on Mar 8, 2006
I enjoy the Grand Theft Auto games. I love open-ended game play, but I’m often frustrated by how much better the game could be.
In the latest installment of the series the main character is Carl Johnson, a ripped-from-today’s stereotypes “gangster” from the hood. He’s an odd character. As in all GTA games, he’s a criminal, but he’s also a warped kind of hero. He’s a bad guy fighting against guys who are a lot worse. His foes are drug pushers, crime bosses, pimps, and bent cops.
The game itself has a strange morality as well. It is presented as an amoral freeform game where you (the player) can choose how your character will act. The gameplay itself is pretty open-ended, which is great.
I love games where the moral decisions are placed in the hands of the player, and not the designer. For a long time we’ve been subjected to videogames where the player spends hours fighting the forces of evil, working to corner the mastermind behind it all, only to have the hero let him go when he repents. (Or pretends to.) Sometimes the game offers up some lame hippy logic: “if I kill him, I’ll become just as bad as he is!” No matter how this goes, the player is robbed of satisfaction of the outcome. If the bad guy goes free, they player doesn’t feel merciful, because they were never given the option of being vengeful. If the bad guy dies, the player doesn’t get the satisfaction of justice or revenge because they were never given the power to show mercy. In games where I’m given a choice, I nearly always choose the path of mercy and redemption, but games where I’m forced to do so are infuriating to me.
In Grand Theft Auto, when you aren’t doing things to advance the main story (called missions) then you’re free to do pretty much whatever you like. If you’re the decent sort you can work as a taxi driver, get a job as a parking valet, save lives as an ambulance driver, go dancing, search the city for special scenic locations to capture for your photo collection, go swimming for oysters, get in shape at the gym, participate in car races, or try to win a decathalon. For those with a mean streak, you can collect (steal) rare sports cars (from a list, as in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds). You can also rob houses, hunt down criminals as a vigilante, or simply rampage across the city, spreading death and destruction.
(The detractors of GTA often cite the slaughter of innocent civilians as one of the game’s sins. Defenders of the game are quick to point out that killing civilians is not strictly part of the game: Because the player has weapons and the freedom to act of their own volition, it is POSSIBLE to kill civilians, but the law comes down on you swiftly if you engage in this sort of behavior, and it doesn’t lead to the completion of the game. The upshot is that the player can do it, but there is little or no reward and the consequences can be pretty harsh. Sort of like real life.)
This freedom is very satisfying, but sadly it doesn’t extend to the plot of the game, where certain choices are forced upon you by the script. There are a few lines the game won’t cross, and at the same time there are some nasty things the game makes you do. (Assuming you want to complete the game and see the end of the story arc.) For example:
But in one mission early in the game, the protagonists realize they are outgunned by the surrounding gangs. If they want to get the drugs off the streets and break the power of the various gangs, they need some better guns.
Ryder comes up with a plan to raid the local National Guard depot. Carl and Ryder then head to the base to swipe a bunch of guns. During the heist, you are obliged to kill a number of guardsmen. This really bothers me. Unlike the police, there is no reason to suspect these guys are corrupt. They seem like ordinary soldiers who end up getting killed in the line of duty, which happens to be stopping you from stealing from them.
Carl Johnson is a man who never fully embraces good or evil. He’s a vigilante, but often delivers vengence to criminals a lot less prolific than himself. He is so unfocused and distracted he makes Hamlet look organized by comparison. As the player you are sometimes required to do really awful stuff in order to progress in the game, and sometimes you are forced to help people you don’t want to help.
A Better Idea
I’d like to see the plot of the game be as open-ended as the gameplay itself. Allow the player to affect the world as they see fit. Make it so they can eliminate police corruption and destroy the drug gangs, or let them simply supplant both and set themselves up as the new crime boss of the city. I think either path would be more interesting than the compromise the game is now.
It would be most interseting if the city started as somewhat neutral: some poverty, some drugs, some hookers. Then, you could choose between the two paths I outline above. If you waver a lot between good and evil, sometimes being selfless and sometime being selfish, then the city won’t change much.
But, if you dedicate yourself to crime and evil, the city will deteriorate. The buildings will become shabby and dirty. The streets will have more litter. The cars will be be proprtionally more junkers. More hookers. More dealers. More gangsters. More civilains will fight each other. Some buildings will look abandoned. Once-clean houses will take on a more ghetto look. The lawns of the city will take on a brownish look.
However, if you take the path of virtue and elect to eliminate corruption and drugs, the city will become cleaner. More “regular” people in the streets instead of pushers and prostitutes. Less random fighting and theft. Houses that looked shabby will look cleaner and better cared for. Fewer junkers and more nice cars in traffic. The liquor stores, XXX shops and peep shows could be replaced (just the signage needs to change, since you can’t ever enter these places) by tanning salons, book stores, and bakeries. Less litter in the streets. Greener grass.
In the Evil city there would be more fog, less sunshine, more dark clouds, etc. People would wear drab colors and walk with their heads down. They would be more likely to cuss and fight if you bump into them, and they would be more likely to be armed. Eventually it would look like Gotham or Sin City.
By contrast, in the Good city things would be brighter and more sunny. People would dress in bright colors and walk with their heads high. They would say humorous stuff when they get into a fenderbender, intead of cursing. (A sort of Ned Flanders “Fiddlesticks!” when you bump into them.)
Both the good and evil missions would involve killing the pushers and destroying the hold of organized crime on the city, but the “evil” missions would include stuff like establishing your own crime organization. Good missions would include stuff to drive out or expose corruption.
Let’s look at an example:
Capture a load of drugs coming into the city. After that, the player player could either use the drugs to start their own business (Evil) or use the drugs to lure a rival gang into the open, and then destroy the gangsters and the drugs all at once. (Good. Er, sort of.)
Each time the player chooses between the good or evil mission, the city shifts slightly in appearance as I outlined above. If they stick to one path or the other, by the end of the game they will have changed the face of the city itself.
Now THAT is a game I’d love to play. Twice.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.