Thursday, September 9, 2010

Liberty Cities

Crossing back-and-forth across Liberty City as Niko Bellic, I pass the same districts and landmarks many times every hours. I visit the same Burger Shot a block from Middle Park to restore my health as I once again cross the same bridge and exit on the same highway. However, there are city blocks, mere metres from my regular commute, that I may only glimpse once every ten hours. Other locales may go upwards of twenty, fifty, even a hundred hours without Niko laying eyes on them. When I do eventually stumble across these spaces (usually while hunting down a criminal or an elusive pigeon) I marvel that such spaces could have existed all this time without me knowing.
Something similar happens in real life. In Brisbane, I live near a fairly major road. Not a freeway or anything, but a major thoroughfare from the CBD to the western suburbs nonetheless. I live on the southern side of this road, and my bus travels up and down it everyday when I commute into the city. The northern side of the road is really not that different from the southern side. Yet, for me, the road has become some kind of imaginary border. I have little reason to ever travel north of the road; the streets beyond it have become this abstract, foreign land whose topography is nonsensical to me simply because I rarely go there.
The other week, my girlfriend and I drove into this strange land to visit an old friend. I was dumbfounded. What was this place? Were we even in the same city anymore? How could such a place exist so near to my home for so long without me ever seeing it? Yet, there were houses here. And cars. And shops. Clearly, people lived here. People not unlike me. For someone living in these suburbs, there would be absolutely nothing strange about The Area North Of The Road at all. Perhaps for them, the southern side of the road is the bizarre, exotic land.
Two people in the same city can see the same places in completely different ways. This in itself is not a particularly revolutionary idea. Clearly, individual circumstances such as social standing, means of transportation, physical capability, income, and class (just to name a few) are all going to affect how we interact with our environment. What I find fascinating is that this implies we never truly, objectively understand a space—we only ever perceive it subjectively, based on our own circumstances.
What does this mean for game spaces? What circumstances are in play that affect how we comprehend the worlds games present us? Or, more pertinently, whose circumstances? There are several elements worth noting, but in this post I want to highlight the significance of the playable character’s circumstances in filtering our understanding of the game world.
That’s right. The character. Within the game’s fiction and mechanics, the character that we control in the game world has individual circumstances such as social standing, means of transportation, income, physical capability, etc. These circumstances affect the character’s understanding of their place and role in the world, and this in turns affects how the player perceives and navigates the game space.
Placing the same player in the shoes of three vastly different characters within the same game space, Grand Theft Auto IV and its two DLCs are perfectly situated to demonstrate this. My understanding of Liberty City—both as a fictional world and a navigable game space—changed based on the character I was experiencing it through. While Niko, fresh off the boat, rarely travelled to Alderney, Broker may as well be a foreign country to The Lost and the Damned’s Johnny Klebitz. Meanwhile, The Ballad of Gay Tony’s Luis Lopez lives between the glitzy high-rises of downtown Algonquin and the projects of North Holland, rarely concerned with the other islands. The blatant difference in circumstance between the three characters both in regards to the game’s fiction (e.g. the characters’ differing personalities) and the game’s design (e.g. the different positioning of safe house, access to different weapons), trickled down to affect the ways I perceived and navigated Liberty City in very subtle ways.

The roadmap that had been inscribed in my mind as Niko (shop at this store; sleep in this borough; use this major road to get to that suburb) is formatted and cleared when I jump on Johnny’s bike. Alleyways, courtyards, and burger joints that I pass without a second glance as Niko, I suddenly notice as Johnny. This was not simply a case of not being thorough in my initial playthrough—by the time I first played The Lost and the Damned, I had spent well over a hundred hours in Liberty City as Niko.
At the time, it seemed impossible to me that I could still stumble across areas that I had never before seen. Once or twice I actually reloaded my original game just to check these places were actually there in the original story. Sure enough, they were; me-as-Niko had just never noticed them. Then, several months later, I discovered even more locations when I stepped into the shoes of Gay Tony’s right-hand man, Luis.
So what changed? I was exploring the exact same city with the exact same controls with what were more-or-less the exact same models with different textures on top. Simply, the difference is perspective. Niko, Johnny, and Luis all look at Liberty City through a different lens (as a fresh start, as a corrupt cesspit, as a mine of drunk socialites) and I as the player could not help but be influenced by this.
Each character looked at the city from a different angle. While Niko looks west to Liberty City’s trademark skyline from the docks he arrived in, Johnny gazes east at a mirror-image city from the safety of his clubhouse, and Luis (to appropriate a cliché) can’t see the city for the skyscrapers. It is inevitable that the three would see three different Liberty Cities, and that the player, looking through the character, would see each city slightly differently.
This is not something unique to Grand Theft Auto IV, or even to open-world games. I would argue that our understanding and perception of all game worlds are influenced by the circumstance of the character we experience it through.
Often this is depicted literally as part of the game’s mechanics. Optimal drainpipes and ledges don’t actually glow red in the world of Mirror’s Edge, that is just how Faith (and by extension the player) sees her world. Left 4 Dead’s survivors see each level as a path to a safe house while the special infected see a playground of ledges and blind spots. Killzone 2’s invading force sees an evil dictatorship and faceless soldiers with glowing red eyes, not a viciously patriotic people defending their home planet.
All of this is not to say that the character is the only element that influences the player’s navigation of a space. Certainly, game levels are designed in a way that the space asks to be used in very explicit ways, and the character we are asked to play is arguably a small subset of this.
It is also worth noting that how the character sees their world depends on how the player sees the character. I sympathised with Niko as a broken, tragic character trapped in a cycle of violence he desperately wanted to get out of but only ever made worse. A different player, though, could just as understandably see Niko as a crazed madman not worth a moment’s pity. That player’s Liberty City is still filtered through a Niko Bellic, just not the same Niko Bellic as my Liberty City.
The character is a lens through which our understanding of the game world will always be filtered. We can never see the world as it ‘is’, just as it looks from our own point-of-view.

