"The Character Feels That Way, Not Me". Player Driven Narrative Experiences in Grand Theft Auto IV

Author: James O'Connor

O'Connor, James, 2016 "The Character Feels That Way, Not Me". Player Driven Narrative Experiences in Grand Theft Auto IV, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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This thesis addresses the need for better understanding of player experiences of narrative, via a participant observation-focused case study of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), an exemplary ‘open world’ action game. The project studies narrative as one multifaceted element of the game, drawing distinctions between what occurs within the central plot and what players make and take away from their experience.

The research is located at the intersection of studies of digital cultures, narrative theory, and the broad field of Game Studies. It adopts a theoretical framework influenced by the ethnographic work of researchers such as T.L. Taylor, John A. L. Banks and James Paul Gee, whose work with players has provided valuable insights into how games are played, understood, and influenced by player communities. It is further informed by narrative theories, particularly reader-response theory, as well as insights into participatory culture and the notions of player agency and authority. These influences are brought together with comments and observations from research participants who were interviewed and observed playing the game.

Approaching players as active participants and creators of meaning within GTA IV’s virtual space yields understanding of the ways in which narrative affects player experience in an open world action game. The research examines the specific ways that participants form coherent narratives from their in-game actions and experiences, which can take them a considerable distance from the main narrative, and allow them to act in ways that contradict the game’s plot and characterisation. Players form fascinating associations and dissociations between their actions and the events of the main game narrative. They demonstrate complex understandings of the roles played by themselves and the avatar in the stories that are explicitly told, or emerge, during play.

The participants interviewed in this thesis discuss the narrative told through the game’s missions, the perceived relationship between themselves and the avatar, and the ways they reason through what does and doesn’t ‘count’ as part of the game’s primary narrative. They reason through whether or not certain moments they experienced simply didn’t happen within the fiction of the game, or whether the story of the avatar, Niko Bellic, is the same as the story of their play experience. Whilst the term ‘narrative’ has at times been a fraught one in Game Studies, its inclusion and consideration is necessary if we are to understand how narrative is received and constructed by players within digital worlds that encourage play outside of story-driven missions.

Keywords: video games, videogames, media, english, grand theft auto iv, grand theft auto, gaming, players, ethnography, canon, narrative

Subject: English thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2016
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Melanie Swalwell