In honor of today’s 15th anniversary of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, we’re asking the following question:
What’s your favorite way of playing a video game wrong?
Maybe I’m just a little goody two-shoes, but even when I wasn’t rushing through them for reviews, I didn’t get all that deviant when playing games. But the one example I can think of was my Halo-obsessed friends and I spending hours messing with the series’ wacky physics. There’s this ancient internet video where the player would create a giant pool of grenades under a jeep, toss a live one in, climb in the vehicle, and just hang out while the ensuing explosion sent them spiraling through the air. I was obsessed with this video and worked tirelessly to recreate its tricks, blowing up vehicles all over the place to see what mayhem I could cause. It also led me to a fascination with skirting the series’ invisible walls. I’d send a jeep flying up over the side of a snowy canyon so I could see the unprogrammed abyss that lied beyond or, in Halo 2, use grenades to jump myself into uncharted territory and start exploring weird unfinished spaces I was never supposed to see.
I don’t get to play many video games these days, but for several child-free years there, I would unwind from a stressful day by slaughtering dozens of innocent people inside one of Grand Theft Auto IV’s many fine hospitals. Holing up inside the hospital and going to town on civilians seems to be a pretty popular pastime, if the number of “Hospital Massacre” videos on YouTube are any indication, and it makes sense. It’s full of patients just sitting around in waiting rooms or convalescing in sickbeds, nurses and doctors going about their rounds, and others you can shoot, stab, or blow up with impunity, while the blocking of the sole entrance makes it easy to fend off the waves of cops that arrive as your body count builds. Plus, if you do get hurt, there’s usually a health pack to be found (it’s a hospital)—and even better, if you get killed, you respawn right outside it, and you can turn around and start the mayhem all over again. It’s sick, it’s cathartic, and it’s a way more fun diversion than going bowling with your annoying cousin.
My roommate and I got really into Burnout Paradise in college, but I don’t think we ever played a single actual race in the dozens of hours we spent with that game. Instead, we would take turns driving to a busy road and weaving through traffic at full speed until we hit something, triggering one of Burnout’s classic, slow-motion, thrillingly elaborate crash sequences. Glass would shatter, metal would crunch, wheels would pop out at impossible angles, and we’d scream and cringe like we’d just witnessed a real person getting flattened against a wall at 100 mph. Then we’d pass the controller and try to pull off something wilder and more gruesome, knowing that we’d be ostracized and ridiculed if we failed to trigger a truly horrific wreck. Of course, crashing was always a big part of the Burnout series, but it was usually done in service of scoring points or eliminating opponents. We were crashing for the sake of crashing, and it was glorious.
I wrote a Memory Wipe about revisiting the original Tomb Raider last year, and how disappointing it was to discover that the way I played it as a child—basically killing Lara Croft over and over again—doesn’t hold up. The game was simply too advanced for me as a kid, but I still loved playing it. So whenever I got lost in the game’s underground mazes, or couldn’t make it past a pack of wolves, I’d throw Lara off a cliff (the crunching noise is really something else) or (my personal favorite) drown her to see her wriggle. I wasn’t playing the game incorrectly so much as not playing it at all. It seems obvious in retrospect that as an adult now moderately adept at video games I’d want to play Tomb Raider to win, not die, but I kind of rue the progress I’ve made. (Not to mention that killing Lara in Rise Of The Tomb Raider, the newest entry in the game series’ franchise, is nowhere near as enjoyable as in the earlier one, as she doesn’t made prolonged groaning noises or jerk her weirdly pointy 3-D graphics body around.)
As someone who spent a solid month recently accidentally wrecking the newest Madden game, I unsurprisingly have a lot of answers to this question. But while I absolutely delighted in screwing up games when I was younger—God bless you, Game Genie—I’ve settled on something of a more recent vintage as my actual choice: The absolutely excellent Xbox dogfighting game Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge. My friend Nathan used to hook his Xbox up to a projector in his living room for that much-missed classic, allowing us to play out four-player fights on a virtual big screen. We rarely played the traditional battle modes, though; instead, we invented a modified King Of The Hill set in the game’s skyscraper-heavy Chicago map. (Or, even better: its extra-dangerous foggy variant.) There was only one real rule to our personal Calvinball: The player who was “King” wasn’t allowed to shoot back against their pursuers. That left them with only one option to stay alive for more than a few seconds: diving down into the narrow alleyways between buildings, executing idiotically dangerous sharp curves and barrel rolls, and just generally getting the most out of the game’s delightfully acrobatic mid-air controls. Ten years later, I can still feel the rush.
At the end of the first episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, you’re given a choice between saving the life of a hardass woman or a dorky guy. I and pretty much everyone else that played the game chose the woman. The uniformity of response prompted a full turnaround in the way Telltale thereafter wrote its episodic games, which force players to make tough narrative choices and then occasionally show the player how other players decided. (If a bunch of people chose the same, the choice wasn’t hard enough.) It also made me vow to play every Telltale game I ever touched in the future in a dogged attempt to suss out the less-chosen route. Through the rest of The Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones, and its masterpiece A Wolf Among Us, I eyed every character interaction and plot thread only looking to sniff out what the average gamer would not choose. I sided resolutely against babes, heroism, badasses, and action, in favor of mundanity, cowardice, and stasis. It’s to Telltale’s credit that the games remain more-or-less as compelling as they would be no matter how you choose these options, in part because the plots sort of unfold the same way no matter what. In games devoid of mechanical intrigue, I created a competition—and often found myself on the more popular side, despite my best efforts.
Back when I was a kid playing Civilization on my old Macintosh computer, the goal was almost never to actually win the space race and claim victory. No, my interest was always in seeing how far-reaching and destructive I could make a global conflagration. Like lots of kids, it seemed cooler for me to watch things go up in flames than it was for society to peacefully evolve. So I would set about developing just the right amount of warmongering to slowly consume the entire planet by the later centuries. As later iterations of the game developed more and more advanced ways to blow the planet sky-high—and more importantly, depict it in a visually fun way—I concurrently started being more into actually winning. But still, there’s an undeniable sense of catharsis to unleashing fictional nuclear devastation. If only these elected assholes who seem up for that in real life could transfer their insane impulses toward a more harmless outlet.