Grand Theft Auto And The Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ludonarrative Dissonance

Red Dead Redemption is the latest opus from Rockstar Games. The “open world sandbox emergent gameplay” style is the most popular form of game today (it’s not hulking no-necked muscle men, who have been around since video games were created, and OWSEGP has even begun sneaking into their little kingdom), and Rockstar is the master. They’ve grown alongside the technology, from the top-down mayhem of Grand Theft Auto to the Scarface tribute that was even better than the actual Scarface video game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and finally reached an apex with Grand Theft Auto IV, an incredible realization of New York City in (cop) killer form. They also made some stupid games about being mean to kids, table tennis, and a rogue cop who shoots his way through a massive conspiracy (twice), but why would I play a video game about things I could do in real life????

GTA IV was impressive and a blast to play, but not without flaws. Sure, you had the City That Never Sleeps to play around in, but you also had about twelve virtual “friends” who would call at inopportune times, demanding that you go bowling with them while discussing The American Dream. Compared to the Grand Theft Auto game immediately prior, San Andreas, the terrain was less varied, the clothing choices for your man (as moms everywhere call all video game protagonists) duller, and there were no bicycles or planes to dick around with. Oh, and the ludonarrative dissonance*.

*I actually just read that here today. So don’t think I’m all that much smarter than you.

Ludonarrative dissonance is a fancy way of saying that there’s “a conflict between a game’s story and the mechanics the game uses to tell that story“. Grand Theft Auto games are, at their heart, about running around a city killing innocent civilians and cops and basically being one great big domestic terrorist. In fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid it. Pedestrians have a tendency to jump in front of cars, it’s easy to scrape a police car and set off a high speed chase by accident, and if you play nicely and follow traffic laws and right of way… you might as well watch grass grow.

So you’re watching GTA IV‘s various cutscenes (Rockstar always does these well, so they’re not a chore), Niko Bellic the eastern European immigrant expounds on his desires to leave criminality behind, to start fresh in America and become an honest man, to give up violence forever. Then the cutscene ends and you run outside and shoot an old woman in the head, causing her to drop her grocery bag. You hijack a car and turn on the death metal radio station and drive on the sidewalk, mowing down entire families. It cheapens the story Rockstar’s trying to tell, to say the least.

"Somewhere, a Jamaican stereotype is calling me, asking if I and I would like to shoot some darts. Later on, Jacob. Later on."

Even San Andreas wasn’t safe from this totally, although its problem lies mostly with the story. Over the course of the game, you’ve guided Carl “CJ” Johnson from low-level gangbanger to casino heistman and fledgling rap mogul, only to awkwardly return to your old hood at the end because, uh, gotta do it for your moms’ memory? Or because your older brother wants you too?

Oh, right, it’s because Rockstar wanted to stick in a Rodney King riots sequence.

So why does Rockstar keep having this problem, this gulf between the stories it obviously wants to tell (which are good stories, don’t get me wrong) and their mission to give players a sandbox to play in, one where they can say “Hey, see that piece of wood lying on that dumpster? Why not drive a sports car off it and see how much distance you can get?”

My theory is that the worlds they create lead to this problem.

Quite simply, if you’re going to give me a realistic world, I’m going to expect a realistic story to come with it. And for all the crap I gave him, storyline Niko comes across as he should. He’s done bad shit, but wants to make a clean break in a new country. But it all falls to shit and the greed and lust of American culture comes into him, culminating in the game’s final choice where the player, possibly unwittingly, chooses between love and family. That’s a mature storyline and the kind that I want more video games to tell, instead of “Yo, let’s go fuck up some aliens, oo-rah!”

The problem is that you can’t reconcile that storyline with the freedom offered by the rest of the game. It makes Niko into an bipolar mess and slowly wears away at my goodwill for the character. When I don’t like Niko, I start not liking the game, and it can become a chore to play. Who wants that?

As I see it, there’re two ways to fix this problem.

The first is to go completely balls out puerile, just drop kick taste out the door. If you’re going to give me an option to act like a sociopath in your game, then give me a character who is one in a world that welcomes it. My example: Saint’s Row 2. Drive a septic truck around, shoot poop at people. Design your avatar to be an obese man in a bra and a thong. Grab anyone and throw them off a roof or a bridge. During cutscenes, your character will inject radioactive waste into someone’s face, bury a man alive, get high as hell and fall over, and a million other things that The Parents Of America would disapprove of. It rules and that disconnect never comes into play.

Hot Dog Shooting Gun, courtesy of Saint's Row 2.

The second, and the one Rockstar chose with Red Dead Redemption, is to make a different world. The Wild West evoked by Redemption is that of the spaghetti western: men wear iron on their hip as they play poker in dark saloons; the only law in the wild is the law of the gun; ghost towns and gold mines are both overrun by bandits. It’s a great evocation of a genre and it welcomes a player to be as psychopathic as they want, not as the game forces them to be through the miraculous jumping pedestrian.

Redemption‘s hero, John Marston, is a bad man trying to go good. He used to be an outlaw, but dropped his flags and got a wife and son and a ranch. Then the Big Bad Federal Government Agents show up and kidnap his family to force him to hunt down the last three members of his old gang in the name of… peace? Prosperity? As Marston himself puts it, “I’m an uneducated killer, sent here to do all I can do well, kill a man in cold blood, so another man may do his part to cut crime in the area, and a rich man can be elected governor on the back of these promises.”

Well I'm packing up my game and I'm a head out west/ Where real women come equipped with scripts and fake breasts/ Find a nest in the hills chill like Flynt/ Buy an old drop top find a spot to pimp.

So we’ve got a task: kill these men. We’ve got a motivation: get back your family. All that’s missing is the method. Do we cut a bloody swathe across the countryside out of rage and frustration in order to get our family back that much quicker? Or do we recognize the fact that the only ones who deserve the blankness of death are outlaws, corrupt armies and like a million fucking wolves I swear to God every time I kill one wolf five more show up

Redemption holds us to our choices with the Honor system, the first time a moral variable has shown up in a Rockstar game. Do good things, get positive honor. Do bad things, get negative honor. Easy. Get rewards and new perks with every level of honor you reach, both good and bad. Neither one is better than the other, and neither one is the Wrong Choice. And both options, if looked at as above, fit easily with the character of Marston, saving us from the schizophrenic breaks of Niko Bellic. We’re not any less free in the territory of New Austin than we are in Liberty City to kill, maim and rob; it’s just better handled.

Since I can’t seem to get away from fatherhood, next time around we’ll talk about the storyline of RDR and John and Jack Marston.

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