Grand Theft Auto 3

(because what the public demands is reviews of 15 year old games)

I don’t necessarily know that my absolute favorite video game of all time is, and I could (and perhaps will at some point) argue that even deciding such a thing is beside the point. But one of my favorites is Grand Theft Auto 3.

It was revolutionary for its time, and it still holds up today. It was violent, perhaps more violent (or at least violent in a different manner) than any game that had come before (or at least any major video game). But what was so great about it was how everything worked together.

There are a lot of debates about whether or not video games are “art.” To which my answer would be of course they’re art, although they’re mostly bad art. There are exceptions of course, and, in this blogger’s humble opinion, Grand Theft Auto 3 was among the first to really be great. It was able to tie together the theme, gameplay, setting and story so well that everything felt right. You felt like you were really in a corrupt city, and everything you saw and did served to enrich that experience. Taking low level jobs to attack rival gangs, slowly working your way up in organized crime, switching allegiances and starting gang wars.

The true brilliance of the game ability to interact with the world. Let me explain what I mean. There was one mission where you were assigned to kill somebody and given a sniper rifle, but the game allowed you to accomplish the goal however you wanted. If you used the sniper rifle, that’s fine. But if you charged in with a machine gun, it might not work as well, but if you accomplished it you accomplished it. Each mission had different goals, but almost all of them had the same basic gameplay, if you wanted to improvise you could, and the games rules were flexible enough to handle that improvisation, which is something that is still uncommon today, but truly unique then.

But you didn’t just interact with the world in active ways, simply being in the world was an experience. There were multiple radio stations, each with a different theme and most were 100% original, and they all played commercials which were hilarious. All the media within the game, the billboards, the radio, the shops, all served to create a unified theme, it was a truly immersive experience.

One of the more brilliant ideas was to have the protagonist completely silent during the whole game. Doing so allowed you to project your own motives onto him. Also, I think that it fundamentally changed the way you viewed the game world, instead of trying to shape the game world you were only reacting to it. You were acting like a criminal and a gangster because that was the only way the world worked; you had to be corrupt, there was not other way. There are other games where the protagonist never speaks, Chrono Trigger being a notable example. What is interesting to me is that in both cases I never realized it while playing either game, it was only when it was explicitly told to me that I realized that case (in Chrono Trigger’s case, when I read about it, in GTA3, when it is pointed out in a radio segment). I think that I didn’t realize it because I already felt like the character. Games feel out of place to me when I am forced to do something that I wouldn’t want to do, (or wouldn’t want my character to do), this is especially true when I am forced to say something I wouldn’t want to say. Forcing me to say nothing is in many ways more liberating than giving me two false choices.

As great as things are, they couldn’t last. Rockstar Games has since made multiple sequels. With each no sequel, new features were added, but instead of complimenting the game, they often detracted from it. Vice City was much the same, taking place in a pastiche of Miami in the 1980s. It played actual music from the 1980’s and allowed the player to purchase property. While it was still a great game, it didn’t seem like it pushed any boundaries, maybe a few incremental improvements on the previous installment, but nothing major.

The next in the series, GTA San Andreas, brought the player to a fictional California, complete with a fictional San Fransisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles (yes, I know that Las Vegas is not in California). The biggest change in this game was the sheer size of it, for the first time there were significant areas of wilderness between cities. But it also added a lot of features which actually hurt the game. In order to finish the game, you had to do a variety of missions which involved flying planes, for which the control scheme wasn’t pretty terrible, other missions where you had to sneak (which turned the game into a kind of bad version of a Metal Gear Solid game). Now, instead of having the liberty of game mechanics which were flexible enough to handle the situation as the player wanted, there were missions which had to be beat in a certain way and which didn’t take advantage of the games best mechanics. Overall it was a good game though, and kept most of the fun intact.

GTA IV, the first game for the PS3/XBox360 generation, was something else. It went back to Liberty City (a fictional New York), made it super detailed and very big. Every little thing in it was interactive; in San Andreas there were occasional video game consoles which you find and play. In GTA IV, it was overcharged, every bowling alley and darts game was playable. Which is something that is kind of nice to have, but not really. The gameplay of the bowling was pretty bad, which would be fine if it was only an add on, but it wasn’t. The story forced you to go bowling in order to progress, which is horrible and terrible and awful. Why force you to stop playing a good game in order to play a bad one?

Relationship building was a big part of GTA IV, which makes no sense whatsoever. In the first several games your character is basically a violent sociopath, doing whatever he wants. That’s the appeal of the game. But in GTA IV, you switch between violent sociopath and ideal boyfriend, it is awkward and jarring, the theme starts to work against itself. It feels like GTA IV either wanted to keep on simulating real like without realizing that at a certain point it would have to stop being a GTA game, or they simply had a bunch of ideas and included them in the game only by judging whether they are good by themselves, not trying to consider whether they belonged in the game.

There’s a new one out that I haven’t played, and so I will be happy to admit if it has dialed down the feature creep, or if it pushes the gameplay envelope. Mostly though I’m done with the series, it was a great at first, and influenced the gaming world perhaps more than any other game in the last 20 years, but I think overall it is an example of something simply growing too old and being crushed under its own weight.

