Iroquois Pliskin has an excellent blog post from a while back about the way Grand Theft Auto IV is torn in its characterisation. It’s a great post, and well worth a read. And it also made me think:

In GTAIV, Niko Bellic has the option to socialise with the friends and acquaintances he meets throughout the game. These have little bearing on the plot, but are entertaining minigames, with some fun dialogue trees: darts, bowling, pool, drinking, and dating girls. Being friendly to certain characters may also have benefits in the long run – neat little tools and tricks you can summon with a call from the in-game mobile.

These games are totally optional, of course; you can happily play the game without seeing too many of them. But Iroquois’ piece made me realise that these “friendship games” aren’t just there for entertainment value, or for the neat bonuses you can get later in the game.

They’re there for characterisation – and a very specific kind of characterisation.

Niko is violent, Niko does bad things. You have a choice: you can temper that, by saying “but my Niko is also a good man: he’s nice to the girls he dates, he hangs out with his friends, he’s a good cousin to Roman“. Or you can turn you back on your friends, and a healthy, sensible social life, and focus entirely on the life of crime.

To play the game as it’s meant to be played, you can’t avoid the life of crime. But the player has a choice as to how much they temper the life of crime, and their malevolant sandbox antics, with the social-simulation aspects. If Niko becomes, essentially, psychotic – only focused on completing mission objectives, and not living the life – then who’s to blame but the player? To quote Iroquois:

There are some advantages for cultivating these relationships, but in general you get the idea that they are put in the game in order to give you a better perspective on your character. The portait of Niko that emerges is very well-drawn, and he emerges as a violent but ultimately sympathetic figure, a decent man who has been drawn into a life of expert violence against his own best efforts.

I think Niko is much more likely to emerge as “ultimately sympathetic” if the player makes the effort to round out his character. The cut-scenes and plot points the player is railroaded into go someway to providing that characterisation, but they provide that characterisation in dialogue and narrative. When the player helps create that characterisation through behaviour and gameplay, then the effect on the player’s understanding of Niko is much more deeply embedded.

Developing characterisation not through narrative but patterns of gameplay elements. I like that.

(Also: I can heartily recommend Iroquois’ blog, Versus Clu Clu Land)