The Challenge to Meaningful Games

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 Bellic—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 paradox—between what the moral or message says you should feel, and what the gameplay implies is the real point—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.

3 thoughts on “The Challenge to Meaningful Games

  1. “This kind of paradox—between what the moral or message says you should feel, and what the gameplay implies is the real point…”

    I’d like to tackle one specific point of the gameplay of modern adventure-style games that seems to universally undercut many stories.

    The modern videogame seems to be much more forgiving about mistakes that a player makes in a story. Across the board, deaths no longer mean you return to world 1-1 of the game (possibly ruining hours of work), but instead, you just respawn at the last checkpoint/closest hospital/nearest graveyard. Sure, you might lose some money/guns/etc., but no real modern games (as far as I know) punish you gravely for bad decisions that you have made.

    I would argue that the narrative of stories like GTA4 is polluted by the fact that gameplay functions this way. It certainly wouldn’t be fun to watch Niko recuperate in a hospital for weeks after a deadly shootout, but by encouraging the instant-respawn with no consequences mentality, decision-making in the story degenerates. I don’t have to make the decision of “should I spare this person’s life? If I get caught, I’ll have to spend years in prison, but I’ll get paid dollars”, as the real decision is “should I spare this person’s life? If I screw up, I’ll have to reload from the last save point, oh no!”.

    I think that as long as you have games where there are no real consequences for actions taken, you really can’t put a weighty story on top of it and eliminate the paradox between story and gameplay. I guess the fact that there are no real consequences makes the game unrealistic to the point where I can’t take the story seriously.

  2. Regarding your attempt to play through without killing cops/innocents, you did make the choice to follow the story of the game. One could chose to play GTA4 by just working for Roman’s cab company driving people around Broker for 40 hours and never getting drawn into crime.

    I do feel like Niko segues from wanting to just get by in life to murdering people for money too quickly, this was probably a cop out in terms of not wanting to make people play for 10 hours before they get in gun fights. I think they could have done a lot more with playing up why you need money (they touch on Roman having all these gambling debts but your money never goes to that.) In GTA Vice City for example you botch a major drug deal and a scrambling to pay back your boss back so you don’t get whacked (and you receive frequent phone calls that remind you of that.)

  3. Sam:
    Thanks for the comment. I’m inclined to agree that death presents a particularly egregious narrative disruption—so much so, even, that I presented a paper entirely on this topic at a conference some months ago. (See notes here; I hope to have more info in coming weeks about whether it will see the light of day as a published article. There are some blog posts floating around the archive here that touch on that too, if you’re interested.)

    “Regarding your attempt to play through without killing cops/innocents, you did make the choice to follow the story of the game.”

    That’s technically accurate, but I would argue that that’s hardly any kind of “choice” at all, if you’re actually determined to play the game like a story. Games with stories are designed with a hint of direction built into them, some sort of narrative arc with a climax and resolution. To drive around Broker in a cab all day represents an active refusal to engage with the story designed for the game, not really much of an alternative story. I’d be more willing to agree if there was any option for a classic narrative arc for those who go with this choice—like, after a few dozen hours of this drudgery, you really could pay off those gambling debts, meet a nice woman, maybe go undercover for the LCPD or something. But in the case of what the game actually offers, I’d argue that driving around the city in a cab isn’t following another kind of narrative, but making up one of your own, which has nothing to do with the game’s narrative. (Not that this isn’t a valid way to play a game—in fact, that’s exactly the type of play that Will Wright wants to foster—but it’s still a pretty different activity.)

    I agree, too, that it struck me as very odd that the gambling debt thing kind of feels glossed over. I felt like there were a number of opportunities for different kinds of interaction with characters, but everything pretty much came down to chasing, killing, or occasionally opting not to kill. Clearly it’s a formula that works for their audience, for the most part, but I wonder if that’s because it works so well as a toy that audiences are willing to forgive it for its failings as a narrative.

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