‘Stuntman’ Was a Gimmick, But a Flawlessly Executed One
A year after Grand Theft Auto 3 burst onto an unsuspecting world, a quirky little game came out that mocked the kind of overwrought violence that the former dealt in. In Stuntman, you were tasked with completing movie scenes that required you to do all kinds of crazy driving: insane jumps, barrel rolls, explosions, and squealing U-turns. Each task was scored based on how well you did after you completed the sequence and the director yelled a satisfying “cut!” It had a simple premise, but one that worked surprisingly well in the video game format. Points based on performance in a level (*ahem* I mean a scene) made sense, because it was a reflection on how well the scene would look in the movie. If you missed your mark, the movie’s quality would suffer. This is obviously a handy conceit for a video game, but a fun one.
So too with the story. The world is divided up into different movies; all distinct, all recognizable parodies of common movie genres. Within those movies, you have to complete a sequence of scenes to finish the movie. The reward is perhaps the most thrilling of any video game ever. Once completed, you get to watch the movie you helped create. They are simple, of course, no more than a few minutes, but in them you can see your work. You turned that corner at high speed, you jumped over that moving train, and if you didn’t quite stick the landing, well that’s in there too. It may not always look pretty but it’s yours.
It also featured a fantastic intro video. I don’t remember ever watching it as a kid, but it’s pretty epic.
Stuntman managed to be edgy without being edgy. You got to experience the thrill of a car chase or getaway without the guilt. In Grand Theft Auto III, you played the role of a psychopath. He wasn’t real, but if he was he would need to be institutionalized. In Stuntman you’re just working a 9-to-5. The stories are all make believe and you have a job to do. Not only could this guy be real, but he’s the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with.
The game came out in 2002 and has aged terribly (haven’t we all?). The graphics are blocky and bland. The cities you drive through are devoid of almost all life and movement. You pass right through terrified extras and aren’t even penalized for what is, in all likelihood, their certain death. The loading times are bad as well (comparable to GTA3’s abysmal ones). It is a wonder I ever thought this was as good as it gets. It also makes me melancholy over the fact that nothing has come out since that quite matches the innocent entertainment of the first one. In 2007, Stuntman did get a sequel (Stuntman: Ignition on the PS3), but it never compared. By then it had been five years, and despite a next generation console to giving the series a much needed hardware boost, the game made little improvements on the first.
It’s remarkable how “meta” the game is, while still being very straight forward. Stuntman never forces you to ask questions or reflect on anything more complicated than how to hit a jump at the right angle. However, by using the gimmick to its advantage, it allows us to see how arbitrary other games are. What exactly is a “score” in Pac-Man? What does it translate to in the world of the yellow circles eating white dots? The story is self-contained, as well. Most games are linear for reasons that have nothing to do with what your character is choosing to do. He goes down a path because the game makers allowed him to only walk on this path at this moment. Not so in Stuntman. You follow the path because you’re trying to tell the story that was given to you. The linear story is inherent in your job description. The director tells you what to do, and it’s your job to do it well.
I loved this game in 2002, and I respect it now. It was also one of the most infuriating games every released. Never have I come so close to breaking a controller than when I missed a last maneuver on a course that I was almost finished with. But even though I would rage, there I was, hitting restart and getting ready, eager to see what kind of film I’d make.