When I attended elementary and junior high school, the Danish school system operated under a paradigm called “responsibility for your own learning”, which sounds a bit awkward in English but rolled off the tongue somewhat easier in Danish (“Ansvar for egen læring”). The jist of it was that if the pupils do not cooperate with the teacher, they will learn nothing – you get as much out of classes as you put into them.
When I wrote my paper about Oblivion last year, one of my primary points was that the greatest weakness of such an open game is that the player has a lot of responsibility to make the game fun. They call them sandbox games for a reason – if you build a castle out of the sand, you can have fun; if you take a piss in it, not so much. Oblivion allows you to wander off into the mountains and become tremendously bored. This is the weakness of its narrative but the strength of its gameplay, because you can also wander off into the mountains and have loads of fun.
I spent most of yesterday playing Grand Theft Auto 4 because our Internet connection is on the fritz at home, and God forbid I’d have to open a book or something. One of the missions I did had me chasing two bikers on a motorcycle through the city. At one point they would drive unto the train tracks and take the chase into the subway tunnels. At the entrance to the tunnels, they paused for a moment, long enough for me to line up a shot. I emptied a whole clip of my SMG in their general direction, killing one of them, but the other survived somehow. I followed him into the tunnels, spraying clip after clip of bullets at him before realizing he was immortal – I wasn’t meant to kill him yet.
If you look around for articles and blog entries about GTA4, it probably won’t take you long to notice a big point of critique is that the greatest and most detailed open-world game franchise on the market regularly chooses to force its missions upon you in the most linear and restrictive way. If Rockstar want to send you on a car chase, they will damn well make sure you can do nothing to prevent it, even inexplicably making your enemies invulnerable until their time has come. I haven’t really encountered this problem a lot in GTA4 because the missions in this installment aren’t nearly as difficult or frustrating as in the predecessors (ruling out the possibilities that I’ve just gotten better at them or that they’re a lot harder on PC because of the control scheme), so I generally just do what I’m supposed to without incident rather than trying to sabotage the plans of the game designers – in other words, no emergent gameplay for me, apart from sometimes having the difficulty of a mission multiplied by 10 thanks to accidentally alerting the cops.
Needless to say, I was really mad at the game for not letting me kill these guys until we were out of the subway tunnel. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since I’m working on a game where nearly everybody is killable at any point in the story – I can accept that most game development budgets don’t allow for major plot-critical characters to be killed prematurely at the whim of the player, but to make the enemies temporarily invulnerable just because you want to have a cool car chase is the sort of decision that can prompt a cry of “WELL WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO MAKE A GODDAMN MOVIE THEN!?” at the TV screen at the top of my lungs, doubtlessly incurring a few raised eyebrows from my parents downstairs.
Afterwards, however, I strongly considered changing my mind.
See… that was a really awesome motorcycle chase. I didn’t even realize you could enter the subway tunnels and drive around down there, and this scene was quite the adrenaline-rush, narrowly dodging oncoming trains, zooming past platforms with screaming bystanders, ending with a spectacular jump off a bridge onto the street where I could then finally kill my target. Now I was no longer so sure I would’ve preferred to be able to prevent that chase by killing him at the tunnel entrance, because then I would’ve missed one of the most outstanding scenes in the game so far.
When it comes down to it, most players will solve a mission in the most efficient, least demanding way they can think of. In a game like Deus Ex, many players will scurry through ventilation shafts throughout the game, complaining all the while about how boring all these vents are instead of just not using them. In Bioshock, many players will buff themselves with a dozen tonics that enhances their wrench-swinging capabilities and then stick to the wrench through a whole game, all the while bitching about how easy and mindlessly hack’n'slashy this makes the game instead of just not using the bloody wrench and having some fun with the shotgun instead. Rockstar forced me through that subway tunnel because they fully realized that if they left it to me, I’d kill those bikers before they ever got there, and have a lot less fun as a result. They realized that being game designers and having a lot more time to plan out this chase, they were in a far better position to craft an entertaining experience than I am.
But it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth. What about the second time I play the game? The chase will play out exactly the same because I can do nothing to affect the outcome. Even if I don’t want to re-experience that chase (though I very well might), I have no say in the matter. Furthermore, the game is actively preventing me from employing lateral thinking to solve its missions – in most missions, I have to simply do as I’m told. The only freedom I get is in how to escape the cops when they occasionally catch wind of what I’m doing. It may be a way to make absolutely sure I experience the exhilarating car chases and epic shootouts Rockstar have set up for me, but it still smells of wasted potential – of the most open, detailed, and extraordinary game world I’ve ever played in, full of linear corridors.
So I’m not sure. Would GTA4 be a better game if it put more faith in its player? Maybe not. Who am I to argue with $310 million? I’d like to see it tried though, so I could judge for myself. Who knows… maybe I could end up crafting an even more entertaining experience for myself if Rockstar let me? Or at least an experience that was all mine.