Freedom: what William Wallace fought and died for. It’s a word that is devoid of meaning due to how often it gets thrown around (not that it was ever meaningful in and of itself), and when we talk about freedom in games, it’s hard to say what we really mean, but I would argue that games provide a basic sense (possibly an illusion) of freedom in that they distract us from our everyday lives. Depending on the game, different types of freedoms can be experienced, but generally speaking, games allow us to lead other lives, do extraordinary things, and explore virtual spaces. This isn’t real freedom, whatever real freedom is, but it’s a wonderful feeling.
A game’s ability to provide this sense of freedom can be a deciding factor in its success, and according to Gonzalo Frasca, it was one of the key differences between the wildly successful GTA3 and the less successful Shenmue (note: Shenmue is intensely popular amongst a specific fan base). The games aren’t all that similar, but they both provided a “sand-box” experience, which is gameplay that doesn’t necessarily follow a linear plot and allows for more exploration. Now if you’ve ever played Shenmue, then you know that although the game is conducive to exploration and side-questing, it is also heavily plot driven (the main character is hunting down his father’s killer). Frasca argues that the linearity of Shenmue’s plot, the tedium of traveling through the game world, and the lack of role-play consistency in interactions with NPCs are gameplay factors that hindered the sense of freedom Shenmue provided.
I bring this article to your attention, dear reader, not because I particularly agree with Frasca’s arguments, but because this article is a primo example of how Game Studies can help us understand the phenomenon of videogames. This specific example is not quite as polished as a traditional academic paper, but it tackles preconscious gameplay experiences and elaborates on then in an intuitive and accessible manner while respecting the complexities of the experiences being discussed. Plus, I really like Frasca’s writing style: laid back yet knowledgeable.
As usual, I could paraphrase some of the finer points of this article, but I’d rather copy and paste. At one point in the article, Frasca compares GTA3 to a flight simulator and notes, “Even though GTA3 involves more roleplaying, the feeling of driving around Liberty City reminded me of my early friendly virtual skies, not only by the way it deals with space but also because of its rules. GTA3 has several clear quests but the player is not forced to follow them. Every time I felt a bit disoriented, I did not mind taking the game designer’s hand and following him through a mission where my goals had been clearly stated. Yet, most of the time, I enjoyed using the environment as a giant laboratory for experimentation, where I could test the system’s boundaries and set my own creative goals.”
When discussing the tedium of traveling through space in regular games ( a big issue in Shenmue), Frasca demonstrates how GTA allows the player to “go to the other side of Liberty City, you do not waste your time: you actually enjoy it. The means of transportation is fun: you carjack a nice car and then drive it according to your mood – either smashing other cars, using the wrong lane or being chased by cops. Driving in GTA3 is a game in itself…As should be clear by now, one of GTA3’s particular design characteristics is that it succeeds at transforming a traditionally boring activity (moving through space) into an enjoyable game (car simulation). This is an elegant design solution which is coherent with the game’s premises and do not disturb players from their particular goals.”
And he argues that GTA’s NPC interactions are role-play consistent “because both the game’s main character and the setting can afford this: you control a violent protagonist in a violent world; there is no need for negotiation. Car crashes, baseball bats and flamethrowers are the tools for “communicating” in this world. You never regret not being able to talk to NPCs simply because they are not worth talking with: it’s much better to kill them. In contrast, compare this to what happens in narrative, a detective character cannot survive without talking, asking questions, making inquiries. Action heroes can certainly get away without all the chitchat…This is GTA3’s second major design accomplishment: creating both a main character and a world that allows the game to live practically without any form of verbal communication. Shenmue’s NPCs’ discourses are so limited that they keep breaking the immersion: players are continually reminded that they are dealing with a bot. GTA3’s lack of talking puppets allows players to focus on the action. Of course, this dehumanizes and objectifies NPC characters”
If you can’t tell by the colossal block quotes, I really like this article and highly recommend it. In my opinion, this is the kind of writing that takes actual gameplay experience, theoretical concepts, player psychology, and technical game design into account. It combines the insight of multiple disciplines and makes informed claims about specific games (in this case GTA3 and Shenmue) and hypothetical claims about games in general. Whether these claims are truthful is up to debate, but they’re well thought out, provocative, and worth talking about.