The Time I Stayed Sane in GTA IV - Even in the biggest playgrounds, sometimes it's more fun to just do as you're told
The great thing about Fallout, I expertly and humorously explained last week, is that it gives you a blank slate to play with. Your character is an empty vessel, with no personality or thoughts of its own. Kind of like Peaches Geldof except, you know, tolerable.
That gives you the space to make him what you want - in my case, I turned my guy into a well-groomed psychotic lawman with a penchant for tidiness.
But some games let their lead characters have a voice and a personality, and that can be fun to play with, too.
Take Niko Bellic, the Serbian ex-solider turned gangster from Grand Theft Auto IV. He's a career crook with a guilty conscience, frequently posturing over his past and present while trying to make enough cash to go straight.
He's not in it for the violence, is what I'm saying - where the other creeps and crims you meet in GTA seem to get off on being bastards, Niko genuinely wants out, swapping ideas with Roman about getting married and buying a restaurant.
That's who I was playing, a heavy-hearted reluctant criminal who wouldn't hurt a fly if he could help it. It didn't really fit Grand Theft Auto.
This is a game famous for letting you burn police stations down and beat old fellas to death with a dildo (I'm not joking) - how would Niko's (and by proxy, my) determination to stay out of trouble blend will GTA's uproarious gameplay?
Normally when I needed to get somewhere in GTA I'd just steal the nearest car and be there in minutes, but Niko Bellic, as I saw him, wouldn't do that. He didn't enjoy a life of crime, so the only car I could use was the one Roman gave me, a sluggish black cab kind of thing that clung to the road like chip oil on Bacofoil.
It made the game much trickier; a lot of missions in Grand Theft Auto IV require you to give up your car. Driving to pick up a truckload of stolen guns, say, means that as soon as you swap into the truck and drive off, the car that's left behind will disappear when the game loads in the next section.
That was awkward, but also made for some cool moments. Early in the game for example, before I'd been given the "hail taxi" tutorial, my girlfriend called and asked me on a date. Knowing that going there would make my car disappear, and not yet being able to get a cab meant I had to walk - I could have turned her down, but Niko/I seemed kind of lonely.
So I walked, for 20 minutes, from Hove Beach to Mohawk Avenue and breathed in the city as I went. I never really learned San Andreas; I was too busy running over drug dealers in my stolen Chevvy. But walking to Michelle's I got to see a lot more of Liberty City.
I walked back, too, watching the sun go down over Manhattan while a drunk guy did a wee near me.
It didn't stop with the car thing. I noticed that a lot of missions involved Niko running, and although GTA IV doesn't have a formal gym system like San Andreas, I decided to get in shape. Diet was one thing, so I stopped going to Cluckin' Bell with Roman, but I also wanted to keep Niko fit, so every morning he'd/I'd get up around six, put a tracksuit on and go jogging.
My routes varied depending on the weather. If it was sunny, I'd go down along the seafront and across the beach; if it rained, I'd take a run through Outlook Park. It was usually a five minute trip, real-time and again, it gave me a lot more city to breathe in.
But it wasn't all good fun. I couldn't attack any pedestrians, obviously and when I got involved in a shootout or a car chase, I'd have to go to the same quiet spot to dump the motor in the sea, and go back home to change out of my clothes.
Guns were kind of a sticking point, too, since I wouldn't allow myself to use anything I couldn't carry. I always had my Glock tucked into my belt but unless I'd brought my own car with me, (which in my mind had a shotgun in the boot), but other weapons were out.
I even had to go see the notoriously frivolous in-game friends, since it seemed like what Niko would do. It was kind of a pain, but it made my game more coherent, my obsessive attention to detail maintaining a real continuity between cutscenes and gameplay.
Like Niko, I tried to do good. If I accidentally ran over a pedestrian, I'd call an ambulance and wait by my car until they got there - if I went out and got drunk, I'd always get a taxi home.
I didn't make up my own way of playing, instead trying to live by the characterisation that Rockstar had set up. If I'd been able to ignore all of GTA IV's dialogue then sure, I would have nicked cars, killed pedestrians and started fires - I definitely wouldn't have gone bloody jogging.
But in the long run, I was glad I paid attention because it made GTA IV a lot richer. Acting like Bellic in-game gave his dialogue a lot more punch, since when he worried about doing bad things I felt like I did too.
It slowed the game down some, and made it less stupidly fun but that kind of worked for me. I got to see more of Liberty City, and enjoyed a much deeper narrative experience than crashing motorbikes into walls could really have provided.
Playing in Niko's mindset was my way of solving that story versus gameplay problem, where the characters and plot set up by developers is rarely reflected by what you do in games. A lot of the criticism I read chides game makers for not blending their writing with the in-game action, but in some cases the onus to behave is on the player,
There isn't a right and wrong way to play any game, but sometimes it's more interesting if you just shut up and listen.