Looking just at GTA4’s story, our playtesters also bemoaned the lack of meaningful consequences. Not only can Niko never die, in practical terms he never runs low on cash or any other resource. From a moral perspective, the most interesting – and therefore most disappointing – resource is Niko’s relationships. Among the player’s major tasks in this game is to nurture Niko’s relationship vis-à-vis his business associates, girlfriend(s), and above all, family. Though hardly innovative (see: dating games), the presence of a relationship mechanic in GTA, given its genre, is profound. The problem, according to our reviewers, is that the developers failed to realize the promise. You can have Niko improve his friendships by hanging out more with his buddies, and good relationships lead to in-game benefits (in other words, they matter), but except for a few notable moments, Niko’s commitments aren’t pitted against each other.
Perhaps the greatest enemy of meaningful choice is an overabundance of resources. If two options lead to the exact same results, there’s not much to distinguish the two. (Kant might disagree, but games and gamers have a strong utilitarian bias). Similarly, if resources are essentially infinite, choices that lead to varying amounts of resource awards are also essentially indistinguishable. Consider by contrast the Splinter Cell hostage scenario discussed in our last session: the player is forced to harm his reputation with one of his two employers no matter what he decides to do (though some choices are more Pareto-optimal than others).
To be fair, GTA4 does present several similar moments, but there don’t appear to be serious consequences of choosing between killing someone or letting him go. (Caveat: none of us has reached the ending yet, of which there are supposed to be two). Perhaps this means the player is free to make her own interpretation. Or, in the case of our reviewers, it ends up feeling empty.
Overabundance has some interesting effects on gameplay. Consider the infamous GTA example of paying a prostitute for sex, and then killing her to get your money back. In GTA4, visiting such prostitutes restores Niko’s health when he’s injured, but it’s hardly the most efficient way to do so – buying a hot dog is both cheaper (in the game) and far more efficient (for the player). Thus while it’s still possible to pay a hooker for sex and then murder her to get your money back, the game mechanics give you no good reason to do so. In which case, why leave the mechanism in? It’s as if the developers just wanted to provoke and (as Peter surmises) invoke nostalgia. Then again, Kant would remind us that truly moral choice require immoral options.
As for relationships as a resource, Eric found that late in the game he had accumulated so many friends that he spent most of his playing time fending off phone calls and running stupid errands. This is realistic, to be sure (curse you, Facebook!), but a game that relies on the limited resource of a player’s own patience rather than something internal to the system is always at risk of inducing boredom. This seemed to be the experience of our playtesters, who bemoaned the lack of more meaningfully bounded gameplay. But GTA’s market success implies that the majority of mainstream gamers perhaps prize that wide berth of freedom, including the freedom to bore oneself.