TBT – How & Why Rockstar Games Numb Violence
Rockstar Games are entirely motivated by violence. They feature stories involving antiheroes seeking to escape their crime-laden pasts, who are constantly sucked back into a world of murder and contraband usually based on economic situations.
The Grand Theft Auto series has a history of controversy; media will often call out its violence as negatively affecting youthful minds, desensitizing individuals to guns and drugs for the sheer purpose of delivering murder simulators. What’s ironic is how this is somewhat purposeful. Much thoughtful criticism against the narratives of Rockstar titles argues the dissonance between player character motivation and open world carnage; however, this hypocrisy is often, if not always entirely intended.
In the world of San Andreas, violence allows protagonist Carl Johnson social mobility, to move up in the ranks of crime which stretch from street gangs all the way to casino-racketing kingpins. Vice City serves a similar function, offering a simpler story of revenge which eventually culminates into a treatise on the age-old “eye for an eye” construct. Lance Vance betrays Tommy in his own quest for vengeance, producing a cycle of violent deception.
However, most fascinating is the depiction of Niko Bellic in GTA’s fourth installment. Set in Liberty City — the NYC of the series’ universe, complete with its own Statue of Liberty (Happiness) and locations divided by rivers and fear — the protagonist arrives in a state of war-addled mental exhaustion. Niko is intent on moving past his violent experiences, bringing him to the “land of opportunity” to live with his supposedly successful cousin Roman.
In a socioeconomic twist of devastating proportions, Roman is financially worse off than Niko, so much so he implores his cousin to relapse into the business of crime to aid in their reconstruction. Roman’s deception is selfish and inspired by lack of income. It is a testament to the power of financial status in a place that is meant to reward the hardworking, but instead opts to feed off of their ambitions for little reward.
When a player buys GTA IV to play, they expect violence. They want to shoot bad guys for the sake of compensation, be it in-game currency, narrative progression, or simply the thrill of wanton destruction. It has been argued that this directly interferes with Niko’s character, as his own motivations involve striving to find success through nonviolent means. The plot reels him back in, mostly for the sake of giving its audience what they want, and to directly link character to player through gameplay. Allowing players to go on violent murder sprees across the city directly contradicts Niko’s own aspirations.
Only, this frankly is not true. Part of what is so fascinating about Niko as a character is the very intention of hypocrisy, as it is utilized to delve into his suggested psychology. He is constantly haunted by his time during war, where “the young and stupid are tricked by the old and bitter into killing each other.” He remains a soldier at heart and within his mind, shackled by traumatic memories which were instilled at such a young age. “I was very young, and very angry.”
The intrinsic method of acclimating to a society is primarily established during the stages of childhood. American citizens learn basic social functions — involving politeness, fear, pop culture — throughout years of school, inside and outside their homes. Liberty City is separated by an established collective paranoia. Terrorism has become ingrained within everyday situations, so much so that bridges have been blockaded, television programs emphasize being a good patriot through untrustworthiness, and citizens scream “Terrorist!” at the first sign of any slight ‘wrongdoing.’
The lighter side of GTA IV is largely a sociological satire, a commentary on how everything from advertising, to media, to the central fabrics of community, all directly infringe upon an individual’s own emotional stability. The humor is often opaque and perhaps offensive, however signs of clever critique do arise through gameplay. Honking at pedestrians never gets old, as the NPCs turn back in horror and race away from Niko as though their lives are in significant danger.
Niko is a stranger in a strange land. Unlike the regular inhabitants of Liberty City, he has seen and experienced first hand the destructive powers of violence and war. His foreign face depicts an upbringing shadowed by death and poverty to each person he meets in America, in turn emphasizing the unfortunate truth behind their many assumptions. Yes he has killed people. Yes he is financially underwhelmed. Yes he will do what is necessary to survive. Because that is exactly who he is, how he was brought up: a soldier. The world is his battlefield.
