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That's not my Niko: the disconnect between sandbox and story

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Niko Bellic, a man tortured by his conscience during cutscenes, but a homicidal maniac in the sandbox.

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

twitter DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

26 comments so far

  • That's a major reason of my dislike for GTAIV. It also happened to an extent in Red Dead Redemption if you went on a murderous rampage killing civillians and non targets, but the game made you go out of your way in order to do that. Otherwise Red Dead Redemption was mostly fine (though I did find Marston stupid a few times. He doesn't really think much about long term consequences even if its obvious what they are, as long as that party helps him out).

    The sandbox games I enjoy most tend to be ones where the game justifies what you end up doing. The Saints Row series essentially puts you in the role of a somewhat benevolent supervillian in a world without superheroes (though SR2 is where the Boss is the most sociopathic). I really liked Sleeping Dogs showing Wei's descent into the Triads, how at first he was struggling with his conscience and his role as a police officer but as time went on, he pulled off acts for the Triads without batting an eyelash (that said, he still had nightmares). Contrasting this is friend, Jackie, who has the exact opposite reaction.

    inFamous is a mixed bag when it comes to this. Storywise Cole is mostly being good/neutral except for a few key decisions depending on what you choose. Its a step in the right direction, but its not there yet.

    I'm far more interested in more linear games as their stories tend to be far more developed, or at least you don't feel a disconnect between the character's actions and the story. This is at odds with many critics I see who criticise games for being linear every single chance they get, putting extra emphasis on this if it lacks multiplayer.

    Commenter
    Raito
    Date and time
    December 06, 2012, 8:22AM
    • I'm a dyed in the wool gameplay fanatic. I grew up playing games with one or two paragraphs of story in a manual that was never referenced in game, where endings were splash screens or similar one liner finishes. I loved gaming then and never saw a need to have complex stories to drive the action along. Not that I have anything against the efforts to do so, but having an obsession with story to the expense of gameplay is bad news.

      I think someone saying "Games can't tell good stories" is like someone saying "Music can't tell good stories". There are some fantastic examples of albums that have a story to tell, and artists have found the inspiration for an album by wanting to tell a story expressed through music. But they'd be absolutely terrible if it wasn't for the quality of the music. A game will never be considered great at telling a story if it sucks as a game.

      Commenter
      Lucid Fugue
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 8:59AM
      • My thoughts exactly to a tee.
        Get out of my head!

        Commenter
        ZeroZeroOne
        Location
        Syd
        Date and time
        December 06, 2012, 9:24AM
      • Not necessarily. A game can tell a great story and still be a terrible game. Many point-and-click adventure games, and I'm sure many Japanese-style "visual novels", tell a compelling story but have terrible game mechanics.

        However, I suspect I speak for many people here in saying that I avoid games like that. If I want a great story and don't care about the quality of the interactive experience, there are a lot of good books and movies around.

        Commenter
        Ronny
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        December 06, 2012, 10:54AM
      • "However, I suspect I speak for many people here in saying that I avoid games like that."

        But visual novels have so much to offer! I like the idea of controlling a story somewhat; even if it's only a few choices here and there, I feel like I'm part of the experience the charater(s) is/are going through.
        I'm not always in the mood for them, but they're great "games" (although I use the term loosely), which offer more than a book does*.... at least from my perspective.
        *Although the depth of the work varies greatly, as do books', so YMMV

        Commenter
        Schmole
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        December 06, 2012, 12:02PM
      • I don't think that's always the case. Look at Heavy Rain for example. People got really wrapped up in that game because of its story and characters, despite the gameplay being absolutely terrible. The gameplay consists of a bunch of quick time events, and moving your character around with unintuitive tank-like controls. If you took Heavy Rain's story out, you'd get a simple, unrefined shallow experience that would be beaten by something as simple as Angry Birds.

        Commenter
        SprooseMoose
        Date and time
        December 06, 2012, 12:24PM
      • @SprooseMoose

        It's at this point that I confess I actually haven't finished a single playthrough of Heavy Rain. I have a save near the ending, and I know of the endings. I had played titles like Facade (http://www.interactivestory.net/) and saw the potential for interactive storytelling. I'd been swept up in the opening scenes of Fahrenheit (playing as a suspect and then as the police investigating the crimescene! Amazing!) and I desperately wanted to see how a full featured, high definition, open ended story would play out. I was so sure it wouldn't just be a series of QTEs with a few pivotal branches.

        But no, that's almost exactly what it was. The fact the story is better written than Dragon's Lair or Braindead 13 doesn't say anything about gaming as a medium. Or, alternately, Heavy Rain doesn't achieve anything that Mass Effect didn't (and arguably ME's ability to incorporate changes across 3 games has seen it achieve more), but Mass Effect was far and away a more interactive experience.

        But I agree it is going too far for me to say that a game will never be considered great if it sucks as a game. That's just my personal opinion. I think interactive storytelling could be fantastic, but the avenues that have been explored to date (polarised choices, branching scripts, etc.) aren't going to get us there.

        Commenter
        Lucid Fugue
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        December 06, 2012, 1:01PM
    • This, in my opinion, is why Vice City is the best GTA. Never under any illusions as to why Tommy was doing what he was doing, which despite being more implausible at base level, once matters escalated, Tommy made a hell of a lot more sense. Irrespective of what you did in the sandbox, throughout the story Niko was borderline schizophrenic with how he dealt with situations. I assume Rockstar were going for some kind of PTSD malaise due to his military time in Eastern Europe. It wasn't convincing.

      Also, @Raito, I always felt John Marston was only killing people he had to. Self defense as it were, in a bloody (meridian?) rough place. As for his stupidity, standard Western tropes are not surprising in cowboy game. It's also in my view that he's trying to be earnest to a fault - it's not called Red Dead Maintain The Status Quo - which does get him into trouble. All that said, I didn't sandbox much in RDR.

      I really must check out Sleeping Dogs. Christmas Steam sales will no doubt be kind.

      Commenter
      Blurry
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 9:04AM
      • That's what I was referring to, if you sandboxed in Red Dead Redemption and killed everyone, its at odds with his story arc. All the people he does kill during the missions are all justified to some extent.

        Commenter
        Raito
        Date and time
        December 06, 2012, 9:59AM
    • One way you could fix it in these examples is with a kill counter (which most games have as "stats" already) which would decide the story line. For example, your kill counter is over 50 people then the cut scene/story should reflect as such and your character would not be affected the by death and mayhem because they are a murderous b*stard whereas if your kill counter was under 10 people, your character may struggle morally. It would require numerous cut scenes to be recorded/created which in turn would require so much more data and games would need to be on 3 discs rather than your standard 1 disc so it wouldn't be feasible on an economic sense. Time would be another issue as the game would take so much longer to make.

      Commenter
      Fyre
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      December 06, 2012, 9:25AM

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