As a part of the now blossoming sandbox genre, Crackdown was a game that chose to all but abandon narrative. Combining an RPG stat upgrading system with an impressive degree of physical mobility and strength, the game just plopped you down in a giant city and let you run amuck. Three gangs, each living in their own isolated section of the city, must be eliminated. Kill the main leader and the gang will fall, but if you want to curb the strength of his men, you can take out the lieutenants scattered around the area. Kill the arms dealer, and the gang’s guns become subpar. Kill their recruiter and there will be less thugs on the street. Anecdotal cutscenes will introduce these boss figures and explain the effects of their demise, but otherwise, there is no character interaction with them or that interacts as a traditional character might at all—no protagonist who speaks, no real response to your actions besides weakening the gang’s basic infrastructure. It is a pure example of a gaming space intended for the classic male gaming demographic.
This sentiment is somewhat mirrored in a postmortem detailing the problems that the game experienced during development. When recalling the four year development process, the lead designer mostly focuses on the difficulty of creating an engine and graphics that could support the game. Artistically, it is still gorgeous today, using darkly outlined edges with bright colors to create a vibrant and engaging aesthetic. The real joy of the game is just running around smashing stuff. Doing this improves stats (like incremental increases in jump distance), weapons proficiency, better car handling along with all the activities littered throughout the game. Weapons depots must be unlocked, every weapon in the game can be collected and safely stored. Car races and experience orbs all give the player something to conquer. These genre tropes are still prevalent in sandbox games today, but what is remarkable about Crackdown is that it does this without any real plot motivating the player. It’s just the urge to move around the environment that drives the player’s actions.
I cannot claim credit for recognizing that Crackdown represents a prime example of a masculine virtual space, a student blog post from Celia Pearce’s Game Design as Cultural Practice at Georgia Tech pointed out this idea out to me.
The idea of a gender-themed game design goes back to an essay by Henry Jenkins. Writing years ago when developers all but ignored female gamers, he attempted to argue that video games allow for important psychological development in growing teenagers. He is not outlining games that should specifically be played by either gender but rather using that theme to propose a new awareness that game design is about allowing kids to escape to an empowering world. By explaining the basic themes of a teenage male’s empowerment fantasy, the essay proposes alternatives that might be more broadly appealing. He writes, “To facilitate such immersive play, to achieve an appropriate level of “holding power” that enables children to transcend their immediate environments, video game spaces require concreteness and vividness.” A player must have a large space to explore freely, activities to discover, and a means of interaction that lets their imagination engage with the game. Jenkins points out that in his own family, telling his son to go play outside isn’t really an option in their city apartment. The observation led him to doing some digging about what precisely playing outside usually provides for a young boy. He explains, “Our physical surroundings are ‘relatively simple and relatively stable’ compared to the ‘overwhelmingly complex and ever shifting’ relations between people, and thus, they form core resources for identity formation. The unstructured spaces, the playforts and treehouses that children create for themselves in the cracks, gullies, back alleys, and vacant lots of the adult world constitute what Robin C. Moore (1986) calls ‘childhood’s domain’ or William Van Vliet (1983) has labeled as a “fourth environment” outside the adult-structured spaces of home, school, and playground.”
The freer and more open the area, the better the child can escape and modify their physical environment. Jenkins draws heavily on a study by E. Anthony Rotundo on play habits of boys in the 19th century or what is called “boy culture.” Jenkins points out that the fantasies and behavior of kids back then was just as remarkably violent as games are now. Jenkins further comments, “Nineteenth century ‘boy culture’ was sometimes brutally violent and physically aggressive; children hurt each other or got hurt trying to prove their mastery and daring. Twentieth century video game culture displaces this physical violence into a symbolic realm. Rather than beating each other up behind the school, boys combat imaginary characters, finding a potentially safer outlet for their aggressive feelings. We forget how violent previous boy culture was.” To back these claims, Rotundo examines prime examples of popular penny novels and stories from this era. Fighting Indians, raging sea battles, blood, guts, and violence are the things that have always interested young males growing up. These books worked through, “persistent images of blood-and-guts combat and cliff-hanging risks that compelled boys to keep reading, making their blood race with promises of thrills and more thrills. This rapid pace allowed little room for moral and emotional introspection. In turn, such stories provided fantasies which boys could enact upon their own environments.”
This is precisely the space that Crackdown elegantly creates. In any section of the city, the player is never completely safe until the gang has been defeated. Random drive-bys will always occur and each gang has their own strengths that make them dangerous in unique ways. The Volk use grenade launchers while the Shai-Gen keep a corporate army of snipers hammering you from the rooftops. Jenkins explains, “The space of the boy book is the space of adventure, risk-taking and danger, of a wild and untamed nature that must be mastered if one is to survive. The space of the boy book offers ‘no place to seek cover,’ and thus encourages fight-or-flight responses.” Crackdown always dangles the possibility of tackling the head gang leader once you find their hideout. Each time that you take down a lieutenant you are informed of your statistical chances of surviving an attack on the final boss. Once you hit 50%, the narrator will encourage you to take the odds or “flip a coin.” Exploration and risks are also encouraged because of the wide-open nature of the game’s setting. Although all of the bosses are basically the same as the thugs except they have far more health, their locations on the map are often distant and difficult to access. A boss hiding at an island fortress can be approached by well-guarded floating bridges or you can swim through a minefield to approach from the rear. Combat and even death are both very forgiving; you regenerate health and death by respawning at the armory of your choice. This is a game that encourages you to be daring inside its space.
The game is not without its flaws nor was its release not problematic. For Example, the ability to lock on to distant targets makes the rocket launcher the weapon of choice. The Halo 3 beta key could only be claimed by buying the game, fueling a lot of indignation and then mild support once the demo hit. One of the tenants of a “boy space” that Jenkins overlooks is the need for a driving purpose or goal, an achievement for the player to pursue. Crackdown’s lack of narrative means that once you max out the stats, there isn’t much driving the player to actually complete the game. User TheGum at gamefaqs sums up a much younger perspective than my views of Crackdown: “The first few hours are great, as you discover the layout of the city, build core stats, and hunt down the many orbs. But after you have the strength and agility maxed out, the game really crashes; hence, the crack loses its potency.” Where Crackdown succeeds is both providing an exotic world to explore and a slow expansion of the player’s ability to access, control, and destroy that environment.