GTA IV In Wall Street Journal

The game is featured in a piece on Wall Street Journal by Junot Díaz. Coincidentally, my research is mentioned in the section on 'Videogame studies' at the end.

This should certainly be enough to propel me back to Niko's shoes. Other work - designing games rather than playing them - has interfered the journey.

Predicting frustration

It is painfully obvious by now that I am having hard time to find a spot for GTA IV in my life... which is quite healthy, of course. Just now, on a windy/rainy Sunday afternoon, I spent an hour or two with the game, guiding Niko Bellic through a couple of missions, while failing in some. A mob boss execution at the top of a club building, surrounded by neon bilboards, on a dark and rainy night in Liberty City, was memorable, I must admit.

After that, frustration struck. In the 'Russian Revolution' mission - a warehouse shooting, which one can't avoid - I died a few times, first due to my own incompetence, then to my partner Little Jacob's inability to keep up, and again, embarrassingly putting Niko in flames with a baffled attempt at throwing a Molotov cocktail at the enemy. Four attempts was enough - I left the game with anxious feelings - feelings, that still resonate somewhere at the back of my mind and in my body. These are not feelings I long to experience with a video game. In a couple of hours, I probably try again, in expectation of whether those emotions re-emerge. That is definitely part of every game play experience; as a player, one predicts and anticipates the emotions the game is going to bring about, and even tactical decisions are made in prospect of the nature of the experience. We'll see how this affects my subsequent tries in completing the mission.

Emotionally engaging experiences make for more memorable experiences

Life has interfered, positively, with my journey through Liberty City. Nevertheless, after some days, I did complete a couple of missions just now. Niko discovered the Internet cafes of the city, and escaped an explosion-filled car chase through Bohan. It reminded me of a sequence of memorable events in GTA III years ago, when I managed to jump out of a burning car about to explode, ending up walking away with the character, with the car exploding in the background. Classic action heroism, and more importantly, classic visual tropes and metaphors of a genre that the GTA series has managed to incorporate into game play so well. The fact that I remember the event is very clearly down to how it played out visually and aurally - i.e. 'eye candy' does have consequences for game play experiences; it can amplify them and thus create memorable images into our mind.

The internet feature adds to the experience of the amount of content the game has. My friend mentioned that he had ordered pizza (in real life) and eaten it while watching the television channels in Niko's safehouse. As someone who has experience of game design and development, it is just overwhelming to think about the amount of work all this has taken, and how seamlessly everything functions within the world that the game creates.

In addition, the internet of Liberty City engages our mental schemas about how the Internet is supposed to function. The net, GTA IV style, is a stylized, sarcastic, and in-your-face version of the net, and thus, as a game design feature, it displays another system that borrows some aspects from its referent system (the Internet) and leaves others out.

I am anxious to see whether Niko gets a date through the net. Once again, the curiosity and expectation that the situation elicits from me, as a player, is interesting. In terms of design, and particularly in terms design of eliciting conditions for certain kinds of emotional reactions, the Internet dating mechanic is more than a trivial feature.

The Economy of Choices

I just had a session with the game, after a couple of days break from playing. Niko was given a choice, after chasing a man to a roof top: whether to pull him up, or kill him. Intuitively, I chose the option of pulling the guy up. I wonder what had happened, had I taken the other option. With the game, I could always go back to a previous save and see.

In any case, what interests me here is the choice - games are always about making decisions - which was presented as a moral choice. Yet, some time later, I was not given a choice as a player in a similar situation: there was no option but to execute Vlad the gangster, in order for the game to progress into the direction that the designers at Rockstar had wanted. This became especially evident in the narrative scene after the killing, where Niko confided to Roman for his motivation to come to America, to finish up a search that had started from Eastern Europe. I.e. the choice / no choice was a design solution in terms of the characters and the overarching narrative justification for the different missions in the game, and the goals that they impose on the player.

