I have emptied hundreds of hours of my life into the Grand Theft Auto series over the past 10 years. I have embarrassingly few regrets about this. And although each of the games in this series offers something unique, they operate within a framework: I love this series, but I do not play it with the hopes of being surprised by it. Grand Theft Auto IV surprised me twice.
The first surprise occurred when I discovered I was not immediately smitten with GTA IV when it debuted in April of 2008. I played through a few hours of the expository missions and decided I’d rather spend my time with the game seeing how far I could throw the main character, Niko Bellic, through the windshield of whatever car he was currently driving. Something about the game’s pacing and structure didn’t grab me the way the series’ previous entries had, and I moved on to other games after tiring of the windshield hurl. (To be fair, this is still sickeningly entertaining, especially with a group of friends.)
We read his mother’s email and immediately understand that the life Niko and his mother hoped for will never be, and likely never was, possible.
I did not return to the game until this summer, when I decided to restart my playthrough and aimed to complete the main narrative. I had been playing (and, in contrast to my earlier attempt, certainly enjoying) for about a dozen hours when I decided to have Niko check his email in one of the game’s Internet cafes, which I had not done since the game introduced this mechanic ten hours prior. Buried underneath spam and mission recruitment emails was something wholly unexpected: an email from Niko’s mother. She was still living in Niko’s home country and had not heard from him since he landed in America. In less-than-perfect English, she relayed her concerns about her son’s well-being and her hope that the Land of Opportunity was being kind to him. She’d heard the stories of its riches and safety and crime-free living prospects and wanted to hear about Niko’s new life. I felt my stomach lurch and realized the level of emotional engagement I had with the fiction of this game. This was my second surprise.
Niko’s new life in Liberty City has not been particularly similar to the one outlined by his mother in this email. But we, the players, do not need to be told this. We have been active participants in ruining Niko’s American Dream for many hours now. We read his mother’s email and immediately understand that the life he and his mother hoped for will never be, and likely never was, possible. He is now a career criminal, and to the mob bosses of Liberty City, he is a valuable commodity.
There are no montages or timeline jumps in the narrative. As the players, we must be an active presence in every moment of Niko’s experience in Liberty City, guiding him as he witnesses and contributes to the demolition of the lifestyle he envisioned for himself in America. We control Niko as he earns money through the only avenues he believes are open to him, and the only things he feels capable of doing – committing all kinds of crimes, including a whole lot of murders. We are guilty by more than just association, and in fact, we’ve really had a lot of fun doing it.
Open world games have spoiled us by (typically) allowing us to play side missions and use extra content whenever we want. Most noncritical mission-givers will wait patiently for hours until we finally approach them, and other extra content – like stunt jumps or hidden packages in the GTA series – has even less urgency. It simply waits for us to find it. By humanizing and personalizing this email exchange, the game completely altered my perception of the world Niko inhabited. It felt far more alive than before, and I felt guilty for not checking my email more consistently. For how long had Niko’s mother been waiting for a response? The fact that I kept Niko preoccupied with exactly the type of lifestyle his mother wanted him to escape made it even worse. This little email exchange raised the emotional stakes dramatically, and I felt irresponsible. Not because I made Niko murder dozens of people, but because I prevented him from checking in with mom.
My emotional response to this email was a cocktail – it had elements of guilt, regret, longing, shame, sympathy, deceit. The ability to elicit this type of specific, complex emotion is not unique to gaming as a medium, of course. But the manner in which Grand Theft Auto IV elicited this emotion is only available in gaming. And the fact that I realized this through such a seemingly minor, tangential aspect of this game’s design was astonishing to me. I had not expected to connect with GTA IV in this way, which made it that much more powerful of an experience. I now had a very real reason to care about this character’s welfare, and it completely shifted the way I perceived the narrative and approached the gameplay.
These types of interactions and emotional experiences, I think, are among gaming’s strongest. I do not mean to insult or discredit the shock and awe created by the enormous set pieces and action sequences of the big-budget games of this generation. I have played – and thoroughly enjoyed – many of these games, and will continue to play and value the experiences they offer. But the quiet moments in these games often resonate most strongly with me, because they take advantage of the specific types of connections games require from their players. Guiding a character for 10, 20, or 30 or more hours of his life creates a distinctly visceral bond. The best game experiences recognize this, opening the way for a more nuanced appreciation of the relationship that has been formed between player and character.
I do not know if Niko’s mother will ever respond to the grateful reply I had him send her. But I will keep checking.
Adam Boffa is also savvy on social media @ambinate.