Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
James Leach hitches s a ride into the heart of GTAV with withw the Dude
Everyone is out for themselves in the world of games. It’s the survival of the fittest. Whatever you have to do, whoever you need to trample on, you just hang in the until the next level, when things, briefly, get a little easier. Then you reload and start again.
That’s what developing games is like, as we all know, but it’s the same when you play them. What people now call, without irony, a doggie dog world. And it leads to something people are calling, also without any irony, narrative dissonance. This is the when the characters get created, fleshed out and realised to such a degree that they overtake anything you’d see in a film or TV show. In the dozens of hours you’ll devote to a game, the character progression never stops. It’s seen as a reward for staying with the title.
And the dissonance bit is when we end up with characters who are simply too full to exist in a world where they’re repeatedly blown up, shot, hit by torpedoes and so on, and they respawn to do it all over again. The thinking is that this doesn’t work. Anybody who simply starts again where they met their violent demise just can’t be a character you can believe in. Touching, important scenes just seem wasted or, worse, out of place.
We want to care, though. In fact, we do care. And we are more than happy to fill in the gaps ourselves. I recently dived back into
GTAV, a game in which I’ve never put enough time to be very good at. I was busily running around shooting people in an online game, no headset plugged in, when I got cornered by cops. After plenty of gunfire, I was about to give up when a hugely impressive sports car pulled up. I ran to it and climbed inside. It was being driven by another human player, someone I’d never met before. And that’s when it got interesting. The car raced off with me aboard. And to say it was driven with skill is a gross understatement. All I could do was sit back and enjoy the immensely rapid ride.
We lost the five-oh with ease and drove to some deserted area. Here my driver got out and I followed suit. I could have shot him, or tried to. I strongly suspect he would have hit me first and that would have been that. But this guy had rescued me. Yes, guy. I know. But he was a male character in the game and statistically it’s likely he was male in real life. Whatever his gender, he was a Dude.
The Dude proceeded to drop a large number of weapons and ammo, which I swear he gestured me to pick up although that can’t be true. I did so and he got back in the car. And waited for me. I climbed in, of course. And over the next 20 minutes I followed the Dude through some of the most intense gaming I can remember. All I did was follow my hero, opening fire on whoever he opened fire on. He saved me many times, he let me take kills he could easily have carried out himself, and at every stage, when it was time to go, he did a quick forward-and-back jiggle which I realised meant ‘get into the car’. It was, to put it simply, like hanging out with James Bond. No, better than that – at no point did he try to kiss me or get grumpy because his life was one of soulless state-sanctioned killing and he was missing Judi Dench.
OK, obviously having someone enormously capable on your side is fun in any multiplayer game, but the thing about all this was that the Dude was clearly providing me with an experience I could never have had otherwise. This would undeniably have been fun for him, and there’s something lovely about being so good that you can shepherd others. I’ve done it myself, in the multiplayer iPad air combat games Rise Of Glory and Storm Raiders.
While my thrill ride was going down, I was writing the story in my head. By simply waiting for me to do things, by showing me where he wanted me to hide during ambushes, and by doing his get-in-the-car jiggle, the Dude became more real and more of a friend than I thought possible. Of course, knowing there was an actual person somewhere doing all this added a level of humanity that I wouldn’t have felt if he’d been an NPC. We both knew that we were sharing something, and the very fact that I worked so hard to understand what he wanted and then carried it out showed him that I got it. Trying my best was my way of saying thank you.
I’d love to say that this bonding exercise, this masterclass in cop-shooting and human relations, ended well, but we died in a fireball when the helicopter the Dude was flying beautifully, with me in the back, got splatted by some oik in a jet. My mate vanished, never to respawn again. Dude, if you’re reading this, get in touch. I’ll PayPal your mom the money for a lemonade. You’ve earned it.
It was, to put it simply, like hanging out with James Bond. No, better than that – at no point did he try to kiss me