GTAIV and the relationship between the player and the game
by Mr. Nobel
Video games are an active battle between the player and the game maker.
Players enter a game and they do what they want. Developers hope, pray and connive to push the player in a predicated direction. Games, by nature of being pretty much the only form of interactive art, can be affected as much by the player as the developer. They want you to run after some dude? Fuck that, Imma blow up this car instead.
How developers have exerted control in linear games is largely obvious. These games push the player along a path by severely restricting their motion and plodding players along with a stick (e.g. lack of AI to kill).
In open games, you’ve got games that structure their campaigns in a hard and loose way, allowing for much dicking around along the way. You’ve also got games like inFamous that add a moral choice system to the proceedings to try and get you to behave as the developers want.
GTAIV, however, represented a new attempt at guiding the player’s moral compass. Rockstar Games have created a open world game, and then asked the players not to fuck up the world without a rigidly enforced morality system. Instead, the developers ask you, the player, to overcome yourself and become an active participant in the story.
As many critics have noted, GTAIV’s story of woe and failed redemption doesn’t quite gel with the tourist/granny murdering portion of the package. Niko comes across as a genuinely likable and sympathetic character in cutscenes, but not as cuddly during your 6-star wanted spree. So, clearly, we’re supposed to mesh these two disparate elements of the game together by not being a dick in the sandbox.
Wait, what? That’s a terrible idea. Half the point of playing a GTA game is to dick around in the lovingly rendered digital sandbox and to break shit. And yet, something’s different in this iteration of GTA. Niko’s taunts and contextual dialogue in between running over children and fighting the popo isn’t the alpha male, offensive crap uttered by past (and DLC) protagonists. His verbal discourse has a defensive bent to it, as if he’s trying to justify the murdering to himself by convincing himself that it really is, “you or me.”
It, coupled with Niko’s gradually revealed backstory, is Rockstar’s stab at creating a character with a soul. In Rockstar’s most fine tuned approximation/satire of modern life yet, the developers have tried mightily to create an actual living, breathing human being out of pixels and .wavs. In essence, instead of leaving the player to his/her devices or rigidly enforcing a good/bad dictomoy, Rockstar is asking you to care about the main character’s soul, and asking you to transcend your base instincts to make its lead character suffer just a little less.