a review of Grand Theft Auto IV
a videogame developed by rockstar north
and published by take 2 interactive
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers

3.5 stars

Bottom line: Grand Theft Auto IV is “one step closer to the Holodeck from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'.”

I’m not even going to think about “lucid” dreams. Let’s cut to the chase — until the day scientists develop a fool-proof method for me to have overtly erotic dreams about the woman of my choice one hundred percent of the time, Grand Theft Auto IV, for all it’s worth, is the Most Entertaining Thing on Earth. Much as I’d like to spend a third my salary on special condoms that are safe to apply before bedtime, I guess I’ll have to make do with Grand Theft Auto IV‘s online multiplayer for now.

Alternate first sentence: Grand Theft Auto IV is a videogame so hot that the first customer-submitted image of it is a fetishized photo of a man opening up a cardboard box full of copies of the game.

I’d reckon it’s even better than any of us dreamed Virtual Reality would ever be, even if we proudly own the experience of having spent four dollars to play, say, Dactyl Nightmare for three minutes. Back then, our idea of VR was that, someday, we’d be able to wear a huge heavy helmet on our heads and run around in a world that didn’t look real, doing things as complicated as shooting other characters who were being controlled by other players, who are also wearing heavy helmets. The “dream” of VR, way back when, involved a clever clause, which we can probably safely call the “Lawnmower Man Effect” — we didn’t care that this supposed “reality” didn’t look “real”, so long as it was immersed us, and made us “feel” like we were “there”. In other words, it had to be interesting.

In a way, graphics engineers of the early 1990s were lucky that the virtual reality programs of popular culture had succeeded in glamorizing bizarre and warped landscapes. If the “sex scene” in “The Lawnmower Man” had portrayed two absolutely real-looking individuals having sex in, say, a canopy bed in a windswept room in a castle on a mountaintop in Europe as opposed to portraying two mirror-skinned humanoid figures floating in a blue polygonal void, with bubbles protruding out of genitals and then touching, the “videogame industry” might have crashed before 1999. It perhaps also helped that the “virtual reality” of “The Lawnmower Man” was a vaguely religiously sinister entity, in which a man was turned into a genius and then a killing monster, and later imprisoned. That didn’t exactly make kids think “Man, pretending sucks“, though it perhaps subliminally reinforced the idea that there is kind of some fun stuff to do in reality.

Here we are, now, in 2008. “The future”, as foretold by the best science-fiction, began one year and some change ago. People are, presently, as entertained by the idea of sending text messages on their cellular phones as the mid-1990s had imagined people would be with the idea of taking a date to a virtual-reality pub and experiencing some surreal sex, and then maybe talking about philosophy whilst huffing grapefruit-flavored oxygen. The dream of VR isn’t dead; it’s only sleeping. It’s tossing and turning in Japan, where reasonably obese persons with low standards and addictive personalities will gladly line up for upwards of twenty foodless minutes to pay five dollars to play six minutes worth of a PSOne-era flat-shaded polygon buffet with a Gundam license slapped on it, just because, well, there’s a Gundam license slapped on it, and because in order to play the game, you have to sit in a chair inside a big, plastic, egg-shaped dome screen. The game itself is ugly and insipid, and I don’t want to talk about it, though hey, there you go: the closest modern equivalent to the VR dream of yesteryear. Digging a little deeper, we can identify Sony’s EyeToy and Nintendo’s DS and Wii controllers as a fragment of the dream of VR — translating real movements into on-screen movements. Meanwhile, massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Everquest and World of Warcraft have always just been finely flawed potshots at the Cyberspace dream of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash: this character is you, this world is fantastic, this sword is big, and on fire, and yes, there are a few (hundred thousand) numbers on-screen at any given time for you to forget that you forgot to file your taxes this year. In a Japanese hot-spring inn, there’s always a family-friendly section, where mom and dad and the kids can all go together — instead of a full bath, it’s an ankle-high, super-long trough. Foot-bathing. That’s what MMORPGs are — foot baths. A closer stab at the Neal Stephenson dream is Second Life, which is like an MMORPG except it has no clearly defined purpose — it’s just a “virtual playground” — is both objectively hideous on an aesthetic level (because there will always be some jerk with a vagina for a face wandering around the most minutely detailed and lush piece of virtual architecture) and cataclysmically uninteresting, because this sort of surreal landscape is the sort of thing we’d expected to have to wear a heavy helmet to experience: no helmet, no deal.

Not all videogames in existence are trying to be the Holodeck from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, which is simultaneously kind of a shame and kind of a relief. It’s a shame because the Holodeck is a good idea — such a good idea that they devoted entire whole arcs of episodes to what is essentially defined by the writers as “the way people entertain themselves in the 25th century” (Captain Jean-Luc Picard living out Shakespearean roles, et cetera) — and it’s a relief because there are so many uncannily horrifying ways to heck it up. What you’ll see, though, over the next couple years in this “Videogame Industry”, is that every time someone takes a step closer to the Holodeck, that game will sell two to six million copies upon release. It’s what people want, whether they want to want it or not.

The majority of MMORPGs take place in swords-and-sorcerers, dungeons-and-dragons settings because, quite frankly, taking place in the future, with robots and laserguns and hover-Vespas, would just remind people that they’re using a computer, and that would totally kill millions of buzzes on impact. Second Life is a gimpy mutant areality because People Are Jerks, and the developers know that if they poured all their “talent” into making the graphics look real, that would only make the sight of the people walking around in flat-shaded purple cat suits all the more jarring.

For taking place in a world that strives to be “real”, Grand Theft Auto is something of an anomaly among MMORPGs, and at the same time, it succeeds on levels that they never have. I’m going to put a paragraph break, now, so you can tab over to Hotmail (god, use Gmail already) and send me a paragraph of hate, accusing me ofbestiality or whatever, because “GTA isn’t an MMORPG”.

“MMORPG” stands for “Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Game”. The “first reference” rule of AP journalism dictates that I must spell out all the words of an abbreviation before using the abbreviation; I’m sure that every fat hack writing about videogames for money on the internet holds a doctorate in journalism, however, so I guess that means that whenever they use the term “MMORPG” in an article without first explaining what the letters stand for, that they’re referring to something other than a “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game”. Therefore, their journalistic perhaps-lapse frees me of the guilt associated with using the abbreviation “MMORPG” to talk about a game that just so happens to not be massively multiplayer or online.

