The social life was hardly the most touted feature of GTA's latest incarnation, with euphoria and multiplayer taking the centre stage as details trickled out. Now, a month after its release, its safe to say that its the least lauded of all the new features and even the most disliked – Yahtzee
goes as far as to say its inclusion is like forcing the player to “get off the roller coaster every five minutes to touch up the paint”, and I'd be inclined to agree. However, despite its flawed implementation, I believe it hides GTA IV's greatest advancement from its previous iterations. If you want to find out why I think this then read on, but first...
XBOX HUEG SPOILERS AHEAD
As anyone who has played the game will know, the social life system follows a pretty simple structure :
1. Meet a specific character as part of the story.
2. A few missions later, you will get a call suggesting that you “hang out with them sometime”. The character is now your friend.
3. Call them yourself or wait until they call you to suggest an activity.
4. Pick them up and drive them to the activity while listening to them talk about their life.
5. Participate in whatever mini game you selected (bowling, pool, darts etc.).
6. Drive them home, while listening to further exposition.
7. Repeat steps 3-6 every few in-game days.
Being an overly critical bastard, I'll start by picking out the flaws in this system. To start with, while the mini-games are typically well designed and implemented (cumulatively, they offer a similar amount of gameplay variety as Wii Sports) they still feel like mini-games, which in turn makes the 'date' come off as a separate entity to the main game – a side attraction to pad out the games length or otherwise stop you progressing fluidly through the missions. Ultimately, it can feel like a chore rather than an enjoyable aside from the main game.
So what makes them so revolutionary for GTA?
You'll notice that steps four and six include exposition from the character you are with at the time, which follows a similar model to that of previous games where the NPCs will talk amongst themselves while you drive to the destination. Though the players character will also talk, it was a passive affair and served to add depth to the characters and in that respect it has not changed in GTA IV.
What has changed is the context; hearing characters talk about their past is nothing new for GTA, but hearing it in context of a social setting makes it far more meaningful – talking about life with some a friend while heading to a bar feels less forced than having to hear about it when driving to a shootout as in the previous games. The setting also makes the characters – Niko included – far more human as they stumble around inebriated, and launch into a drunken rant.
GTA has always had excellent writing, voicework and characters – GTA IV simply humanises them to a greater degree than before through both their writing and how you can interact with them. To be fair, this is also helped a great deal by the improved facial animation but learning about the characters through the context of a social life accomplishes things that could never be done with any amount of in-mission dialogue.
Niko to is humanised more than any of his predecessors, showing guilt for the misfortune he brings down on those around him and making the instances where he really is angry far more genuine and meaningful. Compared to Tommy Vercetti's seemingly perpetual rage, the times when Niko gets angry now have real emotional significance, a first for GTA.
Before I can explain the significance of the NPC's, it is necessary to look at another of the new features: Moral choices. This addition also follows a simple structure:
1. As part of a mission, person X orders you to kill person Y.
2. When you reach them, person Y begs for their life, promising to reform/disappear.
3. You have the choice of killing or letting person Y go, both of which let you complete the mission as you then call person X, telling them that person Y has been “taken care of”.
4. If you let them live, then person Y will appear as a random character at some point later in the game to give you a mission. If you kill them, you never hear anything else about them.
The problem with this is that (for 90% of the game at least) there are no 'moral' choices, just gameplay ones and inconsequential ones at that – you are introduced to the character minutes before you have to decide their fate so there is no emotional weight behind your decision and the choice will have zero effect on the main story as the most you could miss out on is a single stand alone mission that has no bearing on the rest of the game and doesn't even count towards 100% completion. This improves on two occasions, but still falls short of being revolutionary:
The first of these happens on the second island when you finish mission strands from both Dwayne and Playboy X; you receive an invitation from Playboy to go to his penthouse where he asks you to kill his old friend Dwayne, at first you refuse but are asked to 'think about it'. Later, you receive a call from Dwayne, who suspects that Playboy wants him dead and asks you to kill him first. You are then given the choice of who to kill; rubbing out Dwayne earns you $300,000 while killing Playboy earns you his safehouse and Dwayne's friendship. I think it was an interesting choice to reward you with Dwayne's friendship, while it would have made less sense in the context of the story, allowing you to befriend Dwayne (and maybe even Playboy?) before being asked to kill him would have added more far emotional weight to the decision. Dwayne is an interesting character, but one whose friendship many players will miss out on, and while Playboy has questionable morals and goals he is still likeable, I still think it would benefit the game to delve deeper into both of the characters before you have to make the decision. Again, this choice is primary a gameplay one, with the potential rewards taking greater precedence than the loss of a friend.
The second is a similar situation, this time with two of the McReary brothers; Francis (the cop) asks you to kill his brother Derrick (the criminal) before he irreparably damages his brothers career. In an echo of the previous situation, Derrick also calls you saying that he fears for his life and wants you to take out Francis. This time the characters are also known quite well to you (though neither is a proper 'friend') and you also know other members of their family. The kill itself involves sniping the unlucky brother as they sit down together on a park bench, which makes it much easier to feel conflicted and change your mind compared to the previous example where the targets were across town from each other – perhaps this was intentional? Disappointingly though, the effects of this are not too to far reaching; all that is changed is whose funeral you have to go to and a few lines of dialogue from your friends – following this, everyone acts like nothing happened. This seems like another missed opportunity considering how much time you spend with other members of their family throughout the game.
For the above examples, GTA IV seems to suffer from the same flaws that befell Mass Effect which Rev talks about in this article
in that it doesn't seem to be willing to give your choices far reaching or negative consequences. Not once do you have to choose between friends and the game always seems to be trying to prevent you becoming emotionally invested in anyone you have to kill later on.
