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August 23, 2010

On Being a Thug

Back in 2001, when Grand Theft Auto III came out, I can recall trying the game and seeing what the fuss was all about. I remember being really entranced by the opening credits, which seemed like they’d set up a great story of a life of crime. The voice cast was fantastic, the critical acclaim was living up to the hype, and it seemed like a game meant for me.

And yet, the game never worked for me. I bought or borrowed a copy, which I still have, and I played it for an hour or two before I gave it up for good, around the time when I was running a mission that involved me delivering prostitutes to a Policeman’s Ball. The controls annoyed me, the story didn’t engage me, and the sorts of missions I was running really appalled me. I could see what appealed to people in the game, the freedom, the exploration, the depth of the simulation... but those just didn’t appeal to me.

It was particularly strange not to connect with a mob story. I love mob and crime films; you can look through the last few years of films over on the side-bar and you’ll see that. In the last two and a half years or so I’ve watched The Godfather and The Godfather Part II at my beloved AFI Silver in Silver Spring, not once but twice. I love French film noir, especially those of the fifties and sixties, which are generally gangster films in some way and had a lot in common with GTA III. As far as I’m concerned, that first season of The Sopranos was perhaps the best single season of television I’ve ever watched, and the series as a whole is a masterpiece second only to The Wire.

And yet, GTA III just couldn’t connect with me, didn’t draw me in, and although I am often contrarian, I genuinely don’t believe that was the reason in this case.

The Don

As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of the first two Godfather films. I keep an eye out for when it’s available on the big screen¹, and local theaters can pretty much guarantee I’ll show up to see it if they play it.

Even as I watch these films, I recognize Michael Corleone as a monstrous thug. Sure, he starts out nobly, having served in World War II and come home with all kinds of salad on his chest. But an attempt on his father’s life and corruption in the police department change him; he seeks revenge on the part of his family, beginning his rise to the top and destruction of all the enemies of his family. By the beginning of the second film, he has given in to his lust for power and has become a master of the offer that cannot be refused, framing a Senator who has slighted him to gain control over him.

But here’s the thing: I love watching Michael Corleone as he changes and embraces a sort of Nietzschean "will to power". He fully embraces his family after a traumatic attack on his father and descends into a life of crime, furthered along by a second loss. I love watching how this changes and hardens his character, while he still maintains a powerful charm and reconnects with Kay, and how that is further poisoned over time.

The New Don

Tony Soprano is perhaps an even better character, in some ways, as a modernized version of the head of a crime family. He’s a lesser Don, in the fiction, because he’s in New Jersey and is looked down upon by the New York Families. The mental and emotional strain of his lifestyle cause him to need psychiatric help, and yet he struggles along within the confines of his life², raising and maintaining both of his families through guile and violence. He is a deeply conflicted character, but he clearly takes pleasure in violence and asserting his dominance over others, chuckling when he gives grief and grinning broadly whenever he feels he has put one over on someone else.

I feel for these characters because, despite being larger than life, they are recognizably human, with weaknesses and pain and foibles despite the very inhuman and immoral things they do. They sometimes feel forced to do these terrible things, but as an audience we know better; they enjoy their power or money or influence too much to be simply trapped within their lives.

No Don At All

Compare this with Claude Speed, the protagonist of GTA III (and I think earlier incarnations of the series). I never felt any of these things for Claude, and I don’t think it’s because he starts out the game without power, because in many ways so does Michael Corleone. I also don’t think it’s his rendering or anything like that. I think it’s that he is in many respects a blank slate.

Recently I decided to try to return to the series and see if I could again find what other people find in it; in particular, I’ve decided to give GTA IV significant playtime, not giving up early as I did with GTA III. I figured I would bull it out, put in twenty or so hours, meet it on its own terms, and simply agree to disagree with the many fans the series has if I didn’t care for it.

A strange thing happened. I became entranced with Niko Bellic, the main character from the most recent iteration of the series. I’ll return more to GTA IV and Niko in the near future; I expect this to be a small series of posts. But I wanted to start with what turned me off on the series to begin with.

In the end, what I think really bothered me about GTA III wasn’t the lousy car controls or the graphics or anything like that. What bothered me was that the main character was a blank slate, which left me in a position of needing to fill in the blanks, to occupy the role without enough distance between the character and my self. He never speaks, and so we don’t know what’s inside his head and as a character he fails to ever really develop, at least at the beginning of the game. I’m the sort of person who plays video games to be the hero; in role-playing games I am always seeking what I feel are the morally best outcomes. I’m just not interested in being a thug, and with Claude Speed’s lack of distinguishing characteristics, there was no distance to keep me feeling as if I weren’t myself the thug.

But understanding and participating in what it’s like for a thug? I can do that. I enjoy film and television thugs, and as a gamer I’ve committed enough virtual violence for a thousand hells. I enjoy watching and participating in thuggishness, if well-motivated. And so, despite not connecting with earlier incarnations of the series, I find myself really looking forward to some quality time in the shoes of Niko Bellic.

¹While I love it on the small screen, the texture and depth of color of the films are best experienced projected.
²This makes him a little bit like Achilles, in some ways, who recognizes in the opening pages of The Iliad that there is the possibility of breaking away from Fate and the will of the Gods, but feels unable to do so due to obligation and honor.

Posted by Brett Douville at August 23, 2010 08:09 AM


I had a similar problem with the extreme violence of the early GTA's. While Niko Bellic was an improvement, I still didn't finish GTA IV or care that much about his story; my favorite title so far has actually been Chinatown Wars, because it contextualized and made a virtue of its characters' shallowness.

But yeah, much as I understand why it's hard to pull off the conflict of a character like Tony Soprano in a video game, that doesn't mean these stories can work without it.

Posted by: Chris Dahlen at August 26, 2010 11:13 PM

Uh-oh, that's cause for concern. They are clearly pushing an "I did bad things back in the Old Country" agenda story-wise and it feels more than a little forced. He's an improvement but there's a lot of subtlety that's lost.

Tony Soprano works really well because we drop right in on him in the midst of crisis. He has this condition that might be mental, might be physical, but in either case would be weakness so he can not have it, it's a matter of life and death. The stakes are high, but the underlying issue is still really human.

With Niko, there's not a lot of conflict, and it would be hard to maintain any conflict given the fractured lens of the sandbox-based storytelling. It reminds me a bit of the most recent Prince of Persia, where due to branching paths of play, each bit of story doesn't build on any other, and you're left with a relationship between the characters that builds and then falls back completely unnaturally.

In any case, I'll be posting again about GTA IV -- I basically never play things when they are first out any more (Brütal Legend being last year's exception). Thanks for stopping by!

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 27, 2010 06:49 AM