Whether you don’t believe Grand Theft Auto is an MMORPG or not isn’t important — it’s the game that all MMORPG developers should be looking at above all other games — even their own games — and very seriously. MMORPGs present detailed worlds that, while perhaps not “realistic”, are at least “believable”. Grand Theft Auto has, since 2001, labored to produce a more minutely detailed and believable world than any other game on the market. And it succeeds for the simplest, most mathematical of reasons. The scientific calculators must have been working overtime at Rockstar North these past few laborious years, because with Grand Theft Auto IV, they have graduated another step toward the Holodeck, while “other” MMORPGs still smolder in Mathematician’s Hell.

Grand Theft Auto for the PlayStation, though primitive in presentation, gave players a solidly-structured city with one amazing quirk: the existence of innocence. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world now, that Grand Theft Auto gained immense popularity because it “lets you kill innocent people”, though was the “killing” of the innocent people ever the point? The more precise way to define Grand Theft Auto‘s revelation is that it allowed innocence to exist in the same world as the core of the game design. In other words: you can do the same things to innocent people or objects that you can do to the not-innocent people or objects.

As something of my hobby (most clearly defined as “pursuing a PhD in economics”), I’ve been reading a lot of thick high-level books on probability and combinatorics lately, and some of the real-life applications are fascinating. It’d take miles of paper to explain it in full detail, though the more you think about entertainment in mathematical terms, the more of a crock the idea of narrative comes to be. To imbue this paragraph with another tangent, let’s mention how I was watching the movie “Out of Sight” the other day, during which Jennifer Lopez, as a federal marshall, and George Clooney, as a bank robber breaking out of prison, somehow end up stuffed together in the trunk of a car as the first plot point. Miraculously, they begin talking about movies, namely Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor“, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway: “It always seemed so phony to me, how they got together so quickly like that”. The irony of this J-Lo-musing is manifold, considering her current situation as a character in a motion picture. Most poignantly, however, it points a fat, sharp finger at the very foundation of the idea of narrative: it’s a challenge for a writer to make something seem like a coincidence — for something to seem “phony” — in fiction. It requires the writer to establish clearly defined boundaries, and rules: to make the subject small enough to seem ridiculous in context, the writer needs to craft huge rules. We, the audience, need to know a massive load about the two characters before we can consider it “phony” that they fall in love so quickly. Because, ultimately, the writer wouldn’t be writing a story with these two people in it for no reason. For another example, let’s say we have a story about a man’s life. In one scene, we see him strike oil. In the next scene, we see him losing money on a stock market crash. Is it a “coincidence” that these things happen one right after another? Of course not — the writer / director / editor are conspiring to tell a story in terms of relevant events.

Videogames have, fundamentally, “failed” as “narrative” in the past because they fail to establish the finer workings of their worlds, and sometimes their characters. In a movie, we might see a guy whose girlfriend is killed during a robbery; an hour later in the movie, and years later in the man’s fictional life, we might see him take a bullet to defend a woman he doesn’t even know. One event is shown to us so that the other has context. In games with “narrative”, we rarely even get the scene where the hero tips his shoe-shine guy an extra nickel, and thus comes up short when it’s time to pay the check on his Big Date with the Hot Girl. Hell, we hardly ever get shoe-shine boys, period, in videogames.

BioShock, a recent, acclaimed, jiggling pile of protoplasm, initially tells us plenty about its world though no more about its character than that he’s the type of guy to immediately eat a bag of potato chips found in a garbage can even when he’s not hungry. Videogames tend to be straightforward sequences of dudes blasting demons because that’s what they’re about. There are no coincidences. I recall, now, a part from a scene in Super Mario Galaxy, in a stage called “The Rabbits Are Looking For Something”, where a bumblebee tells me “The rabbits are looking for something”, and then a rabbit three feet away tells me “We’re looking for something.” He says the somethings they’re looking for are star chips, just as the camera pulls up to show a star chip hovering in the sky. There are also three pegs in the ground, which the player will know he possesses the ability to pound down; two minutes later, a rabbit says he can “smell” a star chip, and the camera pans over to a crate, which the player knows he possesses the ability to shatter by shaking the Wiimote. In both cases, doing what you “can” do yields the star chip in question — one of them is inside the crate, and the other is bizarrely obtained by using a trampoline that materializes when you pound all three pegs into the ground; here, pathologically, is the root of The Modern Videogame’s failure: for remembering how to do what he can do without asking why, the game “rewards” the player with what it has contrived the player to “need“. This isn’t game design — it’s kleptomania. It’s no coincidence that all those packs of gum ended up in your jacket pocket.

It’s so horribly, disgustingly obvious, in the end, what the existence of innocence does for golden-age game design. Let’s retrofit the “essence” of Grand Theft Auto into Super Mario Bros., as an exercise: in Super Mario Bros., Super Mario is a Hero. He is saving the Princess. In order to save the Princess, he must navigate a thrown-down gauntlet of thousands and hundreds of enemy grunts. Mario’s quest — so says the manual — takes place in “The Mushroom Kingdom”, though as far as kingdoms go, it seems to only be full of Evil Monsters.

Mario’s quest takes him from the left side of the screen to the ever-unfolding right side of the screen. The enemies come from the right side to the left. Every four stages, there’s a castle, which Mario goes inside, in hopes of rescuing the princess. At the end of every castle, he finds a mushroom-headed kid-thing who tells him “Our princess is in another castle.”

Now, take your archetypal, fond memories of mushrooms and fire flowers and goombas and koopas, and superimpose this idea over it: the innocent, mushroom-headed kid-things are also running from the right side of the screen to the left, in the same direction as the enemies. Let’s say that they possess shared traits of both Mario — in that they die if they touch the enemies — and of the enemies — in that they also die if stomped by Mario.

Let that idea ferment in your head for a minute.

Stomp the enemies before the innocents run into them. Lose points every time an innocent dies. Stomp the innocents by accident, and lose points. If you’re a sadistic heck, you can stomp the innocents for the thrill of watching their pathetic death animations.

Nintendo games like Gyromite! would play around with the idea of “protecting” an on-screen avatar, though that was always the whole point of such games. If Mario is a Hero, why is “saving” someone something he only does once? Get Shigeru Miyamoto on the phone — seriously — if it was never even an “idea” to have rescuable innocent Toads in the stages in Super Mario Bros., then inform Nintendo that I’m more worthy of his job than he is.

