It’s been a while since my latest article in the series and, judging by my list of Things To Do, it’s probably going to be a while before I reach any conclusion. It’s not so much the amount of influential games but the lack of time to sit down and nail their importance in an honest yet fitting way. Regardless, here’s part 3 of Formative Gaming. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here. Hope someone besides spam bots is enjoying.
The final gray stretch of the Callahan Bridge giving way into Staunton Island is usually calm, even when civil unrest is close by. I’m being chased by the FBI and the last minutes have seen me dodge against oncoming traffic in an effort to thwart off law enforcement. Of course, even infested with roadblocks the place is filled with incidental details worth seeing. People passing by, the sun setting, small traffic jams and –
Things get trickier when a Colombian gang member whips out his Uz-I and opens fire on my Cheetah, which suddenly bursts into flames. I barely have time to hit the brakes and run away before the sports car explodes. Officers swarm on my position with loud, chrome nightmares. Surrounded, I try to buy some time with my flamethrower and incinerate everything in a 360º degree arc. The moment of relief doesn’t last long when I notice I’ve just triggered the next alarm level. A tank comes around the corner.
It’s gonna be one of those days.
Creating a design that follows a concept is an important rule of videogames. It is one most developers still haven’t quite managed to learn. It’s one that Rockstar Games has nailed down ever since Grand Theft Auto 3.
The GTA series, from pixel carnage to photo-realistic violence, have tried their earnest to be about crime as a way of life – willingly or otherwise. As the series evolved so have the stories: wanton violence gradually gained context, mission objectives turned into tales of drama, revenge and a reimagining of the American dream. The third chapter in particular can be held responsible for certain changes in the industry – media attention towards our hobby increased exponentially, sandbox design proved massively popular in ways no other game ever quite managed to, and production values aimed to provide more credible stories were employed more often in its wake (even if they still continue to fail spectacularly). In fact, Rockstar quickly dispensed with the silent protagonist of GTA3 in the following games of the series, with each new chapter introducing more quality voice-overs, professional artists of various fields and writing which overshadows much of their competition – and beyond – through sheer confidence in concept and execution.
The execution is easy to understand – a fine balance between player freedom and designer supervision, a city that allows for a wide range of interactions. The key difference between other games and GTA is that other games offer a design that mostly cares little for the main concept. “Concept” is what afflicted games like American McGee’s Alice: reinterpreting Alice in Wonderland’s themes through the lens of mental disorders and gothic characterization ended up becoming a Quake 3 variant where shooting, jumping and stumbling over Cheshire Cat’s hints were all you could hope to do. It’s what vandalized games like Fable: empowering us to play an active role in a gameworld and change everything around our choices became a corridor slasher where slaughtering a whole town or murdering your wife was okay as long as you paid everyone a pint afterwards. It’s what condemns most role-playing games: giving us consequences to our choices and enabling us to forge our own destiny devolves into glorified dungeon crawling where your choices barely matter and you’re still an errand boy.
Concept, however, is exactly what Grand Theft Auto 3 shows through its mechanics. It asks you a simple question: what would you do in a city where you could do whatever you want? And then it gives you tools so that you can provide your own answer. Of course, ludic contracts always have fine print and both gamer and designer agree to certain terms – like being free to explore a world in only a number of ways, like being free to make whatever choices we want given a limited selection, like being free to do anything from the predetermined interactions within the ruleset. The key difference is Rockstar takes away anything that would work against their concept, proposing instead a limited number of activities all structured around the main theme.
Crime as a concept in GTA3 is a matter of offering players a number of interactions – like running, driving, stealing and killing – and then have these actions fit into a particular context. You can run for purposes of exploration but the chief reason why any player runs, and often dedicates to reaching and completing the Paramedic missions in an ambulance, is so they can sprint infinitely and never get tired so as to run after a car to steal or from police forces and moody street gangs. You can cruise around Liberty City’s three districts around a variety of cars, perform various races, side missions and stunts for monetary rewards but even if they slowly built up your criminal rating and revenue, most gamers participate in them to become acquainted with either Liberty City’s landmarks – of which some are necessary to know for optimal completion of certain jobs – or crime as a form of transgression – as is the case of street driving, doing insane stunts and carjacking federal reserve vans. You can shoot and… Well, however you spin it, that one’s never for the greater good is it?
