Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV Features for PS3

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10Out of 10
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Today I want to take a fresh angle on a topic that by now should have most seasoned gamers running for the hills. I want to explore the concept of violence in video games... but rather than repeating the tired-yet-important arguments about freedom of expression, I want to look at the idea of violence as a design problem.

To re-state my position, I have no interest in going over the debates about whether violent games can turn people into psychopaths. Everyone already has an opinion on this, and if you are reading this then the chances are that you're fairly entrenched in your stance. Instead, I want to consider the idea that the need for violence - or more specifically, the act of killing - is something that can limit creativity on the part of games developers.

If you leave aside sports sims, racers and puzzle titles, almost every game genre relies upon the act of killing. It might be Mario stomping on a Goomba, it might be Master Chief blowing away The Covenant - but whatever the setup, there will inevitably be some variation on the idea of a hero defeating vast swathes of enemies. And you know what? That's absolutely fine. These are games after all, and there has to be some form of challenge. It's fun to take down the bad guys (or sometimes even the good guys) and having an endless supply of targets helps to create a fluid, engaging experience. However, lately I've been considering the downsides to this established format, the things that we lose under this setup.

The most obvious negative effect is that the life (and death) of virtual characters tends to be quite cheap. There's rarely any weight to the death of NPCs, largely because the majority of the things we kill are identikit clones - monsters or villains of a particular type. Now, this isn't a problem in something like a Mario game, where the Koopa Troopers are endless jump-fodder; nor is it a problem in something like Gears, where the enemies are supposed to be a swarming, anonymous threat. However, look at something like Grand Theft Auto and you start to see a few problems.

In the past, the GTA series was all about wiping out scores of faceless gangsters. In the very first game these amounted to little more than coloured blobs that fired pellets at you. The sequel followed suit, and despite its technical innovations even GTA 3 was a rather shallow experience in terms of narrative. But since Vice City it seems that Rockstar has become increasingly interested in telling a decent story alongside its sandbox action. Unfortunately this creates a bit of a clash, since you're still obligated to kill hundreds of people - but since most people don't like playing as a complete bastard, the developer has to make its hero a nice guy. In San Andreas, this occasionally resulted in cut scenes where CJ showed a reluctance to kill character X or Y because it seemed like the wrong thing to do - despite the fact that by that point he'd already murdered a few hundred rival gang members.

Of course, this doesn't matter much in terms of pure gameplay - but as a certain corner of game development heads closer and closer to cinema-quality production values, the problem becomes more obvious. GTA IV actually went some way to exploring this issue, via a main character who obviously bears the emotional scars of a lifetime of murder. In its later stages, the game does a great job of making you question the damaged Niko Bellic and his violent actions. He remains a likeable character, but we still begin to think about what it is that we, as gamers, are being asked to do. Of course, there are other problems here, due to the fact that the game uses death as a way of underscoring its moral points. When we fire at a gangster during a mission, it takes them a good five or six bullets before they die - but if a gun should go off during a cutscene, you can bet that someone's going to die. Permanently. How does that make any sense?

The funny thing is that for the most part, we're happy to tolerate this bending of the rules. Gamers who don't care about plots are content to keep blasting, while those of us who do like stories are largely willing to overlook the inconsistency - after all, it's pretty rare for a game to have a story that makes even vague sense, let alone a narrative of the quality of GTA IV. In other words, the issue is not a critical one. And yet if video games are to progress as a medium, surely this is an obstacle we'll have to deal with at some point. Okay, so sports sims and more abstract genres will never have to face the problem - but what about those titles that aspire to a level of cinema-like production? As technical advances push graphics ever-closer towards photorealism, the limitations of video gaming are further exposed.

So, what am I suggesting as a solution? I'm certainly not saying that the industry should abandon the established trend for mass-slaughter, but what I would personally like to see is a greater degree of innovation on the part of games designers. Instead of something like Dead Space that pits you against thousands of mutants, imagine a game horror that sticks you on a spaceship with just three or four aliens - aliens that are, shock horror, really hard to kill. You desperately search for a way to battle them, perhaps using makeshift weapons - initially succeeding in doing little more than driving them off. And when you finally manage to kill one, it feels like a real achievement. How good could that be? Or what about a GTA-like game that sees you completing small, shady crimes in a world of minor criminals. At a late stage, you have the option to kill someone - but if you do, you have a major challenge on your hands. You have to destroy the evidence, hide from the police - and if your victim's friends find you, you're done for.

Of course, deviating from the norm is a huge risk for developers who rely on the financial success of projects that can take up to three or four years to complete. People do try to buck the trends - Shadow of the Colossus is one example, and the forthcoming Heavy Rain looks set to be another. But if no-one ever buys these games, then fewer studios will dare to try new ideas in the future. Of course, innovation is only a good thing if the resulting game is actually worth playing. All I'm asking is for people to give a chance to those unusual releases that have the guts to do things differently.

To conclude, I ask you to consider the music industry. Where video games largely rely upon violence, a huge swathe of popular music is devoted to singing about sex and/or love. A lot of these songs are totally generic in their themes and imagery, yet they remain popular because they have something else going for them - great guitar solos, a killer bassline or perhaps just a singer with a big pair of tits. In our industry, we similarly have games that have a kill-em-all story but that excel in other areas. But for all the talk about a lack of originality in popular music, there are still hundreds of artists who explore new ideas in their lyrics - or who manage to find fresh poignancy in the oldest of love-based themes. Are there many equivalents in contemporary video gaming? No, there are not - and unless we support the innovators, there never will be.

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User Comments

mydeaddog's Avatar


Cheers for all the comments, guys. Hitman: Contracts is actually a really good example, something I didn't think of. Sure, killing people is still your objective - but there's certainly more weight to the decisions you make.