The closest we would ever get to this kind of game, eventually, would be in tacky light-gun shooters, where “innocent civilians” would occasionally pop up. As there’s no on-screen player character in such games, it just doesn’t feel as “bad” when you shoot them as it does when you first run over an innocent person in Grand Theft Auto III. And the penalty for shooting innocent people in light-gun games has only ever been a loss of points.

Super Mario Bros. was inspired by the cream of the current crop, and it would go on to paint an entire genre (“action games”) right down to its bones: stumbling on the very first rung of the narrative ladder, “the hero fights bad guys” came to equal “the hero exists in a world where (aside from himself) only bad guys exist”. Again, no coincidences: only laziness, only lack of imagination.

I’m not knocking Super Mario Bros., of course. It was entertaining as all hell, is what it was. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, though to be fair I’d yet to see even a photograph of a naked woman at that point.

All I’m trying to say is that, at least conceptually, Grand Theft Auto had beaten Super Mario Bros. at its own game. No one seemed to notice, however, because the game’s presentation was subjectively flawed, and its attempts at mimicking reality just didn’t taste right when you still had to press a button to make a guy punch another guy.

Super Mario 64 popped open a frighteningly huge can of worms — 3D action with dynamic personality (the use of the words “dynamic personality” is my way of avoiding Tomb Raider et al). So it was that Grand Theft Auto III was born in the alternate dimension we call “Obviously Awesome, Financially Impossible”. When Rockstar had at last rotated the meat-grinder of life enough times, GTA III plopped itself down on the doorstep of mankind, and Maxim compared the hecking thing to “Pulp Fiction”, which is about as good and as bad as anything can probably get. Rockstar instantly ascended to the next spiritual plane. Their game was so huge in terms of scale, sales, and magnitude that it took years for everyone’s parents and local religious pundit of choice to finally catch on to its sinister side.

The simple way to put it is that Grand Theft Auto lets you kill in-game representations of “innocent” people in situations where no one is otherwise doing anything violent. It lets you turn peace into violence.

“Innocent” people in GTA are easy for any open mind to define: they are the people who are not immediately trying to kill you. Digital representations of human beings don’t need psychological profiles, most of the time: all they need to do is be standing there. Their role, at all times, is “potential victim” of simulated “violence”.

Since more money is poured into the graphical effects that happen when things explode that the graphical effects that happen when people group hug, Grand Theft Auto is mathematically doomed to be objectively “violent”. The simplest straw-man argument in defense of GTA is that in real-life, things can and will explode, as well, so in order to represent a “real” world in a videogame, one needs to account for the more highly improbable side of physics, for the more top-of-the-show side of nightly news. Why craft a detailed, yet ultimately fake world if spectacular things aren’t going to happen? Death is one of the handful of great truths in life; to not account for it in a videogame or any narrative presenting a depiction of reality is a hideous oversight — and (here I begin to crack) to not consider death of innocent people a thing of spectacular fascination, as an author, is to miss the point of not being hit by a bus every morning.

(Of course, perceiving the killing of an innocent person as “fun” is still kind of fundamentally sick.)

So here’s the truth: I personally have always perceived the Grand Theft Auto games as very simple IQ test questions. Through the miracle of graphic design and bare story cues, the game informs you that your character is a thug. The blip on your radar is the location of the MacGuffin. Go get the MacGuffin. Anyone who tries to stop you from getting the MacGuffin is Not An Innocent Person. All of the other cars on the road are full of people trying to mind their own business. In a MegaMan game, they would be the spinning blades the player must avoid to get at the bad guys. (“Obstacles”.)

In other words, I personally have always viewed the innocent people in Grand Theft Auto as things to avoid dangerous contact with. Only the relationship between the Main Character in a GTA and innocent pedestrians and the relationship between spinning obstacles in MegaMan is different — in GTA, the main character hurts the obstacles, not the other way around.

It’s pretty obvious that Grand Theft Auto was, initially, an experiment in “letting the player do ‘anything'” in a rigidly defined world. GTA III, gifted with the canvas of 3D and the experiment of two and a half other games under its belt, was more focused: it was to be an experiment to see how much the game designers could allow the player to do in a 3D space. The two GTA III pseudo-sequels that followed ticked off additional boxes on GTA III‘s initial checklist (“Ride motorcycles”, “Fly a jetliner”).

It seems to me, from a brief forensic analysis, that the purpose of GTA never was to make a game that lets players “be the bad guy”, that lets players “kill innocent people”. The idea was, essentially, to “let the player be free” — hence, perhaps, the name “Liberty City”. The idea of setting the game in a “realistic, modern city” was so obvious a third-grader could have come up with it and still flunked arithmetic. That the game designers chose to make the “hero” a bad man instead of a good man is, in the right twisted context, proof of their human virtue: it’s possible, in their game, to kill anyone, to drive around in traffic like a jerk-off, bumping cars off the road. If you make the “hero” of the game a good person — like a spy or a tax-man, or a cop — the idea of absolute freedom would run counter to the narrative context. The narrative context, of course, only exists because when we, as human beings, see a digital representation of a city, when we tilt an analog stick and see one person in the digital crowd move, we are biologically wired to wonder “Who’s That Guy?” “What’s His Story?” On the contrary, if GTA were a game about piloting a sphere and bumping cubes out of the rectangular pathway, shooting little squares at cylinders and watching them blink and disappear, no one would think it was very “fun” at all. “Entertainment” and “context” are, in many cases, the same exact thing. It’s regrettable sometimes, and sometimes you just kind of shrug and move on.

So yeah, in GTA, you’re a “bad guy” for reasons of cold mathematics, because, if by design players are allowed to “do anything”, that’s precisely what they’ll do. A thousand words on the nature of escapism could very easily flow forth from here: the more realistic the world inside the television screen looks, the more the average twelve-to-seventy-year-old is going to want to see Something heckin’ Nuts happen. Think of all the people who gave up on Sega’s 70-million-dollar disasterpiece Shenmue. I swear, that game is a story written by a first-year creative-writing student who literally cringes when she types the words “And then, Veronica slapped her boyfriend in the mouth.”

