So I've been playing a lot of Saints Row 2, which kind of feels the first new game I've played since the Carter administration. I usually spend my summer gaming time catching up with older titles, which I did again this year--God of War 2, Digital Devil Saga 2, and Morrowind being the main titles. But it's good to play a current-gen game again, and it's good to play something as much fun as Saints Row 2.
Of special note is how much more fun Saints Row 2 has been than Grand Theft Auto 4, at least for me. I realize this puts me in a small minority. GTA4 boasts a substantially bigger map, better graphics, better music, and a better sense of immersion--after multiple sequels, gamers feel that this is a real world they're operating in, with recurring characters, institutions, radio personalities, and whatnot. But nothing in GTA4 compare the fun of blasting over dirt hills in a police cruiser to chase down litterbugs and not having to worry about cousin Roman's gambling debts.
The gaming media's meta-narrative to the release of GTA4 was that video games were finally graduating from mere entertainment to actual art.* The main character, Niko Bellic, is haunted by his past in the war-torn Balkans; he struggles between his desire to avenge the wrongs he's suffered in the past and his desire to start over in the United States, a land of opportunity where immigrants can transform themselves and blah blah blah. I'll admit, this is somewhat sophisticated for a video game, but it's downright hackneyed by any other measure. America as a land of opportunity for immigrants? An old, old trope which GTA4 lets stand without significant revision, or even interrogation. Compare it to the Godfather movies, where the plight of the immigrant pushes Vito Corleone to the world of crime as a means of advancement. Revenge/past vs. forgiveness/future? A very poweful theme, and the one which resonates the best in GTA4. Unfortunately--
The end of the game doesn't really give the player the opportunity to make their own decision. I was playing GTA4 in a future-looking way, letting Darko (the initial target of Niko's rage) live. The ending suggests another opportunity to choose revenge or forgiveness, but then pulls the rug out from under the player by forcing a final, revenge-oriented mission. It doesn't matter whether the player seeks revenge on Dmitri Rascalov (dig the absolutely appropos-of-nothing-other-than-Russianness literary allusion!) or not--someone close to you is going to die, and you're going to have to seek out revenge--or, as the case may be, even more revenge--anyway.
This is actually not a bad opportunity for GTA4 to reinforce a theme: no matter how forward-looking you might wish to be, the past will always return to haunt you. More specifically, an individual might choose to forget the past, but that's not good enough if others choose to remember the past and seek their own vengeance. Not a bad theme, especially when dealing with ethnic tensions and war. The problem is (a) this has nothing to do with war or ethnic tensions--the animosity between Dmitri and Niko is entirely grounded in the new world; and (b) it undermines the previous theme of personal choice that the game had gone so far to establish.
Consider, again, the decision to kill or spare Darko. When presented to Niko, he's a wreck: racked with guilt, ravaged by drug addiction, in no way a functional human being. No matter how you play it, there's no material reward for killing or sparing his life--no new missions, no new weapons, etc. From an emotional/story standpoint, there are greater rewards for sparing his life. If the player chooses to kill Darko, Niko will admit that he feels no better for having done so. If they spare him, other characters and Niko himself will suggest this is an emotional breakthrough, a real turning point in Niko's life.
There's nothing wrong, per se, with having this forward-looking message undermined by having Dmitri or Jimmy Pegorino (depending on how one plays the game) kill either Roman or Kate (again, depending on how one plays the game). But at this point, the game moves from player-controlled to cut scene-controlled; Niko's reactions are predetermined. At this point the player feels less in control and more along for the ride. In other words, GTA4 goes back to being a typical video game.
I think this problem has less to do with the shortfalls in the story and more to do with a failure to recognize and capitalize upon the unique features of video games. Does the player identify with Niko, playing the game as he would? Or do they seek the greatest possible entertainment? If the producers of GTA4 wished the former, then there's a lot more they could have done. Take the Darko revenge delimma again. There's no reason for the player to kill Darko other than sadism (which, of course, is nothing to underestimate in this context). But what if the game had started in the former Yugoslavia, the player exposed to the treachery and atrocities that shape Niko? What if they were forced to play through that betrayal? That would make the decision to spare Darko much harder to reach.
