Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lifestyles In Liberty City

It’s no coincidence that I have been playing Grand Theft Auto IV -- specifically The Ballad Of Gay Tony, but that’s beside the point -- directly after playing Bully. Not only was I craving a return to a game space whose atmosphere and attention to detail is astounding, I revisited Liberty City with a specific goal in mind: to think about what I see, hear or do in Liberty City within the context of what it would be like as a young student; as Jimmy Hopkins.

The town of Bullworth is quaint yet smart, its more compact and concise feel really working within the frame that Rockstar’s juvenile game requires; it allows for a nice, gradual exploration as Jimmy progresses as a character, and its overall size -- once each section of Bully's city is unlocked -- feels right, the game’s main modes of transport all working within the context of the city’s boundaries and indeed the game’s theme.

By contrast, Liberty City is absolutely huge. A real living, breathing metropolis with urban areas, suburbs, an industrial complex, highways and tunnels, it sits on the complete opposite side of the spectrum when compared to Bullworth, and would be completely overwhelming to a young adolescent such as Jimmy. As it stands in GTA IV, moving about in this massive and dense city involves the use of vehicles -- cars, bikes, boats and helicopters -- as well as public transport systems and, as of Gay Tony, parachutes. Traversing in Liberty City via a bicycle, skateboard or, god forbid, on foot seems like an absurd idea, the length of time just to get to another of the city’s islands longer than it would take to get from one side of the city to the other by car. But, those are the methods of transport that Jimmy Hopkins is used to and while at first it might seem daunting, overwhelming or even scary, getting around Liberty City using those methods would reveal a whole other side to the place, yielding not just another perspective or frame of lens to view it in -- as GTA IV’s downloadable expansions did -- but a completely different experience.

Just another day at Bullworth Academy

Think about it. What would Liberty City be like on foot? What about a skateboard? A bicycle? It would be completely different, wouldn’t it? Now imagine what the city would be like if its impeccable design accommodated such transportation, and used it as proficiently as it does the mass of vehicles we’re already used to. It has the potential to be really exciting doesn’t it? Just on method of transport alone, the idea of having a younger, slower but substantially different existence in Liberty City brings to mind a multitude of different possibilities, each being unique in their own right but combining to enhance the overall Grand Theft Auto IV experience in the same way that not only its additional downloadable content does, but the various activities and mini-games that can be enjoyed too. Whether it’s a short distraction or an intentional change of pace and play, getting around via these options would be quite enjoyable but beyond that, it would also provide a completely different perspective on the city, an enticing prospect whose potential for interesting possibilities has already been demonstrated not once, but twice through the game’s episodes.

Obviously, such a perspective wouldn’t just be delivered by different transport options -- GTA IV’s main characters can already walk around the city if a player so chooses, and were they in the game, they would also be able to ride a bike or skate.

Firefly Island in Grand Theft Auto IV

Bully’s attempt to tell a tale of a student who is constantly getting into trouble, is constantly seeking popularity and ultimately, like all students, just wants to have fun is quite unique in the videogame medium. It’s stereotyping, parody on culture and youthful violence wouldn’t be out of place in Liberty City, nor would the events that take place during the game. For those who haven’t played it, Bully’s story basically deals with Jimmy Hopkins gradually earning the respect and leadership of each of the cliques that school culture is associated with -- jocks, nerds, greasers, etc. -- as well as eventually putting an end to a rival student who, like Jimmy, wants to rule the school: Bullworth Academy. Were this narrative to take place in Liberty City, it could occur as is no problem: nothing would be out of place in terms of GTA IV’s context; its satire and social issues would fit right in with the disjointed humour GTA IV already revels in; and as suggested above, it would provide yet another perspective on a city filled with different lifestyles. But were it to feature in GTA IV, I have no doubt that Rockstar would change and enhance it to not only better accommodate what Liberty City already contains, but to also take advantage of the city’s size, varying cultures and different neighborhoods. Instead of faction wars within one school, there could be campus rivalries too: sport teams that regularly compete against each other, both on-field and off; school plays that fight over spectacle, drama and perhaps even for a chance to perform in front of the entire city; and of course, a motivation for your school and for you as the player* to perform in the classroom and achieve those high grades, eventually leading to a reputation as Liberty City’s best school. School excursions could be a reoccurring feature, with trips to Happiness Island to see the Statue of Happiness or to Hove Beach to visit Firefly Island for go-karting, bowling and a ride on its amusement rides just some of the neat destinations that could be visited, the result being, once again, another perspective on already familiar locations. Even Liberty City’s many houses -- most of which are filler when you think about it -- could be given meaning with this new ‘version’ of the GTA IV experience, with each student having their own house in the game. Not only would it give each of the students more meaning, or ensure that they’re not aimlessly wandering around as Liberty City’s older population tend to do, it would also allow for some interesting gameplay opportunities too. Perhaps a couple of gender specific boarding schools could exist, their pupils -- just beginning to go through puberty -- eager to interact and experiment with the opposite sex. Get involved with someone from another school and you wouldn’t just be betraying your loyalty to your own school, you’d have to be discreet and utilise the city’s public transport to go and see your new-found partner. Maybe you could even have multiple relationships on the go, much like GTA IV’s older characters and indeed Bully too -- but if you do then be careful, you wouldn’t want them to find out about each other and spark even further rivalry between not only themselves, but their schools too.