Games like Driver stumbled a bit, back in the day; inspired by GTA, the folks behind Driver set about making a true-crime focused opus of a game that took one aspect of the newly minted “crime genre” and expanded it. Namely, they wanted to make a game that was entirely focused on the idea of driving criminals away from robbery scenes. You were a getaway driver. The original idea of the game was that you’d just play it as a string of missions, with no context outside of “the police are chasing you”. Afraid, eventually, that the yet-invisible media pundits would jump out of nowhere and snipe the game’s “glorification” of “criminal activity”, they shoehorned in a narrative: don’t worry, you’re not really a bad guy. You’re an undercover FBI agent working for the mob. Some doctors would clinically diagnose this as a “lack of balls”, others would say it was a group of dudes sticking to their guns, refusing to turn the police cars with blaring sirens into contextless floating rectangular prisms.

History has muted the answer to that particular riddle. And yet, Grand Theft Auto went on using the police as threats and targets. The police are the simple, beautiful key to the dynamic of Grand Theft Auto‘s world; their presence is under- and over-estimated simultaneously by so many critics worldwide that I’m surprised any television on earth is capable of displaying them. In a GTA game, we have

1. The player character (the “main character”, the “protagonist”, the “person we want to see succeed”)

2. The innocent people (bystanders and onlookers, pedestrians and commuters, the “people minding their own business”)

3. The guilty people (assassination targets, gang bosses, henchmen, obstacles placed strategically around our goals, “the tyranny of evil men”)

4. The police

The police, simply put, show up when you do something “wrong”, as dictated by a simple algorithm. The police uphold the “order” of GTA; they’re the reason the game won’t ever turn into Second Life, and it’s better off for it. Let’s assume for a minute that GTA was crafted from the ground up to be a “videogame”, not a “narrative”: if GTA is “based” on “reality”, and the main character is a “bad” man by mathematical necessity, then the police are the developers’ injection of conscience. If you shoot an innocent person, the game sends police your way; so the line between “the innocent” and “the law” becomes invisible, and the line that separates your player character from the law and the innocent becomes embarrassingly fat. And then: if you’re having a firefight out in the street with some gangsters as part of a “mission”, the game is going to send police to the scene. Moral gray areas abound: mathematically, the player is wired to know that anyone shooting at his on-screen avatar is a threat to be eliminated. However, thanks to an elegant veneer of context, the player also knows that the police are the “good” guys. So the line between “self preservation” and “being an evil bastard” becomes thin, and fuzzy, and perversely entertaining. Thrilling. It is in that unholy region that GTA goes from being a well-executed game to being a multi-million-selling cultural phenomenon.

All it took to graduate from naughty pixel-play to genuine sales dynamo was years of probably-tedious checklist-filling by the developers: get real music on the radio, give the protagonist a name and a face, get Hollywood voice talent, let the player earn proficiencies by repeating simple actions, let them fly helicopters, let them order hamburgers at fast food joints, et cetera. The problem, “morally”, with “let the player eat at fast food joints” is that the main pillar of the game design is that NPCs, bad guys, good guys, and the police all exist in the same space, and can have the same actions performed on them. If you can shoot a bad guy, then the game is obligated to also let you shoot a good guy, or shoot the cashier at a fast-food joint. You don’t even have to rob the fast food joint — you can just shoot the guy and walk out.

Since the game development community finally caught on that GTA is amazing, we’ve seen stumbler after stumbler literally presume that the point of “let the player eat fast food” is “let the player shoot the cashier”. Okay, maybe I’m just talking about Saints Row, where your main character is supposed to be a member of a street-cleaning gang, though if you shoot an old lady at random, your positively religious partner won’t even dare to consider you a monster. In fact, he’ll start shooting along with you. The makers of Saints Row, in addition to perhaps not knowing how to use apostrophes, were inspired less by GTA as a slab of sparkling game design as they were inspired by the idea that some kids’ parents kinda thought it was the devil. See Exhibit A, a video trailer for Saints Row 2, in which theinexplicably paid Gary Busey spouts amateurishly-written one-liners about the glory of heavy weaponry. There’s a part where he says, as an on-screen character cuts an off-screen someone in half with a chainsaw, “Here’s a way to get back at your parents for how they raised you.” A shot of someone using a flamethrower: “Flamethrowers work.”

It’s painfully obvious — at least, to me — what the marketing guys at THQ and Volition are going for, in this age of YouTube, of the Blogosphere, of Web 2.0, of World 2.0; years ago, Acclaim got hilariously bold with their World 1.5 marketing scheme for some Turok game that probably sucked: they offered free copies of their game to any parents who actually named their child “Turok” and agreed not to have the name legally changed for something like three years. There was another game that they offered, like, free copies of, and a couple Cadbury’s chocolate bars, or something, if you’d agree to place an advertisement for the game on a tombstone that you happen to own (like, your grandfather’s). I remember, back then, a few people asking, “What the hell? Who are they advertising to? Who’s considering videogame purchases in a cemetery?” Anyone dull enough to even ask such a question, I wager, has probably thought of videogames in church. The point of Acclaim’s “advertising” wasn’t to “advertise” — it was to get people talking. It was to create “news” stories in “blogs”, about this crazy advertising stunt. Whether anyone took them up or not — I’m pretty sure no one did; I’d check Wikipedia and report back to you with some tidy facts, if for some reason, in this World 2.0 Age, that didn’t actually feel cheaper and dumber than just admitting that I don’t know — isn’t the point. The point is that it was advertising about advertising, directed at the core of the news media. All it took, in World 1.5, to cause a sensation, is to suggest a ridiculous reward for something improbable. “Acclaim will give you money if you name your child Turok” is a hilarious concept; if someone actually had named their baby Turok, that would have made a hell of a follow-up story. Either way, the follow-up story wasn’t necessary, especially because (and in spite of the fact) that the game no doubt sucked.

In World 2.0, in order to make a sensation, you have to Be Completely Innocent, and Cause Something Bad. Grand Theft Auto didn’t exactly cause world wars or anything — it gets blamed significantly less for the War in Iraq than it gets blamed for each shooting death in middle America — though it certainly is universally recognized as a driving force in the worldwide popular culture. I’d argue that it really is innocent escapism, and that the publishers’ hands are pretty clean in the event of any kids’ getting a hold of the game, because the rating on the box says kids shouldn’t have it. I play GTA like a mafia movie — Sonny Corleone sure as stuff doesn’t shoot the cashier every time he buys a bag of oranges, for example — kids too young to have seen a mafia movie, or understood it, will probably just start running over people and giggling. Who knows. At any rate, it’s quite safe to say that GTA put something into the world, and that the signs of the seed are starting to surface. Saints Row 2‘s “viral” video trailers with Gary Busey are a weird kind of devil-fragment: someone on the marketing team said, “Let’s actually make a game that makes a kid kill someone; let’s actually say ‘kill your parents’ in a subtle enough way to keep a lawsuit running for several months, to get the name of our game on the front page of a thousand newspapers worldwide. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, and the profit from sales and the name recognition will be more than worth the legal costs.” The world we live in — it’s kind of scary. People like THQ are stuffting in the marketing pool, and people like Nintendo are stuffting in the game design pool; sooner or later, this “industry”‘s pool is going to be figuratively full of stuff.

