My tastes have remained steadfast since the late 80s when I would pass many sunless afternoons poking around the outer reaches of the galaxy in the Sega Genesis game, Starflight.
25 years later the games I most enjoy still tap into that urge to discover. Titles such as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Grand Theft Auto V provide the canvas for exploration; intricate worlds with secrets and hidden vistas that await my arrival.
At the opposite end of the spectrum in Bartle’s test is the category of ‘Killer’. This player type thrives on competition with others, honing their skills and motivated by self-improvement. You can find them in arenas of online multi-player combat. This is not me. Despite many attempts I have never been able to truly enjoy games built on reaction-based combat mechanics, nor do I enjoy competitive multi-player gaming, particularly shooters. (Evidently I’m a lover not a fighter.)
As a death-match starts I become gripped by instant panic, certain that I won’t be in the upper echelon of combatants. It’s an inferiority thing, I feel I may as well stand in the centre of the map, arms outstretched, waiting patiently for my ass to be handed to me. A little persistence would help of course, but the relentless onslaught of death saps my energy and enthusiasm. Give me a Fairy Fountain to discover any day.
I also find the competitive online gaming community (particularly on Xbox Live) a little challenging. An obvious generalisation, but one born from experience. All of this means that cooperative gaming forms the core of my online experiences. It’s in Portal 2’s test chambers and the streets of Paradise City that I have found playgrounds that suit my tastes.
Recently however, an online multi-player game that I fully expected to hate has taken me by surprise. Grand Theft Auto Online.
Building confidently upon the model established in Red Dead Redemption, GTA Online offers a wonderfully entertaining free roaming experience. In terms of content and scope it feels even more generous than its single player brother. The range of activities and the inventiveness of their execution is just as well structured. It’s gloriously chaotic in a way that a GTA single player campaign hasn’t been since San Andreas.
Freed from the onerous task of reinventing game narrative (which admittedly GTAV does very well) Grand Theft Auto Online is given the space to breath and react to its players. You can be a trouble maker, a law-breaker, a racer or a vigilante. The game lets players express themselves without the hindrance of plot progression or narrative contrivance.
Geographically the game is identical to the single player campaign, and therefore it’s never a place I will ever fully know. The hills, back-streets, aqueducts, industrial estates and country retreats of Los Santos are so complex and varied that they will retain the element of the unknown and the ability to surprise for a long time to come.
It’s here that the second part of GTA Online’s genius comes into play. The series has never had the tightest gameplay mechanics, but they have always allowed for a certain kind of fuzzy experimentation. This works in GTA Online’s favour, addressing my long-standing multi-player woes. When a death-match starts I no longer feel daunted by players with a higher RP. The nature of the game and its environments means that I always feel confident of getting enough kills to keep me in the mix. It’s the perfect balance of refined skill and fumbled luck. It may not be a game that requires the sharpest reactions, but its quirks always ensure that it’s an enjoyably shambolic, yet still tense, knock about experience.
And then, against all odds, the game also addresses my other bugbear; the tone of the playing community. It’s remarkably good-natured, with everyone seemingly on-board with just having some Fun. There are plenty of griefers to be found in open play, but the bounty system works well to prevent total chaos, and Passive Mode gives you time to relax, if required. Although Rockstar chastise those who cheat, the exploits and glitches seem entirely in keeping with Grand Theft Auto’s anarchic ethos and the sense of lawlessness doesn’t detract from the experience. There’s an ‘anything goes’ attitude that feels liberating.
Grand Theft Auto Online has managed to stimulate the ‘Explorer’ side of my gaming personality, but temper it with a dash of the ‘Killer’. Whether the game will act as a gateway to more hard-core pursuits remains to be seen, but it has a magic formula that combines the competitive and cooperative with aplomb, opening my eyes to a new type of gameplay. It’s a mix I’m finding irresistible.