When it comes to Grand Theft Auto, I have drunk the Kool-Aid. I have plugged many, many hours into GTA IV and its expansions; I have argued the different merits of III, Vice City and San Andreas; I have started (and may yet still complete) a PhD thesis about player driven narrative experiences within the last installment. I think GTA IV is the best game of this console generation. I am looking forward to GTA V more than any other game on the horizon.
But despite my love for these games, my trust in the developers, and the positive tone taken in many previews, I’m not going to be able to stop worrying about the game’s use of three different protagonists until the game is inside my Xbox 360.
In my research into GTA IV, I’ve studied how players interact with, relate to, and understand Niko as a protagonist. Watching someone else playing the game can be extremely interesting — the link between the player and the avatar is one where the two figures tend to feed into each other. The player interpretation of Nicko comes partly from what the game tells them about him, and partly from the values, the player chooses, or consciously chooses not to, impose over him.
I wonder if being able to switch between three characters on the fly is going to be a confusing experience, especially when the characters are going to be living their lives separately from you when you’re not playing as them.
This makes for a surprisingly complicated relationship. The player’s understanding of what motivates the character’s actions can differ between players or be ignored entirely, and what does and doesn’t count within the game’s reality (it’s surprisingly easy to pretend that all the rampages you went on outside of the missions simply didn’t happen within the game’s fiction) changes depending on how the player decides to author these incidents in their head. Players, in my experience, get quite attached to Niko in interesting ways — one thing that stood out for me was that several of my research participants would apologise whenever they ran someone over in the game, which is less likely to be the case in a game like Saint’s Row or Just Cause, I’d say, because of how the protagonists in that game interact with the world.
I can’t help but worry that giving the player three different bodies and personalities to jump between will dilute this. Yes, GTA IV ultimately had three protagonists once the DLC dropped, but I liked playing the characters separately. Each one had a very distinct personality, missions, and weapons, and the general tone and vibe changed between them. How I mucked around in the game didn’t necessarily change, but the way I reconciled my actions, and how I felt about the experience I was having, changed quite significantly.
I wonder if being able to switch between three characters on the fly is going to be a confusing experience, especially when the characters are going to be living their lives separately from you when you’re not playing as them. What does it mean for everyone who got really into ‘pacifist’ playthroughs of GTA IV, shooting to wound and killing as few people as possible, when Trevor is killing people off-screen? I worry that it might take away from some of the really interesting links formed between player and avatar in the last game.
Having said all of this, it’s worth noting that the most incredibly off-base concern I’ve ever expressed at a game was sort of reminiscent of this one. I really thought that Driver: San Francisco’s body-switching shtick would be awful, but once I played the game I realised that it was, in fact, genius. Perhaps it’s foolish of me to publicly question the value of a character-shifting mechanic in an open world game again — I guess I’ll find out later this year.