In a way, I respect Rockstar’s aloof, interview-shunning attitude. It shows that they have immense confidence in their games. I remember their “booth” at E3 in 2004 — a huge square of floor space, surrounded by barbed-wire fences with buses parked inside. No one was allowed in, because there was nothing to see. Just big “Grand Theft Auto” logos on the sides of buses. Rockstar knew — and know — that people like, love, want, and need their games, and here, in this transformed world, “No comment” has graduated from being the most strategic thing to say when confronted with a nasty rumor or accusation to being the most awesome thing you can say when given a glowing, dudely compliment.

The GTA games have been the hamster-water-bottle of the gaming populace since 2001, hung upside-down, dripping, sucked on long and hard from beneath by fuzzy, vaguely adorable, vaguely disgusting, absolutely tireless creatures. Rockstar is in a “do no wrong” position, as far as the press is concerned: each release is called the “best game ever” by literally every hobbyist magazine or fanboy blog. When Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released, the US Official PlayStation Magazine’s front cover literally said “Is this the BEST GAME EVER? . . . We Think So!”

I was convinced it wasn’t quite the best game ever, nor even the best thing ever, though it certainly was nice. It did nice things. It saw Rockstar toying with the GTA III dynamite formula on a grander scale. You could now take girls out on dates, and possibly get laid, if you talked to them nicely enough. You could tap lots of buttons at the gym, to make your character grow bigger and more muscular. Or you could run around a lot on foot in the city, to make your character holocaust-skinny, with incredible endurance. Pedal a bike a lot to earn “bike” skill, and suddenly you’re able to jump over a semi truck while pedaling sixty miles per hour on a freeway. San Andreas topped Vice City and Liberty City by providing a whole state, complete with mini replicas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. At the end of the day, however — and I’m pretty sure this is obvious to everyone by now — “more stuff” doesn’t mean “better game”. Actually, maybe it’s not obvious. Someone on an internet forum I read was once listing his favorite games of all time, and said Space Harrier was number one and Shenmue was number two — then, minutes later, he realized that you can play Space Harrier inside Shenmue, so Shenmue was bumped up to number one. I saw that, and thought about how to respond for a second, and that second turned into a minute, and then I decided to go get a cup of coffee, and then I forgot about it until just now, years later. Was this Guy On The Internet wrong, even by his own standards? By all means. Mathematically. More to the point, was there Too Much Stuff in San Andreas? Most definitely. Some of it was good — the semi-deep clothing customization was hot (my Carl “CJ” Johnson wore green track pants, a sapphire blue button-down shirt, a sweet brown cowboy hat, and a wicked eyepatch, and he actually looked Tokyo-fashionable as opposed to just Hollywood-ridiculous), being able to recruit three AI companions was great (just talk to anyone wearing green in your neighborhood) and the “turf war” mini-game was conceptually excellent: stand in enemy “turf” and shoot enough rival gang members to initiate a “battle”. Defend the turf long enough, and it becomes yours. Try and conquer as much of the map as possible, though beware — leave one spot of your turf surrounded by enemy turf for too long, and they’ll fight back, even (especially) when you’re not there.

It’s just that a lot of the game was too rough and unfinished. Jagged moral edges stuck out here and there — though your hero is a guy who left the city because he hated gang activity, and has only come back to attend his mama’s funeral, when the first girl he dates says “Let’s do a drive-by!”, he replies with “Shit, you my kinda girl!” Mourning his dead mother, hateful of gang violence, he is nonetheless deeply pleased when a girl expresses interest in recklessly killing innocent people. When you recruit gang members and enter a car, they will immediately stick their guns out the windows and shoot at everything. Now, I’ve been to Los Angeles, and I know that people do die and kill there, though I’m pretty sure they don’t stick their guns out the window every time they get into a car.

And the story missions of San Andreas: it’s like a little girl throws a Frisbee, the camera follows it as the blue sky turns to outer space, and then the Frisbee turns into an intercontinental ballistic missile, and there’s a lobster-headed vagina-shaped alien being where we’d expected a happy puppy to be. And then there’s an explosion, and a rain of gold coins. In other words, San Andreas starts with a guy in town for his moms’ funeral, hounded by the jerkoff cops; it ends with you robbing a casino in Vegas and making hundreds of millions of dollars. The American Dream, huh? In between point A and point B, there are (literally and figuratively) many miles of dead countryside — just like America! — and copy-pasted neighborhoods of lifeless cookie-cutter houses — just like America! The producers had once said that the cities in GTA aren’t fully “realistic” because real cities weren’t designed with fun videogames in mind. That’s nice enough, as far as platitudes go, and I guess it’s even kind of true. In the same way, I guess the lives depicted in GTA aren’t “realistic” because real life isn’t designed with fun videogames in mind. Carl “CJ” Johnson is torn between being a Human Being and being a Videogame Character. Evidence existed in San Andreas that Rockstar understood their social role; GTA III had let the player have sex with virtual prostitutes, and as (once again) the game design’s central pillar dictated that all characters must live under the same rules, it must be as possible to kill a prostitute as it is to kill anyone else. It was only a matter of time before someone — not Rockstar — wrote on The Internet that you can have sex with a prostitute and then immediately kill her to get your money back. Because of all the adolescent LOLs and ROFLs and ROFLMAOs that this caused, Rockstar made sure that every prostitute in San Andreas carried a pistol. On the other hand, they made it so that the crack dealers — scary, threatening bastards — carried huge amounts of money. If that’s not dropping a dime in the “social responsibility” collection plate, I don’t know what is.

