Red Dead Resistance: Rockstar's Narrative Disconnect

There’s a problem at the heart of the current generation of Rockstar open world games that is perhaps best summarised in a post on the Gausswerks: Design Reboot blog,

The actions of the player character in GTA4 can best be described as the actions of two separate characters, one who reflects the player’s decisions during normal gameplay (run over a sidewalk full of people, kill a bunch of cops), and one that is unilaterally imposed through scripted sequences. (Look at Niko as he shows that he loves Kate. Look at Niko as he feels bad about crime.) The game privileges the “choices” of the second over the first, even when they’re in direct contradiction.

Essentially the Niko of the game’s narrative – an ex-soldier still haunted by his actions in the war and unhappy that he has to continue to kill and steal for America’s criminal underbelly in order to carve out a peaceful existence for himself and his cousin – doesn’t correspond to the willfully destructive Niko of my time between cutscenes.

Aww, he's a sweety.

It’s unfair to suggest Rockstar are solely responsible for this as a factor in any cutscene-driven narrative game is that, once that cutscene ends, the game has to give control of their protagonist back to the player – an agent of chaos. My Gordon Freeman smacked friendly NPCs in the face with a crowbar in Half-Life 2 just to see their reaction and my Solid Snake (and there’s a phrase you can rarely use innocently in a sentence) tortured guards in Metal Gear Solid 2 because he enjoyed their hobbling animation. Neither of them reconcile with what we’re told about the characters through their respective narratives.

Perhaps, then, the reason the Rockstar examples are so conspicuous is because of how extremely it pushes in both directions. Their recent games have tried to push the depth of the story on offer, rising above parodying movie genres to become their own critique of American culture. Where Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti was an even twattier version of Scarface; GTA4’s Niko Bellic is written to elicit sympathy and understanding from the player in order to tell their (admittedly over-the-top) tale of an immigrant resorting to a life of crime. Conversely this is a Grand Theft Auto game and, while the ridiculously cartoonish nature of the violence has been dialled down a notch, it still enables a cacophony of violence and mayhem. Between cutscenes my player-controlled Niko will plough his car through legions of pedestrians, murder hot-dog vendors that refused to serve him because he’d jostled them and nudged passers-by into the sea because they’re pathetic little ragdoll animations made it funny. He also shows an alarming disregard for his own safety. In fact he acts almost as if he were a videogame character in a digitised playground of guns, cars and explosives.

Don't worry, I'm sure he was really conflicted before he set this petrol station on fire.

Here’s the thing. This protagonist gap never bothered me in GTA4. It was clear where the Niko of story-led narrative ended and the Niko of player-led super fun times began. The tonal shift may have been extremely blatant, but it’s exactly that blatancy that makes it so easy for the player to mentally shift between the two positions. When faced with a late game decision I chose to spare the life of the man Niko had been searching for because it felt like what the story-Niko would have done. The player-Niko would have probably thrown a grenade in between the two of them and then jumped at the point of explosion just to see how far across the road he’d fly.

In Red Dead Redemption, however, a similar disconnect does bother me. It bothers me a lot.

It wouldn’t if I was playing Red Dead Redemption in the same way played GTA. If I happily went about killing, stealing and lassoing characters, suffering the trivial consequences of my anti-social actions, the game would have unfolded with the same disconnect described above. The character: a former outlaw, troubled by his past and with his own personal morality code, blackmailed into bringing his former brothers-in-arms to justice. The player: attempting to create fun through an ever-changing series of events pushing the limit of what the game will allow like a child with ADHD. Bizarre? Sure. A big deal? Not really.

Okay, so I did do this a lot. But otherwise I've been good.

My problem is that I’m not playing the game like that. I’m actually playing the character like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Ostensibly someone who is out for himself yet has a tendency to get embroiled in other people’s problems and usually resolves them in a way that satisfies his own code of honour. For a long while my role-play matched perfectly with the intentions and attitude of the character I was controlling. It was the first time in a Rockstar open-world game since Bully that I felt my actions actually matched with the character shown in the cutscenes.

