How much luggage do you bring on a long vacation? One bag, with the hope that you can survive only on necessities? Or several, trying to be safe and prepare for any possible risk? With games, we bring a lot of luggage whether we want to or not. Our experiences, knowledge, and biases are all brought into games that we play, and we project them onto the static images on the screen. Even when our motivations differ from the protagonist’s, we still feel just as powerfully about each of the actions that we take in these virtual environments because it’s impossible to bring just one bag.
I haven’t played that much of Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto V’s missions yet, but I have spent several hours just driving around the city of Los Santos as protagonist Michael, with as little HUD and interface as the game allows. It’s a strange experience, but not because I’m ignoring the meticulously-crafted missions and UI that Rockstar has created. Rather, I find it oddly pleasing to step into the shoes of someone like Michael. He may have a rough past, and he may be the head of an incredibly dysfunctional family, but he seems to find some level of pleasure in driving around with no destination. One of the cleverest things that the game does is, when switching between protagonists, the player gets a brief glimpse of what they were doing as you hopped into their perspective. Trevor may be sleeping next to a cow, Franklin might be buying coffee, but Michael is almost always in his car. Some times he’s saying goodbye to a mistress, sometimes he’s stuck in traffic. More often than not, he’s got his head tucked down on the steering wheel, looking as depressed as a man can possibly be. It’s at these times that I like to take Michael for a drive as the sun sets, following traffic laws, and only speeding on the open road. In theGTA V narrative that I brought along with me, Michael is taking a day off. No bank robberies, no talking to crazy strangers, and no bloody gunfights with the police. Today, it’s just him, the car, and the radio. I’m there to make his day a little bit better.
I can empathize with Michael here. I’m not part of a criminal trio of horrible psychos, but it is a common human feeling to crave travel. Whether it’s to get away from something, or to get to something, travel is what fuels our exploring minds. Michael may want to drive to forget, but I’m driving to relax. After a long day of class and studying, it feels nice to cruise around a beautiful city with the top down, absorbing the game’s atmosphere. I can turn the game off, feeling like I took a nice trip somewhere far, and that experience will stay with me forever. Even though I’m going to come back and probably play more missions another day, that was GTA for me today, and that was Michael’s story. By creating this dissonance between player and hero, games allow us to dip our toes in various walks of life without the fear of failure, but with our unique investments into the experience.
A fantasy game like Dragon Age: Origins encourages you to embody your character, and to make the decisions that you would if placed into the same situation. In The Legend of Zelda, the character is a vessel for you to imagine their personality and motivation. Roaming around Los Santos in GTA V, the protagonists embody me. I decide when to get a haircut or play golf, and I decide when it’s time to initiate the next mission. Even as technology advances to the point where game characters have photorealistic intelligence, the player is still going to be the decision maker. No matter how badly Michael wants to get away from a life of crime, it is I who decides that he’s going to sit on the couch all day and smoke weed, contemplating the hopelessness of it all. The player embodying the character, and vice versa, are two of the most intimate relationships in modern video games. As Michael sits in his expensive vehicle, waiting at a red light, I too am waiting. Waiting to take control again, and steer this car through the bustling city until it’s time to go home. It’s more empowering than many other mediums, where the viewer is and always will be a passive observer.
My virtual luggage colors how I view my actions in all games. Even though the on-screen avatar is technically an emotionless chunk of code, I see him as a part of me. Michael is that part that craves freedom and excitement through any means. He carries with him my expectations and my trepidations, looking for something in a world where he has everything. And as I drive him into the sunset, lens flare blaring through the window and the music on loud, I feel like I brought just the right amount of baggage to Los Santos that day.