San Andreas, eventually, inspired game designers more than any other GTA game, because it was bigger, realer, rawer, and simply more present in the mass media and the pop culture. It was the most ticked-out checklist of them all, with more area, more stuff you could do, more ridiculous missions (complete with story-explained reasons to actually wear a jetpack, for god’s sake). Incomplete and sketchy as it was, it was more than a game: it was a comprehensive State of the Industry address, and everything that entails: many hours too long, kind of boring, it droned in explicit detail, outlining “Precisely Everything You Can Do With The Videogame Medium”. The curse of San Andreas is that you can only put so much stuff into a game before the player wonders “What can’t you do in this game?” — and then immediately answers the question: water-skiing. Why can I fly a jetliner when I can’t go water-skiing? Seriously? It’s like throwing in “everything”, even the kitchen sink, and forgetting to throw in the greasy frying pan that was in the kitchen sink.

Nonetheless, the world kowtowed to San Andreas, and more than a few good things came of it. Hell, we can probably say that Realtime Worlds’ “sandbox” action game Crackdown took the turf war concept and expanded it into an entire game — one more revisiting, and “sandbox turf war” could actually become its own genre. Crackdown was designed by one of the guys who made GTA in the first place, so maybe that’s why Crackdown seems to understand so many of GTA‘s shortcomings. The most strategic criticism one can levy at GTA is that everywhere you look (on the internet, or, hey, even in IGN’s video reviews), people are talking about the glory of ignoring the “story” and just going on crazy killing sprees. Crackdown makes the bold hypothesis that perhaps the reason so many people ignore the story and refer to killing sprees as “just having fun” with the game is because the story missions aren’t fun enough. Crackdown nearly cuts “story” out; the goal of the game is to heck stuff up, and if you’re a Christian, you’re in luck, because literally everyone (okay, almost everyone) in the city is a drug-shooting, casual-sexing junkie/murderer. And you, behold, are a cop. On top of all this, you can also jump three stories straight up and lift a car over your head. “Have fun, heckers!” Crackdown says, and proves a Big Fat Point: the people of the world will have fun, if that fun is fun, even if they’re forced to play the part of a do-gooding police officer instead of a hooker-slashing freak-off.

I guess, around the time the GTA-likes started to come out of the woodwork — Driv-Three-Er, The Getaway, the True Crime series, et al — the concept of the “Perfect Sandbox” game was born. Capcom took a stab at it from an obtuse angle, with Dead Rising, a game that requires the player, who is otherwise free to do whatever he can to survive, to “perform”, in a hopelessly constrained environment, according to the story’s strictly set schedule. Meanwhile, in the Rockstar Citadel, Bully was developed and released as a sly one-off. The conservative media went nuts, theorizing that the game was about school shootings. Rockstar ignored the buzz. This was strategic. When Bully was eventually plopped out for public consumption, it was a wee bit misunderstood, though there’s a fair deal of its game-design philosophizing all over GTA IV. With a constrained environment — a school — a mostly wholesome story — through pranks and staged beat-downs, teach the bad bullies
what for — and equal focuses on the life of the protagonist as human being and as a videogame character, Bully spoke to the golden future of videogames: the age of the Holodeck, of Square-Enix’s Anna Karenina, of the age of Smell-o-Vision and 8.1 Dolby Surround-Flavor, when “just being there”, in the game world, will be enough to make you say, “Well, yep, that’s entertainment.”



Describing the “perfect”, “ideal”, “optimal” Grand Theft Auto game, in detail, would be an extremely boring exercise. It’d be like describing concrete graphical details of Madden that need to be brushed up before we can say it looks absolutely real. Madden is lucky to be dealing with just a sport, played on a mostly solid-colored field; Grand Theft Auto has garbage littering the streets, homeless people asleep in gutters, strip clubs with busted neon signs. There’s more of a connection between the goals of Madden and the goals of GTA than you’d initially think (in other words, not just “money”) — they’re both striving to recreate an experience as accurately and precisely as possible. Neither game, alas, will ever succeed at its ultimate goal, which actually makes it very awesome that the developers keep trying. I’d assume it was because they were dense or something, though I don’t know. People with that much money can’t be stupid. Rockstar “took a break” from producing purely crime-fiction sagas to put out Table Tennis, which the press OMG’d and LOL’d at quite heartily. It was nonetheless a bold and perfectly understandable move: they wanted to try to make something perfect, for the same reason that lesser men occasionally feel like destroying something beautiful. Table tennis just happened to be the simplest sport to represent in a game. Ultimately, we here at Action Button Dot Net (“ABDN” on the NASDAQ) can’t give Grand Theft Auto IV a perfect four-star rating, because the darts mini-game kind of sucks, and this wouldn’t be an issue if Things Like Darts weren’t So Important to the flow of the game. It’s not like Rockstar is short on glowing reviews or anything. I’m pretty sure they won’t mind a less-than-perfect score from us. Hey guys, next time, if you want a perfect score, don’t make us buy the game ourselves! That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Rockstar’s Table Tennis rite-of-passage lends a certain sheen of life to GTA IV. It’s like, remember the computer-generated cut-scenes in Final Fantasy VII? Square spent $35 million on that stuff back in 1997, and now talking-head professors in productivity non-games on the Nintendo DS look better than that stuff. In other words, it’s only a matter of time before all of the mini-games in GTA are as good as Table Tennis. In the meanwhile, I suppose it goes without saying that GTA IV is definitely a step in the right direction, toward the “ideal” GTA game.

The graphics are better: it takes genuine hate-fueled passion to find an instance where a building model is used twice. At last, the night-time color palettes don’t look so muddy and unattractive (they still need a tiny bit more purple and turquoise). Unfortunately, however, the interiors of some buildings still look PlayStation 2-ish. Like the first two safehouses; I understand they’re not supposed to be “nice”. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have proper textures.

