Save a little unfinished business with some Yardies, I've effectively finished Grand Theft Auto 3. I say 'effectively' as, unlike Tetris which has been scientifically proven to be of finite length, it's almost impossible to conceive of 'finishing' in Liberty City, the mis-en-scène in GTA3. I know it's been around a while, but I'm so impressed with the game. Not in its cartoon violence, rich graphics and sound design, or sub-Godfather plot cliches, but in its convincing realisation of the city. Of a city in which you live, at your own pace, going about activities of your own volition - an open-ended approach in which you engage - or not - with non-linear narratives within a simulacrum of a living, breathing city.
Jessica Hammer, who studies interactive narratives at NYU, gave us at BBCi a talk the other day (Lee Harker's notes here). I actually disagree a little with Jessica (whose talk was generally fascinating otherwise) in that she said GTA3 "manages expectations well" i.e. you expect to be able to drive, and enjoy the functionality model associated with driving, but you don't expect to be able to do an awful lot else, in terms of interacting with the city. Well, as I drove my freshly-nicked car through the plate-glass window of a cybercaff last night, jumped out of the car and leapt upstairs in order to tax an OAP and steal some Diablo's drugs, I remarked to myself "She's wrong". For such is the level of detail of modelled behaviour outside of the driving model, that you expect to be able to enter every shop, sit down in cafes, go to the flicks, stroll along the beach, hold up citizens at gunpoint, watch planes circle around the airport ... or just cruise around listening to the radio. It's a continually crushing disappointment that you can only do a few of these things.
The success of this game is not the aesthetics, though they're often quite beautiful. Nor is it the cute politics hilariously implicit in the game (taking a similar stance to extrapolating our mediasphere that the Robocop films did). It's just that aesthetics are only partly relevant; that they'll improve over time, almost without trying (we really don't have to worry about that curve). But, just as with adaptive design and 'new rationalism', design dissolves in behaviour. It's the shape of the city over time that's important, not the visuals - the fact you can move through it; the fact it changes, in shifting recognisable patterns; the fact you can alter it. Again the behaviour is what's important (as noted by Colin Hughes at Sony Research last week). And developers Rockstar Games have modelled that brilliantly.
In fact, so brilliantly, that the series is set up perfectly for the next developments in games. The next iteration of GTA (no.4) is due next month, and there probably won't be any paradigm shifting yet (though it looks fabulous, set as it is in 80s Miami - check this 'fake website' for an example of typically smart guerrila marketing, and here's the already-insanely-detailed official site for full-on sleeves-rolled-up, big booty bass, Hall & Oates style action). GTA5 however, will surely take advantage of the network gaming possibilities likely at that time. With Sony now bringing out its PS2 network adapter (Xbox to follow; PCs already there) it's a short step to a living, breathing Liberty City, not populated with limited AIs, but with other players aka real people (I shudder at the bloodbath that might entail, but hey).
At the excellent Game On exhibition at the Barbican, one of the more arresting exhibits comes in the final room - a simple series of LAN-ed-up PCs, and a rudimentary WWI fighter pilot game, which turned out to be utterly compelling simply due to a real person being on the other end of my Sopwith Camel's guns. It's easy to see the potential for Rockstar Games here - to really specialise in creating a series of urban environments; give players the tools to equip themselves and modify their surroundings; deploy a few 'embedded narrative generators' (tm!) to spark things off, and stand back and watch the mayhem ensue (there's obviously strong opportunities for content creation and advertising within these spaces too. GTA3 had several hours of original radio programming within it - this could be live streaming content (media/music industry wake up). It also employs billboards and fake product placement - find and replace with advertising content changing in real-time?).
I've been having lots of wholesome (and otherwise) thoughts about online gaming recently. I've mentioned this before, but I think it'll be such a big deal I'm worried it could cause serious socio-economic problems. But we've got to do something with all that free time we were promised in the future (joke).
Check the GTA3 website for further 'meta-game' content, and these articles/interviews on GTA3's living city, awesome sound/music elements, clever interaction with narrative, AIs, and so on. But most of all, play it - I know this isn't exactly an original thought but imho we can learn a lot about experience design from games like this. In the meantime, I'm off to show those Yardies who's the daddy.