Open World

Russ Pitts | 28 Apr 2008 17:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

I like open world games - in principle. Granted, the worlds are never really open; most max at around small-town size. But compared to the games in which you're stuck on a single stretch of road, where the colors change occasionally to signify you've moved to a new area, games like Grand Theft Auto feel like vast universes.

"Open-city game" might be a more appropriate moniker, but even in games like GTA, where you supposedly have an entire mid-size American town at your disposal, most of the buildings are still closed. Want to pop into the Chinese deli on the corner? Too bad; no missions in there.

And don't get me started on the people. Most of the inhabitants of open world games are listless, vacuous automatons shuffling painfully from one side of the street to the other, as if they really have anywhere to go. Those doors don't open, man! Where are you going? It's like attending a party where you already know everyone: There's fun to be had, but don't expect any surprises.

The achievements in A.I. aren't lost on me. I acknowledge the complexity of making hundreds or thousands of realistic computer-controlled people go about their simulated daily lives, flitting from one simulated edifice to the next, and the surface similarities to real pedestrians are striking. To get the full effect of the simulation you have to lose yourself in thought for a minute, dancing down the solipsistic avenue where everyone and everything is a figment of your imagination and you're the only one who really matters. Playing GTA is a lot like being a teenager.

Do you know why most TV shows and movies are about teenagers? Because being young is awesome. Aside from the fact young people are just plain pretty to look at, they ooze energy from their pores, giving off in waves a feeling of limitless potential. It's like blood to a vampire. We, in our aging vessels, withered with time and the dashing of dreams, feed on this energy like sycophantic whores, drinking it in, bathing in it and hoping, like Countess Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins, it will impart to us some of its powers.

Why do grown men and women (mostly women) watch The Hills? Because we're vampires. We look longingly in the rear view mirror at the time when we didn't feel out of place in a bar full of underage drinkers. When we walked into the bar, saw all the girls - all the girls - and realized, looking at all that shiny hair, hearing all those giggles and smelling all that perfume, that these girls, each and every one of them, had private parts. All of them. The possibilities seemed limitless. Then came the day when 80 percent of them didn't like our hair and we realized we'd been going to that bar for years, only the girls hadn't aged - we had. It feels like someone pulled the cord on the train to awesome, and we were left wondering why, oh why, we didn't settle down with That One Who Treated Us Nice as we pursued meaningless relationship after meaningless relationship with girls who undoubtedly looked better at 2am. Or perhaps that was just me. Moving on ...

The great irony of life is most of us can now, thanks to the miracles of modern science, totter on into our 80s and 90s, still capable of fornicating but unable to chew solid food, yet that brief explosion of joy, lust and pain between ages 15 or 16 to around 25 is seemingly the apex of life. Everything afterward is a slow downward spiral into variously sufferable mediocrities. Wisdom and experience, as blessed as they may be, are no great consolation.

I know now, for example, how to feel my tires slipping away from the road in the rain and how to correct the problem before I become a headline in the obituary section. I know driving is easier at safe speeds, and I know obeying the traffic laws will, ultimately, grant me more freedom, not less. But these are hard-won lessons; counterintuitive and dreary. Driving safely just isn't as much fun, and screw the money I'll save, the detention I'll avoid. Dammit, if Vishnu intended for us to drive at posted speeds, why does the speedometer go all the way to 120? Why do engines sound like purring sex kittens at high speed? Speed, from Day One behind the wheel, has felt like the cure for all the ills of American life. It's as addicting as heroin, and twice as deadly. Going sober isn't as easy as simply slowing down. If you're addicted to speed, you'll always be an addict. Always.

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