Roguelikes

It seems like there’s been a big split in the video game business as of late. One the one hand, there are the expensive gigantic games, commonly referred to as triple A, these include the Call of Duties, Grand Theft Autos and Elder Scrolls, among others. On the other hand, are the independent games, commonly found on Steam, such as FTL or Spelunky. Arguably, the most popular game right now is Minecraft, which certainly isn’t a AAA game, even if its now owned by Microsoft is very much in spirit an independent game.

Now the best games have one of the following things in common, they are either

a: primarily played against other people (most First person shooters, also real time strategy games)

b: they are primarily setting based (most RPGs fall into this category, but also Grand Theft Autos)

or

c: they are mainly gameplay based (puzzle games, but I’ll go into more detail later)

I’m going to mainly skip over type a as I have nothing interesting to say about it; so let me jump into type b:

For setting based games, the main draw is viewing and interacting with the environment; take one of my favorites, Fallout 3. In it, you emerge from a fallout shelter, which was a perfectly self contained society, into a big, scary post apocalyptic wasteland. As you journey, you both find out more about society, the new divisions (humans, super-mutants, ghouls), explore the ruins of society (such as the Washington monument and the Pentagon, but also mundane things such as schools and supermarkets), you experience the world (Fallout has a great theme based on 50’s music, art, culture and even paranoia) and your character also changes, becomes more powerful and more able to face challenges, affect her surroundings, and generally kick ass. In several ways its artificial (relying primarily on your character stats and items), and in several ways its natural (you as a player become better at dealing with and responding to situations through gameplay).

Another example is the Dragon Age games. (its been a while since I’ve played, so forgive me if my memory isn’t exactly correct). Dragon Age Origins is basically a standard RPG, you choose race (Elf, Dwarf, Human), class (Fighter, Rogue, Mage), and “background” (like noble human or wood elf), but the backstory doesn’t matter that much. You start out weak, and get strong through leveling up your characters and getting powerful items. Basically, if you like RPGs, you’ll like Dragon Age origins. Anyway, so at the beginning of the game, I as a player was naturally roleplaying, I was very scared to go to places in the game which I thought would be dangerous. By the end of the game, I felt like a badass and just walked into the enemy’s HQ. Basically, the decisions I made in the game reflected the decisions my character naturally would have made in the same situations, which creates the feel of immersion and makes for a pretty good experience.

(As an aside, this is why I hated Elder Scrolls 4, the enemies leveled up as you did, which totally ruins the immersion.  There’s no reason that would ever happen in real life, and knowing that anywhere you went the enemies would be as strong as you were meant that deciding where to go wasn’t an important choice, which instantly changed the world from interesting to boring. Furthermore, the way the game leveled up, if you made the wrong decisions on what stats to level up, the game basically became impossible, so the choices you make are about min-maxing, not about making decisions within the context of the world or in what your character would do.)

The problem with these immersion games is a simple one, death. You can’t die permanently in these games because doing so and restarting the game would mean that either you would never get to explore all areas, or the game would be so easy as to present no challenge. So, of course, these games let you save and reload (or “respawn”) at previous locations so you don’t have to start over each time you are killed.

Of course, this starts to break the immersion, you are essentially immortal, which means that beating the game is only a matter of putting enough time into it. This gives us a conundrum, you can’t make a game too big and still have permanent death as there would be no point to creating all that content if most players would never see it, and with the ability to save and reload, there’s not much incentive for the player to master the game, not when any challenge can be met purely by repeating it over and over again. So what to do about games where skill is the point?

Enter the roguelike. A long time ago (1980 to be exact), there was a game that used only asci graphics, you know either letters or things like $ # !, it was called Rogue. I won’t go too far into it, but it introduced two basic mechanics, randomly (or in nerd talk, procedurally) generated levels, and permanent death. There have been any number of games with those two characteristics, and they can make a game great.

A recent favorite of mine is call FTL, in it, you command the crew of a spaceship, it plays like an RPG in that you crew “levels up” (individuals can get more competent at tasks such as piloting or hand to hand combat), you buy or find new weapons and enhancements. But because its relatively short (it probably takes 2 hours to finish a winning campaign) and because death is almost always a threat and almost everything you do has repercussions throughout the game, even “routine” fights and somewhat normal decisions carry with them urgency and importance. Deciding which armor to buy in Skyrim, for instance, might make a little bit of difference, but it won’t define the rest of the game. Choosing what weapons to buy in the beginning of FTL may be the difference at the end boss.

To use another example, I’ve been playing a game called “Spelunky,” in it you play an Indiana Jones type explorer descending deep into a cave. You find treasure, items which help you, enter stores and the like. Anyway, the game, oddly enough for a game mentioned in a blog post about randomly generated levels and permanent death, has randomly generated levels and permanent death. This leads to two exciting aspects of gameplay. First, the whole game presents a challenge; you are pretty much forced to treat the whole game world as a dangerous place; this leads to excitement. Secondly, because the game is randomly generated, you can’t anticipate what will come next, which means that you won’t just memorize locations or timing, you deal with situations not as you’ve memorized them but by figuring everything out as you go; you know, just like in real life.

These games are commonly made by independent studios, with repeating art and text, a team of only a few can make a great game. As these teams don’t have to earn back a huge development cost, they can introduce novel and risky game play ideas. I expect he future of the gaming industry to continue to be pushed by these smaller and riskier developers.