Plot vs. Characters – A Case Study of Bioshock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto IV
WARNING: THERE WILL BE MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR BOTH BIOSHOCK INFINITE AND GRAND THEFT AUTO IV. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
When I experience a story, I tend to break it down into two main components: the plot and the characters. The plot can be viewed as a very general term, but I treat it as a combination of the actual events of the story, and the setting that the story takes place in. The idea of characters should be self-explanatory; they are the vessels through which the plot is told.
Having recently completed Bioshock Infinite, I realized that the narrative of the game was far more compelling and rich than its characters. That’s not to say that the characters were bland or boring, but the strength of its plot was mainly buoyed by the extremely well-thought out world and complicated multiple universe theory. When I began to rack my brain for games that accomplished characters better than plot, Grand Theft Auto IV immediately came to mind. I thought it would be interesting to analyze how both games tackle the idea of a story in different ways.
Right after I saw the end credits begin to roll, I quickly rushed to my computer and began trying to fill in the holes that I missed during its overwhelming ending. I applaud anyone who was able to catch every curveball the game was throwing at the player during the conclusion because I was not one of them. In fact, Infinite’s ending was very reminiscent of Chrono Cross’ ending. Not only do they both utilize a similar theme (Chrono Cross explores the idea of only two universes, not infinite), but they also had massive information dumps at the finale that made it hard to fully absorb and comprehend everything. Although I thought Chrono Cross’ ending was magnitudes more complex, Infinite’s deluge of revelations was just bewildering enough that it had me scratching my head as the credits began. I understood the gist of it, but doing a little research and viewing some facts on Infinite’s ending helped me appreciate it that much more.
I think my insatiable desire to fully comprehend Infinite’s multiple universe premise speaks volumes on the world Irrational created. The idea of infinite universes playing out every possible permutation of a choice that can be made is undoubtedly a clever one. The setting of Columbia also was a huge factor on why the story was so great. Not only did Columbia simply look gorgeous from a graphical perspective, but the artistic style imbued in every facet of the city helped give Columbia a distinct personality. Whether it was racism or American exceptionalism, all of the themes Infinite tackled manifested themselves in Columbia in some unique fashion.
The strength of Infinite’s plot may also be inherent to its genre. A science fiction story must rely on the strict rules that the world operates in. Any exceptional science fiction tale has a set of guidelines its universe follows, and a major breaking of those rules may be enough to shatter any sort of connection between the story teller and the listener. Two good recent examples from cinema that come to mind are Source Code and Inception. Both are science fiction movies that adhere to a particular set of mind-bending rules, and that is what makes those stories so riveting.
After saying all that, I found Infinite’s characters not on par with its intriguing narrative and setting. While the duality concept of Booker and Comstock is wildly fascinating, I found some of their actions to be completely befuddling at times. I’m sure the loss of your wife and accruing an immense debt from gambling would bring about a deep depression, but selling your child seems like an unreasonably drastic measure to take. In addition, before you get to know of Booker and Comstock’s true origin, I thought that Booker was somewhat of a bland character throughout most of the game. Although Comstock was an impressive villain (in part because of his superb voice acting), the concept of a powerful, ideological man leading a dystopian city evoked too much of an Andrew Ryan feeling for me. It was hard not to feel like I was treading on the same ground as the first Bioshock. Besides, I thought Ryan did a better job than Comstock of trying to convince people to follow his warped ideals.
While I thought Elizabeth was an overall effective character, I thought her tonal shift near the end was jarring. Throughout the game, she was just as confused as Booker as to what was really going on, and they were both on a mission to truly figure out what was happening. But at the end, she started playing the role of a wizened old sage that apparently knew everything from the start. Yes, I know that she gained this understanding and knowledge because the siphon was holding her power back, but to have such a radical change in role was a little weird.
Grand Theft Auto IV
While the world of Columbia is infinitely more creative and original than Liberty City (which is pretty just imitating New York City), I thought the characters inhabiting GTA IV had much more personality. Although the plot was a relatively simply crime/mobster story that has been done thousands of times before in all types of media, the individuals of GTA IV were the driving force behind it. Whether it’s the main protagonist Niko Bellic, or the myriad of other side characters, the cast of GTA IV is what makes that game special.
Personally, I feel as though the relationship between the Bellic duo of Niko and Roman was the crux of the entire game. In the beginning, Roman comes off as an ignorant slob who lies about his success and wealth in the great country of America. But his genuine enthusiasm about Niko’s arrival to the States shows that he legitimately cares about his family. Compound that with his general upbeat positive nature, and it’s hard not to like the guy, even if he’s consistently getting into deep trouble with Russian loan sharks.
Roman eventually settles down and decides to marry his longtime girlfriend of Mallorie Bardas. During their wedding, certain choices Niko made will dictate if Roman dies, or if Niko’s girlfriend Kate McReary dies. In my playthrough, Kate ended up dying. I found out after the fact that Roman dying was the other possibility, and I was glad that I received the ending that I did because if Roman had been gunned down during his wedding, I’m not sure what kind of emotional roller coaster I would’ve been riding.
The rest of the cast was also fantastic as well. Rockstar crafted these characters that are both completely ridiculous, yet totally realistic. Brucie, for example, is a satirical representation of a steroid junkie that’s all about driving fast cars, picking up lots of women, and being “totally alpha.” Being able to hysterically laugh at Brucie’s antics while also recognizing the sad fact that there are tons of guys out there exactly like him is what makes Brucie so memorable.
The storyline involving Playboy X and Dwayne was another that I still vividly remember. Playboy X and Dwayne were intially partners, but tensions begin to arise when their drug ring starts to go awry. Eventually, the player is forced to choose which character to kill. Initially, it seems like an obvious choice because Playboy X comes off as a huge jerk. But when Dwayne is constantly complaining about how his life is miserable and that he just wants to die, it makes you ponder about your choice. Dwayne is a pathetic loser, while Playboy X exudes pure confidence. The emotional attachment you begin to make with these characters makes every choice a supremely difficult one.
Of course, there are plenty of other characters that I can ramble on and on about, such as the McReary’s or Little Jacob. All of the individuals in Grand Theft Auto IV were completely unique, and managed to leave an indelible mark on me. Every character elicited a wide spectrum of feelings, all the way from sympathy to abhorrence. Through the use of these unforgettable characters, GTA IV was one of the few games that legitimately drew real sentiments from me.
An outstanding story will always have both an excellent plot and characters working in sync. But nothing is perfect in this world, and sometimes certain aspects of a narrative are more emphasized than others. I personally preferred the character driven story of Grand Theft Auto IV a little more than the intricate science fiction world of Bioshock Infinite. But both are absolutely amazing in their own right, and I’m glad to say that I’ve experienced the stories of both of these amazing games.