8 comments:

Fraser Allison said...

I've had the same experience, both in Liberty City and in Melbourne. I've often thought about drawing a map of the streets of Melbourne that I recognise. It would look something like an explosion: odd blobs of known space clustered thickly at the centre and scattering randomly toward the edges, connected by thin strands running along train lines and major highways.

I also found in GTAIV that I semi-consciously assigned each protagonist a car profile. Obviously Johnny frequently expressed his disgust at riding anything other than an American motorbike, but I took that to heart much more than I would have expected, to the extent that I really didn't feel comfortable driving a car - and while I found many of the bike races only winnable in a Japanese-style sports bike, using them felt like a betrayal. But at least that was backed up by the story, and the bike riding mechanics had been improved in TLAD. I couldn't tell you why I decided Niko liked muscle cars and Luis liked sporty cars.

Nobody liked SUVs.

Sean Di Lizio said...

The southside of Brisbane is a dark chasm for me, over which the South East Freeway and Gateway Motorway passes. Even the people there seem different to me, that they are somehow not Brisbanites by the definition I set, but a different species altogether.

A fascinating post as always, Brendan.

Brendan said...

Hi Fraser.

I imagine my map of Brisbane would look somewhat similar. Perhaps mine would be like some fireworks--I could draw all the main roads out of the city, but apart from the north and the west (but not the northwest), I could not draw much a block or two away from those roads.

My GTAIV characters also had their own vehicular tastes. I wasn't even considering it consciously until I got in a car as Johnny and it just felt... weird.

Brendan said...

Hey Sean, thanks for reading. :)

I still remember the first time I ended up on a bus going through Stone's Corner. I was so perplexed! It brings to mind the episode of The Simpsons where Lisa has to ride the bus to the Museum and ends up in all these bizarre, surreal areas.

A3 said...

I remember discovering much of the city when I tried to find all the stunt jumps. Locations I'd driven through dozens of times and never noticed suddenly jumped out at me.

If you think about it, it's interesting that so many sandbox games follow a single character and a single narrative arc. Since much of the enjoyment of those games is in exploring the sandbox, taking on the roles of different characters with unique viewpoints throughout the game might be a better experience.

Brendan said...

Hi A3, thanks for stopping by. I had a similar experience while using a guide to find all the pigeons. I had a list of street addresses of the pigeons, and the road map that came with the game. Using the guide felt less like cheating and more like having a means to discover parts of the city I never would have seen otherwise--at least as Niko.

I agree that multiple characters could really flesh out a game world. Personally, I would like to see videogames try to do a Pulp Fiction/Snatch kind of thing with the multiple stories all interconnecting. To an extent, I guess ODST kind of did this. I kept having these moments as the Rookie at night where I would click and think "Wait. This place is that place that I explored as that other character!"

Humingway said...

Great post! Have you come across the psychological theory of affordances? I think that may be the "official" term for what you describe.

kadam said...

>Personally, I would like to see
>videogames try to do a Pulp
>Fiction/Snatch kind of thing
>with the multiple stories all
>interconnecting.

Aside from being interesting for narrative, this makes a lot of financial sense for studios—Rockstar was able to use the same map assets for what amount to three discrete single- and multi-player experiences, pushing the envelope each time without abandoning the hours they poured into the world. It's a familiar game: Every day we live a slightly different story in a familiar location, and it never gets old as long as we evolve as "players" (in this case social human beings).

My only regret is that Rockstar will abandon Liberty City for a new location; I could have enjoyed three or four more brief narratives in the world of GTA IV. I know I haven't been down every alley yet.