Comic Updated September 08, 2008

So, we now continue Ken Burns' 13-part miniseries, "Nitpicking on Grand Theft Auto 4." This episode concerns the storyline, and as such very likely contains spoilers. To be fair, almost anybody who's GOING to play the game has already played it by this point, unless they're holding out for next-gen price drops or waiting until they turn eighteen. In either case, there'll  probably be plenty of time to forget what I'm going to say, here.

Even for me! Just wait, six more months pass, I'll write this exact post again.

Anyway. Just to be up-front about this, I'm complaining about the storyline in a VIDEO GAME, here, which shows just how low I'm willing to stoop to squeeze out a couple hundred words' accompaniment to the comic update. Video games have never had particularly compelling stories -- No, not even "Final Fantasy," they just presented their lousy stories very palatably -- and even with the serious flaws in GTA 4's narrative structure, its storyline is easily better than 98 percent of what you're going to encounter on gamer shelves.

Heck, it's certainly more cohesive a storyline than "San Andreas," which saw protagonist Carl beginning his epic journey as a bit player in "Boyz N the Hood" then branched out to include portions of "Casino," "Deliverance," "Chinatown," and "The X-Files." And I didn't complain one iota, then. And that's sort of the point -- Grand Theft Auto 4 has a plot that comes so close to doing a game storyline RIGHT that it's worth taking it to task for its major failings. Because unlike most of its competitors, I think the next GTA sequel has absolute potential for hitting all of the right marks and becoming a gaming... MASTERPIECE.

Which doesn't mean people will stop playing it sprawled out on the sofa with a 60 oz. Mountain Dew and Doritos-cheez-colored fingertips.

But, the plotline. There were two main flaws in the storyline, and we'll start with the first: the game ends and nothing's changed. Niko is the same character who got off the boat at the beginning. The city is the same city. -- SPOILER -- Kate's death (I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that that's the option that would most be considered canonical, as Roman's death was never given the dramatic weight that it should have been; it struck me as a plot twist created exclusively for the purpose of having a 'bad' gameplay choice) should have been the focal point of Niko's entire twisted journey -- it should have been the moment when he looked in, not out, and decided once and for all if he was going to clean himself up and fix things, or willingly slide deep into the black abyss of damnation. As it happened, he got a gun and shot some people. End of story, literally.

And that brings up the question, "What was the point of the story?" Without a change -- either in Niko or his surroundings -- there simply isn't one. Niko doesn't become delusioned or cynical -- he starts out as both. Instead of an immigrant's journey through the grimy faux-York criminal underworld, the game's story becomes a passionless litany of "This is what I did on my summer vacation." Admittedly more interesting than what most of us did on OUR summer vacations, but it's not a proper story. For a game with this kind of ambition (to say nothing of profit margins), it's a glaring failure.

The other flaw in the narrative structure is almost as bad -- it doesn't really seem to have one. I mean, it HAS one, it has DOZENS, in fact, but they don't weave together. Niko's the kind of guy who makes a lot of big splashes, but when the waves he makes hit a secondary character, they just absorb it, they don't make ripples of their own. When Niko and Roman find their apartment burning, where's Roman's pals Little Jacob and Brucie? Nowhere, because that part of the game doesn't concern them, why should they write in parts for normal people doing things like lending a hand to a friend in need? Niko's over-arching quest for vengeance on the guy who betrayed his squad back in the old country -- it can be forgiven that this element disappears entirely for long stretches of storyline (Niko's a busy man, after all), but is it Niko's main motivation? Is his motivation getting revenge on Dmitri? Is his motivation just trying to survive in the city? The writers attempt to make his motivation all these things and more, and the story is weaker for it.

More than that, the game has absolutely no third act. Yes, eventually, things do come to a head and Niko gets smacked down a good one, but it occurs via characters absent for so long in the storyline that the player has generally forgotten about them (Not in the "These guys are dead, so they're no longer a threat" sense -- I mean, the enemies literally just vanished from the plot). We don't get to see any stormclouds growing on the horizon, we don't see all the threaded plotlines coming together, and for that reason, while the events that occur ARE shocking, they're not given anywhere near the weight that they should be.

Wow, I've gone on. I'll have MORE complaints later!

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