Sympathy for the Thugs That We Can't Help Being When We Play Grand Theft Auto

by G. Christopher Williams

12 August 2009

Because our medium allows for participation in building characters and shaping plot rather than the pure voyeurism enforced by storytelling media like film or literature, gamers are sometimes offended by scripted scenes and enforced choices that occur in "their" storyline.

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the curiously moralistic approach that Grand Theft Auto games take towards drug use.  In response, my colleague L.B. Jeffries pointed out that, perhaps, Rockstar doesn’t find drug usage as an activity for the player to be all that reasonable.  While Jeffries point seemed to be that GTA‘s grotesque nature as a game that allows us to do things that we normally wouldn’t think of doing (stealing cars and murdering innocents) is in direct contrast with the realistic notion that drug usage is something that the average person with a moral compass might still plausibly do, nevertheless, his point got me thinking about the “active” nature of the crimes committed by the player in GTA as opposed to the passive presentations of the protagonists of these games.

There is a bit of a disconnect in any open world game between choices that the player makes as he or she inhabits a character and the choices that that character makes in the storyline that evolves in the plot of the game.  While there are many examples of such problems, I remember reading a message from a GTA player in a forum once that reported that that player always drove as carefully as possible when playing Vice City while his kids were in the room because he didn’t want them to see him casually mowing over innocent bystanders.  Such a player choice is obviously fairly antithetical to the decisions made by Tommy Vercetti throughout the game as he destroys the lives and properties of many innocents that get in his way on his way to becoming a criminal overlord.  The morality of the character in essence changed when actively being directed by the player from what is was when being passively viewed through cutscenes.

Such disconnects, though, might serve an interesting purpose in this particular series, however, since the activities that a player can engage in might make the character that they are playing extremely unsympathetic, and thus, undesirable characters to want to play as again.  What I mean by this might be clarified by my recent experiences reviewing another open world game, Prototype.  Unlike many other reviewers as my review indicates, I actually liked a fair amount of a number of the elements presented in Prototype.  However, one thing that I really didn’t like was the protagonist, Alex Mercer.  I had trouble with the game initially because of this general dislike.  Largely, I was a bit disgusted with the choices that I had to actively pursue in order to “be” Alex.  Since the character in that game feeds off of others as a means of fueling his superhuman powers and maintaining his own health, I was brutally murdering just about anyone that was close at hand.  To make matters worse, as I passively witnessed the way that Radical Entertainment chose to portray this character in cutscenes, I didn’t feel any better about Alex.  He seemed like a man largely indifferent to others.  As a rather stoic personality in the Clint Eastwood vein (but lacking some of the clever one liners of an Eastwood cowboy), he also lacked any recognizable personality traits that might make up for this heartlessness.  He wasn’t funny or charming or really anything more than a moody, brooding bastard occasionally growling out “tough” (but unspired) one liners.  My general distaste for Alex and the ferocity of the brutal killings that I was participating in by “being” him almost led me to turn off the game early on.

Ferocious and brutal behavior is not a strange idea to any fan of the GTA series, and yet, characters like CJ and Niko remain generally well liked.  Much of their likability depends not on player generated choices (after all, GTA allows the player some pretty grotesque choices throughout the game and does make murder and theft requisite activities if the player wants to complete the major story arc of any of the games) but instead on reshaping how the player views the character through the passively viewed sections of these games’ plots.

To return to my discussion of drug usage for a moment, San Andreas contains a passively received anti-drug theme by pitting the player against bad guys that represent drug usage, like Big Smoke, in the story missions and showing CJ turning down Officer Tenpenny’s offer of a hit from a bong in one scene.  The player is never asked if he or she would like CJ to turn down that hit or if he or she wants to free CJ’s hood from the tyranny of dope dealers.  Playing the story requires such decisions be made for us and also reshapes our views of CJ in light of other more reprehensible choices that the player might make at other times in the game.  CJ’s decisions to protect his family are not ours, but they make him seem much more human and humane than our other decisions may have made him seem.  A strung out pothead like the game’s Ryder is somewhat hard to like, but CJ depite his criminal behaviors at least evidences some self restraint, making him appear a bit more noble than his fellow thugs.  Additionally, CJ is often funny and almost inevitably charming whether we as the player guiding him are or not either of those things.  A little humor and charm go a long way in making a criminal and anti-hero likable.  Just ask Han Solo.

With the upgraded combat mechanics of the game, Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the more effective killers in the series’s history, and GTA IV may be the most murderous game in the series with many more missions oriented towards assassination than the other criminal activities of prior games.  Nevertheless, Niko is a very sympathetic character because players are witness to his intentions in making himself over into an assassin through the cutscenes.  Of particular note is Niko’s murder of the minor mobster, Vlad.  Because Niko’s motivation and his relationship to his victim is spelled out so clearly in the mission in which the player is required to kill Vlad (as seen in previous scenes, Vlad has been a jerk to Niko throughout their prior interactions, and he is screwing Niko’s cousin Roman’s girlfriend), offing Vlad becomes an action that may not be pretty but is at least comprehensible and seemingly not the act of a sociopath.  Niko isn’t killing Vlad as casually and indifferently as he might when you are playing him and simply running down a jaywalker, he has a legitimate beef with him and a beef that reveals his concern for a loved one.

Admittedly, the story missions in GTA IV do allow the player to make some moral choices that effect the plot (most notably, decisions that concern killing or sparing several individuals).  However, these moments tend to be fraught with more ambiguity than the Vlad episode (should Niko get revenge against a guy who betrayed he and his fellow soldiers years and years ago?), and they are once again offset by our knowledge of the scripted elements of Niko’s character.  And once again, they are also offset by the personality that Niko derives from scripted experiences like when he goes bowling or drinking with friends that indicate a bit of a sense of humor and a humble kind of charm (I defy anyone not to crack a grin, the first time that they hear Niko declare to a bowling buddy “I may not be great at life, but I bowl like an angel!”).

I think that because our medium allows for participation in building characters and shaping plot rather than the pure voyeurism enforced by storytelling media like film or literature, gamers are sometimes offended by scripted scenes and enforced choices that occur in “their” storyline (I’m looking at you Bioshock and Prince of Persia).  Nevertheless, what the lovable thugs of GTA demonstrate is that sometimes a little scripting goes a long way in simply making our “selves” into someone that we can actually like.

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