In defense of GTA, part 2: The real problem in video games

In part 1, I talked about the development of video games to date. I explained how we ended up with games with complex multi-path plots, and games with worlds modeled in true 3D. However, game developers started to hit problems when they began trying to build 3D games with complex plots…

The complexity problem

The issue of managing game complexity had been discovered by text adventure programmers back in the 80s. If you give the player a single tool (a gun) and a single set of adversaries (invading aliens), the number of possible interactions you have to program responses for is very limited. The player needs to be able to fire the gun, maybe reload the gun, perhaps pick up additional ammunition or other types of gun. The gun is either successfully targeted at an enemy when fired, in which case some damage is done to the enemy, or it isn’t.

Now consider a world in which the player has a gun, a flashlight, a screwdriver, and some health-giving combat rations; and suppose the enemy base has locked doors and guard dogs. What if the player tries to club an enemy to death with the flashlight? What if he tries to distract a guard dog with the food rations? What if he tries to open a locked door by unscrewing the hinges? Suddenly the number of possible actions the player can take increases significantly. In mathematical terms, there is a combinatorial explosion, as each object can potentially interact with every other object, and the game designer needs to decide what will happen for each combination. Even if the answer is “nothing relevant happens”, that’s still a design decision that must be made. Furthermore, too many “nothing happens” or “you can’t do that” responses will destroy the player’s suspension of disbelief, or even become outright annoying.

So as the complexity of the new realistically-drawn 3D worlds increased, the problem of making those worlds behave realistically increased much faster.

In addition, text adventure programmers discovered that providing players with genuine choices led to increased complexity. What if the knight sacrifices his henchman to escape the dragon? Who will perform the actions the henchman would have performed in the game? What about the fact that there’s still a dragon roaming around, shouldn’t that impact the plot?

Most satisfyingly complex plot-driven video games found a convenient solution to these problems: they put many completely arbitrary restrictions on what the player could do, in order to ensure that the plot didn’t “break”.

To see how these restrictions are enforced, it suffices to look at the Final Fantasy series of games, which became incredibly successful after Final Fantasy VII introduced full 3D graphics.

In Final Fantasy, if you encounter someone who has to remain alive in order for the plot to work, then you simply cannot attack that person. It doesn’t matter how annoying they are, or how many weapons you have–they are invulnerable. No explanation is given in the context of the game; they just are.

Furthermore, while the worlds of Final Fantasy appear large and open, they are full of invisible walls. If you are meant to wander through a forest, and there’s something to the north that you’re not meant to discover until your return journey, the game developers will think nothing of placing a temporary invisible wall there to prevent you taking that path too soon. So while the Final Fantasy games are almost universally acclaimed for their rich plots and character development, as well as their state-of-the-art graphics, there’s no denying that they lack realism and immersion.

Nintendo’s acclaimed 3D Legend of Zelda games are more immersive, as they mostly use clever world design rather than invisible walls to limit the player’s roaming. However, they take a surreal approach to preventing unwanted conflict: if a creature or person in the game is friendly, then you can swing your sword at them as much as you like, and it will simply pass straight through them or bounce off of them harmlessly–because that is what the plot demands.

Which brings me to Grand Theft Auto III.

The GTA revolution

Grand Theft Auto III (henceforth GTA3) was the 3D sequel to a moderately successful franchise of 2D games. The earlier games had presented the player with a top-down view of city streets, and allowed him to drive vehicles around, committing crimes and evading law enforcement. While there were tasks to perform to advance the game towards “winning”, players were given fairly free reign to decide where to go and how much mayhem to cause.

The revolutionary aspect of GTA3 was that it took this idea of player freedom even further, modeling an entire city in 3D, complete with parking lots, outdoor cafes, car showrooms, gas stations, apartment buildings, warehouses, airports, and all the other architectural features found in cities across the USA. These detailed virtual worlds were populated with hundreds of people–emergency services crews, police, shoppers, drug dealers, businessmen, construction workers, bus drivers–and, of course, criminals. An attempt was made to give the non-player characters their own personalities and agendas, and to model the physics of the world somewhat accurately. The game launched the genre known as the sandbox game, where you have no mandatory goals or tasks, and can do what pleases you rather than what will advance the plot.

