Characterisation and Rockstar Games – Part 2
Grand Theft Auto IV was the first major Rockstar game on the next generation platforms. The swell of graphical detail this allowed was utilised mainly in a more resolute realisation of a city and its denizens. In previous iterations of the series, the featured cities appeared more akin to a cartoon elucidation of a location as opposed to a rational presentation which we now faced. In order to marry up the location and the tale, Rockstar needed to unfurl a character with a fine balance between reasonability and charisma. Much like young Jimmy Hopkins, this amalgamation was found in an absolute outsider; a man who in no way fits in with the rolling masses of the general civilian population.
Nico Belic is the antithesis of the romanticised immigrant arriving in America to discover his fortune. The memories of far flung battle still burn in his eyes and he longs for the revenge he feels he is owed. This posturing and bravado never overtakes his outwardly calm appearance and Bellic’s anger only bubbles up to the surface on rare occasions. In doing this, Rockstar have presented a character who, whilst not entirely likable, is both justified and virtuous in his actions. The approach he undertakes to finally reach his retribution is neither clinical nor defined; he makes mistakes and becomes too trusting of some, whilst remaining too reliant on others. His flawed characteristics and distrust of authority make him an alluring archetype for the modern-day anti-hero, but his tenderness towards his brother and friends reveal vulnerability less befitting of a one man killing-machine.
He is a cruel man in a vicious world but in many ways, Bellic is the answer to the city’s problems. Despite his outward actions, Bellic retains many of the core characteristics that have gone into the makeup of Rockstar’s entire protagonist roster. He has a strict moral code which is only ever bent and not broken. He harbours a detestation of corruption and refuses any offer of drugs or alcohol. He remains true to his goals and is only loyal to those whom he feels are deserving of his loyalty. In many ways Bellic is used more often than a man with his intellect should allow. Obviously this was a character trait which has been developed to accommodate the mission structure of the game, but the willingness to help others is an admirable quality, and one which has slowly come to define many of Rockstar’s protagonists.
GTA IV signalled a move away from characterisation based mainly on cinematic influences. Bellic was discordant with the tropes portrayed by the traditional action-hero and was instead an interesting individual who happened to lead a violent life. When the company embarked upon its next major project, Red Dead Redemption, comparisons to movies were inevitable and on this occasion, this association would play into Rockstar’s best interest. The Hollywood western is a genre which embraces many of the themes which exemplify a traditional Rockstar narrative. Alienation, hostility, loyalty, deliverance and a distrust of authority are all subjects which commonly litter the wealth of traditional cowboy films, and it is these characteristics which go into the make up of the games main character – John Marston.
What makes Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist unique, is that Marston knows he is to blame for his own entrapment and despite his accusations of corruption of the local authority, he understands his punishment is of his own making. We join Marston as he has come to terms with his own feelings of guilt and is more focussed upon the task in hand than cursing his own conduct. This lends a sense of purpose and pace to the game, as Marston’s redemption is a physical matter as opposed to an emotional one, this in turn means Marston is a more straightforward character, not too concerned with the musings of hindsight and retrospection. On the surface he appears similar to Bellic in many ways; they are both individuals on a quest for retribution and will act in a violent manner to obtain it. Equally, they are both intelligent, likable fellows who gamers will root for and wish to spend time with. The main difference between the two is made clear as the final act of their respective games are played out.
Unlike Bellic, Marston knows from the outset how his story will play out, and at the moment of his death we understand that this was the only possible conclusion to his journey. Red Dead Redemption shows progression not only in character development, but an improvement of the fundamental narrative structure in Rockstar’s games; a maturity which was employed again in the company’s next title – L.A. Noire.
The morality of a character such as Marston remains a moot point. In the Grand Theft Auto franchise we played as a criminal; a charismatic criminal yes, but an individual who made his money though the suffering of others is a criminal all the same. John Marston’s criminality was enforced upon him by the corruption and wickedness of others, so his morality is dictated upon him by his peers. Interestingly, Red Dead Redemption is the first game to include a morality meter, a way of measuring your level of unlawfulness as if a way to calibrate yourself against the use of legitimate force. Again Rockstar seems to question the use of reasonable violence to achieve ones goal, and a way to measure the level of good you are doing.
More than any other protagonist, Marston had more to lose from his misdemeanours, and this meant his grip on any given situation was tenuous at best. This was highlighted towards the end of the game, when Marston’s family was released, and the pacing of the game switched from A Fistful of Dollars to Little House on the Prairie. During this time we undertake a much more laborious and unperturbed mission structure consisting of hunting tasks and basic farmyard chores; Marston even takes the time out to build a meaningful relationship with his estranged son. During this phase of the narrative we begin to learn much more about Marston, further justifying the extreme measures he took to secure his homely ideal. When the final act arrives and Marston’s judgement is upon him the frailty of his existence is painfully clear and not only have we become emotionally attached to the scarred old cowboy, but also to his family.
