Lets face it, most modern games contain as many kills as kilobytes. It’s always nice to have someone new to shoot at, but with each shotgun to the face we step further away from reality and the rules of our world. This isn’t an issue for some, but games that attempt to exist in our world and rely on a prior knowledge of our world rules can be legitimately damaged as a result.
Lets look at Grand Theft Auto IV, it’s a game that more or less mimics (parodies?) an American city, including the gangster underworld and other undesirable elements. The world seems real enough, and the story is compelling and well written, but it’s what happens in between cut scenes and phone conversations that exposes the game – the medium’s storytelling limitation. As the game progresses and the difficulty ramps up, Niko Belic is tasked with more complex objectives and faces larger numbers of enemies. Niko undertakes missions resulting in the deaths of a dozen or more gangsters, and often as many police. But the game continues, and the cut scenes and other characters ignore Niko’s questionable actions.
This Niko Belic effect is amplified when the story asks you to make moral decisions about the fate of key characters; it’s almost laughable that the story can pivot on one life when such mass killing is involved in the rest of the game.
By now, you’re either nodding your head in agreement or about to stop reading as I’ve just spent a few hundred words telling you what you’ve known for years.
But that my friends, is my point.
We accept that this is how it is. The game and the story are two separate entities. Once that cut scene ends, shit will get heavy. When we’ve killed the 30 guards protecting the building and flipped the switch, the story will continue and thank us for flipping the switch – there’ll be no mention of the body count, and we’ll move on.
I can live with that, I can see GTA4s epic story for what it is – a modern day masterpiece with as much grip as anything you’d pay $16 to see on the silver screen. But what if I hadn’t been conditioned to separate the story from the game? What if I wasn’t a gamer – could I be expected to take it seriously? A well written story that is emotional and powerful, with a higher body count than Rambo 4.. Really? Maybe that’s a clue as to why this medium has such trouble being understood.
Rather obviously, there are two ways for Grand Theft Auto to approach this issue – change the game to fit the story, or change the story to fit the game. Unfortunately, neither option is guaranteed effective and changes made either way would likely be detrimental.
Luckily, words are cheap and we’re not a big budget developer with the gaming world on our shoulders, so we can afford to at least explore the options available.
Lets look at this in the way I’m sure many developers would – we’re here to make a game and that’s our priority. The game needs to be fun and challenging first, and realistic in concern to the narrative second. We could easily change the GTA story to make mention of the hordes of enemies we’ve put in body bags. Niko, go to see the Russians and kill 30 of them, that should keep them off our backs. I’ll admit I’m not a thug, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t part of their day to day. The critically acclaimed, down to earth(ish) GTA story has been reduced to Uwe Boll level crap, which obviously isn’t an option.
Lets look at another high profile title, one which has had more luck melding coherent storytelling with gameplay.
Enter Fallout 3.
Fallout 3 is set in post apocalypse America. It’s a dangerous, sparsely populated place, where people are likely to have had more confirmed kills than radiation free meals.
Sure, a run through the subway will end the existence of 20 or more ghouls, but this is a landscape seriously altered by nuclear war, it’d be ludicrous to expect anything else. Additionally, conversing with other characters allows me to even brag about these feats – the story makes no attempt at distancing itself from the game.
Bethesda has had the advantage of creating their own world, by doing so, they’ve created their own rules. Welcome to Fallout 3 player, the subways are filled with feral ghouls, they used to be people but have lost their humanity and prefer to live in the dark tunnels. One, that’s awesome. Two, what else am I to expect when I go tunnel running – I can hardly be pulled away from the narrative by a bunch of ghouls.
So in a way, it’s Grand Theft Auto’s relevance that is it’s Achilles heel. GTAIV pushed the series in a intelligent mature direction, but one that can not be continued without dramatic changes to the core gameplay. I’m not necessarily suggesting we’ve seen the end of GTA, or that the series will stagnate, fade into irrelatively and lose it’s podium as this century’s king of games – I’m sure the Houser brothers are far too brilliant to ever let that happen.
What I am suggesting is that we’ll see some major changes in future instalments, or, we’ll see the introduction of a sister series, developed to take the reins and push the design in darker directions, while Grand Theft Auto remains the accessible, fun lovin’ criminal that it is.