The story is leaner: not once in the game are you asked to drive a fire engine with a broken ladder into the Clown District to round up fifty unemployed mimes to form a makeshift ladder so you can climb into the top window of an apple-pie factory and crack the safe so as to steal the Cocaine Recipes within, and then escape with a nearby jet-pack. No, this time around, it’s all about shooting guys. Viewed from the air, some of the shoot-out stages are obviously plotted with Gears-of-War-caliber attention to level design. Some people, if you go by the internet, seem to not like the “sticking-to-walls bullstuff” of the game, though I find that complaint kind of weirdly ironic. It’s a game that presents a breathing simulation of a “realistic” world. These games have always had police officers who do their best to shoot you dead if you kill a random pedestrian; why shouldn’t the consequences of the bullets themselves have, you know, a tiny bit more weight? The cover mechanic is a gorgeous sweater from a prodigal grandma — too bad it’s two sizes too big, and, um, it’s really hard to slip in and out of cover, or slip into the cover you want to slip into, sometimes. The ability to press the cover button long before you approach the cover (so as to initiate a dramatic slide) is pretty sweet, though sometimes it’ll mean you’re now crouched on the wrong side of the cover, which means you get buckshot in the side of the head. Introduction of free-aiming into the series is a god-send: I realize they’ve had it in the PC versions forever, now, though it’s even more intuitive now: press the left trigger to initiate a clever auto-lock-on, and then use the right analog stick to tweak the finer points. It’s kind of creepy that there exist human beings who will say manually aiming is “better” or even “more realistic” because, yes, though I’ve never fired a gun, I don’t reckon I’d have to hold it in front of my face and track it very slowly to the right in order to shoot someone. On the other hand, I can’t call the combat system perfect, because sometimes the auto-lock-on still locks on to a hecking corpse, or sometimes it still locks on to an innocent bystander. I kind of don’t like that! I’m pretty sure that the corpse-lock-on could be justified away as a “pseudo-realistic portrayal of, uhh, how sometimes you don’t know, during a real-life gunfight, if a particular opponent is, uhh, dead or not”, though seriously, jack, we’re playing a videogame, here. You’ve already got life-meters on these guys. Also, seriously, how hard can it be to program the auto-aim so that it automatically locks on to the guy standing right in front of me with a shotgun pointed at my upper chest, instead of the guy upstairs and sixty feet away crouched behind a box and barely visible? Seriously, I’ve just ordered a book that promises to teach me C++ in 21 days — let’s see if I can’t figure this out by the end of next month. (Protip: I probably won’t.) While I’m at it, I’m going to figure out a way to classify “innocents” as their own AI class, and completely remove them from the auto-aim target queue when “hostile” class AI targets are present. Man, look at me — using big words, like I know what they mean! If it’s so easy for me to pretend I know what this stuff means, it must be even easier for Rockstar’s hotshot programmers to implement. A recent issue of Game Developer Magazine tells me that the median yearly salary for a “hotshot game programmer” is something like $93,000. Holy stuff! They can’t be stupid to be that rich, so it’s obvious that they just hate nice people. Can you believe that someone with that much money could resent innocent people, and wish them dead of accidental shotgun wounds? I mean, lawyers get paid six figures, and they protect people all the time! Politicians are millionaires, and they pass laws keeping gay people from getting married — that’s about as pro-life as you can get!

Someone on an internet forum I frequent poignantly expressed some confusion as to why the missions in GTA IV are “constrained” and “set-piecey”, despite the surrounding game being so wide-open and free. I can understand his mild disappointment, though I certainly don’t share it. It makes poetic sense, that more often than not there’s only one or two ways to best a mission. When, at any given time in the story, I have a choice of more than five different mob bosses, thugs, or drug dealers to accept a mission from, when I’m expected to choose what I’m even going to be doing in the first place, I like not having to think about how I’m going to do it. It speaks volumes that the design of the city streets — surprise surprise — in GTA IV is much more real-like than in previous games, where, if you recall several paragraphs ago, the producers had claimed it was more important to make the cities interesting as “a level in a videogame”. They’ve made the right sacrifice, I think: they’ve made a city that is real-like, breathing, living, worth experiencing in a slow-walking leisurely Second-Life-y pace. So it’s all the more fitting that the missions are more straightforward movie action scenes. When everyone sees a Big Movie, and they talk about it at the pizza parlor, they say specific things: “Man, that part where Darth Vader cut off Luke’s hand was awesome.” Imagine if that scene were under the viewer’s control — maybe you could make Darth Vader cut off Luke’s foot, instead. There’s a chance that people will simply say “The fight between Darth Vader and Luke was great”, though it won’t penetrate as deeply into the pop-culture unless there’s something everyone could agree upon. Everyone keeps citing the assassination of Salvatore Leone from GTA III — how it gave you multiple choices for how to complete the mission, and though that was the very essence of GTA at the time, in this post-San Andreas, post-Bully, post-Dead Rising world, the specific is all the more intriguing. There are certain very-well-planned missions with a bit of wiggle room in GTA IV — you just have to either be really, really skilled, or have a lot of imagination. There’s a bike chase halfway through the game where you chase two guys on motorcycles, and if you let the chase drag out long enough, they’ll duck into the subway tunnels, and it’ll beheckin ‘ awesome, because now you’re dodging trains. The “Salvatore Leone” mission of GTA III lets you choose how you’re going to kill the guy from the first-degree phases; GTA IV‘s more well-planned missions are all crimes of passion. In the bike chase, it’s highly possible for you to shoot the guys off their bikes from a distance, if you’re hot enough with the machine gun. The game gives them a fair enough lead, and even contextualizes their lead-off with a cut-scene during which protagonist Niko scrambles for a motorcycle of his own. Whether you pick the guys off from a distance with your machine gun using free-aim or side-swipe them into an oncoming train in the subway tunnels, or sideswipe them off the elevated train track when the chase emerges into the daylight again, or cap the son of a bitch immediately as he veers back onto the highway after the whole train-track chase, you’re going to feel like a badass, like a dude with a stuffed stomach full of videogame. Likewise, there’s another mission where you car-chase some diamond thieves all the way to Central Park. The game has scripted it so that their car will crash in Central Park and they’ll get out, and a gunfight ensues behind pillars under a bridge, escalating to a chase into a public restroom. However, if you be bad, you can end it all before they have a chance to crash. Hey, I’ll take that. Another mission, involving a spectacular jewish-mafia shootout in a museum, ends with a car chase during which you’re told to “lose” the guys. Does that mean run away? I stole a fast car and drove away. They killed me. I tried the mission again. (After reloading my save — hospitals charge ten thousand damn dollars! LOL @ American health care!) The next time, I stole the car in the front of the other two cars, and dropped a grenade out my window, effectively toasting the second car. The third car followed me tenaciously, attracting the attention of the cops. I lost the cops, though I couldn’t lose the mob. I ramped my car off the side of the road and onto the beach. I ran up and crouched beneath a wall, watching the big red blip draw closer. I stood up to get a better look. I remembered I had a rocket launcher. I crouched and prepared it. I stood up and fired at the front of the car. It flew about fifty feet up in the air. “MISSION CLEAR!” I pumped my fist, and the eternally iron-pumping black dude named “My Inner Monologue” shouted “Hell Yeah Motherhecker“. Et cetera, et cetera — there are enough moments like this written about on messageboards all over the internet; poke around, or play the game and make your own.

