One of the things I have written about around here (and elsewhere) is how games have great narrative potential in the blending of story and gameplay. In games like Bioshock and Shadow of the Colossus, players must confront the morality of actions they have been forced to do in the process of regular gameplay. And it’s now becoming a common convention, if not a cliche, to offer players choices between a limited set of actions that direct the plot to some degree, offering the chance to see how the player’s own choices have ethical and practical ramifications, such as in Bioware games (Mass Effect being the most recent example), Kane & Lynch, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, and even the recent Grand Theft Auto IV. All of this may feel for naught, however, when the rest of the game’s design completely undercuts whatever message the narrative dimension of the game sought to communicate.
I’m sure I’ve felt this more than once, but never was it more pronounced than when I finished the story line of Grand Theft Auto IV. (There will be some SPOILERS below, so quit if you’d rather read nothing about the missions and no hints about the game’s ending.) The story features Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant who comes to live with his cousin in the U.S. and finds himself mired in a criminal life he (supposedly) never wanted. I say “supposedly” because I never wanted it, but had no option to avoid it [assuming I wanted to progress in through the narrative, as discussed below in the comments]. First I tried playing without committing a crime, even carjacking, which meant I walked a whole lot and took a lot of cabs. When that became obviously impossible based on what you’re required to do, I relented and stole cars for convenience. Then I tried going as far as I could without killing anybody, which I again had to give up on based on the requirements to advance in the game. Finally, I figured I could at least limit myself to killing other criminals, and just try to escape from police, but I was only able to keep that up until an exceptionally long and difficult bank robbery mission. It was a frustrating sensation, but perhaps that was purposeful; perhaps the game designers wanted the player to sense a near-inevitable slide into criminal life that consumes the protagonist.
By the end of the game, this criminal life has come back to haunt you. The game offers a number of situations in which you can choose between murder and mercy, or killing one target for money or another for justice; but in the end, the only choice that really makes a difference is whether you decide that Niko wants cash or that Niko wants revenge. And in either case, somebody innocent will pay the price for his greed or his bloodlust. “You won,” Niko’s ally assures him at the end, but you certainly don’t feel like you won. You feel like there is no winning when you sink so low, like the American Dream is not all it was cracked up to be. It’s not the cleverest or deepest story in a video game, but by this time you’ve spent enough time with these characters for all the pain to actually feel a little meaningful.
So, cue credits, and then Niko’s voice afterward: “So this is what the Dream is like. This is what we longed for.” And then you see Niko standing in his safe house. You see, GTA games don’t really “end” after the story is completed. You’re welcome to come back as long as you like to drive around, find easter eggs, shoot pigeons, drive off ramps, complete optional missions, and so on.
One might argue that this is a fascinating narrative device peculiar to video games: giving the player the ability to live out the character’s life after the ending, never letting the story end at “happily ever after” (or, if you prefer, “tragically ever after”). I’m not going to argue that in this case, though. Actually, I think this is better understood as a holdover from older GTA games, and one that rather hurts any sense of meaning implied in the story. It’s hard for me, at least, to get a sense of how this character feels, of his sense of loss, and then turn right around and decide to jump some ramps. It’s not that I don’t want to go and have fun in this big city that has been designed as our playground. I just don’t want to do it with Niko Bellicâ€”and you only get rewards for doing it with him, not for doing it with any of a number of pre-programmed avatars available in the multiplayer “free mode.”
This kind of paradoxâ€”between what the moral or message says you should feel, and what the gameplay implies is the real pointâ€”is not just limited to GTA games. I criticized Bioshock for a similar sort of paradox. And Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw sums this up rather succinctly in his recent review of Haze, a first-person shooter about drug-powered mercenaries:
The overall message of Haze’s story is that WAR IS BAD and there are no true heroes when death is on the menu, but combining that with whiz-bang shooty fun strikes me as trying to have one’s cake and eat it.
Why is this so problematic? Well, for one thing, it gives opponents of gaming something to point at, a pretty credible argument that game developers are just trying to brush away criticism about violence and crime by tacking on a disingenuous message saying that these things are bad. I don’t have a strong sense that the “crime is bad” message was just tacked into GTA to deter critics; Rockstar hasn’t really seemed concerned with negative controversy before. (The strongly negative depiction of hard drug use does give me pause, as if D.A.R.E. commissioned that on the sly, but then again, one of Niko’s best buddies in the game is smoking pot constantly.) Nevertheless, I would be hard pressed to argue against someone who makes this accusation.
More personally relevant to me, however, is that this paradox simply ruins a sense of narrative believability, and cuts short the likelihood of provoking meaningful reflection on what the storyteller might have actually wanted me to reflect upon. Many other games offer some means of separating the game’s function as a story from its function as a toy. Halo 3, for example, separates these functions between multiple “lobbies,” cordoning off the protagonist to the “campaign.” For some reason, I respond to this as more than just a token gesture, but as an acknowledgment of differing purposes designed into the product itself.
It’s possible, though, that I’m more accepting of this multi-menu loophole than non-gamers might be, or that I’m more sensitive about the overlaying of “weighty story” and “fun toy” than many other gamers might be. I’d be very interested to hear about what any of you readers might have felt upon completing the game yourself, or whether you too see such paradoxes as problematic or easily ignored in any other games.