Going on shooting sprees in GTA IV elicits far more mortal concern than any prior release in Rockstar’s catalogue. Through player invitation to revel in in-game violence, the game demonstrates Niko’s lack of social mobility no matter his financial situation. His liminal status is facilitated by a mindset plagued by violent memories of a habitat he once endured, where he was forced to fight to survive.
Two years after GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption heightened Rockstar’s intentionally contradictory concept to the nth degree. John Marston is a very similar character to Niko Bellic: haunted by a criminal past which he now strives to move onward from, so as to facilitate a wholesome, prosperous future.
Only in RDR, law enforcement also impede his aspirations through narrative, as opposed to strictly through gameplay mechanics. Here, the functions of society itself are characterized as corrupt lawmen, who take advantage over Marston’s past to aid in their own prosperous future.
Marston is a classic Old West protagonist, facing a classic Old West dilemma. He wants nothing but to raise a farm with his wife and son, and utilize his cowboy skills for personal good. But, much like Niko, Marston is reeled back into a life of crime, ironically by the same men in charge of eliminating it.
In-game violence provides a much different meaning to Red Dead Redemption than GTA IV. Mindlessly murdering waves of enemies thrown at the player suggests Marston’s own dehumanizing thought process when contemplating his actions. He sees not men, but outlaws in his way; obstacles separating him from his family even further. Strolling into saloons, Marston will politely refuse services from prostitutes, claiming, “Sorry ma’am, I’m married,” to which I, the player respond with shooting the bartender in the face.
Critics will be quick to shout “ludonarrative dissonance!” but I perceive scenarios like this as partly characteristic, if also a flawed interpretation. Marston is loyal to his family, and does what he feels he needs to do to protect them and their unity. But he is also a robbing, thieving outlaw at heart who is quick to resort to violence at a moment’s notice. Sure this specific scenario does not appropriately fit the narrative structure surrounding it, but this sense of liberal gameplay is not entirely misguided.
Death is simply a way of Life in Red Dead Redemption. For Marston, no individual matters more than his wife and child. Even the subtle romantic tension between him and Bonnie MacFarlane is held back, because he does not allow it to ignite. In is quest for redemption, he refuses to develop or change, which contradictorily holds him back from actual redemption. It’s partly why the ending is so powerful: in attempting to escape into the past and forget the immoral deeds he has done, the weight finally comes down upon him in an instant.
Ed Smith, in an analysis for Bullet Points, explores how Red Dead Redemption uses death to bolster Marston’s tragic fate. He references the mysterious ‘Strange Man,’ a side character who may or may not personify Death, in this passage:
“The Strange Man implies a relaxed attitude toward death. Like the vista before him, even in its most violent forms, death is only natural. In Red Dead Redemption, a game wherein one can explore vast terrain, across numerous hours, rain often turns to sun, day always becomes night. And death begets more death.”
In RDR, death is, more often than not, premature and intentional. But its constancy has become habitual, in a manner of speaking. Gameplay emphasizes this concept, since players who are handed a gun normally seek out virtual people to kill. Therefore, RDR does not necessarily build its gameplay design around this core principle, but builds a narrative around what players are usually so comfortable performing. It explores and exposes the contradictions between Marston (ie. the player) and his moral motivations.
When players finally confront Dutch van der Linde, it comes as a shock when he lets himself fall of the cliffside, because up until now it has been up to Marston to eliminate the enemies before him. It simultaneously questions the player’s violent actions throughout the game’s entirety. Are you really doing the right thing? Have you been the entire game?
Violence is a part of these characters. It clouds the minds of John Marston and Niko Bellic so as they are unable to move past it. It is a part of game players, even since the dawn of shooters. We are prone to a history of violence. Games perhaps interpret the cyclical nature of Life and death more than any game, respawn times illustrating the immortality of humankind through the repeated destruction of individuals.
Niko and Marston adamantly attempt to refuse their inherent reactions to the oppressive worlds breathing down their necks. But society disallows them any opportunity for redemption, causing a cycle of death to largely define who they are as people.