I now know how film critics felt after screening 'The Godfather.
Andrew Reiner, Game Informer, regarding Grand Theft Auto IV
Chances are, unless you've been living under a rock for the past eight months, you've heard language like that tossed around almost every time GTAIV is brought up. Countless publications awarded it Game of the Year awards, and heaped praise on it's story. Recently, the Chicago Tribune asked if GTAIV is "The best writing of the century". Good lord. Grand Theft spun itself a good yarn with some great supporting characters, but in no situation should it be put up against classics such as The Godfather, or even called the best writing of the decade, let alone the century. The narrative in Grand Theft Auto IV fails in several key places:
The gameplay and story are incongruous
This is the big one for me. If a game aims to tell a unique story, the gameplay needs to complement it. If your gameplay is ancillary to the story (Looking at you Force Unleashed), then your story would be better suited to another medium, and has no business as a game. Niko spends GTAIV whining about how he doesn't want to kill, and how he wants to make a new life for himself, but the game gives you positive reinforcement for shooting dudes in the face in the form of money, weapons, ammo, and fun gameplay. And I'm not talking about choosing to go on rampages through the city- the mission gameplay endorses this philosiphy. You want a hot new car? You have to steal it, even if you have more than enough money to buy it. Oh, you want to start anew? How about you actually do that instead of seeking out the local crime bosses and quickly ingratiating yourself to them. Need money? Let's go smoke some fools. Despite Niko saying he hates all of this, the game encourages you to do so by making it entertaining, something that goes against the characterization of Niko. By rewarding you to do things that are against Niko's philosiphy, the game undermines his character. This antithesis is at the heart of the problems with the story- it just doesn't complement the gameplay.
The characterization of Niko isn't multifaceted, it's schizophrenic
Niko has been hailed as a fantastically human character, and the thing that keeps GTA IV grounded- and away from the insanity of San Andreas or Saints Row. I agree, Niko is fun, but his character is hardly believeable, a consequence of having to make an entertaining game to go along with your tragic story. Niko complains about wanting to start a new life in America, and to leave his old ways behind. However, he ignores chance after chance to do this. At a point about halfway through the game, Niko has enough money to be set for life, and due to the way the game is structured he constantly severs all his criminal connections before gaining new ones. At any point between "mission tiers", Niko could easily give up the life and fulfill his dream. But that's not a fun game. The simple point is, Niko says one thing while he does another- and not because his character is painted as hypocritical, just because the dudes doing the story and the dudes doing the missions weren't on the same page.
The game stretches on and on and on...
This again, is the conflict of the medium and story. Grand Theft Auto games are known for their longevity, and since there isn't much to do outside of the story, Rockstar felt the need to extend the story missions as long as possible, which leads to the terribly forgettable Alderney missions. A compact story allows you to learn the characters, become attached, and witness an interesting window into their lives. GTA, which you need to really hustle to complete in 30 hours, takes the concept of a clear, concise story and throws it out the window, instead deciding to go through a tiered structure where it seems as if the story starts and stops erratically, as Niko takes the time to learn a new group of mission-givers, only to have them all killed off as soon as he earns their trust and things start to heat up. Once that tier of people is gone, we start back over with a new set of people- it's almost like an entirely new plot. This segmented approach is just awkward and really hurts the pacing and characterization.
The game doesn't have an important message
Grand Theft Auto IV very, very badly wants to be a social commentary on the failure of the American Dream. It tries so hard to do this. But by the fact that Niko never even attempts anything besides crime you can't put any stock by the messages it preaches, except that crime pays, but will fuck you up good. By only dealing with the criminal fraternity and fringe elements of American society, it forfeits any right it may have had to make judgements about the average American and the validity of the American Dream. Although Niko's friends do provide a bit of a lens, they're all involved in some manner in Niko's dark dealings. GTA really wants to be a piece of social commentary, but as opposed to something like the Godfather, Grand Theft doesn't have the viewpoint of a character like Michael- Niko is, and always has been, a killer. All of Niko's friends are criminals, and all his bosses want people dead-even when he's working for the government. The game deals entirely with the seedy underworld of Liberty City, and with that in mind, it doesn't have much relevance to the average American- to come back to the Godfather again, GTA can't even manage that sort of relevance, because when the Godfather came out, people could still easily recall the Mafia, which was still quite prominent and relevant in popular culture. The Russian mob and immigrant crime syndicates are hardly well known in modern America. Regarding the immigrants, GTA misses an opportunity to make a statement on immigration as well. Niko comes off the boat, no problem, and integrates right into American society. He picks himself up a girlfriend right off, finds a group of people who don't at all care that he's an illegal Serbian immigrant, and has absolutely no trouble with the government. His immgrant experience is, essentially, flawless- except for a bit of culture shock. Most immigrants to America in this day and age have a much harder time of things, and GTA could have been a reflection of that. It wasn't.
The one moment from GTAIV that really stuck with me was the moment Niko confronts Darko about his betrayal. Niko asks how much Darko was paid to sell them out, and he answers $1000. Niko starts raging at Darko, angry about being sold out for so little. Darko simply responds: "How much do you charge to kill a man?", a line which so expertly connects the medium and the story, making you think back to every time you completed a mission, and saw that +$1000, or +$2000 in the top corner after taking someone out. That's the moment GTAIV truly succeeds, by masterfully linking the gamepay and story. However, throughout the rest of the product the division is painfully obvious and handicapping, with the juxtaposition of the story bemoaning the violence, and the gameplay and missions encouraging it. It's not a harmonious product, and that division seriously hurts the final experience. 38 Comments