Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Plenty of dialogue, but you don't say a word.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with the editor of the Phoenix about Grand Theft Auto. He had a young son who was interested in playing San Andreas, and wanted to know if these games could be as bad as he'd heard.

"Well," I told him, "It is true that you can do a lot of violent things. You can rob and kill people. But the thing is, the game doesn't force you to do it. And if you do go around mowing people down, there are consequences. The cops will come after you, and if you cause a lot of mayhem, eventually they'll call in the army. So it's not like it's a murder simulator. You aren't forced into anything. You can drive according to the rules if you want."

He later told me that he liked that answer. I did, too, at the time. But I've come to think that it was wrong -- or, perhaps, incomplete.

People will tell you that games are nothing more than sets of rules. This is obviously true, and it's often used as a defense to explain why violent games hold an appeal that may not be obvious to the casual observer. But it also strikes me as a dodge -- a way to avoid seeing what is in front of one's eyes. Because games aren't just sets of rules, they're also sets of verbs. The actions a game allows you to take, or not take, are what defines them.

Grand Theft Auto games are conspicuous in the verbs they offer to the player, and those they withhold. You can shoot or not shoot, punch or not punch, steal or not steal. What you can't do are make any meaningful choices that affect the world or the story. You can play a relatively mayhem-free game in sandbox mode, but what's the point? There is nothing else to do. And if you want to progress through the story, you are stuck with even more restrictive verbs. Rest assured, you will be punching, shooting, and stealing.*

It's for this reason that I find myself with less than no interest in playing Grand Theft Auto V. The world may be prettier, goofier stuff may happen, and maybe the story is even better, but why should I care? The series' verbs haven't changed in a decade.

Seeing things in a different light.

Recently, I played through Dishonored, a game that is all about expanding your vocabulary of verbs, and their syntax. Playing Dishonored as a pure shooter is an option, one that is supported by the game's systems but not necessarily encouraged. You can just kill everyone you see. You're also welcome to make your way through the game without killing anyone, something I attempted to do (and failed, without realizing it, at some point during the last mission). You can even make it to the end credits without an enemy ever seeing you, although I gave up on trying this almost immediately.

All this is possible because Dishonored pulls a bit of sleight-of-hand: instead of pitting you solely against opponents, it pits you against the map. This isn't a game where you're choosing between the fast gun that's inaccurate, the gun that's only powerful at close range, or the long-range weapon that takes forever to reload. It's a game where you're choosing to take a direct route through a garrison of guards, or one that goes over a rooftop and through a back entrance. And it gives you a varied collection of skills to do all this.

First and most useful is "Blink," an ability that silently teleports you to anywhere within range. The genius of Blink is that it can be used to support most any other action you might want to accomplish. In a lethal playthrough, you can Blink to a position advantageous to assassination. In a non-lethal playthrough, you can use it to sneak up behind people and incapacitate them (or use it to hide their unconscious bodies in out of the way places). In a ghost playthrough, Blink is your best tool for staying hidden while traversing a level. In a way, Blink isn't a verb -- it's an adverb.

Everything else you might choose to do in Dishonored changes your vocabulary of in-game actions. Depending on how you want to develop your character, you might unlock a double-jump. Or you might enjoy "Dark Vision," which allows you to see enemies through walls. Crucially, not all of the available powers are different ways to kill people -- but they do offer different ways to contend with the map. I loved this game.

Behold my crow-gun! Not to be confused with a Krogan.

I didn't realize how much I loved Dishonored, though, until I started playing another game. After completing the first couple acts, I wondered why I wasn't enthralled by BioShock Infinite. Certainly it wasn't the environment, which is gorgeous and imaginative, and it wasn't the story, which has my interest piqued. It seems like the sort of game I usually like. In comparison to Dishonored, the reason was obvious: the verbs.

The city of Columbia is beautiful. The architecture, the fashions, the blue sky above -- they're lush and unique. They're also a facade. In the gritty, rat-infested city of Dishonored's Dunwall, I became used to going places I wasn't allowed to be. If a door was locked, that meant it could be unlocked, or another entrance could be found. In Infinite's Columbia, a locked door is the same as a wall. It's a barrier, dressed up to look like something else. Unlocked doors tend to fly open in front of you; functionally, they may as well not be there at all. Only a few doors are interactive, usually for reasons of plot and pacing.

BioShock Infinite has a jump button, although I'm not sure why. You can't jump on anything higher than about knee level. More than once I've thrown myself against waist-high ledges, expecting to clamber over them, and been thwarted. Climb, surmount, hurdle -- these are not verbs in BioShock Infinite's vocabulary. By itself, that's not really a criticism. If a game is a set of verbs, then obviously its contents won't be, well, infinite. The problem I'm having is with the verbs BioShock Infinite does include.

Essentially, the only thing you can do in BioShock Infinite is shoot. So far I've picked up three "vigors" -- supernatural powers that ostensibly grant you extra abilities. One of them is the ability to throw fiery grenades, which is another way to say that it lets me shoot my enemies. One is the ability to summon a flock of ravenous crows, which is another way to say that it lets me shoot my enemies. And the first one I got, "possession," is the ability to temporarily take control of opposing persons and machines.

Dishonored has a possession ability, too, but in this case we're talking about homophones. To possess in Dishonored is to become another creature. You are a rat scurrying through a filthy tunnel connecting two rat-sized holes. You are a fish zipping through the currents under a bridge full of sentries. You are a sentry, striding through a security gate that would electrocute you in your usual form. If you're feeling sadistic, you may become a suicidal sentry, one who steps off of a rooftop with no warning. In any case, using this power grants you a new and different set of abilities, at least for a short time.

To possess in BioShock Infinite is to make other creatures become you. You are shooting at the cops with your gun, but if you choose to possess one, he will shoot at the cops with his gun. (For extra measure, he will turn the gun on himself upon returning to his senses.) You may possess a gun turret, which will shoot at the cops with itself. In no meaningful way are you controlling these entities, and in no meaningful way is this power providing you with anything more than synonyms: you're shooting, blasting, firing.

Now, it may be that as I progress into BioShock Infinite, some of this will change. Although it hasn't happened yet, there's potential for the Sky-Lines to become something interesting. The Vigors could open up more gameplay possibilities. Even if not, there's nothing inherently wrong with a game that focuses on shooting, and there's more to enjoy in the game, as I've already mentioned. My aim here isn't to slag on BioShock Infinite for not being precisely the game I might prefer it to be.

But it's been interesting to observe how games can differ from each other in more than aesthetics, and how mechanics that seem superficially similar can communicate vastly different ideas. The genetics of these games -- the rules -- aren't all that different. They're just speaking different languages.

*Grand Theft Auto games include a lot of mini-games and diversions, like playing poker, but even if partaking in them is sometimes quest-critical, I don't include them here for one important reason: there is no way to play through a Grand Theft Auto game only by playing poker.

1 comment:

Apolo Imagod said...

This was a great read. I like a lot the insight about the verbs, and using them in describing a game from a functional standpoint.

I loved Dishonored as well, and in many ways, it is more of a pure sandbox game than GTA is, if you measure that from the restrictions imposed on play ruleset. Still, I am loving GTA V!!! :-)