as Thief: The Dark Project or Bonanza Brothers, regardless of perspective.

Lastly and most importantly a heist game must react to player decisions and actions. If you play it sneaky the game must respect that, if you go in guns blazing the game must deal with that. Not every approach is as valid as the next, there can be a right way and a wrong way, but the game should roll with it and react accordingly.

The original Payday game, Payday: The Heist attempted to modernise the heist game in an era where co-op shooters were really starting to show their potential. Left 4 Dead and the zombie mode from Call of Duty: World At War had proved that a team focussed game in which you tried to achieve objectives while under waves of attacks could be better than merely shooting your way through a linear level or a simple arena horde mode. By combining that proven game style with the inherent excitement of armed robberies and criminal escapes Overkill, the developers of Payday: The Heist, almost pulled off something amazing. Almost.

The problem with Payday: The Heist is that though you can take the zombies out of the zombie-game and replace them with cops, you can’t really take the zombie-game out of the zombie-game. The overriding impression with Payday is that you’re playing Left 4 Dead against the police. The various law enforcement officials stop short of demanding to eat your brains, but as they sweep down on you in their hordes it’s impossible to shake the feeling you’re caught up in the middle of a brilliant idea that really isn’t working, and not just because you tripped one of the alarms. You get to a point, right after you’ve killed your thirtieth SWAT team member in the midst of a hold up, that the sublime becomes the ridiculous.

Enter Payday 2, and it’s clear that we’re dealing with an entirely different, much more highly evolved animal. This is not a surprise; Starbreeze Studios who acquired the Overkill studios that made the original Payday have form for good co-op shooters. The eminently forgettable Syndicate remake might have lacked most of the character of the original games but what it did manage to provide is an excellent mission based co-op mode.

Even just playing the beta the improvements over the original Payday stand out, the visuals, sounds, animations, everything is a solid order of magnitude better. Mission design, even in the limited selection of the beta, is hugely improved. There is a certain amount of randomness to every mission too which improves longevity, safes will be moved, amounts of valuables and their locations will change, alleyways can be blocked off, drop off points moved, little things that ensure a shift in the challenge.

The most important difference in terms of how the game plays is that the police hordes are now much more sensible. Gone is the human wave of SWAT officers pouring across the map towards you, replaced by more reasonable numbers of enemies in more intelligent groups and patterns. Teams of officers will flank you, working together, stacking up to ambush you in rooms you thought were clear and generally being a menace to ordinary decent criminals at every turn.

The rush at the end of a heist, getting your team to the van, weighed down with loot, having to battle the temptation to go back for that one more bag of cash is immense. So often the game will tease you with the promise of greater riches, so that knowing when to say enough is enough becomes a survival skill.

Where Payday 2 is weakest however is with the characters and their development. The game offers an improved array of equipment customisation and skill diversity to the original, but it remains married to the surly mob of villains from the first game, with the only notable change being that token British villain Hoxton has been replaced with generic American villain with odd name Hoxton. None of the characters has any personality to speak of or any defining traits deeper than their skin colour or country of origin, and this only extends as far as one character being black and one character being Swedish. Nothing of value would have been lost by allowing players to build their own criminal characters from scratch. You don’t have to play the game long to really get into the spirit of it and it is perhaps one of the best examples of a game where extensive customisation would really feel apt.

It should also go without saying that for a bank robbery game not to feature a female character is a shocking omission. Did Bonnie Parker die for nothing?

The final point that feels off is the punishment for killing innocent bystanders. You shoot a civilian, you get a penalty on your eventual cut of the robbery. There is no explanation for this, there is no rationale why the life of an innocent patron of a bank or jewellery story should have a dollar value attached to it, in the context of a pitched battle where your characters are pretty much required to shoot dozens of policemen in the head. It feels like an attempt to give the bank robbers some sort of a heroic outlaw quality, but to be honest, if I was interested in a heroic outlaw character I wouldn’t be taking hostages in a savings and loan company to hide behind during a shootout. 

Such criticisms might feel churlish given that the actual business of storming into a bank, robbing the place and getting away with it in Payday 2 is such a great slice of gaming action, but there is more to advancing a creative medium than just doing the same thing as last time but better. Some more thought and some more freedom for the players and Payday 2 could be a real classic.

Even with these flaws the game is well worth a look for those who like their cooperative games zombie free, or those whose idea of a fun evening in is stealing money from banks and shooting lots of policemen.

Payday 2.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide