Thursday, May 8, 2008

Grand Theft Agency

"Open World", "Sandbox", "Playground" - these are all words that we hear thrown around in gaming parlance to describe a design trend that only increases in popularity. The promise is that players will be put in a fully simulated world, guided into plot-specific missions but generally free to do whatever they want. Time and time again, we fail to fully deliver this promise.

I had rather high expectations for GTA IV, I really did. In fact, I am enjoying the game a great deal - it's not quite as fun as Mario Kart Wii or Brawl, and I have even been putting more time into the under-appreciated Professor Layton, but GTA IV is a much more immersive experience. Yet despite the perfect atmosphere and engaging side-quests, I am really disappointed that the latest torchbearer in the series that defined the open world experience, a title that has even become the fiscal leader in launch success, earning more than any launch event in any medium of entertainment in history, still drags me around on a very short leash through the main quest.

I'm not very good at GTA IV. I've never been good at the series. As such, I have failed quite a few of the early missions. I don't really mind this, as all of the failures seemed fair - but I am extremely disappointed in how they are handled. From my experience, if you fail a mission for any reason, you are forced to do it again until you get it right - even if you didn't die. This has happened to me several times in just a few hours, and each time I feel my immersion crash faster and harder than Niko in that embarrassing little incident when I handbraked into a cop car stopped at a red light.

The latest incident, the one that caused me to shake my head in disappointment and add another crufty entry to my blog o' complaints, occurred in an early mission where Vladimir ordered me to spook up a laundromat owner for "insurance" money. When I arrived, he got scared and took off out the back, hopping in a van and fleeing. I hot wired a car and sped after him; a pretty fun experience. I managed to knock the sucker off the road into some trees. He wouldn't get out of his car, and kept trying to escape, halted by my t-boning him into more trees. After a couple of minutes of this, I got tired of his antics (and unsure of what to do to trigger the mission progression) so I got out of my car and shot him in the head. He fell onto his horn; that and the gunshot must have been heard by the police, for the area was immediately bathed in blue lights dancing to the tune of sirens. I hauled it out of there and gave Vlady a call.

He was not happy, claiming there was no way to get insurance money from a dead guy. Okay, so I blew it, I figured I would do a better job with the next "client" - and perhaps word of the laundromat owner's uninsured death would make future clients more compliant. I returned to the discrete bar to talk to Vladimir once more, and as I entered I was faced with an all too familiar cutscene.

I had to start the mission over again. I had "failed" it.

Feeling my frustration wax and my immersion wane, I headed back for the laundromat - only this time, to speed things up, I thought I would be clever. I knew the owner was scripted to run for it, and I knew which car he would use. I was using my foreknowledge from a previous mission attempt to game the game. My immersion already spent, I decided to break the forth wall myself, a wall that Rockstar apparently built out of hay and elmer's glue. I went around back and tried to break into the van to drive it far away. The door was locked, but Niko has street smarts and knows how to break a window with his elbow. To my surprise, when I do this I see a message saying that the laundromat owner got scared and escaped out the front. Niko pulls out his cell phone to tell Vladimir the bad news.

I had failed the mission again.

Similarly, in an earlier mission, I let a loan shark get away. My cousin complained at me and told me that now we would be up to our necks in loan sharks trying to get revenge. I was excited, naively thinking that my failure had thrown me down an exhilerating narrative branch. But it didn't; Rockstar took the weakest copout they could and forced me to play the mission again. I'm not asking for an exponential branching tree at every mission to give me a game with 1024 unique endings, but I also don't think it would be terribly hard to allow the player to "half-pass" missions by performing suboptimally, giving them less of a financial reward but letting them continue the game. This mentality of "you can play however you want as long as it is the one way I thought of" is still holding back modern game design. Time and time again, developers promise everything in the kitchen but the sink, and when we accept we find ourselves in a room with dust-covered counters, bare cupboards, and a fridge with a spoiled smell so nauseating that we are loathe to open it.

There is a phrase called "next gen" gaming. It is basically a horrible marketing ploy/misnomer used by Microsoft and Sony to make you think you are getting more out of your games than you really are. Firstly, this is not the "next generation" of gaming, it is the "current generation". The "next generation" will be the, well, "next" generation of consoles (or equivalent "large" step forward). It hasn't arrived yet. Secondly, I would argue that we haven't really left the generation of games that we've been in for about a decade now. Sure, the graphics have improved, and we have begun to realize that not every gamer wants to die five times per missions, but, well... we still have missions and death and failures leading to retries structuring almost all of our commercial titles.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a fun game. Really. It currently has a score of 99/100 on metacritic formed from several dozen reviews, which is simply phenomenal. It saw launch week success surpassing that of Halo 3. In many ways, GTA IV is the pinnacle of current gaming, if not in quality alone then in the attention that it will hold for years to come. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel as if Rockstar has given me a mic and a stage to say whatever I want to say without them listening, only hearing what they want to hear. The sandbox is large, but the sand itself is low quality, too dry, and all my castles fall to dust within moments of divination.

I'm through venting. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go tear up Liberty City in my stolen taxi, save my cousin's debt-drowned ass, and take Michelle to the bowling alley while contemplating solutions to this treadmill the industry walks perpetually.

No comments: