Friday, 11 November 2011

Grand Theft Auto IV

Or, a short reflection on storytelling in video games, and the gangster genre.

I know the trailer for GTA 5 just came out, but I still haven't finished the last game! As such, I've been playing it incessantly. And I'm picking up more than ever on its similarities to films in the gangster genre - and films in general for that matter. For those who don't know, the Grand Theft Auto franchise is over 14 years old; it's a video game series known for allowing players to commit acts of theft and violence in a realistic open world, emphasising free play and exploration, although there are always main objectives and side quests to be completed. More recent instalments have woven in a central story to the missions. I haven't played a whole lot of GTA - I played San Andreas a little on the PS2, but only picked up GTA 4 last year, because it was 75% off on Steam.

Best. Value. Ever.

Not only is the open world format ridiculously fun, and can soak up hours of time, but the main storyline is lengthy as anything, and thoroughly engaging... at least, as far as I'm up to. In terms of films, the game obviously has a lot in common with the gangster genre (Although this morning I played a mission which felt like a re-enactment of the truck scene from Raiders!). The main character, Niko, rises through the ranks of the underworld, coming into contact with a number of archetypal gangster film characters - from the Italian mafia, to the Irish family, the corrupt cop, to the prison-hardened black man. Everybody has enemies, and dirty work that needs doing.

Like Goodfellas, GTA 4 take us through life in 'the business', - drawing the player in to the mind of Niko. He does bad things, but he's a sympathetic character, and one to be identified with, in cutscenes at least. Interactivity is a crucially unique aspect of video games - decisions that can affect the story help involve the player in a way that film simply can't. Choices like whether to kill or spare a character, or who to side with can affect the way the narrative plays out, which makes for a far more interesting and potentially complex experience. To be honest, I don't know exactly how much the little choices matter in this game (at least not yet), but as I'm going through, it's certainly giving me the feel of control over the story, and a chance to affect the outcome. Exactly how, I'm not sure. I'm not there yet.

My one criticism with the narrative of GTA 4 is that its thrust is utterly deflated after almost every mission. The problem (in the broadest sense of the term) is that the game is too fun. The random stuff you can do in an open world like this is compelling enough to warrant hours upon hours of free-play, and (in my case at least), it may be several sessions before you get around to continuing with the storyline. The immediate tension of the plot is lost due to the nature of both the episodic open-world gameplay, and the lengthiness of the story itself, that demands several sittings. This was particularly frustrating when I picked up the game after several months break, to be confronted with the choice to kill on or the other of two brothers who had each been instructing me in the past few missions. I couldn't remember what either of their relations were to other characters, or which one I actually liked the more. Apparently one of them was sick? I don't remember. I spared the one who I vaguely remember giving me more interesting quests in the past. Unfortunately, thats where his mission path ended, so I feel like I made the wrong decision.

But this also speaks to the potential for games as narrative devices: I care about Niko, and the people around him; I am invested in this story, and I want to see it through to the end. Games are more and more frequently mining the potential for story-telling through interactive gameplay. I haven't played Heavy Rain, but it sounds like a fascinating experiment in this kind of innovation; other games by Rockstar have developed on other genres (like the western and film noir/crime). By and large, right now, games tell crap stories. Usually it's an excuse to blow things up and kill people. But GTA feels just a little more complex then that. Apart from all the shooting and mayhem in between, GTA 4's storyline holds up as one great trip through gangster world. delivering what film has been called upon to provide in the past: an escape from reality, wrapped up in a cathartic emotional journey.

Gee, I hope the ending for this game is good!