GTA: Challenges vs. Activities

An activityToday I finished GTA3. That is, I finished the last mission, which was indeed the one described in my last post. I’m still missing three hidden packages, and the game itself calls my current state “43% complete”, but I’ve completed the story and triggered the closing credits. The credits roll over a series of views of Liberty City from high vantage points, and as they scrolled by, I tried to spot any sign of the missing Hidden Packages in the background.

Completing the final mission took many tries. At the beginning of the mission, Catalina’s goons take your weapons away, which makes the rest of the mission more difficult. You basically have to start over with just a pistol and scavenge new weapons from progressively better-armed opponents, like the whole game in miniature. After a few attempts like this, I started to wonder if it would be worthwhile to instead go back to my hideout immediately after the mission starts and pick up all the free weapons I had earned by finding hidden packages. There’s a time limit, but the hideout isn’t all that far from where you start the mission. In the end, I did not complete the mission this way, but I think that this approach would have made it much easier if my hideout had had the one weapon capable of bringing down a helicopter: the rocket launcher, earnable by finding all 100 hidden packages.

So I did some more unsuccessful scouting for hidden packages, and while I wandered looking for them, I tried out some of the things to do in Liberty City that I had been neglecting. I think these things can be meaningfully divided into two categories: challenges and activities.

By “challenge”, I mean something resembling a mission: you are assigned a goal, it is difficult to achieve that goal, and once you’ve done it, it’s done. It has some kind of permanent effect on the gameworld, at the very least deleting itself from the pool of available challenges. Optional challenges in GTA3 include Rampages, various missions not connected to the storyline and assigned by payphone, and certain special vehicles that, when entered, offer you an opportunity to earn extra cash by racing through a set of checkpoints before a timer runs out.

By “activity”, I mean something that has no final goal, that is not difficult, that you can do as much or as little as you please, and that, if it’s connected to the larger game at all, provides some incremental benefit rather than a single significant change to game state. In a typical CRPG, killing low-level monsters for the sake of XP would be an activity. Activities in GTA3 mostly involve service vehicles of various kinds. Steal a taxi, and you can drive passengers around for fares. Steal an ambulance and you can deliver wounded people to the hospital. Steal a fire engine and you can extinguish flaming vehicles. Steal a police car and you can go into “vigilante” mode, hunting down and killing assigned criminals. Steal an ice cream truck… well, okay, there isn’t a special activity for ice cream trucks, but there should be.

The fire engine activity is of particular interest, because while you’re doing it, the fire engine seems to be invulnerable. Since it’s also massive and powerful, this makes for the perfect opportunity to smash your way down the road, not caring what happens to the other cars. Indeed, I find that the easiest way to aim your firehose at the car that you’re supposed to be dousing is to just ram it at full speed.

The vigilante activity is also of note, because unlike the other vehicle activities, you can exit the car and continue the hunt. This is crucial, because police cars are prone to flipping over and exploding.

Now, although I tried all kinds of challenges and activities this afternoon, I spent most of my time on activities. An activity can be a nice break from a difficult challenge (such as the game’s final mission), and can give you an opportunity to hone your skills in a low-risk environment, which is really what gaming is all about in the broader world. Thus, activities are a good thing in a game, provided that they’re optional.

GTA3: Climax or Transition?

Catalina makes her moveThere’s something peculiar going on at this point in the story. Ray has fled to Miami (what, not Vice City?), Donald Love has vanished without a trace, and Asuka and Maria were abducted by the Colombian cartel. More specifically, they were abducted by a woman named Catalina, who apparently has some bad history with the player character. (It seems this was established in the opening cutscene, but it’s been so long since I watched it that I don’t remember her at all). Catalina is turning into the story’s chief bad guy. No, make that the story’s chief antagonist. Everyone in the game, including the PC, is a bad guy.

So all my former sources of plot-related missions are gone in one way or another. The only mission now available is delivering ransom money to Catalina herself. On receiving it, she breaks her promise to free Maria, insults you with great vehemence, and then leaves her henchmen to kill you while she escapes in a helicopter. What happens when you catch up to her, I can’t say; I haven’t managed to do that yet.

And this leads to the peculiar thing: this could easily be the end of the game. The story has come full circle, everything has funnelled into this one confrontation, and the car-vs-helicopter chase seems kind of ultimate. But it might just be the end of a chapter. The first chapter similarly funnels into a single mission requiring a large amount of cash after you complete all the missions for the Mafia in Portland. As a result of finishing that mission, you gain access to Staunton Island and can get new missions from the Yakuza. The same narrowing of options occurs in the second chapter, and ends when Shoreside Vale becomes available, but you still get your missions in Staunton, even as the content of those missions takes you into the newly-opened territory. Catalina’s ransom demand is the first mission that starts in Shoreside Vale. Maybe this is just the start of a shift to the new area, and a new series of missions will follow, probably involving Catalina in some way.

This uncertainty is something peculiar to games. When reading a book, you always know how far you are from the end. When watching a movie, you may not know exactly, but you know approximately how long it is and how long you’ve been watching it. With a game, all you have to go on is the game’s content. A lot of games make it obvious when you’re approaching the end, by making it clear what your ultimate objective is and providing some metric of how close you are to that objective. For example, if a game is divided into levels, and you’re told in adavance how many levels a game has, the number of levels you’ve completed serves as such a metric. But this sort of thing is the result of deliberate design decisions, and not inherent to the medium. The geography of Liberty City, and the design of the first chapter, suggest that this is a story with three chapters tied to the three districts, but the missions in what I’ve been calling “chapter 3” call this into doubt.

GTA3: Dodo

My proudest momentWith access to the airport comes access to aircraft. Not many, though. There’s a herd of jumbo jets just kind of sitting around, and a pile of helicopters off in one corner, but the only craft you can actually fly is the Dodo, a small prop plane with an absurdly small wingspan.

And when I say you can fly it, I mean this in the loosest possible sense. It isn’t really an airplane designed for flying. (Maybe it would be more aerodynamic if they put the rest of the wings on.) The way it works is: you position yourself on a runway, you push the “go forward” button, you wait until you’ve got a good head of speed, you pull the joystick back, you rise off the ground briefly, you fall back to the ground. Usually you spend two seconds airborne, but with repeated attempts, I find I can spend up to four or even five seconds before touching down. I’ve had longer flights than that in a car.

Perhaps I’m doing something wrong. There are no in-game instructions for flying the dodo (or if there are, they flashed by while I wasn’t paying attention), so it’s possible that there’s some button I should be pushing that I’m not. The thing is, I’m eager to get this contraption aloft if possible, because if it is, there are probably some hidden packages in places that are only accessible that way. There are some promising spots I’d like to look at, such as inside the stadium on Staunton Island. Since I’ve found 96 out of 100 hidden packages so far, this may well be all that stands in the way of a complete collection and, with it, free rocket launchers.

GTA3: Act 3

After a marathon session of mission after mission, I have gained access to Shoreside Vale. It’s basically suburbs and an airport, the New Jersey to Liberty City’s Manhattan. So much for my theory about progress in urban games being measured by ritziness of environment.

One thing that surprises me now is that the game is turning out to have an actual plot, and maybe even themes. There wasn’t any real story in the first two GTAs — how could there be, when every single mission was optional? That obviously isn’t the case here, but look at the protagonist: he’s mute, nameless, and defined solely by his role in doing missions, which are chosen for him and which he passively accepts. How much of a story can there be about such a person?

Not much, perhaps, but more than I was expecting. Let me describe the major plot events so far. First, you escape from prison and fall in with the Mafia. They send you on various missions against their competition, but in the end, despite your exemplary service, Sergio, the big boss, tries to have you killed: he thinks his wife, Maria, has taken you as a lover. With Maria, you flee to Staunton Island to do jobs for the Yakuza, which is ruled by a a brother and sister named Asuka and Kenji. They have you take payoff money to a crooked policeman named Ray, who in turn gives you a job destroying evidence against another of his donors, Donald Love, a prominent businessman and owner of one of the radio stations you’ve been listening to on your car radio all along. Donald Love has a scheme that requires lowering property values, so he asks you to start a gang war by killing Kenji and making it look like the Colombian cartel did it.

Now, you have to understand that this gambit, faking an attack to start a gang war, was used extensively in the first two games, entirely without consequence. In GTA2, each level had three gangs on it, and I think every one of them had a mission to start a war between the other two. But missions in those games were isolated, self-contained scenarios, not part of a storyline. You’d nominally “start a gang war”, but nothing would change. So it was a little shocking to find, in a mission that took me into Colombian turf early in Act 3, that the gang war was still in progress, and that Asuka, who had disappeared from the story once she ran out of missions for me, is still around and obsessed with finding and punishing the guy who killed her brother.

At the moment, Asuka still regards me as an ally, and is willing to send me on new missions.The irony is that throughout the game, various characters have blamed me for things that weren’t my fault: Sergio most obviously, but Kenji and Ray also had their unprovoked outbursts. So of course the one time I actually commit a grievous offense against one of my benefactors, I get no blame at all. It’s an uneasy situation, though, and produces twinges of guilt in a way that running down random pedestrians doesn’t for some reason. Act 3 may well turn out to be a time of revelation and reckoning.

GTA3: Reckless Driving

If the core of the entire GTA series is reckless driving, it took them three tries to get it right. The first two games have an overall mechanic that discourages taking risks most of the time.

In the first two GTAs, no particular missions were required for progress. To get from one level to the next, all you needed was enough money. In theory, you could earn the entire amount through petty crime, but finishing a level would take days that way. The key to advancement was the score multiplier, which increased the cash you got from everything. If your multiplier was 10, a simple fender bender worth $10 before modification would instead get you $100, equivalent to running over a pedestrian without the multiplier.

So, how did you increase your score multiplier? Each level would have a few powerups in obscure corners that did it for free, but the main way you did it was by completing missions. That’s the thing that made missions important. The cash reward for the mission was a nice extra, but the multiplier was the real motivation.

Now, the opportunities to increase your score multiplier were limited. There were only so many missions on each level, and unlike GTA3, if you failed a mission, you couldn’t retry it. And in GTA1, there was no way to save the game between missions; only after finishing a level could you save. So every time you failed a mission, you irrevocably wasted a potential multiplier increase, in effect losing a number of points equal to all the points you would earn from that moment onward. In addition, if you got arrested on a mission, the cops would confiscate part of your multiplier. So there was a great deal of motivation to not take risks, especially on missions. If you ever, at any point in a mission, acquired a “wanted” rating, the top priority was to get rid of it. Missions with a time limit could be an exception, but even in those, you tried to be as careful as you could.

In contrast, GTA3:

  • Has no score multiplier
  • Allows you to save your progress between missions
  • Allows you to retry missions even if you didn’t save

All of the GTA games provide the same basic motivation for driving recklessly, ignoring traffic lights, driving on sidewalks, and so forth: it’s fun, and with the interface they give you, breaking the rules is easier than following them. (I half suspect that the developers were at first just experimenting with a driving interface, and came up with the crime theme after noticing how the system they had come up with encouraged car-chase-like behavior.) In GTA3, for the first time, they had the good sense to not punish you for following this instinct. Even crashes that in GTA1 would make your car immediately blow up in an unrealistic orange fireball usually give you an opportunity to climb out and escape in GTA3.

GTA3: Staunton Island

At this point, I’ve spent several hours on Staunton Island, the second of Liberty City’s three major areas. If Portland is modelled mainly on lower Manhattan, Staunton is more like midtown: less industrial facilities and urban decay, more retail and tourist attractions. It strikes me that this is the pattern in most games in urban settings, from Leisure Suit Larry onward: you start off in the slums and work your way up to the wealthier areas. I suppose that’s the American dream for you. But it’s the opposite of the general trend in fantasy games, which often start in a peaceful, happy, prosperous kingdom and end in the gameworld’s equivalent of Mordor.

I haven’t done many missions here yet, partly because the missions are starting to get much more difficult, partly because I’ve been spending so much time wandering the streets, getting the lay of the land, and hunting for Hidden Packages. These things are related: the reason I’m hunting for hidden packages is that I’m doing so poorly on the missions. I’ll say this, though: I’m getting pretty good at finding the hidden packages efficiently. Once you learn how the designers think, it’s not hard to spot the right kind of landscape feature. If there’s a staircase, you climb it. If there’s an area enclosed by a low wall, you find a way inside. If there’s an elevated roadway of any kind, you look for rooftops that you could reach by dropping off of it.

I keep talking about the hidden packages. Reading my posts, you might think that the hidden packages are a central concern in the game. They’re not. They’re optional bonus items. You get a free weapon at your hideout for every ten packages you collect, but that’s a mere convenience. They’re no more important to the game than the “rampages” (opportunities to score big by killing a set number of a particular gang), which I’ve been ignoring when I find them. No, the important thing, the emotional core of the game, is the simple joy of reckless driving.

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.

GTA3: Taking Fun as Simply Fun

I said that I’m playing GTA3 “in earnest” now. When I was still wrestling with hardware issues, I knew I wasn’t going to bother saving the game, so I didn’t try to make progress. I just explored a little, found a few hidden packages without trying, drove at whatever speed I pleased, and quit when I felt like it. Now, things are different. I don’t quit without first heading back to the hideout to save the game. When I explore, it’s because I’m looking for something. When I drive, I’m attentive to either safety or time, depending.

This makes a big difference to the feel of the game, even when I’m not actively on a mission. The more focussed I am on what I’m doing, the less I’m soaking in the game’s ambience. The thing is, I suspect that the way I was playing it at first is more like the way most of the game’s fans played it. Just enjoying the experience without “lust for result”, either finishing it after a matter of months because they played it so much that they eventually played it all, or not even getting that far but going on to the next sequel when it was released. Is this a better way to approach the game? Maybe. I do intend to take things kind of easy while I can, enjoying the simulated sunsets and so forth, because I anticipate the later missions requiring more attention.

Maybe I should play The Sims next. It’s on the stack.

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