Drunken Master: Franklin, Michael, and Trevor can toss off – I miss Niko Bellic

Drunken Master was supposed to be a monthly column. The problem is that drunken inspiration can strike at any time. And, also, it’s hard to keep track of how long ago I wrote the last one. But I’m back, I’m drunk, and I’m a master. So here we go. BUT before I ask you to commit to hitting the jump, I’ll give you one sentence explaining what’s to come: single-player games where they bounce you between multiple protagonists are (naughty word your dad says when he thinks you aren’t listening) stupid and I hate them and I’m going to pour myself another whiskey.

Whiskey? Whisky? Does is matter? To some of our more pedantic readership (and I’m not dishing out names here, you know who you are), it matters a lot. I’m drinking Grant’s… it’s Scottish so it’s actually whisky. I might be mistaken. But I’m also a little unhinged and it’s been a long day, so we’ll just go with Grant’s whisky.

Shit, I’ve forgotten what I was talking about.

Oh, if you missed the debut Drunken Master column, foul language and horrible things are part and parcel of the experience. You’re welcome to approach me (or my superiors) with simpering reprimands like “maybe if you had a better vocabulary you wouldn’t need to curse”, but it won’t help. Actually, it might help. I don’t get the final edit of this dumpster fire of an editorial, and there’s a good chance that what you’re reading now is a neutered and spayed version of the Pulitzer Prize winning shlop I’m laying out for you.

Good lord, 265 words and I haven’t said a thing.

You see, my subconscious knows I don’t have a whole lot to say about the topic at hand. But my subconscious is also a teetotalling twit who wouldn’t know a good party from a kick square in the crotch. So, we’ll ignore him, shall we?

Okay… old people, hear me now. Who remembers Half Life? How about Duke Nukem 3D? Right, so we’re on the same page. Remember how, once you had dug through the the depths of Black Mesa in Half Life, or killed a million aliens and a handful of expendable strippers in Duke Nukem 3D, you had a sense of connection with the person you were portraying? Amirite? Of course, we all knew we weren’t the misogynistic muscle-headed Duke, but we were sucked into the role of planet-saving bad-ass. Not for a moment did we mistake ourselves for bespectacled lab technicians, wielding only our wits and a crowbar (the first person to tell me Gordon Freeman wasn’t a mere lab technician, and tell me his actual job title, gets a copy of Assassin’s Creed: Origins on Xbox One, as long as it happens within the next few days while it’s still at a discounted price – after which I’ll choose which shitty game I dig out if the budget bin for you). But in those games we allowed ourselves to be absorbed into the role the game designer crafted for us.

Fast forward to present day. Present day is shit for oh, so many reasons. But let’s be specific. Look at the more recent Battlefield games. The Call of Duty titles. Who are you? You’re Private Jones, and then you’re Sergeant Adams. You’re some Soviet schlong who’s name I can’t spell, let alone pronounce. You’re (rude word for someone who sits at a desk in Langley controlling a Predator drone over Afghanistan with a joystick, even when the closest he’s come to seeing any war action was jerking off to a badly pirated copy of GI Jane). You’re ripped out of one character and plopped, unceremoniously, into the boots of a stranger, without nary an introductory handshake.

You’re welcome to disagree, but I reckon this instantly destroys any immersion, any connection, you may have formed with the game character you’re portraying.

To go back to the headline I puked out when I started this… thing. Franklin. Michael. Trevor. You three can go to hell. Grand Theft Auto V (and if you didn’t recognise those names as the joint protagonists of GTA V then you’re clearly on the wrong website) was a stunning piece of gaming history, the narrative was impeccable, and all that sycophantic nonsense, but Rockstar’s decision to have three equal protagonists was a monumentally bad idea.

“Hey, you’re Franklin! You’re a straight-up G; raised in the projects; hustle to stack that paper”. Cool, I’m down with that. I’mma be real street, I’mma be trill, and ain’t no cracka going to run up me.

“Oh, but now you’re Michael. You’re a rich cishet white man. Nice car!”

Oh. I quite enjoyed being straight gutta. But this mansion is quite nice too. Okay, fuck it, I’m nothing if I’m not malleable. I’m Michael, and I’m going to revel in white privilege, yoga classes, and a family who hates me.

See how I did the Oxford comma there? I clearly need another drink. The whisky is finished. Did you know you can drink brandy neat with no ice? You so can.

“Right, Michael, thanks for playing, but now you’re Trevor. You’re an ultraviolent white trash drug addict.”

At last… a character I can relate to. But I’m Trevor for a moment, before I’m whisked off into Franklin’s Nike ‘86 Air Force Ones again, and then press-ganged into a pair of Michael’s Armani Snobcock loafers.

Video games – and specifically single-player, narrative-driven video games – are based on building a connection between the idiot with his hands on the gamepad and the miscreant wreaking havoc on the screen. Ripping me out of your protagonist every few missions, well, that ruins that completely. In that moment I’m reminded that I’m just playing a game. I’m not carving a dangerous path through the hedgerows of Normandy, I’m just Person A in a tank, Person X in a bi-plane, and then Person Z dying in the trenches.

It becomes a hollow experience. And I’m clearly sobering up here, because I’m thinking clearly and feeling strongly.

I am especially maddened by Rockstar. Not because GTA V was shit – it wasn’t… it was quite astounding.  But because the way that they managed to weave the narrative around a single protagonist in GTA IV was just so perfectly immersive, no split narrative could compare. In GTV IV I was Niko Bellic. I came off the ship from Eastern Europe, I had a shit tracksuit and a worse accent. I did a few jobs for my cousin, Roman, and when I wasn’t helping out with odd jobs, I wondered the streets of Liberty City. Occasionally I would go bowling. Or I would use my gambling winnings to buy another, less shitty, tracksuit. Sometimes the rain in Algonquin would fall so hard that the spray would make it impossible to see beyond the next corner. I’d find shelter in the doorway of an old, boarded-up book store. Strangers would pass me by, the day’s newspaper held overhead to block the downpour.

And in those moments, I was Niko Bellic.

I’ve never been Franklin.

Or Michael, or Trevor.

If video games are the new narrative tool for future generations, then developers need to remember the moments they are trying to create. Take me there, and leave me there. I’ll tell you when I’m ready to be someone else.