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August 28, 2010

On Being A Thug, II: Life in the Big City

Caveat lector: In the “thug” series, I’ll likely have spoilers in each post. I haven’t written this one, but I suspect as I play the game, I’ll simply drop in events as they occur to me while writing. The game has been out a couple of years, so that feels fair. You've been warned.

As a programmer, I look at the simulation of the drivers in the streets of Liberty City and I see a lot of bugs. There are far too many collisions -- Niko will be waiting at a stop light and he’ll be lightly rear-ended by the car behind him, just a tap, or a car up ahead will pull into a pedestrian, knocking him down and possibly even peeling out and fleeing afterwards. These seem strange to me -- they are completely out of proportion with my expectations of how frequent such events should be. I see in them mistakes, pathing that is failing, areas that maybe got less attention because players mostly don’t stop at stoplights in Grand Theft Auto games.

But as a gamer, I often assume, or try to assume, that everything that I see was a conscious choice, that this is how the game is meant to be. Certainly I realize that games are never really finished, but in its fourth incarnation sitting on the same simulation engine or more, I sort of expect that they have gotten the streets more or less like they want them to be.

What am I to make of it then? I find myself wondering whether the frequency of collisions and interactions¹ between cars and pedestrians is meant to replicate the immigrant experience for a Western viewer. A person who has seen many car crashes, or the aftermath thereof, might not really notice a single crash or bump an hour or day or what have you. But if you came from a small village in Eastern Europe, you might never have seen a car crash -- and so any car crash you might encounter in America might take on much larger dimensions.

This doesn’t really seem to make sense, though, with a character like Niko Bellic. After all, we know he was in a unit in a war, and ultimately we learn that he is looking for a man who might have betrayed him from that unit. He’s used to violence, and having cars crash into one another or pedestrians being run down in the street seems beneath his world-weariness.

That leaves me with another alternative, that the game instead is trying to create a culture or environment that is filled with a casual menace, or a casual violence, or a casual apathy about property, all of which might serve to reinforce the central mission of making the player control Niko as a thug. If you’re surrounded by these things, you find yourself more willing to participate in them.

For me, as essentially a new player to the series², I started the game not stealing cars. I’d direct Niko to borrow Roman’s -- after all, it was only a couple blocks’ walk. Then he might run a passenger around for him. Niko borrowed it to take a young woman, Michelle, on a couple of dates, had a nice time bowling and shooting pool. He’d take it easy through town using Roman’s car, stopping at stoplights, minding pedestrians. But even playing nice, with a date in the car, he might have an incident where he was rear-ended at a light and chewed out by the driver for not making way, or a would see a pedestrian being hit as a car up ahead got impatient. These things would get under Niko’s skin, a constant low-level source of stress.

Niko needed to work for Vlad, a low-level boss representing a bigger organization to whom Roman owed money. Now he was out being an enforcer, breaking windows, chasing guys down, and generally doing things that were on the wrong side of the law. And joining in with the rest of the city in not respecting property or rules or even life and liberty didn’t seem all that bad, at that point. Now, Niko’s likely to leave Roman’s apartment and walk to the nearest corner to grab a vehicle and go, ignore stop lights. Pedestrians are still off-limits; it hardly seems sporting to simply run down someone because they haven’t put themselves in a car for protection.

Vlad’s gone now, by the way, and Niko is working for someone else. Vlad crossed a line -- just because Niko’s cousin owes money, doesn’t mean you don’t treat him with honor if he’s paying it back. And as the man doing the work that pays those bills, Niko didn’t appreciate Vlad’s poaching on Roman’s woman.

¹Kind of a moderate word there, for what is often a fatal event for the pedestrian. I can almost see one of the characters copping an attitude and say, “Yeah, man, I just interacted all over yo’ ass.”
²As I mentioned previously, my prior experience was brief.

Posted by Brett Douville at August 28, 2010 12:01 PM