Ludonarrative Dissonance in Grand Theft Auto
In many ways, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned is a much better game than Grand Theft Auto IV proper.
The original game centered on an eastern European immigrant finding his start in faux-New York City, along with his well-intentioned cousin and a sundry cast of ethnically diverse characters. Taken at face value, it’s a great narrative concept, especially for a video game, and made GTA IV an epic experience. But Grand Theft Auto IV tried to continually up the ante every few missions, resulting in an uninteresting and nonsensical mafioso finale.
Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned narrows its narrative and gameplay focus significantly and it ends up being better game for it. The change in scope combined with refined gameplay mechanics sculpt The Lost and Damned into a more condensed, more accessible gaming experience than its base. And scope and focus matter in this new style of Grand Theft Auto game. This new style GTA is not the same one gamers saw in Grand Theft Auto 3, GTA: Vice City, or GTA: San Andreas. The days of incredibly over-the-top hijinks and wacky antics are gone. Grand Theft Auto IV and, by extension, The Lost and Damned are games that place a very pronounced focus on its characters and the city they live in. They’re dark, sociopathic games. The game where there was a silly mini-game around every city block is now called Saints Row (specifically, Saints Row 2), and Saints Row 2 does the the pre-Grand Theft Auto IV gameplay better than Rockstar ever managed to. But, that’s okay. Grand Theft Auto IV is a superb, enjoyable game, and one that coexists nicely with it crazy uncle made by the boy (development studio) next door (country).
Grand Theft Auto IV and The Lost and Damned both derive their gameplay significance through their narrative. There is such a strong emphasis on the integrity of the game’s cinematics that, for any player who does not skip past them, the resulting attitudes and motivations of the each game’s lengthy cast of characters is almost entirely inherited from these predetermined scenes. Any character development that occurs in a player’s head for the primary set of characters outside of the boundaries of a cut scene or mission is, almost inevitably, going to be “reset” back to Rockstar’s intended vision at the start of the next cinematic. It has such a rigid formula of cut scene, mission, cut scene, open world, and so on that any amount of player projection is almost certainly lost.
As a result of Rockstar’s treatment of narrative and gameplay, though, the foundations of character development and player empathy hinge on Grand Theft Auto’s ability to make a given portrait of a character work in tandem with the gameplay which, when it’s working as intended, frequently has players killing dozens upon dozens of people. In Grand Theft Auto IV, players were tasked with control of Niko, an expatriate coming to grips with life in a new country. Niko, aside from initially being a sympathetic soul for the player to quickly latch on to, was a soldier responsible for a massive amount of death (or so the game insinuates). As players go through missions that consist of a smooth transition from small, random acts of violence into brutal, horrific mass killings, there is always a certain air of believability to Niko’s continual killing sprees. There’s a slight tinge of contradiction when cut scene Niko attempts to convince other in-world characters that he wants nothing more out of his new life in American than to live peacefully after in-game Niko just ran over an entire city block of hipsters outside of a coffee shop, but the game didn’t explicitly intend for that interaction, so gamers can probably still buy it.
The Lost and Damned makes a player’s willing suspension of disbelief into an actual task. Players are given the role of Johnny, a character who consistently seems distraught by the amount of violence that follows in the wake of his newly-reinstated biker gang superior. Within the realm of The Lost and Damned’s cut scenes, Johnny’s continual unwillingness to commit violence or purely treacherous acts is ceaseless. The problem arises when the cut scenes end and the player is consistently tasked with killing dozens upon dozens of people; at one point early in the game, in-game Johnny is given a grenade launcher to take out an entire building of gangsters whose only crime is one told to him by an untrustworthy antagonist. This action is committed by the same Johnny who, in an earlier cut scene, got in a huff over this same antagonist unnecessarily killing one mechanic.
What, then, is the intended interpretation of the Grand Theft Auto IV (and The Lost and Damned) lengthy premise? Is the intended tale of either of these games the one that Rockstar tells players — the same players who are often tasked with the brutal murder of dozens upon dozens of in-world people who, by the game’s own character’s moral standards, are not deserving of such fates? As it stands, it seems that the intended interpretation of Grand Theft Auto IV is meant to be taken as a whole, in which case gamers take away a lopsided composition of Rockstar’s premise and a player’s narrative. In more concrete terms: a depressed member of a biker gang who laments every unnecessary murder while he drives around the streets of a fictional New York City laying pipe bombs at every block.