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