Friday, June 27, 2008

The Tollbooth Problem

Grand Theft Auto IV is a great game, but it inspires a new sort of anxiety I call the “tollbooth problem.” The bridges that connect the city boroughs in the game have toll booths, and if you don't slow down your car, wait in line, and hand over 5 dollars you get pursued by police. It's pretty easy to evade the police, but every time I get to the booths I feel torn between gunning through them and waiting for my turn like a law-abiding citizen. Other people have described having this same indecision, and I think it is symptomatic of a central design problem in the series.

The Grand Theft Auto video games have developed over the years by pushing through two central ideas. On the gameplay side, the series has moved further and further along in fleshing out the “sandbox” game design concept it invented with Grand Theft Auto III. Rather than providing the player with a set of linear levels and a set of clearly defined tasks within the levels, the Grand Theft Auto games offer the player a huge open environment that they can explore at their own leisure without having to accomplish any set goal. As the series developed, the team at Rockstar games have fleshed out these environments with an escalatingly slavish attention to detail. It's difficult to describe the most recent game's accomplishment in this respect without reaching for stock phrases like “living and breathing city,” but the faxu-New York created for GTAIV is an astonishing achievement. Every block looks a little different from the previous one; every neighborhood has a distinct feel, from the cars to the people on the street to the stores; you see garbage trucks driving around the streets on Tuesday mornings and businessmen talking on their cellphones in battery park during lunchtime.

At the same time, the creators of GTA have been refining the art of narrative in games. As the player moves through the city, he can advance the narrative of the game by taking on “missions” that give him specific goals. During these parts of the game there are brief cinematic sequences that flesh out the main character's personality. These scenes never dominate the game, and in the most recent iteration the cinematic sequences are top-notch: the scripting and the acting are excellent, and they manage to provide a convincing portrait of the game's protagonist, a Eastern European emigre named Niko Belic. The game sustains the narrative outside of the confines of the missions by incorporating narrative into other parts of the gameplay. One feature of the new game is the development of the character's social life; as you wander around the city your friends and girlfriends you meet through the narrative will call you and ask to hang out-- drink, play pool, ask for a ride to the airport. There are some advantages for cultivating these relationships, but in general you get the idea that they are put in the game in order to give you a better perspective on your character. The portait of Niko that emerges is very well-drawn, and he emerges as a violent but ultimately sympathetic figure, a decent man who has been drawn into a life of expert violence against his own best efforts.

As Rockstar has pushed forward these two aspects of the game, gameplay and narrative, they have begun to pull the game in separate directions. This is the tollbooth problem: the narrative portions of the game cast you in the role of a troubled-but-essentially-sane human being, not a deranged sociopath. But when the game hands the reins over to the player and lets them get around the world on their own you immediately find it difficult to play this role. It's not fun to drive slowly enough that you can avoid mowing down some pedestrians along the way, it's tedious to wait in line to pay the toll on the bridges, and the easiest way to get around in most contexts is to pull innocent bystanders out of their cars at gunpoint. It is fun to destroy passing vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades, but your feel like it's out of character. The dictates of the game's design-- what make it fun-- also make it difficult to feel like you're inhabiting the character provided by the game's narrative.

Now, on one hand this very tension speaks to how accomplished the game's storytelling is. The very fact that you feel like you ought to portray a normal human being capable of adult relationships in the game shows how well the game's writers have provided a well-realized central narrative. Tollbooth anxiety points to the clash of two central imperatives of that have to be balanced in modern narrative game design. In order to make a game, the designers have to give the player freedom; in order to make a story, the designers have to take the freedom away. The game's protagonist must reflect the player's choices, on one hand, and be someone in particular, on the other. In recent years several games have tried to strike and equilibrium between these two imperatives, and I hope that the problems of this game will point the way towards improving the medium.


chade fallstar said...

I didn't actually read this whole post, but I am very excited that you are apparently out in the world writing lengthy blog posts about GTA IV.

I just moved my ps3 into my bedroom, which I think will increase the amount of time I play it (from "not at all, because I am always playing wow" to "sorry advisor that I didn't come in to the lab until 4PM today; I was up late playing ps3.")

timschel said...

Have you played Body Harvest for N64? Not many people did but it should get credit for inventing sandbox design, not GTA3. The good news is that both were developed by the same group (formerly DMA Designs if I remember correctly).

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