There is a design economy of choices at work, and I wonder how thought-out it actually is. The same goes for the narrative cutscenes: at many times when playing video games, I find myself thinking why was this event narrated, and not designed to be played - and, vice versa, at least in theory, yet it seldom occurs to me to think about ame play sequences that should have been narrated...mostly because there are examples of scripted events in games like Unreal, Half-life (2), and Bioshock, that work quite well. (Even though Bioshock goes for the 'safe' option of narrative means in its most significant turn of events.) GTA IV can be seen as mixing both approaches, yet missions are always 'foreshadowed' through narrative sequences, which also convey aspects of characterization.

As a side note, I also took the cab (as a passenger) for a couple of times in the game. Personally, I found that checking out the scenery from the back seat elicits a comfortably touristy disposition towards Liberty City.

Aesthetics of arousal

Last night I progressed through a couple of simple missions, and let Niko indulge in criminal behaviour, such as mugging people. He had run out of money, and couldn't pass the road toll - very frustrating. I have also let him - or, should I say, forced him - to steal cars, and watch a private lapdance performance.

The latter is interesting, when we think about the so-called 'eliciting conditions' that game designers create into games. In psychological emotion theory, eliciting conditions refer to the conditions under which a particular emotion, or an emotional sequence, is triggered. This opens up a perspective to an emotion-centred design approach; an approach that I have tried to formulate into a systematic method in my own work. Seen from a perspective of emotional and (play) experience design, a simulation of a strip joint is more than something that a simulation of a metropolis should include. It is also a design for feelings of titillation and sexual arousal, in the same manner as the emergence of police car sirens is a design for general alertness that elicits emotions of suspense and curiosity.

As the sun is shining outside, my thoughts are directed to whether I should enjoy the simulated, urban beauty of a sunrise in Liberty City, or the actual warmth of a spring day in Helsinki. Whatever my choice is, both options present fascinating eliciting conditions.

Under simulated influence

Back in the day, I wrote a very theoretical article about simulation and video games, actually using Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as a case example. I mention this because the notion of simulation got my attention as I returned to Liberty City, I first took Niko to play pool with Roman (I lost). It seems that these casual 'activities' with friendly or romantic characters are there in order to support a more overarching sense of a seamless world, and they do seem to work to that direction. At least that is my tentative observation. We'll return to this.

After the activity with Roman I had Niko call Michelle for another date. Now there were many more options to choose from, so I decided we should go to a bar for a few drinks. I was quite disappointed that the bar did not figure in the game design at all: the couple entered the bar, and after a fade to black, I was awarded a drunken, babbling Niko to control. The simulation was simple but impressive enough, with wobbling controls and horizon. A funny thing happened once I decided to avoid drunk driving and tried to get a cab - true to the game series, Niko pulled the driver from the car and got seated behind the wheel of the taxi, with Michelle obediently running to take a seat next to Niko.

In the end, what followed was a blurry journey to take Michelle home. As a gentleman, I did not 'try my luck', as the game suggested, when reaching her place. What was interesting with that possibility was the social schema that the design of the simulation followed, i.e. that moment at the end of the date, where the couple either parts, or stays together for the night. In the article I mentioned at the beginning, I wrote that

analyzing the causalities of actions within the simulation produces observations about the politics and rhetorics of a particular simulation
The point of interest here is how GTA IV represents and simulates social and sexual relationships. We will see. However, whether it was due to the gentlemanly choice I made or not, Niko sobered up immediately after dropping Michelle off! One wonders how to interpret that kind of simulation logic.

Another observation: I just read that the Zit function, with which one can buy songs played on the radio stations, is only available to US players from the start. What a disappointment - I love the funky stuff at K109!

Social Clubbing

I just linked my Xbox Live ID to the Rockstar Social Club. Needless to say, this opens up a new dimension to the study. Now, I will enter Niko's shoes for another play session. It will be interesting to see how the Social Club integrates to the play experience - if it does - and how it manages to tap into the social media phenomenon of today.