I’m 32 years old and I do not have a driver’s license. Does this bother me? Not the slightest. I don’t like cars very much, busy traffic stresses me out, and I live five minutes away from work and ten minutes from the city center.
My wife is busy getting hers. Sometimes she will describe me traffic situations she’s in, and how the instructor was quizzing her on how to correctly deal with them. My natural response to basically all of these situations would be; jump out of the car and run away.
How does this translate in videogames? I’m not a very skilled driver there either. I don’t like racing games very much and in action titles with driving like GTA, Watch_Dogs or Far Cry I crash, grind and tumble a lot. This partly because I don’t have much of a feel for driving and partly because I have my eyes glued on the minimap and once I reach my destination I realise I didn’t have much time to take in the environment during the ride.
The latter is a common thing among gamers actually. Do a little Googling and you can find dozens of guides, write-ups and tips to enrich your gaming experience by disabling the minimap and declutter your HUD. With more memory and better processing power games can afford to put in these aids and extras to help you along. Integrated GPS, minimaps, waypoints, three dimensional live maps, companion apps. Especially Assassin’s Creed games overwhelm you with those. Not necessarily bad, but it can get in the way of getting the fullest experience out of your game.
Apart from decluttering my HUD, I also tend to walk a lot in games that are normally encouraging you to drive. This plays out the most ironically in Grand Theft Auto of course, a game which very title invites the player to hop in any car you want and speed away. But I like walking a lot. Especially now that game worlds become more lively and full. My phone’s picture album in GTA V is filled with atmospheric shots of pedestrians. On the sidewalk, in the shops, in their gardens, doing their day to day things. And in Watch_Dogs this became even more entertaining with the possibilities to hack people’s cellphones and peak in their lives. Without a minimap, without slapping a waypoint to the next mission every time, you make yourself wander, discover, take in the environment and spot details. You get around by learning landmarks and memorising streets and shops.
But there’s more to it, on a personal level. Navigating a busy city on foot is exactly what I do in real life. I don’t know better but to explore the sidewalks, look out for zebra crossings, find subway stations, stroll into shops or bars. I can relate to navigating through urban surroundings from the viewpoint of a pedestrian. I know the dangers of crossing a busy street, check the signs at a train terminal to find the right platform and the tricks of making it through dark alleyways or past groups of dangerous looking people without provoking them.
But how often can I apply these skills in a videogame? We are usually given so much power. Hopping into any car we see, cruising around at high speed. The police after you? A quick getaway manoeuvre or a visit to safe house will do the trick. Of course, games are fantasies and are meant to make us feel more powerful than we are. But can we turn it down a notch?
My favourite way of escaping the police in Watch_Dogs was by hacking into the public transport grid; halt a train and slip inside right before bringing it back to life again. As the lights flickered, the other passengers looked around confused and the vehicle slowly picked up a pace again, I smirked at the police cars outside the station. There is something inherently satisfying about disappearing into the masses. Social stealth, or hiding in plain sight, as the Assassin’s Creed devs like to call it. Hitman Absolution used it too. Every map in the game boasted large crowds, noise and activity. One of my favourite ones was another busy transit station. People on mobile phones, complaining about delayed trains, your pursuers anxiously trying to look over the many heads in their attempt to find you. Putting on a disguise helped, but only just a bit. In close proximity of an enemy, Agent 47 had to look down, rub his forehead or otherwise obscure his face.
I guess it all comes back to my fascination with urban exploration on foot and the charm of public transport. Oh I love trains and busses and boats and planes. Grand Theft Auto IV had this vast network of subway trains, in tribute to the metropole that Liberty City was modelled after: New York. The Darkness tried too; not as immense as Rockstar’s flagship of course, but they got the atmosphere down. The tiled floors, the billboards, that echoing sound of announcements over the intercom, beeps and buzzes, chattering people and rumbling trains under the low ceiling. You could almost smell the stale air and cheap beeswax. Waiting for the train while checking your mobile phone, that unexplainable reflex to walk along with the arriving train for a bit instead of just waiting on the spot till it stands still.
The vastness and anonymity of a large city becomes more compelling and confrontational when you are on foot. Mostly when you are on foot because you don’t have any other option. Give me a game with large metropoles and not just give me a choice, no, take away the privilege of driving a car. Let me hurry through those seedy neighbourhoods, trying to avoid eye contact, let me search for a place that has WiFi so I can figure out where the fuck I am. Let me search for those subway stations and wait at those fucking bus stops. Make those cities big, and make me very, very small.