Niko Bellic, a man tortured by his conscience during cutscenes, but a homicidal maniac in the sandbox.
It always struck me as strange, when watching the between-mission cinematics in Grand Theft Auto IV, that Niko was clearly grappling so hard with his conscience.
Clearly he was a man on the run from his own past actions, and like Lady Macbeth he seemed doomed to be always trying to scrub the blood from his hands. Several times he, and therefore me as the player controlling him, was given the choice to kill or not kill someone, and whatever he chose would alter his character's personal development.
Strange then that this same Niko could so casually shoot down dozens of enemy gunmen in every mission. Where was the angst and self-doubt as yet another nameless goon took a bullet to the face? Even worse, where was this tortured conscience when Niko was out in the sandbox, blowing up police cars and running over pedestrians?
I was reminded of this disconnect while playing Far Cry 3. The game goes to great lengths to tell us that Jason Brody is just like us - a regular guy, not a killer - and when he is forced to resort to murder to save his friends, it affects him deeply. He is sickened at first, but over time it hardens him, until he is disturbed by how easily the killing comes.
While Jason is on this dark personal journey, at least within the confines of conversations with other characters, out in the free-roaming world of the Rook Islands, Jason is cheerfully gunning down pirates by the dozen. Even as I was enjoying the stealth, the gunplay, and the explosions, the part of me that was enjoying Jason's story was disappointed that the free-range mayhem of the Far Cry 3 sandbox was so at odds with the disturbing story of Jason's descent into darkness.
I wonder if there is any way to solve this issue. Sandbox games, by definition, offer freedom, and that freedom so often expresses itself in destruction and death. Is this kind of freedom anathema to strong storytelling and character development? Is there some way for skilled designers and storytellers to marry sandbox and story?
Perhaps genuinely compelling video game storytelling is best achieved through more linear games. Despite its many technical flaws, Spec Ops: The Line told an amazing story, and I am sure that it could not have succeeded if the game's levels had not been a series of wide corridors, with every game event happening in a scripted sequence.
Over to you, readers. Does it ever bother you when your character's personal story fails to match with his in-game actions? Can you think of any ways these disparate parts of a game can find a compromise? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez