Why Buying a Hot Dog Makes For Great Storytelling

Recently I, like most of the gaming world, have had my free time completely dominated by Grand Theft Auto IV. I can go into detail about everything that makes the game great, but I can’t really say anything that hasn’t been said in seven pages elsewhere. What I’m most interested in, and what is most relevant to the subject of this blog, is the game’s incredible depth, and how it so effectively increases the game’s ability to draw the player into its story.

The most significant factor in this ability is Liberty City itself. It’s the closest that video games have ever come to a fully-realized city, consisting of actual buildings in addition to streets. What I mean here is that for most free-roaming city games in the past, gameplay took place on the streets, and the buildings were merely walls that were there to confine gameplay. Many buildings in Grand Theft Auto III didn’t even have rooftops, as helicopters and airplanes were not introduced until Vice City. Most buildings did not have interiors and could not be entered; those that could served a specific purpose, such as selling guns, clothing, or fast food (health).

Grand Theft Auto IV, by comparison, has many buildings with interiors that serve no specific function. They’re just there, and I’m free to enter them and use them as I see fit, whether I need a strategic choke-point for a gunfight, or I’m merely passing through on your way to the rooftop. Other interiors expand the weapons-clothes-health trinity of past games. GTA4 has bars, bowling alleys, pool halls, comedy clubs, cabarets, and strip clubs, in addition to expanding food services to include sit-down restaurants in addition to fast food. Hospitals serve a purpose beyond simple respawn points when my character dies, since you can go inside them for first aid as well

Then there are the pedestrians. They’ll carry on conversations with each other, will answer cell phones, go shopping, get in a car, and get pulled over by the police themselves. In more dangerous neighborhoods, gang shootouts can erupt on a street corner. The city’s population reacts to itself, not just me. Two specific events in my time playing the game stand out to me as an example of this:

1. For fun, I was slowly cruising along the sidewalk, honking my horn at pedestrians who would then freak out. (There’s plenty of more G-rated fun to be had in this game.) One of them got mad, and without me seeing him, ran up to my driver’s-side door, pulled me out, and got in my car. Just as he did so, a cop car that had pulled up behind me turned on its siren and took off after the carjacker.

2. I was doing one of the “Most Wanted” missions through a police computer, and pulled up to where my targets were holed up. As I stepped out of the car, they started shooting at me, and the gunfire triggered another shootout between two gangs on the street, I imagine because each mistakenly assumed the other started it. Then the cops rolled up. My little vigilante mission had turned into a massive five-way shootout between me, my targets, the two gangs, and the police.

This all adds up to create a setting that exists regardless of my input. It changes Liberty City from the setting of a specific story to a place where stories happen. Many games have environments that feel forced, like they exist solely as a place for the game’s story and don’t exist when the player is not there. (e.g. Multiple long series of empty but architecturally interesting rooms in Halo: Combat Evolved.) As the setting becomes more believable, its various narratives will be more able to draw the player in.

Further adding to the game’s depth is the player’s ability to interact with the environment. I can go and buy a hot dog from a cart, or a soda from a magazine stand. I can access a police computer, call 911 for help, or go on the internet. I can even watch TV or go to a show. I like to think of all this as not adding interaction to the game, but rather removing barriers.

Often, when playing a game, players will think of a solution to a problem or find some new place to explore only to be met with the game telling them, “No, you can’t do that here.” A lot of the time, this is in direct conflict with real-world logic, such as the ever-popular Insurmountable Waist High Fence. (This is an extremely evil technique in game design, and should die.) Grand Theft Auto IV, by adding so many interactions to the game, is essentially letting me do what I logically should be able to do, and by removing so many of those barriers that say, “Stop! This is a game, and you must obey game logic!” it drastically decreases the frequency of a player getting jolted out of the game’s state of immersion.


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