“You look at AAA games and they’re all about playing it safe,” he said. “They’re all about taking something that already exists and remaking it in a slightly different format. Watch Dogs is GTA plus Deus Ex. It’s because you’re trying to raise X amount of money to make these things because they’re so expensive. But nobody knows what the Hell videogames are.
“Nobody knows what they’re making.”
I first heard of Dan Stubbs when he wrote about his ambitious project The Hit on Gamasutra, a player-centric narrative system in a GTA-like world. Shortly thereafter he turned up here in the comments below Stop Crying About Choice but I was intrigued already; I thought Stubbs might make for an interesting sparring partner.
On one sunny day in August, I travelled down to see him at his base of indie operations in Plymouth. It was apparently a rare dry patch in a week of rain. We started out at a coffee shop in town and chatted over the constant rattle of cutlery and the lunchtime hubbub.
Stubbs talked a little about photographing lightning in GTA V and how this simple fact conveys that games like GTA allow players to exist in another world. “The story itself is vile. The story itself is one of the most badly written, horrible, horrible pieces of videogame story I’ve ever encountered.”
But GTA is undeniably special. “I remember back in the day Thief was talked about as a really bar-raising game,” I said. “It didn’t really try to tie you down as much as other games did in terms of you have to do this or do that, it’s a lot more wild. But then Warren Spector said something like ‘I saw GTA III and thought they really raised the bar’ and I thought, okay, well I’ll try this out… and my mind was blown away. After the initial cutscene, I can go wherever the Hell I like.”
“Yes, I had the same experience. I kinda still do when I play GTA and then I’m massively frustrated that the game won’t me let me do what I want to do.” I whined that the GTA series had got worse as it had gone along and Stubbs said, “It’s the AAA thing. GTA is a masterpiece buried under really shit cutscenes and gameplay that only lets you have two buttons, that only lets you look and shoot.”
GTA is less fun than it used to be because the design team work overtime trying to block emergent solutions. I recited an example from GTA III. “You could drive an ambulance up to a mission, you know, then use it to jump over the wall and cheat or something like that. And now the games are ‘we’ll make the wall higher’ or ‘we’ll make sure your ambulance disappears at the start of the mission’.”
“It’s a dictated linear experience,” Stubbs said. “We’ve got that already. We’ve got films. We’ve got books. We’ve got things that are complete experiences and you experience what the author wants you to experience. We’ve done that. That’s not what videogames are. The great thing about GTA is the fact that you can go anywhere, you can drive anywhere. I find it one of the most relaxing games: sticking the game on, grabbing your controller, driving around and just thinking about stuff.”
I remembered all the times I used to drive around, just listening to the radio with no place to go, and was struck with an epiphany. “It’s the original Proteus!”
“It’s going fishing,” Stubbs replied. “It’s just sitting with a rod in your hand and chilling out. And that is wonderful. I am really glad it exists for that. But then I play the missions and I don’t care about this. This is somebody trying to tell me a story that I think is a bit shit because they just had to pile so much content into the game. I don’t care. Get rid of all the cutscenes. Get rid of all the scripted missions and it would be a better game. It would be a far better game, it would be more consistent because you’re not changing control schemes every single mission ten times.”
I wondered aloud if Stubbs was proposing that the game should be just one long, continuous mission, without cutscene demarcations.
“Yeah,” he said, and finally the conversation touched on The Hit. “Just build the systems so that the player can do any of the things you want to put in the game. All those mission events the developers engineer so that the player is basically in a tunnel where they can only experience the content you have designed and scripted? I’m trying to figure out how to make those emergent, trying to figure out how those can happen during the game. Even if they only happen to 1 in 20 players, that player will have a completely unique experience that’s driven by what they’re doing – which is playing a game.”
Stubbs returned to a condemnation of the commercial model of the modern blockbuster, that open world games post-GTA just redo GTA and apply a size multiplier. “It’s like nobody knows what’s actually good about it. At some point somebody had a great idea to make this emergent world where you can just trip over systems and interesting things would happen. Everybody played the first GTA and had experiences where they’d steal a car and they’d crash it and somebody else would pull them out of the car and then a fire engine would pile into it and everything would explode. It’s just stuff happening but directed by what you’re doing.”
