Tuesday, August 5, 2008

My Name is Nico, and I"m a Law-Abider

I'll be honest with you. I'm not crazy about emergent gameplay. I like to mess around with some high-caliber firearms and the island of Manhattan at my disposal, but nine times out of ten I would prefer to hand sixty bucks over to a designer and have him give me interesting things to do, rather than having to come up with them myself. I'm shiftless and lazy that way. But on the other hand, I never cease to be amazed by the bizarre ways that gamers will use games with open-ended rules to create weird projects for themselves.

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.


Ben Abraham said...

If you ever want to see another (hilarious!) project about emergent gameplay, you needn't go further than Living Oblivion.

The same guy who make the Concerned Half-Life comics is currently playing through a slighly modded version of Oblivion trying to live as an NPC.

Go have a read, it's both funny and startlingly insightful.


Unknown said...

Really insightful, I think, especially the part about the narrative being its own reward. It's a dynamic I've always tended to associate with RPG's, but your post makes me think it's much more generalized; I can think of a great many games I've played for hours longer than I otherwise would have, trying to trigger an interesting bit of story that I'm convinced is there.

From my perspective, this idea might be a great way to nail emergent gameplay down--I've always suspected that it only exists in relation to the rules-narrative of the game.

Kylie said...

What exactly constitutes narrative in this narrative/gameplay distinction? Would narrative choices of the sort you make in KOTOR or Mass Effect be considered gameplay? I suppose what I'm asking is, are the narrative elements of a game necessarily passive, though there may be active (gameplay) choices you must make to access these narratives?

I can see someone primarily concerned with gameplay approaching narrative choices as if they were solely elements of gameplay (one must necessarily do this with a fully narrative game like Facade). Rather than thinking "what would the character do?" or "what would I do?" they think "what choice is most likely to benefit me?" This makes the narrative, if it's at all interactive, just another element of gameplay - but this is only for a certain type of gamer.

The issue that arises for the lovers of narrative is, as you said, needing to make gameplay choices or sacrifices to experience the narrative. Nowhere is this evidenced more than in GTAIV and the (admittedly cool) fact that missions involving real-time driving and conversation with another character often have two different recorded conversations. Ostensibly this is so if you fail the mission and retry it you're not bored listening to the same conversation. But if you're a narrative completist in the way many are gameplay completists you find yourself forced to fail if you want to experience all aspects of the narrative.

Interesting to note, though, is that the very drive for narrative completeness is most likely instilled by our understanding of gameplay in the first place. I approach a game with the understanding that there is a script, and I want to experience all parts of that script so I do whatever the narrative or gameplay demands of me to experience it all, including failing and/or restarting. This is not the case in other forms of gaming such as tabletop RPGs because you only get one chance and you know the narrative is not entirely scripted (if you have a semi-decent DM/GM). Is there some way to recreate this in games? Aside from the player imposing limits on themselves (as you've done in GTA) and letting themselves play a game once and only once, I'm not sure how this could be achieved.

Unknown said...

@ Kylie Prymus
That is a very tough question that has been asked quite frequently in the past few weeks. David Carlton starts a discussion about the exact same question here. I honestly believe the creativity and uniqueness of this era of games will contort the idea of a narrative game into a concept that will eventually include them all.

But back to emergent gameplay...In the case of GTA IV, I too am being torn between his conflicting lifestyles. And I completely agree that it is this conflict that gives the game much of its value. Sometimes I find myself forcefully completing missions attempting to bring closure to the convoluted plot lines and interact with the growing character set. But sometimes it just feels better to ease off the trigger and enjoy the city.

Just a side note about the brilliance of GTA IV: Last night, my wife asked me to get back in the car so she could finishing listening to the baby mail order commercial. Then she confessed that hates all the killing, but she likes watching me play the game because the radio commentary was "ridiculous". If a non-gamer can be drawn to this game based on the radio stations alone, there must be some inherent genius in there somewhere...

ImpureAscetic said...

I play GTA games like that, i.e. the wrong way, and I have since Vice City. I don't go so far as to stop at red lights, but I am generally a very conscientious citizen of the world when I am not on a mission that specifically requires I act otherwise.

I dispute your suggestion that the gameplay advantages offered by friendships are negligible. Little Jacob's gun shop is a tremendous bargain, especially early in the game. Dwayne's homies are very helpful, and both the NPCs who can call of stars have obvious utility. All of these gameplay buffs are worth the cost of bringing Dwayne to a fancy restaurant every fifth mission.

With that in mind, I think the game provides a functional, albeit imperfect correspondence between the inherent benefits of friendship, i.e. that which would be shown through narrative and dialogue, and the gameplay benefits.

Kylie said...

@ ImpureAscetic

I agree with you that the rewards for engaging in the "narrative" of friendship are not negligible, depending upon one's particular play style at least. However, when you're going through the game the first time (assuming you're not looking up information) you don't know what sort of reward you are going to get. This often encourages you to try to become friends with everyone, just to see what they offer, but if the reward is something you find insignificant (for example I've never felt any real need to buy guns or vests, from Jacob or otherwise) then you may be disappointed.

However, if the narrative of that friendship is inherently interesting to you then you may not mind an insignificant reward. I personally loved running around with Jacob and trying to figure out what he was saying. I would have done that even if there was no reward, in the same way that you might drive around listening to the radio - it doesn't nothing for you gameplay-wise, it's just fun. Maybe that should be the point. We are given a myriad of options for who to befriend. Some of them we will enjoy and some we won't. Why bother wasting time with those whose company we don't enjoy?

From a certain perspective the friendships in GTAIV could function as embodiments of Aristotle's categories of friendship. If you hang out with one character solely because you want the reward, you have a friendship of utility. You'll quickly find that if the reward isn't that useful to you, or becomes less useful over time, you will put less effort into maintaining that friendship. On the other hand a "true" friendship can develop if you enjoy the narrative and possibly even develop an attachment to the character. You will continue to hang out with them regardless of the reward just to see how they end up.

But far be it for me to suggest that we may be capable of developing virtue through a digital character...

Brian O'Blivion said...

I just like a bit of hooker-killing now and again...

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@ben: I checked that out because I saw it on your site, it's pretty cool. It's pretty crazy to think how much content there is in that Game, it makes GTA look tiny.

@Kylie: Thanks for the very thoughtful response. I think RPGs have really led the way in terms of giving the player a set of well-realized relationships with other characters. I think the choices you get in Mass Effect are rewarded of course, but it's assumed in that genre that the player wants to define their character. And they have to make these choices anyways in the course of the game.

In GTA a lot of the choices you have to make in order to define your character are totally optional, (and you have to take time out of progressing in the game).

@omari: I think the things you describe match my own experience a lot. I really think that getting torn between doing the missions and working the social aspect (slowing down some) has really made the experience as a whole better.

@ascetic: I kind of agree about the relative usefulness of the relationships, but I've never felt like I needed to have those advantages to get through the missions. That's kind of my threshold.

Anonymous said...

I love emergent gameplay.

I think both the materials and narratives you get from the characters are rewarding. Taking Jacob or Brucie bowling is boring as all heck, but I love hearing the conversations between them and Nico as we drive to the alley.

And on the moral side, yes, the two lifestyles Nico leads are conflicting, but in reality I don't think it's necessarily true. Rockstar has worked to continually throw in the gamer's face throughout the game the fact that, for foreigners, America ads itself as the land of opportunity. Yet when you get there, the opportunities presented are not as sugar-coated and honorable as they first seem. The things Nico does to live are by no means excuseable, but that doesn't destroy the fact that he does them to live.