I think the major conundrum when describing GTAIV is the conflict between the intrinsic and extrinsic narratives in the game. For the purpose of this note, the extrinsic narrative is the one that the player has no control over: backmatter, non-interactive cut-scenes, the story that is imposed by the authors from on high. The intrinsic narrative (also usually called the emergent) is the one that the player imposes on the system, the text he creates through his own interaction with this virtual playground.
First, I should note that theoretically, a player can create any narrative if sufficiently determined — the various *hack games have a variety of conditions for intrinsic narratives that players have created over the years, such as atheist (no prayers), vegan (no meat), &c. That said, any game, in particular the narrative games we’re dealing with here, introduces guideposts for intrinsic narratives. From a roleplaying example, consider how Call of Cthulhu is stacked so that the players lead short, unhappy lives that invariably end in madness, self-destruction, horror, slavery and death. And those are the good sessions!
Anyway, GTAIV’s extrinsic narrative is about the gradual erosion of the remaining fragments of Niko Bellic’s soul as he progressively makes tradeoffs to survive in a hostile and insane environment. Niko already recognizes that he is a Bad Man, and the horrors of his life and the lives of his fellow central europeans are tied together into a story about the Mafiya and clawing to get some kind of a stable existence in Liberty City. In this context, the mad satirical US of the GTA series plays as a cartoonish background contrasting Niko and his believably ugly counterparts. At least up to the point I have played, Niko’s story continues with the certain pace of a tragedy — I know bad things involving Mikhail and Dmitri are coming, and the cutscenes are making me uneasy.
However, GTA’s intrinsic narrative is about the gloriously retarded things you can do within its effectively unfettered framework. My Niko, outside of the cutscenes, drives sportscars at 135 MPH off of ramps to catch air 600 feet above the ground until he’s flung like a rag doll into a PiÃŸwasser billboard. My Niko steals garbage trucks and drives his dates out to go bowling in them, to end the date, he ceremoniously shoots the garbage truck until it catches on fire. My Niko ran over four police cruisers in a flaming ice-cream truck and then escaped by hijacking a sailboat. Outside of the cutscenes, my Niko Bellic is a very bad man, also a very stupid one.
The system developed in GTAIV does make a moral judgment – which is that you can do anything you want as long as you keep your wanted stars down. The conflict between these extrinsic and intrinsic narratives comes, I think, at the expense of the extrinsic narrative — in a more aggressively stupid GTA (like Vice City), it’s not as much of a problem. For this one, I think it is.