The GTA formula melds two types of gameplay – a rules-based “sim” and a plot-based “story” – into a proven, potently popular, amalgam. Yet sim and story also sit in tension: is the player gaming the rules or the role? As with the character/avatar split, our playtesters felt torn between the two. The tension, it seems, proceeds from the fact that very little in sim mode feeds into story mode, and vice versa. For example: considerable energy goes into maintaining Niko’s relationship with his girlfriend. But having Niko dally with prostitutes seems never to affect that relationship. even though Eric both dreaded yet wanted to see such a plot twist unfold. If the game aspires to having a “social physics,” this is a part of the game where gravity stops working.
Of course, as Josh Diaz pointed out, meshing ruleplaying with roleplaying is no simple task as a matter of both design and computation. Theoretically, player choices within the open ruleset should affect the course of the story. Such a meshing eludes our current technology and technique. The more open the rules, the more possibilities a designer would have to account for – in a fully open system, the player might kill off a character who’s critical to the plot later. (Thus in many games the main characters are strangely immortal until the plotline needs them to die). The designers of GTA4 upped the challenge by erring on the side of openness. As Matthew points out, they stretched out the system to make the gameplay “bigger.”
What’s at stake here is that when critics and developers address the “morality” of a game, they’re generally talking about the game’s narrative level. At that level, the player’s avatar has killed another character. But the level of gameplay or system, the player might merely be engaging in manipulation of the game’s physics engine to score points. Playing Halo 3 with your buddies is more like playing tag than engaging in a street shootout, because the most literal on-screen narrative (guns and ammo) is far less important than the system (physics, teamwork). So well- or ill-intentioned efforts to inject “moral content” into a game can be undermined by the game system itself.
GTA’s critical and commercial success suggests that there’s something to learn from its design about weaving together story and system. For one thing, GTA does offer a way out of the problem of the “railroad” plotline that plagues the adventure game genre. Merely providing spatial movement in open but inert environments is a tease: look, but don’t touch. (This was one reason I couldn’t finish The Longest Journey). GTA took the opposite perspective: touch; better yet, trash! Given GTA’s origins as a “sandbox game,” this dimension of freedom is unsurprising. If there’s a failure of execution in GTA4, as our playtesters seem to feel, perhaps it’s because this legacy obligates Rockstar to offer an even stronger, and even more tightly-integrated, storyline. The game isn’t just competing with other diversions for the player’s attention; it’s also competing with itself.
So, then, a hypothesis: perhaps situating a linear story within a sim makes that story — and its moral dimensions — more palatable? And a corollary: maybe empty freedom makes story constraints all the more meaningful? After all, eventually most GTA4 players tire of stunt jumps and get back to advancing the career of Niko. And, as Matthew points out, GTA4 cleverly unlocks new “verbs” within the sim as the player advances the story, offering new dimensions of experimental freedom as the plot progresses, essentially offering rewards for going to the next stop on the plot’s train track.