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The joy of being a passenger in video games

The many ways that video games can drive you places

Spider-Man Insomniac Games

I never drive.

My albinism means that my eyes are underdeveloped. The government calls people like me “legally” blind, and I need both high prescription glasses and a magnifier to see the world around me, depending on what I’m trying to see or read. Driving just isn’t safe.

Operating a car isn’t like being in a war or traveling to space; it’s something that many people do daily. And I do drive in video games, and often, which leads many people to ask if doing so makes up for my lack of driving in real life.

That’s the wrong question. I can’t gauge whether a game has “realistic” or “authentic” driving, because I have so little direct experience with it. But I do know a thing or two about riding in cars. I’m always the passenger, even during very short car trips. And that’s also an experience that is relatable for most people, but it’s rarely addressed when discussing how video games and their environments are designed.

So the question shouldn’t be what I’m missing by always being a passenger in real life; the question I’m interested in today is what you’re missing out on due to always wanting to drive in games. And modern gaming has multiple ways it can make us a passenger.

So what happens when the virtual wheel is taken out of your hands? A lot of good things, it turns out.

Video games can make you a passenger in three ways

Driving mechanics can be crucial for open-world games, but the ability to be a passenger is often overlooked when discussing how we get around in games. I prefer to be chauffeured whenever possible while playing games, or use public transportation in games that offer the option, even though it’s perfectly “safe” for me to drive in a virtual environment.

Grand Theft Auto 5 screenshots Rockstar Games

I understand that most players want to be in control as much as possible, but what you lose in control, you gain in the attention you can give to the world outside the car, train, or plane when you’re just along for the ride and don’t have to take direct control over the vehicle.

I classify the ability to be a passenger in video games in three different ways:

  1. Selected rides. This is what happens when the game takes the player through the world at their discretion, and at the time of their choosing.
  2. Attractions. These are situations where the player takes a non-interactive trip through pre-planned environments and sights to make some kind of point about the game’s world. Attractions often take place in the beginning of games.
  3. Riding shotgun. These are times where another person is in charge of a trip to another location in multiplayer games.

Each of these experiences can change how the player interacts with the virtual environment, and the feeling of not being in control can lead to a new appreciation for what the game is trying to achieve through its world.

Let’s break them down one by one.

The selected rides of Grand Theft Auto 5

I always return to Grand Theft Auto 5 and the act of exploring Los Santos from the game’s many taxis when I think about this topic. I can get into a taxi, tell the driver where I want to go, and they will drive me there as the rest of the city passes by outside the window.

I can always skip through the ride to use the taxis as a fast-travel system, but doing so means that I’ll miss the opportunity to see certain parts of the city or watch the people as they go about their own business. The in-game radio stations fill me in on current news from the rest of the virtual world as I get to relax and appreciate all the care put into this city. The cab drivers themselves will often talk and pedestrians sometimes react to seeing me in the car, further adding to the sense of being in the world.

I like to stay in first-person mode and look around the car during these rides. I feel like I’m right there, and I have the time to take in the many details of Los Santos, while also pondering the game’s story as if I were going through these situations myself. It turns the cab ride into an effective form of role-playing: The game is giving me time to sit, learn about the world around me, and think.

Rockstar has done so many things right with the Grand Theft Auto series, but the taxi system may be one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the game. I’m not doing anything during these rides, but I’m experiencing so much.

These rides make Grand Theft Auto 5 feel like a real world, even when I’m not imposing my will on it, or doing much of anything at all. This is the sort of situation that I have plenty of context for in my real life. I may never be able to safely drive in real life, but you shouldn’t deprive yourself the pleasures of being a passenger in video games.

Rockstar’s catalogue seems to understand this idea of casual rides helping immersion, as I often made my partner drive in L.A Noire so I could enjoy that version of 1940s Los Angeles. It’s a chance to center myself in the character while enjoying being displaced in time.

The attraction of BioShock

Attractions made very good insertion points into the world of a game or the beginning of the story; think of the tram ride in Half-Life or the bathysphere trip down to Rapture in BioShock. Your job is to stop, look, and listen as the game takes you from one set point to another, and often controls your view while doing so.

An attraction might give the player the ability to switch tracks or interact with the environment in a few small ways, but developers tend to take player control away during these sections of the game. It’s their chance to really show off what they’ve made, and also give you a sense of place and tone. The developer is presenting the world of the game in a specific, controlled manner. Take a breath and let them do so without getting impatient.

Good attractions will make the player feel something about this new environment — and many of them aim for awe — but even the best attractions dull with repetition. A great attraction can create a memory that sticks with you forever, but I still often want to skip attractions the second time I play a game.

Red Dead Redemption 2 fixes this somewhat by allowing the player to turn any trip on a horse into an attraction using the cinematic camera angles, which shows what talented developers can do when they start to blur the lines between selected rides and attractions.

An attraction may also turn into an interactive segment, if the ride explodes into violence and you’re pressed into firing back with a turret or another weapon that’s locked into place. These trips don’t have to be peaceful or calming, and being lulled into a false sense of security, only to be surprised with a well-timed action scene, can be an effective way to toy with the expectations of the player.

Riding shotgun in Halo

It can be exciting to give up control to someone else, and guided trips take place when another human being is in control of the vehicle. Sometimes I jump into the gunner’s seat of a vehicle and find myself in the care of a skilled pilot or driver, and other times I realize — often a bit too late — that the other player has no idea what they’re doing. Both outcomes can be an adventure.

Nothing beats cruising along in the passenger seat of a buggy on Pandora and hitting skags while playing Borderlands, or grabbing the mounted gun in a Halo Warthog as a buddy skids around the battlefield.

Riding shotgun introduces an enjoyable level of stress, because I can never tell when I’m going to need to react to a gunfight by either firing back or jumping out of the vehicle. I can’t relax while riding shotgun if there’s always the chance that the player who is driving may misjudge a turn and roll the vehicle. I have to be ready for anything, even if my mind may wander during long rides.

I was the getaway driver in my old GTA Online crew, ironically enough, because one teammate didn’t know the map well enough and the other two simply weren’t good at it. I roll with a new group of people now, however, and I know who is safe to drive and who can’t be trusted with the keys. Finding a good driver who can keep their head when the bullets start flying is a rare gift in gaming.

I’ve been playing Apex Legends as well, and was surprised at how scary it can be when you’re not the jumpmaster.

Three players jump out of a plane, controlled by one character Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts via Polygon

I can peel off from the group at any time, but I like to put my faith in the player who is guiding our team as we jump into battle. This lets me look around and call out other enemy teams I may see around us with the game’s ping system, and if I die right after landing I can always mentally blame the jumpmaster for my team’s poor placement. I just wish I had the option of doing some sick skydiving tricks while falling.

Maybe those could be added in a future patch?

The value of being a passenger

These rides are an important chance to have a few introspective moments during single-player games, or to let the tension build in multiplayer titles. Being a passenger allows the player to make a deeper connection to the world, or the other players in it.

Giving up control to an NPC or another player while in a vehicle isn’t a flaw, as long as game designers know how to give you something else in return. It’s that trade-off that I find so fascinating, and being a passenger so often in real life has given me a deep appreciation for the games that do this well.

So pay attention the next time a game takes away control while you’re in a vehicle, and ask yourself what the game is trying to achieve by doing so. Sometimes it pays to just be along for the ride.

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