*** Coletta Factor: GTAIV plot spoilers below***
About a week ago, Leigh Alexander wrote an interesting post about the of boom-and-bust cycle that surrounds the release of critically lauded titles like Bioshock and GTAIV. The game releases to rapturous acclaim, then the backlash and the nit-picking set in, and then the nomadic gaming public moves on to the next AAA game and forgets about it entirely: the four-month bell curve. And the odd thing is that my personal four-month bell curve with GTAIV came to an end this week, when I made the final push and finished the game after buying it at a midnight launch. And my dominant thought after witnessing the game's tragic finale was: we should still be talking about this game. Why aren't we?
Well, it seems to me that everyone who had to play and finish the game within the first week (most members of the game press who had to play through the game for review) got a bad deal in terms of being able to appreciate what the game has to offer. I don't think anyone is going to forget their first taste of Liberty City. The first hours of GTAIV are likely to be burned into the collective subconscious of a generation of gamers, because the world of GTAIV is by any reckoning the most detailed and visually impressive environment ever created in a video game. And I spent quite a few hours at the start simply marveling at the details of the environment, enjoying the narrative, and appreciating how so many of the inconveniences of the previous iterations had been eliminated.
However, there was a distinct break about halfway through where the honeymoon ended. After a while you quit slowing down to appreciate all the architecture and you get sucked into completing the missions, and around the same point the ludonarrative dissonance sets in and you become disenchanted with the way your character is compelled to act during the missions. And this was the point at which I (like many others, I think) came to a dead stop and moved on to other things.
In retrospect it was a good thing that I stopped there, because I got a different perspective on the game when I returned to it a few months later. On one hand, the world impressed the shit out of me all over again, and on the other hand I found I had new stores of patience with the social-networking structure. And it was only after re-thinking the game from the perspective of these elements that I came under the sway of the game's thesis.
To my mind, the felt disconnect between the peace-loving Nico of the cutscenes and the unrepentant bloodletter of the missions, while disenchanting, is an element of the narrative itself. So many of the narrative pieces (especially his relationship to the mafia and police) explicitly play on the idea that Nico's plight is living a life chosen for him by others. The only role available to him is this weird hybrid assassin-janitor; like many other new visitors to our shores, he spends his time cleaning up other peoples' messes for money. Everyone in power also has some nasty history that they are unwilling to deal with themselves, and it falls to the newcomers to keep the gears of capital turning smoothly without staining the reputations of its controllers. As a player, you don't have any choice in this; to keep the narrative progressing you must resign yourself to piling up corpses for your handlers regardless of how you feel about it.
One piece of meaningful liberty the game's narrative affords the player is the option to cultivate relationships with Nico's crime associates and girlfriends. There's no denying that ferrying your friends and paramours across town is a chore, but the slim gameplay rewards of this efforts are compensated by the narrative rewards. Not only do you get a greater sense of Nico's character and motivations by having him discuss his life with his peers, but I also fell into the grip of the idea that cultivating these friendships (particularly with Kate McCreary, who offers no tangible gameplay rewards at all) was my one chance to write my own script for Nico. As the missions pulled Nico inexorably towards corruption, with few defining choices along the way, I was given a chance to redeem the protagonist through my own agency.
And like a sucker I took it. During the final mission you are given a decision that offers a choice between the two opposed values in the narrative: accumulation and honor. You can make money by working with a character who had betrayed you, or you can take revenge on him. Just as I was given a choice between the two, Nico calls Kate and asks her for advice. And since I had come to regard Nico's relationship with Kate as his one chance for happiness, I took her advice and went for revenge. And the game's reward for this choice was killing her off at Roman's wedding in the very next scene, setting up the final bid for revenge and the conclusion of the game.
This finale made a deep impression on me. By offering the player a chance to define Nico's values and character in the context of the gameplay, GTAIV gives the player the illusion that her choices make a difference. And then, perversely, the game eliminates the thing you choose to value the most. The message I took from this is that it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what you choose. You may think you are in control, but you're not making the rules. The rules were set long before the player arrived, and Nico's happiness is not in the cards.
When Halo 3 came out last Fall, Daniel Radosh wrote that in order to attain maturity, “games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life.” As G. Christopher Williams noted, GTAIV humiliates the player in order to convey a message about the systematic corruption America visits on its influx of human capital. The structure of the gameplay contains a paradox at the heart of its vision of America: it inspires an unprecedented sense of freedom and open possibilities, and then this very sensation is shown to be a trap. The game's final achievement is labeled “You Win!”, and as it rolled by I knew the joke was on me. I had mastered all the rules, and it had gotten me nowhere. Welcome to America.