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Characterisation and Rockstar Games – Part 1

Game designGrand Theft AutoRockstar

How we interact with games is a funny old thing. Developers have attempted to draw us into their imaginary worlds since the early days of space invading pixels and barrel throwing primates. Recently it has become more important than ever for gamers to be gently folded into the digital framework of a videogame due to ever increasingly complex narratives. For this level of immersion we will need a protagonist – but not just any protagonist; we need a hero, a pin-up hero and a likable one at that. When we view the world though his eyes, we must feel at one with our leading man – symbiant and involved.

Being embraced into the complexities of a videogame was far easier during the carefree decades gone by. For the act of raiding tombs and making extinct the rarest of rare breeds a salacious bosom and a pair of white-hot semi-automatics was all that was required. Did we care about said temptress? No, she was objectified and so we treat her as an object and her demise was ultimately ignored. The question of morality was never a factor in the Tomb Raider franchise and morality is an intrinsic part of our existence as human beings. To really fall for a character we must call their morality into question, and, as an involved observer, exist in the consequence of their actions.

As a race of people we bond over our interactions with one another. This bond is strengthened by overcoming uncertainty and tribulation as a team.

No games company understands this bond better than Rockstar Games; who, over the past decade have explored the relationship between gamer and protagonist further than any other developer. A retrospective of the past ten years of the major Rockstar releases not only reveals the development and growth of a company, but also the medium in which it operates. The protagonists in Rockstar’s games have set a benchmark in both design and writing. They are intriguing and complex individuals who are always faced with a great duality in their motivations and interactions. In the early days of Rockstar’s rise to fame there was much less impetus placed on the protagonist. Grand Theft Auto 3 entrusted us in the hands of a silent protagonist and it was not without good reason. When faced with a character who lacks the most fundamental form of expression we can’t help but envisage and assume his basic strands of dialogue. Whether this draws us into the characters plight is debatable, some of the best loved characters in videogame history were mute; the real trick is making the silence believable or at the very least plausible.

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Grand Theft Auto 3 was a very special game. It offered previously unseen levels of freedom for gamers, especially in a 3rd person context. Its main draw lay not in the staunch mission structure, but in the level of creative freedom presented to the player. Whilst the game could be negotiated with the rules of society adhered to, it was more common to find free-play resulting in police helicopters, rocket propelled grenades and a lengthy bail agreement. Imaginative destruction and car chases were the order of the day for many who played that game and why not? Digital destruction is better than no destruction. Grand Theft Auto 3 felt like a removal of boundaries and a relaxation of videogame tropes which had begun to stifle the genre. When I played it for the first time I was astounded at the level of autonomy on offer.

“So, I can steal any car I want?” I’d say.

“Yes Rich, any car you want.” My friend would say.

“Cool!” I’d say.

Cool indeed. When the destruction of an entire police force became wearisome and the mission based linearity began to appeal, the motivations behind the inclusion of a silent protagonist became abundantly clear. You existed not as an individual human being on a discordant mission of self discovery; but a vessel – a shell if you will, capable of enormous human suffering, yet incapable of explanation or definition. In many ways I feel this became a response to criticism of the amounts of violence present in GTA 3; a sort of muted shrug of the shoulders, both apathetic and incongruous. A valid response from a company unable to justify the levels of violence which had become an inherent feature of the franchise, only now realised in much more vivid detail.

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The motivations of GTA 3’s protagonist (later referred to as Claude in GTA: San Andreas) are always taken at face value. His silence removes any question of argument or confrontations with other characters, ultimately suppressing any form of development which has become so significant to future releases from the studio. When Rockstar did find its voice in the follow up to GTA 3 with 2002’s GTA: Vice City and 2004’s GTA: San Andreas, it was in many ways as unapologetic as the inclusion of a silent protagonist. Many of the situations and events which took place in these games were representations of film and television programs. Whilst not entirely dependant on source material, the development experienced by both Tommy Vercetti and Carl Johnson felt very pre-prepared and superfluous to the dramatics represented by the cinema-inspired gameplay.

In many ways, I feel the draw of both Vice City and San Andreas was a chance to relive many of those classic scenes in American film history. Claude was a vessel for wanton destruction; cold and emotionless, but he existed in a world grounded in some sort of reality. Vercetti and Johnson subsist in a distorted and incendiary environment, almost oblivious to their predicaments and the insanity which perpetuates their worlds. Progression has been formed with the assumption that the notion of violence and the repetition of questionable acts of evil are simply expected of these characters due to their stereotypical nature. Rockstar received much criticism for their blasé attitude towards gang culture in south-central L.A. during the 90s. Whether they were right or wrong to represent the bloody turf wars of Los Angeles as an action-packed joyride remains to be seen, but what is certain is that they chose pure escapism as a way to curtail any lasting condemnation.

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The main difference between Vercetti and Johnson is the context the characters both find themselves a part of. Vercetti is the ideal of a superlative 80s caricature. Part Scarface, part Miami Vice all shaken together with chainsaws, Haitians and mountains of cocaine. His existence was fanciful and utterly ridiculous; a playboy surfing a tsunami of 80s excess. Johnson on the other hand was grounded in a reality that, for some, was too painful to laugh off. What seems odd is that of the two games it is the later that provides more off the cuff madness. Whilst it is true that a small percentage of the game fixates itself with the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest, San Andreas never attempts to question the dubious motives present in its representation of a terrible period in American history.

I think San Andreas was a turning point for Rockstar Games. In most major titles produced by the company after San Andreas a much greater emphasis was placed upon mature character motivation and development. Whilst both Vercetti and Johnson had both these qualities, they weren’t intrinsic to the development of their respective titles. The characters existed solely to fit in with the game’s setting. Tonally these characters were perfect for their chosen environs; Rockstar, on the other hand, seemingly had bigger fish to fry. In the same year San Andreas was released Rockstar had produced its least violent, yet most controversial title yet. Bully, or Canis Canem Edit as it later became known, put you in the shoes of what appeared to be a traditional boarding school bully. GTA: Grange Hill then?

Mothering groups went ballistic and one Jack Thompson swooped in to cast fire and vitriol to the bringers of so much social discordance. Unfortunately for the aforementioned enraged, Rockstar was becoming a savvier and much more creative studio. In the role of Jimmy Hopkins players found themselves at the reigns of a character that was fair, just, moral and only slightly mischievous. In Hopkins Rockstar had found an answer to bullying as opposed to the cause and, quite ironically, it was the media pressure who had perpetrated the cardinal sin of judging a book by its cover.

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Hopkins looked like a brute. His shaved head, small eyes, pug nose and stocky frame was the stuff of stereotypical nightmares. But underneath the thuggish appearance was a character that despised the abuse of power and had a strict moral compass endlessly directing him towards aiding the needy and the weak. Hopkins showed that Rockstar had become tired of linear characters with little to no personality beyond snappy one liners during car chases. Hopkins had a goal and a reason to be angry and frustrated; it was an important change round for the developers as it was the gamer who felt a sense of righteousness in their actions.

The level of inherent wrong doing for the sake of it began to wane after the release of Bully. I feel Rockstar were beginning to understand how important it is to contextualise the violence portrayed on screen. It was no longer enough to expect gamers to want to kill and destroy just for the love of wanton obliteration, now the team were faced with the task of making it justified. This seemed an easy enterprise when the narrative is set in a school as the violence is more playful than deadly. Transferring this level of justified brutality into the mean streets of Liberty City once again was to be a real challenge; and one that I will explore in part two of this article.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011. Get in touch on Twitter @RichJimMurph.

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