For example, I heard once about a group of players who modded GTA: San Andreas to turn it into an MMO and then spent their time in the world acting like normal human beings. Driving to work in the morning. Sitting in traffic. Obeying stop signs. When I heard about this, part of me thought that this was the nightmare scenario envisioned by Adorno: the crushing banality of modern life had reached such a pitch that people no longer fantasized about escaping from their daily lives through culture and narrative. But on the other hand, it had the feel of people yearning for a just and sane society within the context of a game whose primarily associated with hooker-killing in the public mind.
So last week, on a whim, I decided to play GTA IV as a regular law-abiding citizen for as long as I could tolerate it. I didn't abandon a life of hired killing (I conducted a few missions during this time, during which I displayed my usual effortless grace with a carbine rifle), but I decided that in the time between missions I would conduct myself like a normal citizen. I stopped at red lights, and refrained from running over pedestrians to get from point A to point B. I tuned the radio to Tuff Gong and I spent the time between the missions soaking in the sights and sounds of liberty city. The whole exercise was oddly compelling, maybe because it added perversity into the mix. Because I spent some time in the game behaving myself, the misbehavior really had a punch that was lacking all the time I spent plowing through crowds of pedestrians. I felt kind of bad, and it was enjoyable. There was just something fun about blending into the law-abiding citizenry and saying to myself: “Nothing to see here, folks, just another mild-mannered killer among you on his way to work.”
Aside from the inherent perversity of this exercise, one reason I enjoyed this brief episode of sanity was that it accorded with the role I had been crafting for Nico all along as I've played GTAIV. As many critics have noted, the narrative created by the missions that advance the plot has this weird schizophrenic quality to it: on one hand Nico is presented as a sympathetic and sane man, and on the other hand he shows no compunction about gunning down the whole membership roll of construction workers' local #145 if the money's right.
Although the narrative choices you get to make outside the context of the missions are slight and even trivial, I feel compelled (maybe for this very reason) seize whatever small opportunities the game affords to craft a coherent persona for Nico, a role that does something to resolve this conflict. For some time now I've been quasi-consciously modeling my version of Nico after Robert DeNiro's character in Heat. I may be a professional criminal, but in my off-hours I wear expensive suits and treat Kate McCreary like a lady. When I'm not on the clock working as a cool-headed assassin I try to cultivate normal human relationships and avoid breaking the law. I play pool with Dwayne and drive Little Jacob to the airport. This is just the role I got to play in my brief stint as a law-abider.
The experience has also led me to reevalutate the social-networking aspect of the game. I dabbled in friendships for a while at the beginning of the game, and then jettisoned the whole thing mid-game when I set about chewing through the rest of the narrative in search of the end. (I havn't gotten there yet.) Now I'm back to valuing them gain. Let me explain why.
Jonathan Blow, in a recent lecture, said that the social aspect of the game is a sign of a fundamental conflict between the narrative and gameplay in GTA. The gameplay rewards of maintaining a network of friends and girlfriends is negligible-- the rules of the gameplay, in a way, tell the player that these relationships are unimportant. But from the standpoint of the narrative these people are the most important figures in the game; it is only through interacting with them that you get a to see Nico in any other role than that of the hired killer. If the only way a game can signal to the player that some aspect of the game is important is by giving him gameplay rewards, then GTA really is conflicted. I think Blow is right about how gamers are typically motivated, but I also think he is wrong about the conflict in the design; the narrative bits are the reward. The only reason I've stuck with Dwayne or Little Jacob or Kate are to get the few bits of conversation where you hear Nico reflect on all the insanity that fills the rest of the gameplay.
Maintaining the network of friendships is cumbersome. It feels, distinctly, like an obligation. When I agreed to give Little Jacob a lift I didn't have his car full of discount-guns in mind. But I do have this feeling that going through these chores I give Nico his only shot at redemption. The missions are all about Nico's descent into crime and his increasing thirst for money and revenge, but you get a chance to do something else with him outside of that life and the scripting is just good enough to make me care about taking that opportunity. Maybe there isn't a different ending, maybe there isn't some different gameplay or narrative outcome that derives from taking the time it takes to act like a decent human being whenever possible, but even so I feel like it is important to me to make it a part of how I play the game. Maybe there's something to emergent gameplay after all.