Despite the above missed opportunities, the moral choice system (with the help of Niko's more developed character) shines in the finale missions:
Early on in the game, Niko reveals the real reason he came to Liberty City; during the war that he so often references, his unit was ambushed and he barely escaped with his life – though twelve of his friends were not so lucky. Realizing that someone in the squad must have betrayed them and only he and two others survived, he vowed to hunt down the traitor who must be one of the two survivors – the first of whom, he learns is living in Liberty City.
As the game progresses, it becomes clear how strong Niko's motivations are with him asking anyone with the power to do so to help him track down the survivors. The social life helps explain his motivation as he alludes to effect the ambush had on his life and worldview. About half way through the game, one of the suspects is absolved of blame, leaving Niko to hunt down the real traitor.
When all the main story missions are complete (bar the finale), Niko receives a call from a previous contractor informing him that Darko Brevic has been located and taken to the Airport as payment for Nikos services. After picking up Roman for support, you drive to the airport where a van pulls up and throws a pathetic mess of human being to the floor at your feet. Niko's anger shows as he asks him why he betrayed them, only to be told that Darko also had friends killed in the war and the betrayal was an act of vengeance – which is little consolation to Niko. Darko struggles to his feet and asks for death saying that you will be 'doing him a favour' – Roman tells you to walk away, the camera pulls out and you are presented with the choice.
The entire game has been leading up to this point but it just isn't what you expected; the man in front of you is a junkie with no reason left to live. This choice is truly 'grey', with no right or wrong and has more to do with Niko's own conscience than anything else and Roman quietly telling you to walk away only serves to make you more conflicted. Everything you did was to get to this man – and now you don't know what to do...
If you pull the trigger, Niko riddles Darko's body with bullets, emptying a full magazine into the addict before finally stopping. Roman expresses disappointment and asks for a ride, you get into a vehicle and Niko turns off the radio (a feature that was curiously absent from this game) to put the slow drive back in stark contrast to the countless car-trips with their ever present music and adverts. Roman asks if you feel fulfilled and you say no; the emptiness inside Niko was apparently not filled by Darko's execution – a thought you are left to dwell on in silence for the remainder of the trip.
If you walk away Roman assures you that you made the right choice but Niko is not so sure – he realises that revenge cannot change what happened or what he saw, but letting the man he hunted for over a decade go free leaves him conflicted.
It was after playing both outcomes that I realised something; the vastly different emotions you feel in each match Nikos. After executing Brevic, I felt empty – questioning the lengths I went through to reach this point doubtful of whether or not it was worth it. After letting him live, I felt conflicted – unsure of whether I made the 'right' choice – something Niko would never be able to find out.
What struck me the most about this penultimate decision is that it has absolutely no gameplay consequences – a few lines of dialogue are changed, but there is no tangible effect on the rest of the game – no extra missions, no secrets unlocked, nothing. This decision is the only true 'moral' choice in the game and the fact it has no effect on the rest of the game serves as a testament to the immersion and depth provided by the game that made the choice so meaningful. Even in games that revolve almost solely around player decisions shaping the course of the game, it is rare to see a choice included purely to test the players conscience with no other consequences.
In contrast, the final choice in the game has very real consequences and takes place just after the previous one: You are asked by Jimmy Pegorino, a Mafia boss, to go to a drug deal with Dimitri Rascalov the closest thing to a clear antagonist in GTA IV, who betrayed you and burned down your cousins home and business early in the game. The choices presented to you are doing the deal or taking revenge on the person who betrayed you – as is typical in the game, different characters offer different advice, with Roman urging you to do the deal as the money will help you both, while Kate warns you against compromising on your morals for the sake of money.
Picking revenge means backing out on the deal with the Mafia and going after Dimitri yourself, while choosing to deal results in you being betrayed again by Dimitri but escaping with the money anyway. Shortly after the mission you are called by Roman and invited to his wedding which plays out differently depending on your recent decision; picking revenge earned you the wrath of Pegorino, whose deal you ruined by going after Rascalov – and who now crashes the wedding with a hail of gunfire, taking out your friend Kate. Choosing the deal means that Dimitri sends a hitman after you who kills your cousin at his own wedding.
The final mission sees you taking revenge on either Pegorino or Rascalov and plays almost identically in both cases with the exception of the final chase. At first glance it might seem like the choice is irrelevant, with a tragedy occurring in both cases (given real significance by the fact that both potential victims were friends who you got to know over the course of the game) but the choice system was put to great effect in the finale as whatever happened, you felt responsible for it adding even greater significance to the subsequent retaliation. By choosing revenge you
bring Pegorino to the wedding – their deaths are your
fault. As a result the final mission and Niko's final act of vengeance are more satisfying than anything that preceded them:
This use of the choice system is hardly revolutionary and its impact pales in comparison to the previous one, but it is used to far greater effect than in the rest of the game and the choices you make have real impact on characters you care about – something the game seemed unwilling to do until now.
The social life system also suffers from the issues that Bioshock's audio diary
based storytelling faced in that it is almost entirely optional; it is conceivable that a player could loose out on the emotional impact of the wedding tragedy if they had invested little time in either of the victims of the tragedy.
Ultimately, I'm torn over these systems. Their implementation is mixed and the real pay-offs don't come until the finale of the 30+ hour story and while I still think their uses in the final missions represent a huge step forward for GTA IV I could still make the case for removing or improving their implementation earlier in the game. To quote Yahtzee again in regards to the social life mechanic: “I'm not sure what, if anything
it is in aid of”. Does this damage the mechanic and even the game as a whole or is the payoff worth the lengthy investment it entails?
Minor edit: Original videos were removed from YouTube, so I had to replace them with shitty handcam videos read