Saturday, November 15, 2008

Actually, Being A Gangster Doesn't Feel That Good

It took me over three months, and a long detour through classic Sierra gaming, but I have finally triumphed over the latest installment of the Grand Theft Auto series. Hooray!

Looking back over the experience, here are a few thoughts.
  • The new graphics are AMAZING, and the engine has been vastly improved.
  • They must look even better on an HDTV.
  • The level of detail within this game is truly astounding. I enjoyed occasionally just strolling around the boroughs at all times of the day and night. The variety of people and buildings and situations that you run into are simply astounding, all the more so because it's all so incidental. This is a game where thousands of hours went into creating content that most people will never notice - but, wherever you stop and look, you will be rewarded by the rich detail. It's a little like if you looked at "Sunday in the Park", and realized that every "dot" was actually a miniature Rembrandt portrait.
  • The story is really cool and compelling. I can see why reviewers from both the gaming and mainstream press went gaga over it, because it directly questions and subverts the very basis of the GTA series.
  • That said, I have a heretical conclusion: as awesome as GTA IV was, I liked San Andreas better. I'm content to chalk this up to the fact that I love California more than New York. Also, San Andreas just felt... looser. More wide-open in terrain, even more sprawling in plot, less serious and self-conscious while still telling a meaningful story.

Another difference from San Andreas, and even Vice City, is the use of "talent" in the game. The publicity campaign was tight-lipped up until the release about who would be appearing in the game, and while they scored some major coups on the music front (REM? Holy cow!), virtually the entire cast is unknown. This is a big change from San Andreas, which famously featured Samuel L Jackson, David Cross, Chris Penn, George Clinton, and other big names. Here, pretty much the only famous people you will recognize are Ricky Gervais and (possibly) Kat Williams, and they aren't acting at all - they appear as themselves, playing comedy clubs within the game. And Iggy Pop is a DJ.

Still not sure how I feel about that. Under ordinary circumstances, I might have applauded the shift to focus on unknown actors; it's less distracting, and more completely immerses you. Complicating that situation is the fact that San Andreas had some of my favorite actors, and that they did a darn fine job within that game.

All of this is just side-show, though. The important question is, what about the plot? Honestly, I'm still reeling a little bit after the brutal conclusion, but I want to capture my thoughts before they fade too far.

In structure, this game is like every other game to date in the series. You start as a recent arrival to the city, a nobody with no money, no weapons, no connection. Over the course of the game you network with a variety of increasingly powerful criminal circles, building up a small personal fortune and enough armaments to conquer Belgium. Some of the crooks become strong friends, while others betray you, and the game ends with you taking revenge against the most hated of your foes.

That said, each protagonist has had a distinct personality. The silent guy in GTA III was a blank screen for you to project yourself on, but given the final scene of the game, he seems to be a calm, cool, single-minded and focused man who doesn't care about anything but revenge. Tommy in Vice City was borderline psychotic, a passionate and emotional man who had great ambitions for himself and felt wounded when people turned against him. CJ in San Andreas is my favorite of the bunch, a man from a tight-knit and impoverished community who deals with a world where the deck is always stacked against him, seeking out the best things in life and trying to build a better future.

Niko is an entirely new creation. He's a broken man. He's been broken twice before, once in a civil war, then again in his earlier criminal career. He is a good human being at heart, but has built up scars and barriers in his lifetime of being smacked around. He is driven by a desire for revenge, but also by a desire to help his family, and (less importantly) to fix his sad and broken life.

Tommy enjoyed climbing the ladder for its own sake - he reveled in the power and money it brought. Silent protagonist endured the ladder because it brought him closer to his ultimate goal of revenge. CJ was forced up the ladder by men with guns, but once he got to the top he was determined to stay there for the sake of his homies. Why does Niko climb the ladder? Well - frankly, that's up to you.

For the first time in the series, you can make meaningful decisions that affect the arc of the game's plot. After maybe five hours or so of getting to know the character and learning his backstory, you start facing serious moral quandies. Unfortunately, the mechanics of these are pretty rote - it always comes down to deciding whether to kill or spare a particular target, or which of two people to kill. Still, these choices have profound consequences, both on the future shape of the game, and also what you think of Niko as a character - and yourself as a person.


