Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Niko Bellic the Skizophrenic
Grand Theft Auto IV
So my friends are over and we're playing this game. One of them asks, "why did he shoot that guy?" No less than 3 people in the room say in unison, "because that guy's a cop."
Yeah, you know which game I'm talking about. The infamous Grand Theft Auto IV. Yes, yes, yes. GTA this, GTA that. I apologize for adding my 2 cents to the unavoidable pile of internet coverage for this game. But what can I say? It's compelling.
From this series, aside from GTAIV, I've only played GTA3. Back then, things were simpler. 3's player character was a thug with no name and no personality. It was easy to imagine that guy walking down a street on his way to the next bank robbery. Then "click." He's off on a rampage shooting cops and running over civilians.
Thinking back, that's what GTA3 was for me. Two distinct games. On the one hand, you have the story-based single player campaign leading our nameless thug through the gangs of Liberty City. On the other you have the morbid, sandbox, party, rampage game, called "how many stars can you get?"
Not much has changed three games later in GTAIV. I'm sure you're all very familiar with it. I don't actually own IV yet. The play session I am about to transcribe was played on my friend's copy of the game. "I'll buy it when I get around to it," I tell him.
We load the game up on my PS3. It slaps us with a mandatory install. Some obscure electronic beat music comes on over the progress bar.
"I gotta show you this YouTube video," I say. And off we go to my laptop on the other side of the room. 10 minutes later the TV is shouting at us, "F**K YOU B****ES!" The game decided to start up without user input after the install was complete. My friend and I run over and plop ourselves onto the couch. Our "pleasant" aural greeting is now complimented with an even more "pleasant" sight. If you haven't played the game, I don't want to spoil it for you. But if you're a parent, naive enough to not know what kind of game you've just bought for your kid, now's the time to regret it.
So here we are, GTA IV. After the opening cinematic I get to drive a car to a wave point. Nothing different from 3. Well except Niko Bellic. He's got quite a background. Coming to America from some Eastern European country. He wants to make a new start. He speaks of violence in hushed tones. "We've all made mistakes," he confesses to his cousin, Roman.
After that rather insightful speech into Niko's past, I realize this is the first time I'm left alone in the game to do whatever I want. This is GTA after all so I do what comes naturally: I punch the nearest pedestrian. A wanted level and depleted life bar later, I pause and feel weird about my emotions.
Now let's get some facts down about how I play video games. I'm the guy who wants the full 100% of the experience that a game developer has so carefully orchestrated for me. That conversation in Half Life 2 between Alyx and Eli? I'm the guy who attentively follows the characters around the room, positioning the camera so that all the characters are on screen. Lest I miss any subtle character interaction or carefully animated facial expression. What kind of person jumps around these scripted scenes, throwing physics objects at the characters their first time through the game? Oh wait, all of my friends do that.
I often find myself carefully trying to "act" like Gordon Freeman "should" when I play Half Life 2. Trying so hard to avoid breaking the fragile bubble of immersion Valve creates for me.
Yet it was so ironic that I found myself admiring the depth of Niko Bellic's character only to shatter any immersion I had in the game by going on a mini rampage. Not long after, I arrive at perhaps GTA IV's most novel mission type. The date. So novel that I ignore cousin Roman's request that I fight off some loan sharks. I just bought a new pair of pants for this date, no way I'm getting blood on them.
GTA's traffic and driving being what they are, I manage to arrive for the date with blood on the hood of Niko's car. And the date doesn't notice. My friend and I have a good laugh about it. GTA has arrived at this uncanny valley of player actions. The more realistic and detailed they make Liberty City and the more stuff they allow us to do, the more we notice what they don't let us do.
The next mission challenges Niko to chase down and unavoidably kill a loan shark. Niko seems to regret it a bit. "There are no clean starts," he tells Roman on the way home, "we all pick up new baggage every day." Wow. But blah blah blah, who cares about all that character and emotion crap, another friend has arrived. This play session has officially turned into a party. And as a good party host, I need to entertain. Despite investment in the storyline and sense of immersion, I make Niko steal a car and run people over. And thus begins our round-robin game of "who can get the most stars."
"Oops, probably shouldn't stand in front of a car on a freeway." "Wow, you can fling yourself through windshields now." "Can you steal bikes? Awesome." "Kill that cop, get some stars, what are you waiting for?"
In the middle of all this, I notice that Niko's just lost a reputation point with Roman. Apparently I missed one of his calls while stealing a cop car. Oh well, Dr. Bellic's personal relations are going to have to wait. Mr. Niko is trying to have fun.