As you can see, playing as an adolescent teenager in Liberty City would certainly provide a different kind of entertainment to that of which we’re already used to, but even further than that, it would change up the pace, gameplay possibilities and perspective in remarkable ways. What I’ve described above are just some of the things that came to mind when thinking about what it’d be like; I haven’t even begun to think about what it could mean for things like GTA IV’s radio stations, TV networks, internet, restaurants, landmarks and, to bring things full circle, its criminal population. As the master of detail and atmosphere when it comes to telling us a particular tale and perspective, the possibilities Rockstar could implement with a Bully-styled take on Liberty City are exciting to think about and utterly enticing from a gameplay standpoint, but as it didn’t happen and they seem to have moved on from the episodes and have shifted their attention towards the inevitable sequels -- perhaps just for GTA, perhaps for both games -- all I can do in the meantime is speculate and hope that such potential for interesting ideas is met in the future. Whether it ever is remains to be seen, but even if it’s not, there’s no harm in dreaming about it, is there?

Now, I wonder what a skateboard specific episode (think EA’s Skate series) in Liberty City would be like…

*Incidentally, I’ll have more on Bully’s classes and indeed the subjects they involve in my next installment of my Learning Through Interaction series soon, so stay tuned for that.


Jorge Albor said...

Agreed. That would be awesome. Personally, I'd love to see the city change gradually over time as well. Maybe start with Bully in Liberty City, and then have this Straight A student become the next mayor, or a criminal king-pin, with the landscape of the city adjusting accordingly. Maybe Rockstar should hire Peter Molyneux.

Steven O'Dell said...

Jorge -- One small detail in Bully that I really appreciated (and one I'll be expanding upon soon) was how the seasons changed as you progressed through the game's chapters. The way such a simple inclusion didn't just convey passage of time generally but also an entire school year was a neat touch, and now that I have seen it there I'd like to see it occur in the next GTA game as well.

Speaking of which, I've always been a bit puzzled as to why those games have always portrayed the criminal side of things. Sure, it's probably more fun that way but a game spanning both the criminal underworld and the law enforcement trying to prevent it would be quite compelling if you ask me, so I'm quite surprised it hasn't been done yet, especially now that we know Rockstar are pretty good at providing a new take on a familiar setting. Having one of the games start as a student ala Bully and have the potential to progress into different areas -- criminal, cop, mayor as you suggest, plus no doubt many more -- based on player decisions would be quite the experience and would only further enhance the detail and atmosphere that Rockstar are already pretty effective at achieving.

But I suppose, in a strange way, their non-GTA games are tapping into this somewhat, with Bully already being an example of what a school-based setting from them would be like; Red Dead Redemption their take on the Western and upcoming L.A. Noire -- another game I'm intrigued by -- their version of what it'd be like on the aforementioned detective/law enforcement side.

They are experimenting, that's for sure. It's just a shame that experimentation isn't taking place in the GTA games a bit more.

Yeah, you got me thinking. ;)