That's what I've been thinking about in bed at night. I started off as being a compassionate guy. I let an early victim walk after he promised to leave the country. This was an easy decision to make - he was a criminal, but not a murderer, and I didn't much like the people who were asking me to whack him. Later, while helping Dwayne with his old love life, I didn't even consider offing his girlfriend. She was helpless, and even though she had messed with Dwayne, she didn't deserve that punishment. Things got tougher when, helping the police, I cornered a gang leader and drug dealer on the ceiling of a tenement apartment building. I had the option to spare him, and after some hesitation, I went ahead with the execution. This was clearly a bad guy, who had murdered people and destroyed a neighborhood; more damning, he didn't show remorse for his actions. And, given that by that point in the game I had killed hundreds of lower-level criminals, it didn't feel right to just let him go. (Unlike in Deus Ex or Thief, there is simply no way you can beat a mission in Grand Theft Auto without killing someone, let alone the whole game.) Still later it got personal: in a dramatic scene, you finally come face to face with the man you have been pursuing through the whole game, the man who killed all your friends and ruined your life back home - a man who, you now learn, did it for a few lousy bucks. He shows no regret for his actions, and at the same time, he is utterly pathetic and helpless. In the previous GTA games, the objects of your revenge have been wealthy and powerful, which makes it easier to take them down - it feels sporting. This felt low. I ended up shooting him, kind of hating myself while doing it.... I rationalized it by saying that the story demanded it, that Niko needed closure.

The final, tumultuous choice you get comes when you must choose between helping Jimmy Peregrino, an immoral Mafia wannabee who can make you rich, or betraying him and killing Dmitri, your main adversary through most of the game. Tough decision. Within the game you talk with the two people you are closest to, your cousin Roman and girlfriend Kate, about this situation. Roman urges you to help Peregrino because it's good business and will make you both wealthy. Kate says that she won't respect you if you continue in the criminal life, and need to make a clean break. I like Kate more than I like Roman, so I took her advice and offed Dmitri. This sets in course a chain of events that leads to the final, devastating end of the game.

The game ends like all the others - you triumphant and your opponents defeated - but never before has it felt so hollow and mean. And it's supposed to. Niko murmurs to himself as the credits finish rolling, "So, this is it? The American Dream..." After the game ends, you are on Firefly Island, a sort of purgatory: no cars, no planes, no easy way on or off the island, just a place for you to wander for a while and think about the sins you have created.

Now, I am going to restore some old saved games and see what happens if I take the Peregrino job or save the Balkan. But I can't change the fact that I made those choices in the first place, and am left wondering what that says about me as a gamer and as a person.

Generally speaking, whenever a game gives me a choice of roles to play, I always opt for the good path. My Baldur's Gate character was Neutral Good. In Civilization, I almost always run a minimal military, avoid war and pursue a technological victory. However, when a game doesn't make those choices available to me, I can actually enjoy playing as an antihero or even as a villain. God of War made me feel a little queasy, but I still played through the whole game. I enjoyed acting psychotic in Sam & Max. And, to the extent that games give you opportunities to finely choose your action, I enjoy placing myself in a particular spot. In Quest for Glory, I love playing at the Thief class because it's the most fun, but I also go out of my way to give money to beggers, help people, and generally get as high an Honor as I can. The earlier Grand Theft Auto games require you to kill a lot of people to win, but I take some weird pride in having never done the "killing prostitutes" thing that gets so much press. (Within that game, I like my violence to be purposeful, not mindless.)

So: am I a good person because I generally opt to play good characters? Or am I a bad person because I'm willing to do bad things inside games? Of course the answer isn't simply - games aren't real life - but it isn't random that I tend to act one way when playing games and other people act another way, and I'm not sure how to read that difference.

Back to GTA IV. Its crowning moral achievement may be causing me to feel regret at my actions. Most often these things end with a rah-rah sense of "He had it coming to him!" or "I'm king of the world!" GTA IV lingers over the consequences, the results of your choices that you cannot change. It hints at the complexity and messiness that we all need to deal with in real life.


GTA IV is an awesome game and a stunning achievement, succeeding on technical grounds, the vast scope of the game, and the shockingly moving story. I am probably in the minority in saying that I thought San Andreas was more fun, but there you go. All in all, I'd have to say that my first outing with the PS3 was a great time, and I look forward to more to come.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: the credits for voice acting in the game also list a "Will Wheaton". I wonder if they meant Wil Wheaton - if so, that's super cool, and I'm shocked that I haven't heard about it. It's probably someone else, though.

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