GTA4 received strong critical acclaim for its gritty storyline and characters. Niko, the protagonist, isn’t a blank avatar for the player to inhabit and shape. Rather, he’s a character with a backstory, personality, and his own motivations. Have him kill someone on your way to an early mission and he expresses disappointment in himself, not unlike the hero of a Greek tragedy bemoaning the fate the gods have dealt him. The player is invited to respond to him as alternatively sympathetic and off-putting as his story and history unfolds.
Among the game mechanisms we’ve discussed that encourage moral engagement, probably the most difficult is offering opportunities for reflection. A character with his own views and a modicum of free will, potentially at odds with the player, could serve as a mirror to the player’s choices – a puppet that can question the puppeteer.
But despite the rich possibility in this schism between Niko-as-character and Niko-as-avatar, Doris found the experience “schizophrenic.” She found it hard to reconcile her own motivations with Niko’s. Sam concurred, despite going out of his way to “inhabit” Niko’s character. Matthew suggested that perhaps Niko and his story become a bit of an “ideological salad bar”: so as to appeal to the broadest spectrum of gamers, the writers create a character with an often-conflicting mix of motivations and traits, letting each player latch on to those aspects that explain the character’s actions and the story’s meaning in the most satisfying way.