I had to bring up GTA: Vice City. “I really enjoyed Vice City because it seemed to understand that you had to put more in it to play around with. And it’s still fairly… contained.”
“Yeah Vice City was the pinnacle of GTA for me, Vice City and San Andreas. Where you had an experience which was themed. It’s down on the sandbox, it’s down on the emergence but it had a definite direction and that whole kind of cartoon Miami Vice/Scarface thing. That fitted really well with it.”
“It wasn’t serious.”
“It was playful.”
I suggested the Saints Row series was the true heir to the GTA crown because Rockstar had given up on the buffoonery of it. “I didn’t like San Andreas.”
“I liked San Andreas,” replied Stubbs, “but I liked it for the reasons I already said – because I could drive around for ages and stick the radio on and just chill out and not think.”
“See I got my driving around hit from FUEL, which is enormously huge. I have never seen the other side of the map and I’d like to. I crack it open now and then but you can only start from areas you have finished so it’s tied your exploration to finishing missions and things which is annoying. You could actually potentially spend something like seven hours driving to the other side… but I don’t have seven hours!”
Stubbs laughed. “I love the fact there are no walls in FUEL, that you are not constrained to a play pit, an area. I don’t like the fact that we’re trying to solve this problem by just making the areas bigger and going ‘GTA V is amazing because it’s ten times the size of this’.”
But I wanted to get back to San Andreas and open up an old wound, because no one says a bad word about that game. “I got lost in San Andreas all the time. I remember the first area of Los Santos in which most of the missions were all located along a certain corridor you went back and forth repeatedly and you didn’t know any of the city outside of that. I was so pleased to hit San Fierro because it was on a grid and the missions moved away from just a few destinations. Los Santos was very spaghetti-like and your sense of direction would get… it’s a bit like driving around London, you don’t know where you’re going once a road turns a little. And I could never get to grips with it, I got lost all the time but never in a good way. Trying to look for collectibles and things like that just ceased to be fun because I had no idea where I was going.”
Stubbs: “This is one of the things that I see as a flaw in GTA, the fact that it is just so messy. And you compare that to Minecraft. You spend time in Minecraft and I think the special thing to me about Minecraft is not the fact that you can go anywhere, do anything, it’s the fact that it feels like a place. You spend enough time in an area and it starts to feel like home, it feels like a place you can come back to. And then you go somewhere else and it feels like you’re really lost somewhere else. In games like GTA every area feels the same, because it’s the same boxes that look like houses with painted-on doors. You know it’s all a façade and you’re just driving from one façade to another, to find one of the five places you can actually interact with the world.”
This reminded me of the wonder I used to have when playing GTA. “I was always amazed when playing GTA III, but more in Vice City, when you would find an area you could go into, like a shopping mall or whatever. Third-person is typically not very good for going into buildings because half the time you see the back of the head, but even though it was difficult to move around it would be oh wow. In GTA III, one of the things that drove me crazy were the fire escapes. I always wanted to climb up fire escapes and you couldn’t. If you actually do drive up with an ambulance or a fire engine then jump on top to reach an escape, it’s just not there.”
Stubbs was happy to point out that things had moved on during my GTA absence. “It’s lovely in GTA V that you can actually climb up the fire escapes. There are ladders and you can climb them. But you still can’t go into buildings, they’re still just proxies. It’s a nice place to drive through, but it’s a lousy place to actually walk around because the game just hammers home all the time that you’re not allowed to do things because they just didn’t put that in.
“It’s kind of a technical limitation but it’s also a kind of a design philosophy that we want to create this dictated experience because we know best, because we’re the game designer and we’re the experts. And it’s like NO, players know best how to get the fun out of a situation, so just give them a world they can arse around in. I don’t care how great the graphics are if I can’t do something. If I can’t get into a building it doesn’t matter how astonishing the exterior looks, it’s just a box and I’ve played enough games with boxes in.”