Dimitri Rascalov runs for his life, as he must, because he has angered the wrong man. Niko Bellic, a former soldier and incredibly efficient killer, has sworn to avenge his cousin Roman’s murder on Rascalov’s orders, and has tracked his enemy to this dilapidated casino on the edge of town. Now Dimitri’s only hope is to escape in his helicopter. Niko pursues him across the roof, sees him about to escape, then races halfway across the building to grab hold of the landing skid. Moments later, he is shaken off into the water next to a speedboat. Now there will be a spectacular chase, by boat and helicopter, across Liberty City, culminating in a confrontation at its most famous landmark. But it is a chase that should not be happening, because Niko Bellic, trained killer, had a rocket launcher, and a clear shot he should have taken. That he did not is a signpost to one of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s central flaws.
A video game, particularly of the kind GTA IV is, poses a challenge for the creator because the experience of the work that ultimately emerges depends strongly on the input of the player. In order to define the parameters of the experience the creator must exert authorship in a variety of ways. The display of cutscenes, the presentation of incidental dialogue, and the occurrence of scripted events are authorial influences familiar from other media. The developer also constrains the experience through the design of spaces, the placement of enemies, and the programming of artificial intelligence. Beyond this, the conditions for “victory” also define the player’s experience because of his assumed desire to complete the game. The key is to use all these authoring steps so that they work coherently. It’s not enough to make sure the characters behave consistently across all their cutscenes — every aspect of the game must be considered in light of the characters and their goals.
A reasonably intelligent criminal who knows he will be fleeing from police shortly would not, given any choice at all, take a slow and clumsy vehicle to escape from a crime scene. Nor would the player, for whom the victory condition involves escaping his pursuers. To this point, authorship has succeeded in bringing the player’s perspective into line with the criminal’s. The developer, desiring that the player/character should use an unwieldy vehicle anyway, has some options. One (good) option would be to arrange the mission in such a way that the heavy van is the only vehicle close to hand. An alternative approach is to make using the van a requirement of success for some obvious reason — say, something valuable is in the van and cannot be removed. A game starts to run into trouble if it requires the player to use the van, for no apparent reason, when a more suitable vehicle is immediately available. This final approach breaks the fiction, using an arbitrary, externally imposed requirement to force the player and characters to act in ways at odds with their goals and personalities.
GTA IV uses this approach all the time, both in and out of actual missions. At one point, Niko receives a call from Packie McCreary, telling him to go visit Packie’s brother Gerry in the penitentiary in a remote corner of the city. It is arguably a problem to even mention prison in a game where you can kill a dozen cops, get arrested, and undergo no greater inconvenience than the trip to the police station and the loss of your considerable arsenal of assault weapons. It is certainly a problem to have Niko Bellic — a wanted illegal immigrant, drug runner, and prolific murderer — walk into that prison. And it simply implodes the fiction to have him go to that prison so that Gerry can tell him to call Packie, who — you will recall — set this whole trek into motion with a phone call in the first place. The long, credulity-stretching detour to the prison leads the story precisely nowhere, and what is most troubling about this is that it’s not the worst use of authorship in the game.
Consider, for example, the mission “A Long Way to Fall”, in which Niko, in a cutscene, walks up to a door and leans his head towards it, allowing a drug dealer on the other side to bang the door into Niko’s face. For Niko, ostensibly a hardened soldier, to approach a door this way under these circumstances would be problematic for any kind of narrative. Of course, if Niko had walked peacefully into the building, accepting fresh-baked cookies from little old ladies, the scene would be a reasonable continuation of the fiction. But the immediately preceding gameplay emphatically warned against carelessness. Prior to encountering this door, the player has climbed through a housing complex full of the dealer’s hostile posse. Because of the game’s difficulty, this is only possible by advancing cautiously, with judicious use of cover. Moreover, when the player first enters the apartment, he must use a doorway as cover against the well-armed thugs waiting in the main room. The importance of approaching a door carefully will therefore be at the front of the player’s (and ostensibly Niko’s) mind. In order to serve their dramatic end, the developers use a cutscene to force Niko to act in ways counter not only to the way the character should act, but also to the way the game has been encouraging the player to behave.
For me, this is the defining flaw of GTA IV — so many of the missions, cutscenes, and incidental moments actively undermine the propositions the game is trying to sell you on. Niko is an unstoppable trained killer until the developers’ plan for a mission requires him to act like a man who has never fought inside a building, or to choose an obviously inappropriate vehicle, or not to kill a man until he reaches Alderney. Rascalov is a nervous wimp constantly concerned about playing by the “rules” until the developers’ plot requires him to kill all his business partners and allies. The characters act not from the internal motivations arising in a fully-imagined personality, but from the external motivation of the developers’ desire to move along to the next set-piece.
GTA IV has been hailed as a new gold standard in video-game storytelling, and if that is true then we should double-check the purity of our ingots. The character who is always precisely as smart or as foolish, as competent or helpless as the plot requires at a given moment is a consistent staple of poorly-written action flicks and romantic comedies. GTA IV operates entirely on that same wavelength, except that the authoring of mission objectives and cutscenes means that Rockstar attempts to make the player be as smart or stupid as their dramatic purpose requires. But Rockstar can only constrain action, not thought. They can make me chase Rascalov all around the city, but they can’t make me forget Niko Bellic’s rocket launcher, or the shot he should have taken.