Random acts of weirdness

cj

There are lots of amazing moments in video games. Some of them happen in cut scenes, and they’re often as awesome as anything you’d see in a movie (or much more so, depending on the movie).

Cut scenes get a bad rap. We play games because we want to play games, not because we want to watch cut scenes that go on forever. Some are epic, like Johnny Gat’s way-at-the-top-of-my-list cemetery scene in Saints Row 2. Hell, I remember watching that scene and wishing it was a movie. Some are awe inspiring, like the first time you take the Normandy out of the Citadel and through a relay in Mass Effect. Some look like an action movie, like the intro scene in Saints Row IV when the Boss storms through a bunch of terrorists like… well, like a boss (or an Expendable). Some are creepy, like almost every cut scene in F.E.A.R. ever.

But for me, the best bits in video games are always the things that happen randomly. I once fell off my chair laughing after an NPC in Saints Row 2 tossed out an insult and one of my followers promptly ran right in front of a car as he was trying to get into my car. Years later, I still remember it. I can’t say the same about a lot of scripted bits in games that were meant to be funny.

My experience with the naked peeps in Watch Dogs 2 was the other side of that coin–something in a game that becomes something else entirely once a player’s brain gets wrapped around it. The developers put the naked people in the game, but it took me, with all of my strange thoughts and hangups, to turn it into a weird and memorable event.

Not long ago, I was playing GTA V when the spousal unit walked in and started talking to me. I was riding a motorcycle at the time, and he distracted me at exactly the wrong moment. I got t-boned by a very large truck, ended up under the truck, bounced around through some weird camera angles for a moment, then watched the truck drive away, still dragging my motorcycle. Spousal unit was trying–unsuccessfully–not to laugh. I yelled, “He’s got my bike!” and started chasing the truck on foot. Two intersections later, the bike exploded, and chaos seriously ensued.

First the truck that had been dragging the bike exploded, then three more cars smashed into it, and they all caught fire and exploded. Someone ran through the intersection… on fire. More cars smashed into, or tried to avoid, the flaming chaos, most of them catching fire in the process. More explosions. I sat there with my mouth hanging open, horrified, staring at the madness, while the spousal unit was laughing like a lunatic and scolding me for the destruction that I had just caused. It was insane, and it was exactly the kind of random shit you can never do on purpose. It occurred to me way too late that I could have recorded it, and now it’s just a memory. A horrifying, horrifying memory.

But for the best random bit of chaos I’ve ever encountered, we have to go back to San Andreas.

So, no shit, there I was in the year 2005ish, playing GTA: San Andreas for the first time, running the “Don Peyote” mission. The Truth had gone on a peyote trip out in the desert with a band and their manager, and woke up somewhere else entirely without any memory of how he got there. He asks CJ to go check on the others.

CJ locates two of the wayward partiers, and heads off to find the rest (stopping to let one of them yark on the side of the road along the way). You end up on a snake farm, where the locals are a bit perturbed about the shit the band had apparently gotten up to during their desert adventure. They open fire, and you jump back in the car and take off, the bad guys in pursuit.

I hit a rock just the wrong way and ended up spinning the car off in a random direction. I drove out into the desert, trying to shake the bad guys, losing my sense of where I was supposed to be going in the process. I happened to be listening to K-DST, and just then, “Horse with No Name” came on the radio. Meanwhile, the band is having a very unhelpful conversation as I try to keep everyone alive–which at this point means keeping the car from blowing up, because it’s already smoking.

Now I’m driving at high speed through the desert in a car that has black smoke pouring out of it, with half-wasted Brits spewing inanities and bad guys on our asses, while listening to “Horse with No Name”. I realize that the train tracks are coming up, and it’s with a sense of fatalism that I look to one side and see a train barreling our way. My brain fired off an association, and I thought, “Holy shit, we’re in bat country now.”

What happened next is completely irrelevant. To me, it never mattered whether I made it across the tracks in time. Or whether I ended up being turned into paste. Or whether I realized that I was going to be turned into paste and yanked the wheel over in time to turn aside. Or whether the bad guys made it across in time, or were smashed by the train, or were foiled when I made it across in time and they didn’t.

What mattered was that moment. That moment, with all of its brilliance and absurdity.

If I hadn’t hit that rock, it wouldn’t have gone down that way. If the train hadn’t been there, right at that moment… if I hadn’t had the radio tuned to that specific station… if that specific song hadn’t come up… hell, if I hadn’t read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and then watched the movie…

That moment was the sum of a lot of different pieces. It started with a scripted mission, but happenstance played a huge role in making it what it was. What I brought to the game in my head played a part, as well. I could never, ever in a million years recreate that moment, but really, that just made it better. It wasn’t just a GTA moment, it was my GTA moment. It showed me just how far games had come, and it made me look forward to seeing what the future would bring.

Cut scenes can be awesome, but when developers create an open world and turn us loose in it, that’s when shit gets really weird, and weird is good. You can tell when you’re playing in a well-designed sandbox, rather than in front of a cardboard facade. Good design leads to the weird shit that makes you laugh, or cringe, or just stare at the screen in befuddled awe. That’s why the best games can take forever to finish. You’re so busy running around exploring and encountering weird stuff that you keep forgetting that there are, like, missions and shit to do.

We need more of those.

p.s. I’ll quit teasing–here’s that cemetery scene.


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