Archive for February, 2007

Pleas for Attention

So, after a month and a half of secrecy, I’m starting to tell people about this blog. It’s got to be the case that a lot of blogs are started and abandoned with a mere handful of posts, and I didn’t want to suffer that embarassment here. But I’m convinced by now that I can fulfill the terms of the Oath, and that the only embarassment in the offing is that which I forge for myself through my words.

So, welcome, reader! I hope reading about someone else playing videogames helps to stave off the boredom of your workplace or classroom or wherever you’re reading this. Feel free to leave comments, because I derive a sense of personal validation from that, and it’s been a little sad seeing “Comments(0)” at the head of every single post.

GTA3: Awkward Stick

Given the effort that I devoted to getting the right analog stick to work in this game, the results are disappointing. It seems that the game is treating my custom bindings as on/off switches, like a keyboard, rather than as analog values. When on foot, you can’t turn carefully. You’re either turning or you’re not, and that’s all there is to it.

Fortunately, this doesn’t usually make a difference. The left analog stick works fine, and that’s the one you use for steering vehicles. Since there’s no chance that you’ll skid and flip over when you’re on foot, fine movement is less crucial then. It becomes somewhat more important in a firefight, because you use the right stick for aiming your weapon, but I’ve managed to muddle through a third of the game with awkward aiming. I find that I can afford to take a few seconds to adjust my aim if I’m only facing two or three assailants, and if I’m facing more than that, I can usually just put my gun away and get in a car. (Not necessarily to flee; used correctly, automobiles are the deadliest weapons in the game.)

But the second-to-last mission in Portland (the first of the three islands that comprise Liberty City) makes this impossible. The goal of this mission is to protect your friend 8-Ball, an explosives expert, as he plants a bomb on a ship that serves as a rival gang’s headquarters. You’re given a sniper rifle to eliminate the sentries guarding the ship, and a safe vantage point to do it from. But you have to do it fast: the moment you fire the first shot, 8-Ball goes charging in, trusting you to dispatch any threats before they kill him. It’s nigh impossible to aim quickly and accurately enough with a gamepad.

Fortunately, there’s another option. After failing the mission three or four times, I tried aiming with my trackball mouse. The mission became all but trivial.

Now, GTA3 was clearly designed for the PS2 and only grudgingly ported to the PC. But even when a game prefers a console, I prefer a computer, mainly for three reasons: finer graphics, greater ease of modding, and wider range of input devices. This game reminds me that this last point isn’t just about choosing the right device for a game: different subsections of a game can have different needs. Still, I have to admit that this is a case of the PC version solving a problem that the PC version caused in the first place.

GTA3: Climbing

The last several hidden packages I’ve found were hidden in a way that I failed to mention in my previous analysis: they were on top of things that are normally above eye level. This is another technique that’s only possible in a 3D engine. In GTA1‘s top-down view, anything on a rooftop is in plain sight.

The nice thing about hiding things this way is that, in addition to removing the item from view, it automatically turns it into a climbing puzzle. If it’s above where you normally go, it must be difficult to get up there.

Some will disagree with my calling this “nice”; not everyone is a fan of platformers. But personally, I’m pretty keen on the gimmick of modelling one type of game inside another, and this game is a good example of why: the fact that it’s inside a GTA alters the way that the platform game can be approached. In one memorable instance, there was a hidden package actually visible on the rooftop of the Liberty Pharmaceutical building, which I couldn’t find any way to climb up to at all. The only way I managed to get there was to drive a car up the steep and narrow stairs to an elevated train station (all but wrecking the car), driving around on the tracks above the city, and then accelerating off the side of the tracks, plunging in a steep arc onto the rooftop I wanted. The best thing about this is that the failed attempts got me some good Insane Stunt bonuses.

Jumping farther isn’t the only way that the vehicles affect the platforming. Suppose you want to get on top of a wall. It’s just a little too high to jump onto, and there’s nothing at all nearby that you can climb onto and jump from. In a conventional platformer, you’d just be stuck until you found a special tool or powerup provided for the specific purpose of getting on that wall. GTA3 doesn’t provide a special tool of this sort, but it has a general-purpopse physics engine. If you need to jump from higher ground, you can just drive a car to the wall and jump onto its roof. Still too high? Make a staircase out of a car, a minivan, and a delivery truck. These are not controlled special cases, either: the components of the staircase are always available. Conventional platformers can’t afford to allow general solutions like this because they rely on limiting the player’s access to locations to keep the game ordered. But in GTA3, the platformer elements are an optional tangent to the game, so the developers have no reason to prevent you from figuring out your own solutions. This, it strikes me, is a major source of GTA3‘s much-lauded freedom of action: because it provides many things for the player to do, it doesn’t have to care enough about any one of them to need to exert control over it.

GTA3: Violence

I haven’t even yet touched on the aspects of GTA3 that tickle the pundits: the violence, the amorality, the corruption of the youth, etc. This is because I’m looking at the game as a player, not as a pundit, and as a player, these issues aren’t particularly interesting. Even if games of this sort desensitize children to real violence (which has not been proved to my satisfaction), they are unlikely to have such an effect on me, a grown-up gamer with a healthy appreciation for the difference between games and reality. 1Reality doesn’t have save points. Approximately three decades of gaming have, however, pretty effectively desensitized me to violence in games. After Doom and God of War and so forth, the combat and assassination missions in GTA3 just don’t seem notably violent to me. The fact that you can kill innocent bystanders, without consequences in most cases, is a little unusual, but not unprecedented. The fact that it’s happening on a backdrop that resembles my neighborhood might provide a bit of a frisson if I were paying much attention to the scenery during firefights.

But there is an aspect of the game that’s starting to make me uneasy: the juxtaposition of violence with ethnic stereotyping. I suppose this has been part of the game all along, part of the juvenile humor in the random comments of passersby, but it wasn’t so visible at first. The first gang encountered in the game is the Mafia, and they’re presented as more of a generic mobster stereotype than an Italian stereotype. 2For example, they’re never seen jumping on goombas. But as the easy courier missions end and the combat missions come to the fore, I’m seeing more of the Latino and Chinese mobs, usually through crosshairs. They’re shown to be ridiculous caricatures, and then you kill them.

It’s funny that this didn’t bother me in GTA1. Perhaps it’s because all of the dialect humor in GTA1 was delivered through text in textboxes, which makes it seem less part of the gameworld. It’s also worth noting that I’m not bothered in this way by games, such as Return to Castle Wolfenstein or the various Indiana Jones games, that feature Nazis as caricatured German stereotypes which you kill. Nazis are something of a special case in our society.

Ultimately, the designers of the entire GTA series are going for shock value here, as elsewhere in the game. Paradoxically, this means there’s no real reason to be shocked. If this mock-and-slaughter stuff wasn’t considered socially offensive, then we would have cause for alarm.

1 Reality doesn’t have save points.
2 For example, they’re never seen jumping on goombas.

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