Monday, November 16, 2009

On the traffic lights of Liberty City.

A year and six months ago, just over one month after the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, there was an article that obtained four thousand, seven hundred and thirty-one diggs. Its original place on the Internet is seemingly gone now, but it's archived here, for reference. While its initial paragraph does an effective job of assuring I can't accuse the article's author of misogyny, I nonetheless take such apparent issue with the rest that it's been kept in my mind for eighteen months. Good thing I have a blog now, isn't it?

There's a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Grand Theft Auto IV about which I am by no means the first to comment. This Penny Arcade highlights it well - the disconcerting and unrealistic juxtaposition of Niko Bellic's grounded, ancillary activities, as well as his identifiably rational demeanor, against not only his penchant toward violence but his (in this case, the player's) freedom to act upon that penchant. I recall the Game Trailers' review of the game: it spoke of the relative and anomalous decency of its main character only to punctuate the thought with footage of Niko committing vehicular manslaughter on a random NPC, then calling out "Sorry!" as he continued.

It is, I think, an important note that the game has no "Sorry!" button. It was the player that killed the pedestrian, the player that sped forward unabated, and the game, distinctly, that had its main character express some sort of remorse, albeit in a manner consciously ironic. There is no reason to believe that the player felt remorse for his actions, either on a genuine, empathetic level or out of regret for an otherwise avoidable consequence from the game itself. The former is an emotional response eradicated by Grand Theft Auto IV's predecessors, competitors, and its own tantalizingly blood-filled NPCs. The latter speaks to a legitimate theory of game design, espoused by Jonathan Blow lest I be horribly mistaken (or at the very least, horribly simplistic), that says that a player truly has no reason to care about any aspect of a game unless he is provided with a gameplay incentive to do so. Which is to say: if, after killing a pedestrian, Niko automatically locks himself in his room for a week's time in game to grieve for his actions, effectively preventing the player from progressing until he, Niko, felt psychologically and spiritually cleansed - then the player would regret the hit and run. It would be an artificial regret, not a synchronous emotional state of being between player and avatar but merely a punishment delivered by the game in order to better lock the player's experience into the moral boundaries of its story.

Note: A one star wanted level and brief pursuit by the LCPD doesn't count.

The ability to cause wanton and random chaos remains a driving force behind the popularity of Grand Theft Auto and similar titles, now to the point where many will eschew Grand Theft Auto IV's dreary (though completely impotent) perspective on its own anarchy in favor of Saints Row 2's euphoric moral emancipation. It should show in my self-righteous rhetoric that I personally consider Saints Row 2 to be a paper thin experience, and chaos for the sake of chaos holds no joy or stimulation for me.

Which is why I still think of Jeremy's wife ruining Grand Theft Auto IV for him by refusing to murder NPCs. He is representative of literally millions of gamers who not only consider fun to be the highest priority of game design, but equate fun with violence and the ability to destroy. (If it needs to be said, now would be a good time to point out that I don't consider a single one of the aforementioned millions to be sociopathic. Games do not trigger, fuel or inspire acts of real life violence that would not have been otherwise committed.) And I think of my friend Alex, who after failing a mission by a hair's breadth, soothed himself by murdering a dozen or so nearby civilians as I sat silently judging him for being so uncouth.

Now let me mention how much I enjoyed killing Dimitri Rascalov. Let me mention that I was shouting threats at my television as I played through Hostile Negotiation, and let me also mention that if I am driving through Liberty City in a nice car and another driver collides with me, I do my absolute best to catch up to him and administer a kind of lethal street justice, if you will. But I do none of these things out of an independent, uncontextualized urge to destroy; I do them for the same reason that I enjoy drinking with Packie or playing darts with Little Jacob: because of an emotional resonance between myself and Niko. Wrongs against him felt as if they were wrongs against me and, most importantly, his morals adhered well enough to my own that I was able to identify with him on deeper, empathetic level than I can with nearly any other prominent game protagonist. That sort of reflective harmony is what I believe Rockstar North was trying to accomplish in creating a character so bound by ethical chains, allowing a symbiotic relationship between player and avatar which brought the story wholly out of the usual passivity of cutscene-driven game plots and made it so much more dynamic.

I realize that what I desire - an emotional and grounded connection to the player character - and what most others, including Jeremy, desire - the freedom from reality's demands of peace and quiet - are both unique possibilities of video games as an art form. Therefore, I feel compelled to appreciate the legitimacy of the notion that fun in this form is somehow obligatory. It is, however, the incredible infrequency with which I get my wish and the monumental constancy with which this other camp gets theirs that makes me feel so begrudgingly indignant. Games are sold on their violence, on their potential for mayhem; there's never been a game in history that sought to attract an audience by telling them that they can obey traffic laws. And yet, there I am, as Niko, playing the same game as everyone else, and stopping at red lights while I'm on a date. This is the game that feels right to me, not only appealing to my desire to be immersed in the virtual world, but also in keeping with my tendency to quell the dissonance presented by that original contradiction. I have the ability to run red lights, but I only do so when I feel that Niko would do so, thus quieting (although never silencing) the inherent flaw in serving the two masters of intelligent story and primitive, visceral joy.

This is why I get offended at the implicit message that if you are not causing havoc in Grand Theft Auto IV, you aren't playing it correctly. For me, there is a richer and more fulfilling game on that disc than what Jeremy pursues, and he admonishes his wife for prodding at and flirting with that game, to a chorus of four thousand, seven hundred and thirty-one diggs.

That's four thousand, seven hundred and thirty-one Niko Bellics, racing through traffic lights in a city encumbered by its own liberty.

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