Helplessness is a powerful emotion, and not one that can be eked out of a gamer easily considering the huge advantage granted to most player controlled protagonists. It is exactly this emotion which embodies the last stand of John Marston. More than any other character in Rockstar’s roster, Marston is easily the most sympathetic. He craves an existence that he probably doesn’t deserve and will forgo previous loyalties to obtain it. Ultimately he is a very likable character and, at least in the eyes of the player, he redeems himself very early on. Redemption does not come so easily for Rockstar’s most recent protagonist however. Cole Phelps, a newly appointed member of L.A’s Finest, is also seeking redemption in a city being choked to death by corruption, transgression and vice. Phelp’s redemption, however, is not as outwardly obvious as Marston’s, and its revelation slowly contextualises many of the title characters in L.A. Noire. This stands as another turning point in Rockstar’s narrative style and yet further indication that the production house values its protagonists very highly indeed.
Phelps is a complicated character. He is neither impetuous nor vehement, two character traits replicated in the pacing of the title; yet his actions seem overly committed for a man with little obvious motivation towards a goal. Over time we begin to realise his time spent with the Marines in Okinawa has left him questioning his own ideology. Although it is very subtle, L.A. Noire is a tale of self-salvation. Cole’s journey is one of quiet contemplation and his traumatising past is hidden behind his stoic determination for the completion of cases. He progresses through the game preferring not to broadcast his emotions and memories despite them having hugely detrimental affects on his personal life.
In terms of gameplay, L.A. Noire is a much more complex and gradual affair, fundamentally differing from the overwhelmingly violent titles that the company has become synonymous with during the past decade. To accommodate your new position of authority, much of the destructive freedom found in earlier titles has been reigned in and replaced with careful consideration and thoughtful deduction. Violence is still an integral part of Phelp’s story, but any acts of hostility are more a brief thunderclap than a drawn out torrent of bloodshed. What’s more, the justification for such outburst are usually warranted by Phelps being on the side of law and order, the traditional antagonist, but now playing host to your major loyalties. This shift in allegiance must surely show a level of development and maturity in the aspirations of Rockstar’s gaming direction. Cole exists in an environment which is confident enough to expunge many of the fundamental reasons Grand Theft Auto 3 became so popular – the scope to create as much carnage and devastation as humanly possible.
By way of definition, videogames give the gamer the final decision on how best to play a game. With many of Rockstar’s titles it is achievable to complete the narrative by remaining entirely within the boundaries of the law when traversing the game area. Be that as it may, violence and the freedom to be violent is very much a running theme of these games. Grand Theft Auto 3 was a release of tension for many gamers; because of it they had the option of progressing and existing in a game world how they saw fit. Rockstar recognized this craving for freedom and presented a game which was loosely held together by a silent protagonist and a simple narrative. Liberty City was more a blank canvass for destruction as opposed to an environment with which to set an engaging story.
As a game mechanic, the freedom of violence became much less of a focus after the exploits of Carl Johnson and the three major cities present in San Andreas. Perhaps Rockstar felt the need for greater justification for the inclusion of excessive violence in their videogames, so we were granted a narrative and a protagonist that could contextualise the level of violence showcased by the gameplay. This presented Rockstar with further problems as, up until Grand Theft Auto IV, the graphical engine had taken on a cartoon aesthetic, utterly unsuitable for the mature narratives the games writers were now preparing. As the graphics developed so did the characters and thematically the level of gratuitous death bringing also waned, but this was not a reaction to pressure groups or tabloid newspapers; it was in response to the marketability of well structured characterisation in a more mature games industry.
Ultimately, it is Rockstar who have managed to legitimise the level of violence in their major titles of the last decade. It has been a slow process and one which must have been greatly rewarding for the staff at the studio. Through careful attention to detail and well scripted narratives Rockstar have managed to, not only legitimise the use of excessive violence within its games, but also create likable personas that have lead the way in videogame characterisation. Many of the stories developed by Rockstar are that of redemption, but truly the greatest redemption the company has undertaken is that of its own struggle to legitimise the level of violence prevalent in so many of its titles. Over the course of time the characterisation of Rockstars protagonists, their struggles, their battles and their defeats have become an embodiment of the maturity of an ever flourishing company.
The next Rockstar release is always an eagerly anticipated event, and whilst reminiscing over many a past triumph and defeat it is easy to see why. Rockstar are seemingly impossible to stop on their quest for digital perfection and it is the characters they create who are continually pushing the boundaries of both design and writing. This appears to be a trend that will continue for some time yet, and I for one am very excited to see what happens next.
This article was first published on Friday 18th June 2011 on Thunderbolt.com