Early on in GTA3, I was driving beneath the elevated railway lines in one of the seedier parts of town. As I cruised towards the Italian district of the city, I suddenly saw a piece of unexpected drama playing out on a nearby sidewalk. There was a woman, who from her dress was presumably a prostitute. She was being punched by a man who I assumed was either a john, or her pimp. I slammed on the brakes, jumped out of the car, ran over–and hit the guy with a baseball bat I was carrying. He stopped attacking the woman, who ran off, and began attacking me instead. I ended up beating him into unconsciousness. Unsure of what to do next, I looked around for the woman, but she was no longer in sight. I started walking back to my car. As I reached the car, I heard sirens. I looked around again. An ambulance was approaching. It stopped by the injured man, and two EMS workers got out. They loaded the unconscious man into the back of the ambulance, got back in, and drove off towards the nearby hospital.

I was amazed.

I am recounting this true story because if you’ve heard nothing else about GTA, you’ve probably heard that the game lets you have sex with prostitutes and then kill them. That seems to be the starting point of almost every critique of GTA I see, even today.

Yes, it’s true. GTA lets you have sex with prostitutes. It also lets you kill them afterwards. However, as I hope my own experience illustrates, it also lets you choose a totally different path. The game sets up a complicated virtual city that obeys certain somewhat realistic rules, and lets you decide how to behave.

If I had chosen to do so, I could have killed the ambulance workers. I tried that later on. That time, a passing cop saw me, and before long I was being chased by multiple police cars. Unlike many video games, violence in GTA has consequences in the game.

Alternatively, I could have stolen the ambulance while they were trying to load the guy in the back. If you steal an ambulance in that way, you can then choose to take part in emergency rescue missions where you pick up wounded people and ferry them to hospital. You can also steal a taxi cab, and try to make money ferrying people safely around the city as quickly as possible. If your driving is too dangerous, they’ll bail out as soon as they can, shouting that you’re crazy.

You don’t have to shoot people to kill them in GTA either. You can run them over, deliberately or by accident. In fact, some missions are considerably easier if you drive straight into a gang of assailants rather than attempt to attack them on foot. Other missions can be failed instantly if you accidentally plow your vehicle into someone you’re supposed to be saving.

People can also die when vehicles blow up–which they often do, either because someone has shot the gas tank several times, or because you’ve booby-trapped them with explosives, or because you’ve managed to get your hands on a rocket launcher, or because an adjacent vehicle blew up and set them on fire. Sometimes a bystander will avoid an explosion, but get hit by a piece of debris. You can drive up onto a parking lot rooftop, drive at a ramp that points out over the edge, leap out of the vehicle at the last moment and roll across the ground, then watch as the car sails off the roof,  through the air, and crashes into a crowd of pedestrians below, crushing some of them to death.

You’re not the only person causing casualties either. The police shoot at criminals, and sometimes kill them. On occasion, when in hot pursuit, a cop car will hit and kill innocent bystanders.

This kind of detail, and the associated freedom of choice, was groundbreaking when GTA was released. When the second GTA 3D game was released, titled Grand Theft Auto Vice City, the degree of choice was increased still further.

In Vice City, you can get a job delivering pizza on a moped, hurrying to get the food there before it gets cold, then returning to the pizza restaurant for more. You can still work as a cab driver, but you can also get involved in a fight with a rival cab firm, put them out of business, take over their offices, and earn a regular income. You can buy a car sales showroom, then steal cars to order for customers. You can take part in demolition derby races at the stadium for prize money and prize cars. You can compete in illegal street races. You can use an ice cream van as a front to start a drug dealing operation.

As alluded to earlier, there are missions in GTA games, which advance the overall story in movie-like fashion towards some sort of resolution, and the end credits. However, you don’t have to attempt any of the main story missions. In fact, none of the action I’ve described so far has anything to do with the main story of any of the games; it’s all just incidental detail, part of the sandbox. Personally, though, I like story. I’ve played through the story missions of all five PS2 GTA games. So in the next part of this set of postings, I’ll talk about the media controversies around the GTA games, from the perspective of someone intimately familiar with them.

In the mean time, you might want to read the story Rage against the machines from Prospect magazine, which talks about the idea that video games in general are a brain-damaging addiction, and describes why that’s an outdated idea.