Stuntman, and the Anatomy of the Car Chase

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

It has been remarked by some that Grand Theft Auto 4’s best moments were in its car chases. Whilst the game’s many intense shoot-outs certainly deserve a mention, it’s hard to deny that Rockstar knows how to put together a good chase.

Generally the rule with action sequences in games is that the closer the player feels to failure, the more intense the scene. The moment a player feels safe behind a piece of scenery, or has access to a weapon which destroys the challenge, intensity inevitably drops.

It’s important to note here that intensity should not be equated to fun. Undoubtedly, as fans of games such as Ico or The Legend of Zelda can attest to, there is fun to be had whilst proceeding at one’s own pace, and likewise those few second proceeding your death in Pacman CE DX are invariably not a fun as when you tuck in to a delicious Ghost-train.

Keeping a sequence genuinely tense for any length of time is a difficult feat to achieve, and in no genre is this more obvious that the car chase.

The car chase is a set-piece so fraught with difficulties so as to present an enormous challenge to even the most adept of developers. Chief among these challenges, to my mind at least, is a sense of speed. They need to be fast to avoid becoming monotonous, but with speed invariably comes an increased difficulty. At high speeds the smallest mistake will send your car careering off the path you had intended for it, prompting a restart and repetition of the previous sequence of events. This is damaging for several reasons, the most important of these simply being boredom on the part of the player.

The appearance of danger is a very difficult trick to achieve. Having explosions and other stimuli happening all around the player’s vehicle may seem like a simple feature to include, but there’s a difficult balance to be struck before this feels right. If this presents too much danger you risk having the player’s fate being taken out of their control, as danger comes at them whilst they’re attention is focussed on keeping their car on the road. Too little danger however, and the scene feels cheap. You feel like you’re racing through a film set as opposed to an action scene.

Inevitably the question arises of how exactly your going to control all these external factors; the explosions, gunfire and traffic that must be overcome if the player wants to keep up with his or her prey. It’s certainly a tempting idea to script out the entire scene, ensuring the difficulty is just right throughout and that everything is optimised for maximum effect. As soon as this section is repeated however, the man behind the curtain is revealed, and events that would have previously had you on the edge of your seat can be seen to be mere charades.

Stuntman may not have been a great game, but it at least found a fantastic way around many of the problems described above. By setting the game not in an action movie, but on the set of one, the game quite literally embraced the fact that it was completely scripted.

It was a hard game, divisively so, but with levels playing out the same way after every restart, the challenge became one of pattern memorisation in addition to skill. The lack of freedom may have been offensive, but the satisfaction upon each level’s completion more than made up for it.

Every gamer wants to show off, but most games leave this as an optional extra for the hardcore fans. You could play through Metal Gear Solid 3 whilst making it look amazing, by utilising all the extra features such as poisoning enemies with snakes or distracting them with dirty magazines, but after a certain point you’re going to get lazy and just tranquillise everyone in your path (though I’m willing to admit this may just have been me).

It may not have been the ideal solution, but Stuntman would accept nothing less than the optimum run-though. If you didn’t scrape that car just so as you passed it, or if you didn’t plough through those boxes as you exited the alleyway, then you weren’t going to make it through the level.

So yes, Stuntman was unforgiving. It was often infuriating and gave you no freedom at all aside from the freedom to fail. Its achievement though, was that once you’d finally made it through, you were eager to watch back your replay. My question to you then, is how many other games have managed to do that?


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