@ FM: I do sympathise with your feelings about film critics' response to games; I've done a fair bit of film writing, and I have to admit that I do sometimes get a bit hung up on things like the direction and script in games. The thing is, while that's a bit stupid with something like Mario or LBP, the truth is that a lot of games are now attempting to portray their stories in a film-like manner; it's therefore inevitable that chin-strokers like me will start to bleat on about narrative and the like.

For me, gameplay will always be the most important factor in a new release. But i'm still interested in where story-led games are trying to go, and where the established trends (like the need to have enemies to kill) make it difficult to push things forward.

After I wrote this piece, I suddenly remembered that tiny mini-mission in GTA IV where you meet that young junkie-girl on the street. You chat to her for a bit, give her some money and then drive her to the station so she can go home to her family. Think about how unusual that is: you don't kill anything, or even gain anything apart from (perhaps) a sense that you've done something right... It's barely five minutes of the game, but a great moment nonetheless.
Posted 10:13 on 21 January 2009
CheekyLee's Avatar


In GTA games in particular, I have always wished that random non-story murders carried a heavier penalty. It was an absolute joyful moment when I realised that killing innocents carried no cash reward (unless they happened to have cash on their person) in Vice City, as it made the earning of money all the more satisfying. The first few hours of that game remain my favourite in the series to date.

The finest single example I can think of, though, is in Bioshock, at the point where you
Show Spoiler come face to face with Jake Ryan. I personally really wanted to not kill him at this point, and I felt awful the way it happened. I would have loved it if the choice was given to the player, but understood from a dramatic point of view why it had to go down the way it did.
Forget all the business with the Little Sisters, this was real videogame morality coming to the fore!

I'm loving the idea of a survival horror game with very few enemies, though! Time to fire up the Source SDK and see what I can come up with!
Posted 01:34 on 20 January 2009
Anonymous's Avatar
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Violence is part of video game fanatasy and is a mental realease for stress, it is a not real life. We should tell the young gamers the difference between real life (death is not reversable, there is no restart in real life, and it causes a lot of paperwork) and TV (most things on TV are fake: the violence, the guns, the women, and the results)--and videos games come under TV. As long as we remember the difference we will be okay.
Posted 19:43 on 19 January 2009
Yacaman's Avatar


Article was good. It makes sense to add more realism to games that want to copy or mock reality. Bodies left everywhere, why do they disappear? Why can't they be taken to the morgue. Give a population census to see how you are affecting cities and towns. Make an impact of killing a business man, or a store clerk. have that store close not just the same guy reappear. Maybe a different guy if he's not the owner.
I agree. If the game is not a shooter, give death the respect it deserves. Killing someone changes people.
Posted 19:00 on 19 January 2009
Solans Scott's Avatar
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Solans Scott

I just wanted to say that I appreciated your article and can see the point you are making. I would just like to point out that the Hitman series (in my opinion) was one franchise where death really meant something. For example, in Hitman Contracts, if you were sloppy while doing a mission the police would gather intel on you which would make later missions increasingly difficult.
Posted 18:03 on 19 January 2009
FantasyMeister's Avatar

FantasyMeister@ RecoN

I thought GTA IV was pretty good in this respect, although after reading the article twice I still might be missing a vital point. Way I see it, the only time you have to actually kill anything in GTA IV is during a mission, and even then you sometimes get a choice. Unless it's a pigeon.

What gives GTA IV a major advantage over a cinematic version is player choice. We can watch a great movie and think to ourselves "Wouldn't it be neat if the main character went on a rampage" whereas GTA IV allows us to make this choice and see what happens. Which is 'fun'. There are also severe penalties for making this type of choice which usually result in reloading a previous save, but the huge advantage here over cinema is that a well-designed game allows us to get creative ourselves.

I'd also argue vehemently that innovation is alive and well in the videogame industry. LBP, Flower, Mirror's Edge, anything with Lego in it (probably a bad example, but the first title in the series must've been hard to pitch) are recent examples and are doing/should do reasonably ok sales-wise.

Only thing I'd add is that cinema, music and videogames are 3 distinct forms of entertainment. Cinema allows us to experience great stories visually, music allows us to change our mood, videogames allow us to get creative and do both at once on our own terms, allowing us to direct the onscreen action as our moods dictate.

Personally I get slightly miffed when film critics try to review videogames, they go on about direction, narrative, visuals, technical feats etc., whilst all those are important in films they pale into significance when it comes to gameplay, which I don't think film critics have yet to understand.

I am missing the point aren't I? Not sure what I'm trying to answer here...
Posted 17:19 on 19 January 2009
Triggerhappytel's Avatar

Triggerhappytel@ RecoN

In relation to this article, I quite liked the bit in Tomb Raider Anniversary when Lara kills Larson and wipes her hands afterward, as though trying to clear the blood which isn't physically there.

As more and more violent games find their way into minor's hands I think death needs to be given more consequence - be it from a law perspective or psychological. It would be nice to see more games trying to experiment with this, and also some more games where you don't have to kill anything! Looking forward to Flower; that looks lovely :)
Posted 17:16 on 19 January 2009
RecoN's Avatar


I can understand what you meen, i do agree with some of your statement. But i should imagine that some games are going to be limited to how long they want a game to last.

I completed a game on PC and it takes 5-6 shots for the average enemy to die. When completed i went back through with one hit kill cheat in, and i finnished it in half the time and it was slightly boring. So there is other ways to look how a game may or may not rely on violence.
Posted 16:48 on 19 January 2009

Game Stats

Release Date: 29/04/2008
Developer: Rockstar
Publisher: Rockstar
Genre: Action
No. Players: 1-16
Rating: BBFC 18
Site Rank: 886 62
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