Friday, 6 September 2013

Down and Out in Liberty City

My Animal Crossing: New Leaf village is more fun than GTA IV’s Liberty City. Here’s why...

Animal Crossing has changed little since its Japanese debut on the N64. You answer a few questions to determine your identity before arriving friendless in a tiny village. There are no relatives to help you find your feet in Bell Air or Dibly or Camelot (you can name your town what you like, though an irritating 8 character limit prohibits the likes of Hill Valley or Crinkly Bottom). From Day One you’re in debt to miserly raccoon Tom Nook and forced to live alone in a dank house while clawing your way up the property ladder.

a talking blue wolf or multicoloured sheep in
clown face is bound to stick in the mind longer
than Bit Part Mobster #39

GTA IV sets you up similarly as a recent arrival in a new town. Besides Roman (the irritating cousin you can’t kill) I have forgotten most of the characters. Dimitri was the main guy I was chasing but the rest of the cast escape me. Perhaps comparison is unfair - a talking blue wolf or multicoloured sheep in clown face is bound to stick in the mind longer than Bit Part Mobster #39. But beyond generic characters there is a bigger issue, an inherent frustration, at the core of GTA. I’m talking specifically about IV, although I’ve played San Andreas and a little of III and it’s the same story. Liberty City’s problem is not escalating crime, it’s boredom. The number of interactive systems hasn’t grown at the same rate as the environment. Player agency is restricted to the same handful of interactions we’ve had for years - the sandbox expands, but you only have your old bucket and spade to play with.

GTA does some things very well. The city is a technical triumph, the cars feel fun and the radio stations hit a perfect satirical sweet spot. Cruising the highway with an 80s classic on the radio feels great. I have two main issues with the game: 1) I’m given nothing compelling to do outside of the tired fetch/deliver/whack-a-guy missions; and 2) the gunplay is lumpen and doesn’t match the quality of the driving. In GTA cars and combat are your core mechanics – your bucket and spade – and there’s something wrong if one is unsatisfying after this many iterations. GTA IV fails to make combat, a fundamental component, enjoyable.

Compared to the breathtaking scale and fidelity of Liberty City, Bell Air is far less imposing. I could run the perimeter in a minute and there are only a handful of houses dotted around the place. But from the moment I arrived it offered me something Liberty City didn’t - variety. I could pick fruit, plant trees, go fishing, collect fossils, hunt bugs and chat with people. I could enter all the houses. Animal Crossing isn’t tethered by a strict narrative. There’s no real story, no ending besides paying off your mortgage. After that it’s just something you do. UK:Resistance put it best:
It's like keeping a diary, or remembering to have breakfast. Animal Crossing is just asimple little thing you have and do every day… It's simple, but you'd be fucked without it.

Sea shanties!                                                                     Catchphrases!                                                                          Innuendo!

Superficially my village offers far less than the sprawling L.C., but writing a comparative list of activities on offer reveals New Leaf as the clear winner in terms of variety (skip to the end for a quick, non-exhaustive comparison). What can I do on a Saturday night in Liberty? Well, I could plough through some missions, but the janky combat controls make that too much like work. So what else is on offer? How about some polygonal sex with a prostitute before running her over to get my money back? Hmm, that got pretty old the second time. So let’s head to the, ahem, 'gentlemen’s' club! To its credit, the game does a fabulous job of recreating that why the fuck am I here? feeling of a real strip joint. But, hey, it’s cheaper.

Afterwards I can catch Ricky Gervais at the comedy club. Hope he’s not repeating last night’s three-minute show. After a hot dog I’m running out of things to do. And fuck hot dogs - what if I want to buy an apple? Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I plant a tree or build something or go inside the building next to my house? I found myself genuinely wondering why I was playing at all when I could just put down the pad and go outside, take a drive into town, window down, radio on, and grab a coffee or something. Maybe even an apple.

I wanted things to do besides trudge through the dreary, monotonous narrative but the mayhem simulation that most other players revelled in left me cold. Rockstar presented unprecedented scope and freedom of movement but nothing meaningful or satisfying to do with it. I liked the pigeon shooting best.

Beyond the basics, filling the world with engaging systems should be the main developmental drive next gen. Creating a traversable photo-realistic cityscape is achievable, almost a given, but there’s little point expanding the playground if you’re only going to fill it with the same old swings and roundabouts. It’s a colossal undertaking to add hundreds of disparate mechanics to satisfy my every fruit-eating, tree-planting whim, but simply expanding the world area is not the answer. In terms of diverse and satisfying experiences in a coherent world, the tiny village on my 3DS cartridge offers more choice and more opportunity for self-expression. Bell Air’s a playground on a much smaller scale, but with a focus The Big Apple lacks. Every season brings new festivals and accessories and visitors. I can shoot balloons out of the sky and go beachcombing and send letters and buy wallpaper and breed rare flowers and design clothes and make Jay say S’up Holmes? when we meet and visit other towns to trade fruit and make a killing on the turnip market to get that swine Nook off my back. Village chores and mundanities trump the car chases and schoolboy titillation of the metropolis by sheer breadth. You’ve got to water your flowers and complete your gyroid collection and call on KK Slider every Saturday night. The explicit reason you do so becomes vague amongst the day-to-day of it, like visiting your family. You’re not really just dropping off a card or watering the plants or having a cup of coffee; you’re keeping in contact – checking your favourite residents aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

In terms of diverse and satisfying experiences in a coherent world,
the tiny village on my 3DS cartridge offers more choice and more
opportunity for self-expression.

It will be interesting to see how Rockstar deal with further increased scale in GTA V. I’m sure Los Santos will be as technically impressive as ever, and they’re opening up the seabed for exploration. Will I be able to collect shells and urchins from the ocean floor? Will I be able to fish? Or will it be merely a vast setting for a couple of coke shipment fetch quests and a James Bond tied-and-dragged-behind-the-boat homage? I hope not. Otherwise they should just revisit Liberty City and let me buy my damn apple this time.

                    Things to do in Bell Air                                               Things to do in Liberty City
                    Shoot balloons/UFOs                                                        Shoot people/pigeons
                    Plant trees                                                                          Steal and drive vehicles
                    Pick fruit                                                                             Engage in high-speed chases
                    Go fishing                                                                           Listen to the radio.
                    Collect fossils                                                                      Visit a comedy club
                    Hunt bugs                                                                           Visit a nightclub/strip joint/prostitute
                    Accessorise!                                                                        Eat a hotdog
                    Go on a boat trip to an island retreat                                                            
                    Give people catchphrases                                                            
                    Visit a nightclub                                                            
                    Work/drink in the café                                                            
                    Breed flowers                                                            
                    Go diving                    
                    Decorate my house                                                            
                    Play the turnip market                                                            
                    Design clothes/signs                                                            
                    Build public buildings/projects                                                            
                    Name your town Bell Air or Tauntown or Bumjuice 

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