[In this column, originally published on sister alt.game weblog GameSetWatch, UK-based writer Lewis Denby examines the little stories unique to our own subjective experiences of Grand Theft Auto IV, chasing the hidden moments of charm and personalization.]
I picked up my girlfriend around five, maybe five-thirty. It had been a stunning summer's day, the sort where everyone seems thrilled just to be there, just to exist. We drove through rush hour traffic towards the bowling alley. "Just like our first date," she remarked.
I smiled. I'd forgotten, for a minute. I mean, it's not like I don't remember every second I've spent with her, but still. Caught in the moment, you know?
We arrived, booked in, and played two games. We were only going to stay for one, but 1979 by The Smashing Pumpkins came on the playlist as the first game ended, so we didn't want to leave. It's "our" song. It might have been playing the night we met, actually. Shortly afterwards, at least.
When we finished up, dusk was on its way. I drove her home, warm, as the sun wavered above the horizon before succumbing to sleep, rendering the sky a haunting terracotta.
And in the game...
Stunningly constructed as Grand Theft Auto IV
was, it's not the reason I love it. I've heralded it, and continue to herald it, as one of gaming's great modern achievements, but not for the surprisingly mature story or the vastness of its freedom. To me, GTA IV
is beautiful in its microcosmic capturing of life's idiosyncratic moments, and its understanding that the experience of a game is often defined just as much by the player as by the creator.
The more video games I play, the more I become convinced I can lose myself in pretty much anything. Rockstar's joyous sandboxes sit at one end of the quality scale, but this is a phenomenon that doesn't seem to be restricted by production values, design ambition, or anything else in the realms of hands-on development. It's about how much you're willing to invest in a foreign world, how readily you're prepared to give yourself away to the game.
wasn't exactly received to rapturous applause in the press, and there's a reason for that. It was a clumsy title, full of contradiction and stifled creativity. Yet it produced one of my all-time favourite gaming moments, one I'm sure will stick with me forever.
Emerging on the surface of the Red Planet for the first time, I stumbled upon a small alcove off the designated path, a place where I was safe from enemy fire. Two pals stood by a truck, waiting for me to hop on the back so we could plod onwards towards the endgame. I didn't. Instead, I found my hiding place, and spent a few minutes staring up at the orange sky, totally invested in character.
I became lead character Parker, thought of my potential loved ones back home on Earth, wondered if I'd see them again. I gave myself a reason to fight and eventually, misty-eyed, I climbed onto the back of that truck, ready to pour lead into anyone who stood in the way of humanity's freedom.
Nothing about the level design led me to that alcove. No character pointed out the void above, the millions of miles of emptiness. Nothing in the plot discussed, in any depth, Parker's family back home. This was my
story, the one that happened in my
game, and as such the experience became intensely personal.
A Man Chooses...
Perhaps this explains the rabid protectiveness displayed on forums around the world: people cherishing their favourite games, and seeming genuinely offended at the suggestion that someone might not love them quite as much as they do.
There's certainly something about interacting with a world as
the protagonist that, at the right moments, creates something akin to a spiritual experience. It seems that being so absorbed in a game is almost hallucinogenic, as you become enthralled by the beauty of something so markedly removed from your own reality.
But it also highlights a problem with the assumption that games can be objectively assessed, analysed in terms of the individual building blocks and developmental processes that go into such a creation. Red Faction
didn't capture my imagination because of its graphics engine or script, and it wasn't really because of GTA IV
's exquisitely crafted sandbox that I became so entranced in that bowling alley.
What separates video games from film or literature is the participant's ability to act or make choices, no matter how small or apparently insignificant, that shape the experience on the fly. Sometimes, just standing still and thinking, turning around to admire a digital sky or stopping to observe the expression on an NPC's face, can make all the difference.
Give and Take
That's not to say it's beyond the artists' control, and the minute developers become complacent about this will be the minute it all turns sour. Designers and writers must grasp the responsibility for creating worlds, societies and nuanced stories that evoke such a response from the player. When you're blasting through the latest shooter, your imagination might be running wild - but only if there's something to spark it off in the first place.
Ultimately, this potential can only keep growing as developers continue to inject more vivid culture into their virtual worlds. It'll thrive as the technology improves, allowing for more intricate and creative design. But it'll never be about
this technology, and never solely down to the creators' intentions.
It's about the experience of existing and investing in these dreamlike alternate realities. It's about giving yourself away to these places and people, and becoming intoxicated by the possibilities, whether they're confined to a linear path, or free of restriction in an open world.
Smashing my way through Red Faction Guerrilla this week, I found myself thinking back to those few minutes in the original game. I stopped again, and gazed out over the barren Martian landscape. I hopped in a nearby buggy, drove to the nearest enemy camp, and silently rigged explosives to the corners of the building that towered above me. I was doing this for humanity. I was doing it for Parker
The camp exploded, flames and shrapnel piercing the air. Then I switched off the console, put 1979 by The Smashing Pumpkins on the stereo, and got ready to pick up my girlfriend from work. We headed home as the sun set. Good times.
[Lewis Denby is general editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for more information and contact details.