It's that tension between character and player which video games have not yet explored to the fullest. In its most simplistic (and most common) form, these usually amount to simple morality questions: do I kill an NPC to receive some kind of incentive (money, new missions), or do I spare them because that's what I think the character I'm playing would do? Do I help out these NPCs (thus opening a new mission), or do I ignore them? When confronted with these decisions, the player usually opts for whatever maximizes the entertainment quotient. Ironically, as more gaming genres incorporate elements of RPGs, they're failing to emphasize the "role playing" part of the equation.
Improving this role playing element is one path** toward making video games closer to genuine art, and it's certainly the more intriguing step from a formalist perspective. Video games are a unique medium in that they are played rather than read. There's a level of interaction just not possible in other media. Sure, in comics or novels, the reader is forced to use his or her imagination to fill in the blanks. But in video games, choices are left to the player. Or, rather, they can be left to the player, if the developer chooses to make the game that way.
As it stands, video game developers have relied on crude reward systems to provoke player reactions: more missions, better weapons, money, etc. A few games have aimed at a more sophisticated approach, like my favorite game of 2007, Bioshock. In Bioshock, the player chooses to either kill or spare Little Sisters. There's a material reward either way--can't forget the imperative to maximize entertainment!--but there's also an emotional reward. To harvest Little Sisters' energy (or ADAM, to be more precise), the player must observe their reaction--thrashing, the appearance of abject terror in their eyes. If one spares them, they become normal little girls again and thank you. Some reviews of the game were more impressed by the Little Sisters' reactions than others. I thought it was a good idea, but not perfectly executed; I chose to spare the Little Sisters, but I was unmoved by their protestations one way or another. There was also a not-especially-scintillating ending based on my decision to save the Little Sisters. But once again, it was the material reward (unlocking new attacks) which motivated me.
Bioshock gets a lot of credit for its BIG SHOCKING TWIST about 2/3 through, which calls into question the nature of free will in a video game. But, for my money, the most effective game I've encountered re: immersion into the character is Persona 3, a game developed very late in the life cycle of the PS2 (at which point, one presumes, development costs are no longer so monumental that ROI concerns overwhelm any hope of upsetting the entertainment:art ratio). I've never played a game that so successfully communicates its theme--in this case, the idea that life is precious, and should be savored no matter how ominous the future is. The player only has so much time to develop relationships with NPCs, level up the character (both in terms of the school simulation and the more traditional RPG quest), and complete the main quest. Spend too much time doing one thing and the others suffer. And the overwhelming sense of dread and defeat makes those moments of connection with other characters so much more meaningful; entertainment maximization starts to lose the battle with characterization.***
But I still think that entertainment trumps art in Persona 3, just as it does in Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto 4, Mass Effect, and countless other games which try to balance the two. To some extent this is understandable; given the outrageous costs of producing games for current gen systems, game developers must center their efforts on maximizing sales. There's not much room for narrowcasting, so it's no surprise that customer entertainment is the primary concern. I guess that's why so many people have pinned their hopes to smaller developers; perhaps, as is the case with film, certain types of innovation only occur in projects with a smaller budget, where ROI pressure is less daunting. And maybe the larger developers will pick up on these innovations and increase the sophistication of the medium across the board.
The biggest hurdle remains consumer expectations. Developers and publishers have conditioned players to view games as diversions rather than art, products rather than creative endeavors. It's going to take some reeducation to change these attitudes, assuming that the bigger publishers care to change them at all. And it's going to take something more than Grand Theft Auto 4's weak literary asperations and failure to capitalize on the inherent strengths of video games.
Maybe later in the week I'll try to write something about why comic books have been so much more successful in this regard than video games. Really, though, the biggest reasons are obvious: the price of producing a comic presents a much lower barrier to entry, the form has been around longer, there's less distance between creation and consumption. But there are certainly some parallels, so it might be worth thinking about in greater detail.
*Or, perhaps more accurately for GTA4, literature. But that sound weird, so I'll be sticking to "art" in this post.
**The other path is best embodied by games like Okami or Shadow of the Colossus: immerse the player in lush, beautiful environments. That's a valid approach, but one about which I don't have much to say yet.
***Though, to be fair, your character is a bit of a blank slate. These sorts of open ended games are a different beast entirely. It will be interesting to see if Fable 2 can live up to its promises; if so, that's another valid way to expand the horizons of video gaming. But Persona 3 doesn't really fall into this category, since the game's deep emotional atmosphere pushes the player into a specific direction. It's almost more impressive; you create the character's personality with your reactions to the game.