"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The fascist, capitalist oppressors have finally locked down the whole town, so now we’ve got no choice but to take the fight to them, and so we’s spreading through the streets like kerosene, two hundred n’ fifty strong. But their Nazi rent-a-pigs are already out there to meet us, and they’s got their thug sticks out, and they’s wading in and going all Rodney King on the peeps. But that’s the match that lights us, and when we pass, whole city blocks go up in flame. And the corporate stores with their sweatshop wares are getting thrashed and licked by fire, and its me and Ricky Trang, and a rainbow coalition of kickass who gots our backs — cholos, niggaz, kung fu kids from Chinatown, all going hella wild on the racist, consumerist, globalist system, looting it clean, and it is friggin beautiful.
Your Playstation 2, actually, in State of Emergency, a new urban mayhem-fight title developed by Scotland’s Rockstar Games and VIS Entertainment.
Anarchy as entertainment is a recurring theme for Rockstar, most notably in Grand Theft Auto III, the company’s innovative PS2 blockbuster. But in this game, Rockstar’s concept of “anarchy” takes on a decidedly political edge — a little less prole, a little more Proudhon.
State of Emergency is set in a very near future, when the wildest anti-globalization prophecies have to come to pass: A giant multinational corporation now dominates the entire country, devastating the environment, dissolving all democratic governance, controlling all media. Dissent is prohibited, and the only glimmer of resistance is from the Freedom Movement, an underground affiliation of young people who take to the street with their faces masked by bandanas.
If this last bit reminds you of the raucous black bloc activists associated with the protests in Seattle and elsewhere, it’s not accidental. Rockstar and VIS initially promoted State of Emergency as recruiting you, the player, in a fight against something called “the American Trade Organization.” This element garnered some objections from liberal Seattle politicians sympathetic to the mostly peaceful WTO protests and from Naomi Klein, influential author of the anti-corporate manifesto “No Logo,” who decried the game as “corporate co-optation” of the anti-globalization movement.
The controversy stung, apparently, and perhaps even intensified, post-9/11, when Rockstar’s parent company altered a couple of its other games to make them more palatable to a freshly sensitized audience.
In any case, for whatever reason, the ATO acronym has since been dropped; the enemy has now been re-dubbed “the Corporation” and the game’s more sociopathic features have been retooled. The club-wielding peacekeepers you kill are no longer actual police officers, but security forces on the Corporation’s payroll and there are now significant penalties for harming civilians. (Initial descriptions of the game suggested that offing bystanders would be part of the nihilistic fun.)
What has remained, however, are distinctly leftish, even radical politics, attached to a widely anticipated title among console gamers, marketed to a truly massive audience. (More than 6 million households in America own a Playstation 2.) In the next few weeks, then, millions of gamers will return to their desktops with their copies of “State of Emergency,” purchased at a shopping mall … to play a game in which you get to participate in the sabotage of a shopping mall, and which even boasts a “chaos mode” where a recurring injunction is “Kill Corporation forces for bonus points!”
Despite several requests tinged with increasing desperation, a Sony spokesperson declined to offer any comment on the game, referring all questions to its publisher. And while Rockstar representatives were at first eager to talk, a week after I’d e-mailed my questions to them — wondering, among other things, how much of SoE’s politics were an expression of the creators’ genuine beliefs — a generic corporate statement eventually came back: “Rockstar Games … makes every effort to market its games responsibly, targeting advertising and marketing only to adult consumers …”
It’s possible the bland response represents a licking of wounds, after recent negative mainstream coverage of the company’s games, including a fretfully clueless New York Times article about Grand Theft Auto III, written by a reporter who evidently didn’t even bother to play the game.
But others have been talking, and if the game becomes a bestseller, as seems highly likely, the conversation will continue. When news of SoE first broke, last summer, it generated no little rage among those who were a source of its inspiration.
“Not only does this particular game trivialize the whole global struggle against these undemocratic structures such as the WTO,” an activist who goes by the name M-Dog posted to Indymedia, the progressive-left media Web site, “but it trivializes the repression that goes along with it.” Another anarchist with the pseudonym “Luther Blissett” responded more positively: “Maybe normal video game kids will end up playing the game and maybe even joining us,” he posted, although, he says, “pirate copies should be made widely available to limit the shithead companies profits as much as possible.” Yet another anonymous poster suggested a more provocative response: “for those of us who took the sting and burn at Quebec or the stick and spray at Seattle … this has got to be pretty appalling … someone might want to hack the bloody fuck out of Rockstar Games’ page?”
