Life is complicated....
After nearly 40 hours of gun-blazing, lady-dating- comedy-watching,decison making action, I closed the book on GTA IV. While I wait for more inspiration another Monthly Musing on the subject "If you love it, change it!", I'm going to to discuss the various aspects of GTAIV, specfically, I'm going to try and explain(mostly to myself!) step by step why GTAIV is the most important game released since The Legend Of Zelda:Ocerina Of Time(my personal vote for the greatest game ever made). I'll try to articulate how GTAIV flaws and blemishes in all, is the first real mainstream illustration of Game as Art.
But I'm getting a tad ahead of myself. I want to start with just one thing I love about GTA IV, and go from there.
GTAIV is, (finally), the game that actually understands the best way to offer players a Choice.
Legions of Western RPG's have tried to offer the player "choices" in games, offering the player a greater oppertunity to further interact with their game of choice. However, these games almost always force players to make choices in the realm of morality, and, as such offer such black and white notions of good and evil that the very option of a choice feels disingenuous. Bioware's RPG's in paticuler, are guilty of offering a player such obvious choices: it's a punch to the face to anyone who beleives that(maybe! just maybe!) issues may have some shades of gray. Even last years Bioshock basically ofered you the choice of being a cold- hearted survivor or the salvation of the children. At the time, it was easy to be bambozzled by the frightening effect of the Little Sister's, but after 10-15 hours of making the same choices over and over again, the Little Sister's ceased feeling like a frightening genetic monstrosisty, and started feeling like a mechanic. Choice CANNOT be so black and white, and(most importantly of all) choice cannot let on excatly where the game story is going to end(prime example: if you save the Little Sister's,you get the Good ending. Big Surpise. Wee.)
This is not choice. This is insulting.
GTA presents the player with choices that have NO clear outcomes. Every choice offered to Nico(and, by proxy, to the player) seem to offer no "best choice". Each decision offers a real dilemma, where you cannot even choose "the lesser of two evils": both choices seem so downright ambiguous that you could potentially make the choice with a coin flip. The player has no knowledge of where these choices will lead them, or what these choices mean about the player: they are real choices, offing the player simply a fork in the road, two paths, and no directions. By not offering the player a helping hand as to which choice is "the good one" or "the evil one" players are finally forced to make choices based on their own damn principles....and they may find out which principles are most important to them.
I will provide one such "choice" that paticulerly resonated with me. Keep in mind that if you still intend on going into GTA fresh, this would be considured A MINOR SPOILER. BE WARNED WITH YA BAD SELF.
One of the missions close to the middle to the game has you track down a Russian cadre responsible for funding terrorism. Once Nico has dealt with the man's guards, you have option to kill the man at the end of the mission or not. Doing one or the other will end the mission and earn Nico is payout.
This terrorism funder was unarmed.
He was begging for his life.
He was a terrorist. My mission was to kill him.
For Krishna knows what reason, I didn't execute the man.
He was unarmed, I thought to myself. I had done enough damage in this mission. I "got my point across". But for all of my rationalization, I had revealed to myself my true colors: I would not shoot an opponent who surrendered, and, as a result, I let a man who funded terrorism go on living. Just because he was unarmed.
Did I really do the right thing? Could this character potentially recover from my attack and still fund an assault on civilians? Did I do innocents of the world injustice by not ending a man who could destroy the country?
I had murdered so many others, I told myself. I could let this one live. I wasn't about to kill an unarmed man. I didn't have to.
I justified my decision.
I think Dan Houser(who co-wrote the game) must have, at some point between the development of San Andreas and GTAIV, must have picked up some of the works of quintessential American poet Robert Frost; many of the choices that Nico Bellic makes throughout the course of the game draw perfect parralels to Frost's classic poem The Road Not Taken.
In that poem, the speaker comes across a fork in the road and is forced to make a decision. One of the two paths:
"TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;"
The speaker of the poem makes a choice, almost arbitrarily. Most importantly, however, he spends the rest of his days justifying his choice, and all the events that resulted from that choice, calling it "The Road Not Taken". It doesn't matter what choice he makes; all that matters is how he justifies it:
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and Ió
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference"
GTAIV presents Nico with ambiguous choices and lets the player make the final call. It doesn't matter what call the player makes, so long as he or she can, or tries, to truly justify it for themselves.
That is the essence of real choice. GTAIV nails it in a way that no other game can compare.
And that has made all the difference.