For me, GTA3 left a slightly different impression regarding its concept. That the concept was mirrored in the mechanics is obvious, but the opposite analysis – what the mechanics can say about the concept – may not be as much. In this case, the web of relationships between all the mechanics made me realize GTA 3 could also be about something else.
The series actively encourages this perspective in a number of aspects. The packaging itself treats each subsequent chapter as a place to visit, going so far as offering players a map highlighting places to visit and things to do. Games have done this before – certain role-playing games like Ultima Underworld, for instance, have adopted a similar stance where through both game and packaging, in particular the inclusion of maps, tried to immerse us in the role of an adventurer in a strange land with only a map and little guidance on what to do. Here the same applies and the tone of the instruction booklets is very much like that of a tourist guide, somewhere between a marketing product and sarcastic remarks that have become traditional for the series, doing their best to convince players to explore and enjoy the sights.
Further, the context of crime in GTA3 is guided in part by the story. The nameless and mute character’s2 past is presented in the first minutes of the game, where treason and revenge are introduced and become a constant until the very end.
Although in San Andreas, the character is retroactively named as Claude Speed, possibly confirming him to also be the same Claude that featured in the first two Grand Theft Auto games.
We know that he was a criminal and as we advance, the main story missions see us working for criminals and performing criminal acts. However, it is the character’s absolute lack of a personality that lets one impose whatever role we want. Crime is context as much as that of a tourist with a privileged perspective over the city and its motions. Vice City and San Andreas, through mechanics such as purchasing properties and battling for dominance over neighborhoods respectively, make it clear that both their characters have a vested interest in the place they’re in. GTA3’s thug has nothing to look forward to and when you come to its conclusion, you never feel ownership of the world. Unlike Tommy Vercetti and Carl “CJ” Johnson, he’s not a product of American culture and, if he has a dream or personal objective, it’s never spoken of. He lives moment-to-moment, making what he can out of what he is given, uncaring that he is pushed from one side to another. On the other hand Vice City and San Andreas, through gameplay and elaborate personal stories, establish characters whose worlds mean something to them. By contrast, GTA3’s jeans and leather criminal has no terms personal stake. Everything around him is waiting to be discovered and taken for what it is but is never the focus of his actions. He, unlike his successors in crime, is anonymous to the world and so remains until the end – momentarily a part of it and then, after experiencing all it had to offer, has no reason to remain there.
Besides the instruction booklets, another example is how a sense of place is presented to players in terms of ancillary elements of the gameworld. There are limits, obviously. For instance, you can never flag a cab – your interaction is limited to jacking it. On the other hand trains and subways are a viable travel option, serving the purposes of fast travel and sightseeing.
But chief among them are the radio stations, samples of the city’s culture and background. You can drive up to Liberty City’s university or airport but you’re not sampling anything in any relevant manner. Jack a car and turn on the radio, however, and you’re given insights into things like the people’s taste in musical genres, product and event advertising, the personality quirks of certain radio hosts, and even a talk show where citizens share their opinions – from a radio station’s quality to concerns regarding violence, or problems in their sex and social life – via phone calls. In fact, two of them are characters you’ll discover along the main story and it’s implied one of them is talking about the protagonist on the radio, referring to him as the “silent type” and as someone who spends “all the time with the boys” and only thinks about work. Whether through intentional theft or accidental carjacking, all you need is to turn on the radio and suddenly it’s all there – samples of everyday life from a new and strange place. Call it immersion. Call it a narrative generating its own significance rather than forcing it on you. Call it funny but pointless fluff. But there you have it: cultural sampling, privileged perspective, world exploration based on the idea of relevant aspects of a society being broadcast rather than recorded and (re)played, a place where life goes on with or without you, the player and the avatar themselves as tourists. What role-playing games have struggled against for years – system upon system upon layer upon boredom of forced exposition – here is made appealing, seamless and something you experience first hand.