Their concerns are justified. Never mind how the terrorist attacks of September have disoriented anti-globalization protesters — the real threat to the anti-globalization movement may now be found in a video game. While it probably won’t garner the massive following of Grand Theft Auto III, State of Emergency is one more milestone in gaming’s evolution. Socially minded films and television programs can only dramatize their politics, but we now have a medium where you can interact with them, as an engaged participant. Indeed, the revolution will not be televised — instead, it’ll come with a game pad.
State of Emergency isn’t all socialist agitprop disguised as a video game. It’s mostly a frenetic, arcade-style fight title, merged with an extended story line and featuring as much onscreen chaos as the PS2′s engine can handle. (At some moments, 250 people are displayed at once, running wild through a shopping mall and city streets.)
The player gets to choose from five avatars, and even here, the characters are obviously designed to serve political purposes: there’s Hector Soldado, the reformed Latino gangbanger who believes the Corporation is doing more harm to his neighborhood than the daily drive-bys; there’s Libra, the biracial human rights lawyer who decides the only true justice now possible comes from the brick and the gun.
Joining the Freedom Movement means accomplishing a series of tasks — blowing up security stations here, killing an executive there, and so on — as the resistance gains ground across Capitol City in a march to Corporation Central to confront the company’s overlords.
All this is depicted with a sensibility that feels far more streetwise than most console games — compared to, say, anime-influenced titles from Japan. In State of Emergency, the look is downtown and hip-hop, and the soundtrack is loaded with funk-driven, drum ‘n’ bass samples. The game play itself is fairly simple and repetitive. And after the initial giddy panic of maneuvering through a crowd of hundreds recedes, you notice the limitations of the game’s artificial-intelligence programming. When chaos nears, civilians cover their faces and cower for awhile — otherwise, they seem unswervingly fixed to their pre-scripted panic routes.
“It’s no Grand Theft Auto III,” says Erik Wolpaw, co-founder of Old Man Murray, the popular hardcore gamer site, referring to that game’s epic, open-ended game play. And while State of Emergency’s prologue depicts corporate security whaling away on suspects in a way that’s decidedly reminiscent of the Rodney King beating, the in-game fascism is much more low-key.
“Even though there’s a riot going on,” says Wolpaw, “the corporate police appear perfectly happy to let the looting continue … The only time they react with violence is when you start blowing up gas trucks and pumping shotgun rounds into crowds of innocent civilians. The whole thing starts to feel like a ringing endorsement of stormtroopers.”
The most interesting element actually seems to be the game’s social outlook, which is ironically conveyed in announcements over the game’s shopping-mall P.A. system, or in a news crawl constantly running at the bottom of the screen, enjoining viewers to consume more, stop worrying about the environment, and so on. Also, for kids: a TV show explaining why capitalism is good for them.
But if all this seems overtly political, suggests professor Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s comparative media studies program and a leading game-studies academic, perhaps it’s because most games are so covertly conservative. In his view, popular business simulations like Mall Tycoon and action titles like the SWAT series are really interactive paeans to the status quo.
“For every game which questions capitalism,” says Jenkins, “there are hundreds more which encourage us to fantasize about becoming a tycoon. For every game which celebrates countercultural forces, there are hundreds more which side with the police. Most of the games on the market position themselves in the boardroom or the patrol car, not on the side of the people in the streets.”
Whether that principle applies to this particular game is something Jenkins hasn’t yet decided: He tried to purchase it for his program’s collection, but found it had already sold out everywhere in his neighborhood. Still, he says, “If the game encourages kids to learn more about one of the defining political debates of our times, the game will have served a useful purpose.”
But turning the American Trade Organization into the nameless Corporation may have already diminished State of Emergency’s ideological impact, and Wolpaw (who has played the game) scoffs at the idea that it has anything coherent to say about globalization.
