Saturday, August 23, 2008

Death, Liberty, and the Purusuit of Happiness

*** 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.


Unknown said...

Interesting. I made the same choice as you and found the ending deeply unsatisfying.

Throughout the game, Niko is searching for the person who betrayed him back in the war. I found the decision to let that person (whose name escapes me at the moment) live or die truly agonizing. I finally let him live, and it seemed fitting.

But then the game decides to wrap up the other plot thread of Dmitri and his earlier betrayal of you. You're given the choice to work with him, or kill him. Like you, I decided to kill him. My justification was that he was a very real and immediate threat to Niko's life, while the other man, who I let live, was a drugged out nobody. I was happy to give Dmitri what was coming to him. He deserved it, in my mind.

Unfortunately, the game kept going after that point. Kate was killed, and I had to take revenge on Jimmy Pegorino. While the death of Kate was gut wrenching, having it done at the hands of Pegorino seemed to be an odd choice by the developers. Pegorino comes in to the game sorta late, as I recall, and making the climactic mission of the game focus on him didn't feel right. From what I've read, choosing to work with Dmitri ends up with Roman's death at the hands of Dmitri, and the final mission involves killing him. This makes far more sense to me based on the previous plot. It would have made more sense to me to have the death of Kate or Roman come from Dmitri either way, with some other choice beforehand determining it.

Steve gaynor said...

Kate being a boring, obnoxious, useless character that the designers thrust in my face against my will made me want to see her offed. Then the game delivered on my wishes and I was happy. Finally, I killed everybody who'd been jerking me around and in the end got to hang out with my cahsin and all the mahney I had made. Score! America rules!

Anonymous said...

This discussion fits in nicely with your last one about Foucault and the illuions of freedom in games.

I think that your observation that GTA IV only really affords liberty outside the context of missions for the most part is an accurate one (indeed, this is a claim that might be made about the whole franchise). Even the ethical choices offered several times during the missions are always binaries, which while giving choice is still (from my own libertarian perspective) a fairly coercive level of "choice."

I hate to link and run, but I think that you might be interested in an article that I wrote on GTA: San Andreas that concerns the evolution of characterization in the GTA series. In part, it may be relevant to your discussion because what it observes about the way that Rockstar has begun developing richer characters also places more limits on the liberty of the player to fully inhabit them. Ultimately, I argue that this is to the betterment of the narrative line of the games and keeps a balance between ludic and narrative concerns.

You can find that old essay review here:

Anonymous said...

Dammit! Well, you did say there were spoilers. Not your fault. But the first sentence of the second to last paragraph is missing a word.

Perhaps the whole experience of being completely unable to rise above your scripted fate is itself a commentary on the many immigrants that fall into America's advertisement that it's the land of opportunity. The only opportunity they have is to clean up after the cultural mainstays, the people that uphold America's infrastructure through corrupt means. And there is nothing they can do about this.

Of course, this would be a general statement and not a precise one, as there have been plenty of immigrants who have become successful legally.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@sean: I agree with you that the sudden appearance of Pegornio as the final rival was kind of strange, considering he was not a major figure in the rest of the game.

Also, the scene you describe-- where you have to decide whether or not to kill the man who betrayed you all those years ago-- I kind of felt like that was one of the most weighty choices in the game, and apparently it makes no (gameplay) difference at all which you choose.

@steve: here's the thing-- by the finale I had actually invested a lot of time in Kate, and so when they killed her off I was like, "This isn't fair! I spent all that time driving her to darts!"

@g.c.w: thanks! I think most critics have found the missions kind of coercive and also conflicted on a narrative level. I liked how both of your reviews brought out the narrative benefits of this restriction.

@samurai: Fixed it! sorry if I spoiled some aspects, I think your assessment of the game is right on. I couldn't have put it better myself

Humingway said...

That is interesting! Since I don't yet have an X360 or a PS3, it seemed okay to read this and spoil it, but now I wish I could have played it the right way.

Isn't the situation with Kate somewhat similar to what Final Fantasy VII did with Aeris? If anything, I'd think it would be even more acute in that game, since Aeris was a playable character.

I'm sketching out a paper right now on the musical treatment of video game death, focusing on the differences between ludic death (due to the player's actions) and narrative death (built into the story). Ambiguous situations like this are fascinating.

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