Players can also engage in voyeurism – an indelible tourist characteristic, who is always interested in gaining satisfaction or knowledge of others from a safe distance – and observing these characters in their simulation of everyday life is interesting, even if the object of scrutiny is rudimentary. Much like GTA3’s satire and lampooning of American values seem too blunt nowadays so its inhabitants suffer from limited routines, although they are still varied enough – pedestrians walk, have soundbytes, run when scared, try to jump away from moving vehicles and may fight back if hurt by the player or another character. Some characters, predominantly gang members, simulate stealing from common citizens, open fire against members of rival gangs and may even jack your own vehicle. Observing or working with (or against) these forces is almost a game on its own and worthy of exploration.
There’s actually some “The Matrix” vibe to the underlying system of GTA3, where certain characters are chosen by the game for certain tasks at any given moment. Anytime the player starts the Taxi missions, a character is immediately given the task to abandon his routine and become a potential passenger, waving to the player as he drives by. Once they reach their destination, the character exits the taxi and resumes his routines. Similarly, while most drivers follow given patterns within the framework – like stopping at red lights and protesting when someone doesn’t drive when the light goes green – certain drivers display erratic behavior like excess speeding, hitting and running pedestrian and a disregard for their own safety. These have an explanation. The Vigilante missions, side jobs the player can undertake when driving a law enforcement or military vehicle, consist on hunting down criminals, all of which are drivers. Every new session the game determines which drivers will be criminals and you can recognize potential perps by their reckless driving.
A final example, perhaps, rests on GTA3′s options of the PC version. It was fairly customizable: one quick search over the internet will list dozens of fan sites filled with modifications for the game and its sequels. You could tailor your experience in two ways. One was creating or modifying player skins, texture files capable of being edited in just about any graphics program, to give the avatar a different look. The other was an MP3 folder on the game’s directory where you could store music to listen while driving around; cycling though radio stations would give you another option, where you could listen to whatever was stored there. Most people I know, when talking about visiting other countries, reveal this safety blanket: taking something familiar with them whenever they travel to a strange place, a place away from home.
Unsurprisingly, GTA3 was responsible for shaping my game writing. My game criticism, in contrast to game reviews I write as consumer guides, has become more observing of videogame worlds as places open to exploration and often considering gameplay as an experience, journey and tourism. Of course, it wasn’t the only factor, but it helped in finding my way there. Fortunately, it also influenced other reviewers to talk about the series, and other games, in the same way ever since which is was a triumph of expression for both journalism in the field and Rockstar themselves. Crime, violence and transgression are as important to the series as exploring its matrix of rules, concurrent systems, sense of culture and presence – why only discuss it as if it were little more than Space Invaders?
Its sequels would be successful although not free of criticism. Vice City’s affection for 80’s cool and kitsch was somewhat betrayed by the kind of game you get when you listen to fans. Radio personalities were excessively caricaturized; collecting hidden packages start giving overpowered weapons from the start; successfully finishing the Taxi missions makes all cabs jump. On the other hand, San Andreas’ turf wars and gangsta drama considerably clashed between player agency and story by placing CJ under surveillance of corrupt officials who warned him off criminality, but then let the player revel in it as is usual in the series. Grand Theft Auto IV shared affinities with GTA3 – Niko Bellic had a clearly defined personality but his romantic ideal of the American dream is shattered and no play mechanics ever translated into him wanting to leave his mark on the world. But it’s that first contact that still brings back memories. The character’s non-committal to the story’s prime agents along with his anonimity enables us to imprint our own reasons to adopt the avatar as our own. The chance to explore the city as a digital frontier – discovering its architecture, getting to know the inhabitants and sampling their culture without standing in the way of the player’s interpretation of it all, for instance – is another step towards that perspective.
Perhaps Grand Theft Auto 3’s biggest triumph was that it wasn’t realistic but rather that it managed to create a place that felt real. And while it may not give players any reason to live in it, it gives plenty to go back and visit.