Then I arrived in Mexico. As part of John Marston, the player character’s, search for his former comrades he starts to work for both the army and the peasant uprising that opposes them. For me it mirrored the set up to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood rides into a town ruled by two warring factions, the Rojos, a local gang, and the Baxters, the Sheriff’s family. Eastwood’s stated plan is “The Rojos on one side of the town, the Baxters on the other, and me right in the middle.” However, it doesn’t take long before he’s clearly siding against the Rojos because of a young mother they kidnapped over a gambling debt they claimed her husband owed them. In Redemption, Marston stays in the middle of the two warring factions of the region throughout the majority of that section of the game.

This is despite the fact that the army is shown to be seemingly taking entire villages of women for the soldiers’ pleasure. Sure, this being a Rockstar game, the rebel leader is shown to be a vain, womanizing, delusional figure but, and this is the key difference, he’s not a fucking rapist. The set up is so ridiculous that in one mission for the army I’m using a gatling gun to cut down hundreds of rebels assaulting a train full of army supplies and then, a couple of missions later, I’m murdering soldiers guarding a train full of army supplies. During one mission, in which I was asked to torch the houses of rebels I thought “no, I don’t want to do this.” It was the opposite of the GTA problem, completely at odds with my envisioned character and, as far as I could tell, the depiction of John Marston throughout the rest of the game. Unfortunately it’s a linear story path. Unless I completed the mission I couldn’t continue the story. I kept waiting for the moment I got to choose to betray one side or another but it never came, the story plays out the same way, without any choice, no matter how you choose to play it.

The Rebel Leader: Twat, not rapist.

Redemption features a rudimentary morality system entitled Honour (or, I suppose, Honor.) The Mexican campaign betrays people on either end of the scale. Those playing the thieving, murderous bastards (the GTA4 method) can’t choose to ultimately side with the army in reward for riches. Those that have chosen to help people and stay on the right side of the law have to do an uncomfortable amount of missions doing dirty work for the army at the expense of the impoverished peasants. The only genuine surprise from these missions is that one side chooses not to turn on you.

I probably helped this soldier two missions ago. Now I will shoot him in the face.

The explanation given for the set-up is that Marston’s family is at risk unless he brings the outlaws he used to run with to justice. Except the game never earns the right to have Marston go to such extremes. The player never sees Marston with his family at the beginning of the game (I’ve not completed the story yet so don’t know if he does later on) so it’s unreasonable to expect the player to care about them throughout when the only connection we have to them is Marston’s exposition to other characters. I’m not saying I need the protagonist to be a Freeman-like blank slate for player insertion, I’m fine with my characters having their own distinct view of events, but using backstory to motivate the character to do things at odds with his own code of honour, as well as the code of honour implemented through the game’s own systems, cheapens the experience for the player.

I’m interested in hearing your take on this, assuming you have one. Many within the games industry seem to now favour the approach of emergent narrative of games such as Just Cause 2 and Far Cry 2 over more traditional stories told through cutscenes. I’m all for this, especially in respect to the ridiculous nature of Just Cause 2, but I don’t think it should completely negate traditional narrative methods especially as Red Dead Redemption is, all things considered, a brilliant game. After all, I wouldn’t have had such a negative reaction to that set of missions if it weren’t.


1 Response to “Red Dead Resistance: Rockstar's Narrative Disconnect”

  1. 28/02/2011 at 13:53

    The disconnects you describe here are why I usually give up on the storyline of games like GTA and RDR fairly early, and concentrate instead on multi-player or cheat-enabled exploration of the fantastically rendered game worlds.

    The graphics and mechanics of games today are truly incredible, but the dialogue, characterization, and plot-lines can be obnoxious and clumsy. They are also often poorly paced, and rely on hard-to-swallow plot devices: when a character simply sits passively in place until the player shows up, the skin of the story is shredded and the game mechanics peek through.

    I believe these games would benefit a lot if Rockstar and other developers would simply hire better fiction writers and apply resources toward more dynamic narrative interaction models instead of the current forced-linear style of play.

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