[24 February 2010]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Top 10, Top 25, Top 50. Lists, lists, lists. We have just about cleared the “list season” that makes up so much of the end of year housecleaning at so many media sites. I don’t generally read a whole lot of the “best 10 games of . . .” (because most often the most obvious suspects show up), however, I recently was perusing Steve Gaynor’s Fullbright blog, and I did check out an older post, “Design of the Decade”, that made a case for the games that “defined state of the art in game design in the ‘00’s” (Fullbright, 15 November 2009) and found myself really admiring Gaynor’s restraint in choosing a Top 10 list of games of the decade.
Given that Gaynor’s interest is in noting games of significance in terms of their innovativeness in game design, his choices seem very sound and what I found especially admirable was that they appear to be a list of games chosen not as favorites but for specific reasons related to his criteria. Making such selections without being colored by personal faves (as many lists of this sort by other critics often do) is often a pretty difficult thing to do. Gaynor does slip in a list of his own favorite games of the decade in a longer list of 25 later in his posting, which reveals his self control. For example, games like Rockstar’s Bully and Grand Theft Auto IV make his favorites list but not the list for best design. Grand Theft Auto III does make his best of the decade for design but not as one of his favorites at all.
It was the inclusion of Grand Theft Auto III that particularly got me thinking about the difference between taking pleasure in a game and realizing its importance from a design perspective. My own gut level reaction when I saw it on the Top 10 list was to think about games like Bully, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as being far superior in my estimation to GTA III and how undeserving GTA III is as representative of Rockstar’s achievements. Then I thought about Gaynor’s categories and had to admit that he was right, and I was wrong. GTA III might not be as masterfully crafted an open world as those other three games, but because of its seminal qualities, I have to admit that it should be there and seemingly that the other three shouldn’t make the list for design.
Games with considerably more “soul”, though, are present in the design list than GTA III. Bioshock and Portal, for example, are significant not only for design innovation but also for wedding that innovation to meaningful characterization, storylines, and especially atmosphere (the innovative design actually creates the depth of these elements in many instances). The most troublesome thing about Grand Theft Auto III from my perspective is that, while it is certainly a good game, it is a strangely soulless one with its nameless and voiceless protagonist and bizarrely designed setting in the form of the twisted and unnatural layout of Liberty City.
Bully, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas all resolve this problem as each one is able to breathe life into their thuggish protagonists and especially in their ability to create really meaningful worlds, each of which seemed to have a clear foundation in time and space. It seems to me that Bioshock is likely included on the design list for thse very reasons. One of the strengths and significances of Bioshock is its ability to generate spaces that seem real and occupied in ways that might be traced to the later Rockstar accomplishments moreso than to GTA III.
Which brings me back to my list of open world games from Rockstar. Of the three that I have mentioned, Bully is probably my own personal favorite. I like it as a satire of middle school years that evokes memories both pleasant but (mostly) painful. Nevertheless, it is Vice City that gives me some pause regarding its possible unfortunate snubbing on Gaynor’s list because it precedes the other two games and what it resulted in, other open world games (and not just those desgined by Rockstar) as well as other games in other genres that accomplish not only a successful open world playstyle but the creation of worlds that seem soulful and grounded in time and space.
I have written before about the significance of the craftsmanship of the setting of Vice City before (Music, Nostalgia, and Force: Grand Theft Auto and Sensory Immersion, PopMatters.com, 22 July 2009). However, I think it worthy of discussing some of these ideas again in order to note that the notion of creating a kind of “historical” reality in open world settings is important in understanding why more interesting open world games like The Saboteur and Assassin’s Creed have been developed in the wake of Vice City as well as the development of non-open world experiences that are examples of marvelously rendered atmospheric pieces like Bioshock and Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Vice City‘s contribution to open world design is that its development suggests that getting the mood of an era and place down is necessary to give an open world a “soul”. The game does so in interesting ways, some of which are related to representations based on actual history and place and some of which are even more interestingly based on perceptions of actual history and place.
The most obvious historical detail that lends Vice City so much of its atmosphere is, of course, its commitment to the sound of an era. The importance of the ability to tune the radio dial in Vice City and hear actual songs from the decade cannot be understated in its ability to evoke a sense of residing within the era. It is likewise an element that later designers would integrate into games based on historical periods (Bioshock and The Saboteur, for instance, evoke much earlier decades through the use of ambient music). Of course, GTA III first offered a radio dial to players as they jacked cars. The largely unfamiliar tunes that poured out of a cars speakers leave a player relatively cold, though. Whose music is that playing? Seemingly it was music that belonged to a fictional space as (for the most part) these songs were being heard for the first time in a made up place called Liberty City, a place very unlike the Vice City which featured familiar and thus more “real” tunes.
Additionally, while the name, Vice City, is fictional, the details of the world have an obvious correlative to Miami, especially a Miami of the 1980s (but more on that in a moment). As someone who spent an awful lot of time in Miami in the early 80s, none of the places in the game were obviously familiar to me, but the architecture and layout of buildings is. In particular, the beachfront area on the southeastern portion of the island with a road bordered on one side by beach and the other side by hotels is no direct correlate to any part of Miami that I know, but it looks like it could be and I can think of places quite similar to it.
Which brings me to my second observation about the way that setting is evoked in Vice City, not just through mimicking an actual historical reality (through things like the music in the game), but also through our perception of a historical reality. In other words, much of Vice City‘s authenticity is derived less from any kind of historical reality than it is from the fiction that helped shaped a sense of Miami in the 1980s. With Lance Vance (especially) as well as other characters sporting fashions aped from the television show Miami Vice and Tommy Vercetti engaging in events, like the swanky yacht party thrown by Colonel Cortez near the beginning of the game, that look like something out of one of the show’s episodes, Vice City becomes our perception of Miami (whether we were ever there in the 80s or not) as generated by Miami Vice.
Similarly, Vice City‘s many nods to Scarface further this mediated sense of what Miami is or was during this decade. Historical Miami is mediated by our experience of the place as universalized for Americans by film and television of the era. Someone from Boise who has never visited Miami can have a sense of what Miami is and was from the perspective of Sonny Crockett and Tony Montana. While Montana’s mansion might not be a place that a native of Miami could actually visit, when Tommy Vercetti begins to occupy a mansion in Vice City that looks like the spitting image of Montana’s place in the film, the player familiar with Scarface will recognize the correspondence and feel that they are “there”. It is what film has taught them to think of Miami being While certainly other games have attempted to simulate aspects of historical settings before, Vice City‘s thoroughness and level of detail and its mixture of perceived and real elements of such a setting seems to me largely unprecedented on this scale.
It is for this important way of implying correlation between real and fictive worlds and combining elements of both sight and sound from the real and fictive worlds that the game wants to make us believe in that I would argue that Vice City might be a more significant fixture in design during this decade in gaming than one might otherwise realize. Its influence on thinking about how to make us play make believe when we enter a virtual world may even be more critically important than GTA III, which admittedly brought us a genre but may not have as much impact as making designers reconsider something more subtle, but much more impactful on immersion in a world, authenticity of setting.
On the other hand, my point is not to call Gaynor’s list out. Again, I think that it is a well considered one. I just might want to add a personal favorite of my own to it with what I hope are well considered reasons related to the significance of its design and not just because it is a pleasure to play.