The way that players move around a game space has a big impact on the way they use and make sense of it. So what happens when the usual way of moving around a space changes? I’ve been experiencing just such a change, playing through the GTA IV add-ons, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.
I bought GTA IV on release (got the special edition and everything) and played through Niko Bellic’s story, but I never finished the final mission. Now I’m finally getting around to playing the add-ons, and two particular things about the way I’m moving around Liberty City have changed, one in each add-on. The first is the use of motorcycles in The Lost and Damned, and the second is my own self-imposed challenge of obeying traffic rules as I play through The Ballad of Gay Tony.
Riding motorcycles is, obviously, a major focus of The Lost and Damned. There’s no rule that Johnny Klebitz always has to ride a bike, but you’re definitely encouraged to do so, outside of the missions that provide four-wheeled transport. Part of this encouragement comes from the fictional context of Johnny’s biker character, but there’s also the easy access to motorcycles due to their placement outside safe houses and the end locations of missions, as well as the ability to call up The Lost’s road captain to have a bike delivered at any time.
But there are certain characteristics peculiar to riding motorcycles that change the way the player experiences the space of Liberty City. Firstly, motorcycles are smaller than cars, allowing the player to weave between traffic and generally avoid having their movement obstructed by cars. Second, the bikes The Lost ride are slower at top speed than the fastest cars or other bikes in the city. This means more time as you ride around to see the city. And third, bikes put the player-character – and through them, the player – closer to the road, and more open to the city around them, even when cruising the streets much faster than on foot. These factors all contribute to a greater sense of the player-character inhabiting the space.
On the other hand, obeying traffic rules delivers a greater sense of existing within the city, even if it also exposes some of the flaws in the game’s presentation of urban space within the gameplay.
Obeying traffic rules is entirely self-imposed in GTA games, and there’s not a whole lot of support for the practice provided by the game. Traffic moves slowly in Liberty City, and the lights can take a long time to change. Any timed mission is pretty much impossible to complete while obeying traffic rules, and the completion times for missions in The Ballad of Gay Tony are equally out of reach. In addition to this, traffic lights aren’t easily visible a lot of the time while driving. They pop in late on the console version, and are hard to keep in sight if you pull up close to an intersection, requiring a lot of fiddly camera movement to watch. And forget about indicating turns, there’s no provided functionality for that. Not to mention that NPC drivers are often imperfect in their own adherence to the traffic rules, running red lights, jostling in lanes, and nudging other cars out of the way while waiting for lights to change. Attempting to obey traffic rules almost immediately reveals that driving safely was never something the player was intended to do.
All that said, actually trying to obey traffic rules despite the effort required yields its own particular perspective on Liberty City. Waiting at lights and jogging the camera to keep them in view affords the player plenty of opportunities to take in the sights of the city, watch the people go by, and observe the finer details of the streets. You’ll also gain a sense of the flow of traffic around the city if you stay in your lane and follow the lane markings, taking note of one-way and single-lane streets.
What both of these different modes of moving around the game space demonstrate is the impact of the material workings of these means of travel on the player’s experience of space. It’s the particular way they work within the game’s systems that creates a distinctive experience. This points to the usefulness of a close analysis of game systems and their impact on play in understanding the player’s experience of the game space. It’s not enough to look just at the spaces of a game, you have to take account of the details of how the player comes to experience those spaces. Only then can you get a really meaningful understanding of the space.