“Totalitarian corporations are basically right behind fascist aliens and Nazis on the list of overworked video-game villains,” says Wolpaw. “They’re even ahead of mean elves.” Wolpaw is no stranger to converting video games into political statement: Shortly after Sept. 11, distraught by Islamist terrorists and American apologists for them, he turned a Playstation hockey game into a kind of hilarious vengeance theater, renaming the opponent’s goalie Noam Chomsky.
Wolpaw even examined one popular gamer bulletin board to see if interest in anti-globalization issues had been spurred by State of Emergency. But so far, “after wading through 46 pages of posts, I couldn’t find a single message dealing with the WTO, capitalism or Indonesian child laborers … On the other hand, I did find a lot of posters begging for the code that makes people’s heads pop off when you punch them.”
Wolpaw does concede that SoE’s politics are more explicit than those of most other games that have preceded it: While previous games have often involved a faceless, evil corporation from the far future, State of Emergency’s corporation is more or less set in the present, and the game clearly enumerates why it is so reprehensible.
Ironically, the actual corporation behind SoE, Take-Two Interactive, is no stranger to controversy: The mayhem-happy Grand Theft Auto III was recently censored in Australia, and also earned a spot on the hit list of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., neither of which, however, prevented the game from becoming Playstation 2′s underground killer app and helping drive Christmas sales of the console to record heights, despite competition from the more powerful Xbox.
This new game arrives at a time when the company’s financials are almost as controversial. Take-Two was recently obliged to restate two years’ worth of its fiscal reports, and its accounting practices are now undergoing formal investigation by the SEC; following postponement of its fourth-quarter 2000 fiscal report, trading of its stock on the NASDAQ was halted on Jan. 22, and unfrozen a day before State of Emergency’s Feb. 16 release. The legal and financial eruptions have motivated several stock analysts to downgrade Take-Two’s future outlook. When trading resumed last Friday, the stock initially plunged 19 percent.
But in a perfectly delicious postmodern twist, Reuters Financial reported last Thursday that the interactive entertainment company is “expected to benefit from the launch of ‘State of Emergency’ for Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 2 this weekend.” In other words, prospects for the corporation’s future profitability now depend on an anti-capitalist video game that criticizes, as Rockstar’s Jamie King told Gamespot recently, “genetic modification, brainwashing, globalization, consumerism …” Early word of brisk sales suggest that these anti-capitalist messages should help put Take-Two’s executives back in their shareholders’ good graces.
Market success is one thing, but State of Emergency is also getting approval from some actual anti-globalization critics.
“Oh, great!” says Barbara Garson, playwright and author of “Money Makes The World Go Around,” when I tell her that State of Emergency already appears to be selling out (at least near MIT). Reached by phone at her mother’s house in Florida, Garson sounds every bit like the self-described “little old Jewish lady” (albeit one with a fiery, socialist streak) who tracked her mutual fund money across the globe for her book. The disturbing revelations she discovered along the way have been embraced by many in the anti-globalization movement, so I wondered what she’d make of this new title for the Playstation 2.
“Is this game basically something I’m for or against?” says Garson. “You told me it’s already selling out, and I said, spontaneously, ‘Great!’ … I obviously have some feeling that, if people are buying a game where the corporation is the bad guy, then I’m happy. That’s my thoughtless reaction, and then I’ll go see it, and see whether the game does me harm or good.”
When I tell her she’ll need a PS2 to play it, she shouts to her husband, “Where do we go [to get it], honey?” Then she says to me, “CompUSA has Playstation, Frank said.” She tells me she intends to take a look at it there, and in any case, “I’m really flattered that there should be a game that takes some version of me and makes me into a ‘Tank Girl,’ and makes me into a heroine.”
Other activists I contacted offered similarly tentative approval. “Honestly,” said “Circuit,” who declined to give his or her real name, “unlike a lot of fellow anarchists, I’m not too bothered by the game, per se.” Reached via an anonymous e-mail address on a radical Web site, Circuit claims to have participated in black bloc marches during the ’99 WTO conference in Seattle, and at the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City. “People may play the game, realize the similarities, and then turn towards good, solid information sources such as books, Web sites, essays, articles, etc. to find out more about what really happens, and, most importantly, why.”
