Thursday, December 30, 2010

Missions and Quests / How Grand Theft Auto taught me to love again

I recently traded in my PSP-1000, or Base Pack. It was old, battered, the battery was shot, the power pack had blown and i'd completed all the games I owned, and wasn't in any danger of getting any new ones. The last new game i'd gotten was Star Wars Battle Front Elite Squadron, on Father's day. That's when I discovered that the power pack was gone - it'd been on charge for about two months, and had the battery ran out after 15 minutes of play.
Whilst it was a hard decision, the only games I would definitely miss were the Grand Theft Auto games I had - Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. I think I actually knew my way around the streets of these two games better than my home town.

So, to help soften the blow, I bought myself GTA Chinatown Wars for the Nintendo DS. My wife has a DS and never uses it. It's my wife now, Dave!

I was thrilled to discover that Chinatown Wars is massive, detailed, immensely playable and possibly even more morally corrupt than the LC and VC Stories games.
In short order I found myself immersed in the sandbox of the game. Sod the actual missions - they're dangerous and likely to get you wasted or busted and cause the loss of your entire arsenal - i'm suddenly running around a huge map building a rep as a reliable and savvy drug dealer, making green and putting cheese in my pockets. Either that or feeding my burgeoning gambling addiction by way of scratch cards or rooting through dumpsters looking for guns or food.
Crime is glamorous.
The game play is 'top down' like the original GTA, and makes excellent use of the lower touch screen for controlling your GPS or throwing molotovs, hot wiring cars or reading emails.
Some screens from Chinatown Wars -
two game play shots, hot wiring a car and a cut scene
One of the things I love about the GTA series, especially since GTA 3, is the way the missions are assigned by recognisable characters. I quite liked Salvatore Leone, Phil Cassidy, Umberto Robina and others from the games.
All of the characters you meet in the games are obvious stock caricatures, often to comedic effect, but they all have a position, and they all want something, usually to do with the overall plot. None are neutral, and they all credible (if not actually believable).

And this led to a revelation, an epiphany if you will, when I first played GTA Liberty City Stories. This may be old news to many of you, but I found myself thinking "this is what my games should be like". Specifically, any 'quests' or 'missions' handed out should be for recognisable characters that polarise the players. They can either be loved or hated, but they should never be anonymous.
The players should always have a slight, ever present fear that something is about to go horribly wrong - either there will be unexpected complications or the guy who gave them this job will screw them over somehow.
It should always be clear to the players that the person they are talking to is an individual, and wants something bad. The players don't have to know immediately what it is, but they have to know that they are being used by this person to achieve a definite goal.

Ideally I would use these ideas in a Vampire: The Requiem game, as I see clear parallels between the dysfunctional social hierarchy of the Kindred and organised crime.

EDIT: Further to my train of thought, let's talk about 'Sandbox' games. GTA games allow the player to run around and entertain themselves in any number of ways. Players are not constrained by the game plot or missions. It is entirely possible to amass an in-game fortune and be thoroughly entertained without actually gunning down a single triad or hells angel.
Players can complete time trial races, street races, put out fires, dispense vigilante justice, save lives, drive taxi cabs, smuggle drugs, run protection rackets, sell guns and stolen cars, become a pimp, take on a set rampage challenge or just blow shit up.
I have even heard of somebody driving carefully around Liberty City and obeying traffic laws.

This level of player freedom is something I think every GM should aspire to. Some of the better games I have run have allowed the players to explore indefinitely. The better games I have played have happily provided me with ample rope with which to hang myself.