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"I prefer San Andreas"

I prefer San Andreas

Videogames in the news don’t really get much positive coverage, if it’s not the Daily Mail thrashing itself with a birch to ensure it doesn’t get any enjoyment/ miss any of the sordid details contained within Pokemon Beige, it’s Alan Titchmarch mistaking Julie Peasgood for an encyclopedia (note: minus the section on ‘Toleration’), as she joins his audience in ripping an unsuspecting videogames journalist apart. So when I saw a recent piece on videogames in the Observer I expected a bit more than a fairly self-absorbed (is there any other kind) story of addiction: both of cocaine and Grand Theft Auto 4.

The author says that he discovered an amazing kinship with Niko Belic, GTA 4’s protagonist, in his 30 hours of cocaine-fuelled playtime, which should be taken with about as much salt as an acid casualty telling you about this incredible dragon he just met. I felt pity for Niko for another reason, and not just because he resembled a sculpture of the Iranian president made from misshapen potatoes.

Niko moved to the US for a better life but found something far worse: relatives and people he’d just met who begin to harass him every hour of the day. Do a job with someone and the next thing you know they’re contacting you every few minutes asking if you want to go and play darts or watch the same Ricky Gervais stand-up routine over and over again. I’d argue that the developer’s greatest achievement isn’t recreating a thinly veiled New York City, it’s making the player feel trapped by it. What’s more the GTA games are not renowned for their likeable characters, so what this social interaction amounts to is essentially having to spend your social time entertaining a parade of complete pricks in order to get access to cheaper machine guns. It’s a credible approximation of real-life (perhaps minus the machine guns) and exactly the reason you don’t play videogames.

If Niko is the victim of unending social harassment from unlikable characters then surely, as with the article’s author, it should be easy to empathise right? Wrong. The biggest problem with GTA 4 and pretty much any other game of its ilk is that once the scripted scenes are over you’re left to go about your own devices without any real consequence to the narrative. In real terms this basically means causing masses of destruction in increasingly creative and unpleasant ways.

In the predetermined cut-scenes, Niko is a fairly sympathetic character (or a complete sweetheart depending on your intake of cocaine and/or sleep levels) but when he moves away and the player takes charge then he’s more than likely to lose those appealing character traits. And that’s when the open-world of GTA 4, and many other games in the genre, starts to unravel.

Assassin’s Creed 2 had the same issues. As much as people hated the repetitious trudging of part 1, the blank canvas of, erm, whatever he was called, allowed the player to project their own personality. In 2 however, he’s replaced by Ezio. With an easygoing demeanour and an eye for the ladies, Ezio is basically Fonzie dressed in period finery. But again, move him away from pre-scripted interactions and into the player’s hands and in no time he’s killing everything above head height and a significant amount of things at ground level.

Ezio robs hard working Venetians, punches minstrels in the face and pays people to kick tramps to death, at least when I’m playing him. And the only repercussions faced are being chased for a few metres and even then all you have to do is hide in a big plant pot before ripping up a few flyers and and you’re back to square one.

In case you haven’t gathered, the problem with these games is that your lead character is more often than not a psychopath with serious personality issues. This would help to explain some of wacky plot developments in Assassin’s Creed 2, not to mention the lead’s ability to listen to Danny Wallace without removing his thorax through his mouth.

But how do you fix this narrative issue if suspension of disbelief is increasingly hard to do? Well for a start they could try open-world games where the lead isn’t a sociopath. Anyone for ready for ‘HULK: Ultimate Shoe Salesman’? Didn’t think so. Alternatively they could openly write the protagonist’s mental issues into the storyline – although the last game I recall that attempted that feat was ‘Second Sight’ on the PS2, which featured a small bald man crying on the cover. It sold like ‘Free Mandela’ t-shirts in 1991.

Perhaps it’s not really an issue. After all, Rockstar Games’ next big foray into the open-world genre is set in the Wild West, when people’s morals seemed to be at an all-time low, at least according to Deadwood (a show which even turned grannie-fave Lovejoy into a swearing cocksucker). And if it isn’t then maybe I should just resign the fact that I have way too much time on my hands. Maybe I should get some drugs and dive back in to Liberty City to see if my feelings towards Niko have changed? Then I could maybe write a fairly self-absorbed and unnecessarily lengthy diatribe. Oops.