But all this brings us back to the co-option criticism originally made by Naomi Klein. Even if State of Emergency elevates anti-corporate awareness among the young, does it really matter, when the more who get that message (i.e., by buying the game), the more Take-Two Interactive and Sony profit?
It might even be difficult to name a cause that has been more thoroughly co-opted by the forces it seeks to overthrow than anti-globalization. A significant portion of the funding for anti-globalization activities is quietly provided by a right-wing billionaire unhappy with how free trade has hurt his textile business. Groups like the Ruckus Society and Global Exchange are now kept afloat by donations from consumer goods giant Unilever.
On the arts-and-entertainment side, anti-globalization has been promoted by Michael Moore’s films and books (from Disney and Fox Newscorp, respectively), while its marches are accompanied by the music of Rage Against the Machine (Sony) and Manu Chao (Virgin).
“Very sad to say,” Garson acknowledges, speaking about State of Emergency, though she could just as well be referring to those other co-opted products, “but for a game to reach a great many people, it has to be put out by them … I don’t like that a game has to be sold through Sony, but I don’t know an answer to that, I don’t know how to sell the game otherwise.”
“American business is less invested in perpetuating its own ideologies than it is in making short-term profit,” says Henry Jenkins, “and if money can be made selling anti-corporate and anti-consumerist messages, they will find a way to commodify them. At the same time, it suggests that within any multinational, transmedia conglomerate, there are individuals who are asking ethical and political questions and who are struggling to find ways to get their ideas into broader circulation.”
Others in the movement have complained that State of Emergency distorts their message by misrepresenting infrequent incidents of violence and corporate sabotage in otherwise peaceful protests as a primary tactic. But there’s an ambivalence about the use of such methods which makes that objection disingenuous. A recent Village Voice article suggested that anarchism is becoming the mainstream of anti-globalization activism; the idea of smashing up corporate property during protests is no longer rejected out of hand, but treated almost as a lifestyle choice.
“[I]t’s hard to find an anarchist who doesn’t fiercely defend the right to destroy certain kinds of property, placing vandalism of McDonald’s in the respected tradition of the Boston Tea Party,” the Voice reporter notes.
“There are elements within the movement who support tactical sabotage, and collective self-defense,” Circuit acknowledges, “and those elements are growing in number.” (Less receptively, Garson groans at the mention of the Voice article. “There’s this bullshit about ‘diversity of tactics’ that comes up all the time,” she says.) But if so many activists are unwilling to condemn force or property destruction, among themselves, aren’t they in a poor place to whine when a game developer magnifies those elements for dramatic purposes?
But perhaps questions like that could be answered in future games — because for all its failings, State of Emergency has vastly expanded the palette of the computer gaming medium, which grows in popularity by geometric leaps every year. Whatever it says about co-option of anti-corporate opinions, the financial success of the game would prove that there’s a viable market for titles with an explicit political outlook.
“One of the signs that games are maturing as a medium is that we now have artists who want to use games to offer critical perspectives on contemporary life,” says Jenkins of MIT. “It’s a step forward any time games are about something more than blowing up things.”
And if it’s now possible to have a video game with the challenge “Destroy corporate property for bonus points!” then a wealth of alternate views is also available for implementation in future games, to energize our digital play spaces and make them an interactive proving ground for new ideas: a discourse we are constantly changing, drawn for us in cascading slices of light.
“I’m going to call Naomi and see if we can get together and make a game,” Barbara Garson tells me. “Why can’t we make a game? But does anyone like to play a game that doesn’t have real shooting in it?” I assure her they do. “Because I’m not sure our game will have shooting in it … But I want to explain globalization and if you can explain it through a game, I wanna do it.”
“If there’s one message you can take away from SoE,” says Wolpaw of Old Man Murray, “I think it’s that capitalism has finally, irrevocably won. Using advanced technology developed in Japan and financed by a publishing company in the U.S., a group of smart people in Scotland has created what’s possibly the most useless consumer product of all time … Playing State of Emergency is like spiking the ball in the end zone of competing ideologies. Feel the burn, Marxism!”
He may very well be right — but at the moment, a nice old lady with some radical ideas is making a trip to a nearby CompUSA, to see what other worlds might yet be possible when she gets her hands on the control pad.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)