When I tuned into the Grand Theft Auto V role-playing server earlier today, the first thing I saw was a hostage situation. Kyle Pred, a cadet in the Los Santos Police Department, was talking a gangster out of killing a random hostage in a bank. The gangster, Speedy, was yelling questions at Pred. “How many dots are there on two dice?” he asked through the locked door. “21 times two, so 42,” Pred replied, correctly. The situation went on in this way for a minute, before Speedy tired of the game and brought the hostage out, along with his two men. The cops allowed them to get inside their vehicle; a merry chase ensued, ending a short while later as Speedy was able to get away on foot. (He immediately ambushed another gang with his submachine gun.)
In scripted games, as in life, much of your actions are role-playing: you act according to your character (in both senses of the word). Role-playing games, on the other hand, break the format explicitly — you define your character, and you invent the world that made them possible.
On NoPixel, the custom Grand Theft Auto V server where I happened on Pred and Speedy, the two are blended; the world already exists, a grittier copy of the one we live in, but the characters are entirely invented by their players. In practice, the result plays out as something akin to a drama scripted on the fly as players encounter each other. It is also Grand Theft Auto, which means that what you’re watching is a noir: cops vs. gangsters, and then everyone else caught in the crossfire. (Its popularity has also propelled Grand Theft Auto V to near the top of the Twitch charts.)
The NoPixel role-playing universe has a constellation of websites and city services that you can actually interact with. There are journalists in this world, and they write articles about its developments. Thousands of people watch the Twitch channels this live soap is aired on — around 5,500 people were watching the hostage negotiation on Kyle’s channel alone — and there is a fan wiki that keeps track of everything.
NoPixel’s GTA role-play is somewhat antithetical to the experience of playing Grand Theft Auto; in the game’s story mode, you generally play a morally gray criminal who usually uses violence to achieve his ends. But the most important of NoPixel’s strict rules — which people follow, on penalty of getting banned from the 32-person server — is that you must value your life and the lives of others; if a gun is pointed at you in the game, you’re required to act accordingly — you have to decide whether to fight or flee. The NoPixel rules make it possible for a character to die forever, which means GTA’s noir-ish conflicts have real stakes.
Everyone in NoPixel is heavily invested in their role-play. Viewing it was simultaneously like listening to a group of people play a tabletop role-playing game and watching Law and Order, except I could flip between the gangs and the police.
What was more disconcerting, however, was how playing by real-world rules in the game made the regular outbursts of violence weightier. Officer Kyle Pred used cop lingo. Officer Kyle Pred stopped his cruiser at every stoplight. Officer Kyle Pred didn’t shoot at Speedy as he and his gang were getting into their car and driving away; he didn’t even take a shot after the gang’s car was totaled and Speedy had taken off on foot.
The weirdest thing about watching a law enforcement show where the cops are required to value the lives of others is just how humane they come to seem in contrast to their real-life counterparts. What would life be like, I wonder, if the police had to stop and think about consequence before they took even a fully justifiable shot?