Monday, September 16, 2013

GTA: A Retrospective

Four years ago I wrote a piece on Grand Theft Auto IV that was essentially the productive of an argument I had had earlier in the day. Thankfully, that original thing is pretty hard to track down and I'm glad that it is. Since then, I've grown as a writer and a critic.z

Based on the upcoming release of Grand Theft Auto V, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective. What follows is a heavily edited and updated version of my original 2009 work.
Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the games that tends to attracts a lot of people, mainly people who love the series, games in general, and also people who would like to scapegoat video games in arguments about media violence. I'd like to take some time to counter some claims that are often made and talk about some things I think are special about GTA IV.

Firstly, it is in no way a murder simulator. This term gets thrown around a lot. Having played the game it can easily be said that the game punishes you for creating chaos and that certain situations are better resolved by a sharp mind and a quick trigger instead of simply a quick trigger. You can and are allowed to run into any situation guns blazing or pick off any person on the street, but there are consequences. The game does not simulate murder any more than Civilization simulates good governance. Yes, killing people is part of the game but GTA IV is not ground up designed around that act.

There are also no "points". I write to the media infrequently about the lack of points in video games but I'm too small time for anyone to take notice. No matter how young or old someone is, anyone not in the industry who goes on TV seems to have not played a game since the arcade era. This is not pong, I am not rewarded by points.

The game is also not without consequences. Most criminal activity is rewarded not with cash but with a wanted level.  It is much easier to travel Liberty City without a wanted level and in some cases more enjoyable to drive around the city and explore instead of constantly being killed by rivals or law enforcement. While the game may not reinforce any positive social behaviors, it certainly punishes negative ones. People react with horror and shock. People also don't take your actions lying down. I'm not saying that the negative reactions justify the actions of the players but I am saying that you're rarely rewarded for being a bad person.

The game is also a cut above the rest in terms of hyper realism  The game is not supposed to be totally realistic, it's supposed to expose some underlying problems and contradictions of our society by amplifying them. It uses tongue in cheek humor to show the exploitation of New Yorkers, and Americans as a whole, with the fast food restaurants and radio broadcasts. Those aren't simply funny to listen to, sometimes they can be sharp commentary on the socioeconomic situation in the US. They emphasis our rampant consumerism, our desire for more when there cannot be enough. There's parody upon parody. Beside the easy sight gags the game is supposed to be funny and cause some introspection.

This last part about introspection is a massive element of the story, which I personally love. While some of the voice acting is stiff it's a solid plot. A man running from the demons of his past comes to America to confront an old foe and hopefully make a sustainable life for himself.

His dream is shattered by several events. Niko ultimately makes several sacrifices of his humanity to get the justice he so seeks. If, a player choice defines this, he finally does get the revenge he wanted he feels lost, empty, and realizes how that final kill does not bring him any joy. Perhaps it is not an Oscar worthy script or going to find any accolades for the great acting but it is a story that shows the terrible cost of living on the wrong side of the law.

Of the two possible endings there is no "good" ending. Perhaps of the two there is a less depressing one but the downer at the end shows the journey that Niko, and ultimately the player through him, has ceased and there is no prize, no salvation, simply another sunrise in the monotony. It's not about the uselessness of existence but instead feels like the same trap the F. Scott Fitzgerald might have found himself in. No money, no love, no anything could provide the final salvation one desires. It's a closed system of suffering while each character strives for some twisted version of the American dream. The whole thing might be hilarious if it was not so tragic.

Since Grand Theft Auto III the game has not been simply about committing crimes. The game has elevated. The actions of criminals and others should cause us to question our society. Niko is no superman and he is not a perfect person, however his foreignness should give us reason to look at ourselves and discover the faults in our society. Sure the game goes over the top, sure some of its acts are gruesome, but that's a part of the hyper reality which allows us to create the introspection.

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