This is to say nothing of the gloriously straightforward, huge, multi-part mission where you rob a bank. Or any of the several clever Hideo-Kojima-worthy missions like the one where you have a sniper rifle, you’re on a roof, and the target is watching TV and you can’t get a shot. You have to zoom in to the telephone on the table, read the phone number written on it, dial said number on your cell phone, and then shoot him when he gets up to answer the phone.

There are a couple of “emotional” doozies among the mission, like where one main character asks you to kill another, at roughly the same time the other guy asks you to kill the other guy. It’s baffling. I made the “correct” choice, then saved in a new file, then reloaded my save, and tried it the other way. Holy lord, the other way was depressing, and when it was done, the other guy gave me $25,000, told me via cell-phone that I was a sick son of a bitch, and said he never wanted to see me again. Excellent. I didn’t save that file. Curiosity satisfied.

Despite this sort of thing, there’s another mission where you’re supposed to follow a guy in a car to his “crew”‘s house, so that you can kill the whole crew. It’s a satisfying low-speed chase, crashing through fences and people’s backyards in Videogame Jersey. You can kill the guy long before you get to his house, though that will fail you the mission. And then you’re yanked out of the immersive experience, and asked if you want to reset time, and retry. This is kind of a shame. Why can’t “failing” in this regard branch the mission off so that now the “crew” in question — their location lost, because you killed the guy before he could lead you to them — now gears up for revenge, and you have to smoke them out?

I understand that dynamically emergent narrative in a game is Very Complicated, and I’d probably snap my plastic Starbucks’ coffee stir in two and slit my wrists with the shard right here at my desk if The Boss asked me to “make it happen”. Still, Rockstar North has a thousand dudes, all of them no doubt huge with muscles, with wrists so coated with meat as to be impermeable to even the sharpest razors. They consistently manage to put together huge, epic games in pseudo-living cities. I’m pretty sure they could at least make it so that, I don’t know, there’s a little bit more choice in the flow of the story. This is the dream of “interactive cinema”, the corpse of which has long been absorbed into the game-design philosophy, ever since we found 3D. Why do I need to have so many people giving me missions? The main character, Niko, has a story. He has someone he needs to find, in Liberty City. That’s a good concept. He’s also got a cousin with a gambling problem. That’s a good concept as well. Might we see a GTA, some day, where I don’t have thirteen people supplying me with tips on what to do, where the main character’s conversations in his depressing living room with his gambling-addicted cousin determine who the next target is, or what they’re going to do next? Maybe give me one boss telling me what to do, make me feel like I’m actually part of a gang war. Make the “pass/fail” for the missions not so black and white — make it so that, sometimes, the guy might get away, and he’ll just get angry and want revenge, and that figures into the plot.

I know this is a lot of work, though you know what? Rockstar put a lot of work into this game. Too much work, even. There are too many god damnedsingleplayer missions. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy almost every one of them — it’s just that, eventually, there’s too much. Why not make it possible to get “an ending” in ten hours, and plaster it all over the box that the game has “dynamic branching paths”, and can be played again and again? More often than not, in the “videogame business”, game developers will Keep Every Feature of the original game when designing a sequel; that Rockstar North cut out jets and the weight-gain/weight-loss systems from San Andreas seems to me like absolute proof that they wanted GTA IV to be a slimmer game. I’m sure we can all agree with that. Yet, despite cutting out jets and hockey masks and pogo sticks and kitchen sinks and BMX bikes, they left the “dating” system in. And now you can take your male friends — even gay ones — on “dates” to play darts or shoot pool. It’s obvious that they wanted “normal human social interaction” to be a core element of the game — I mean, they chose it over plane-hijacking, for god’s sake — so might their aspirations already be pointing toward a sharp, focused, truly branching narrative? (Or might their choice just be indicating that they finally noticed that the absence of a “hug button” was probably why every jerk handed a controller immediately started running over pedestrians in a stolen car?)

It doesn’t even have to be every mission — just every once in a while. It couldn’t be that much harder than what these godmen are doing already, and it’d make a huge difference, and the critics would no doubt scream again. I know I would. I’d scream until my throat was raw; I’d black out, I’d wake up, and by god, I’d scream some more.


IGN managed to miraculously cause a controversy recently when their “video review” (or something) of GTA IV portrayed the protagonist beating a hooker to death. Rockstar claimed that they didn’t tell IGN to play up the hooker-killing aspect of the game. Nonetheless, it is Rockstar who must shoulder the blame, long after IGN apologizes. I could ruminate here for a bit on how this incident basically exposes IGN once and for all as the knuckle-dragging losers they no doubt are, most likely devoid enough of common sense to reach for their six-week-old plastic disposable Bic razors whenever they get an outbreak of pimples on their faces. Somehow, thanks to years of Nintenditioning, the jerk-offs at IGN had come to equate “things it is possible to do in a videogame” with “features of said videogame”. I’ve been over this before, in this review, though this time, I’m doing it after the “actually talking about the game now” headline, so I assume at least someone is paying attention.

At any rate, we here at Action Button Dot Net don’t shave when we have blemishes, and when we do shave, it’s with genuine badger hair shaving brushes, avocado-oil soap, and vintage-style German double-edge safety razors. We also recognize videogames as a deliberate medium, full of both things “to” do and things you “can” do. Some political pundits sniped at GTA IV, right on cue, saying that “in this game, it’s possible to have sex with a prostitute, kill her afterward, get your money back, and then, when the police show up, you can either cut them in half with a chainsaw or shoot them in the head with a shotgun”. For example, it’s possible to break any music CD, even one of gospel music, in two, and use it to stab a baby in the top of the head. It requires about as much imagination as killing a hooker in GTA IV — that doesn’t mean people go around doing it! Seriously.

If I were a killer in real life, I would probably find killing in GTA IV kind of boring. Likewise, though I don’t particularly mind reloading and then doing missions over all the way from the start when I fail or die, I get all weirdly antsy when bowling with an in-game “friend”. It lets me skip the “friend”‘s turn, though it doesn’t let me skip the animation of the ball coming out of the ball return. So there we have the framework of a mathematical proof that Games Do Not Create Evil: I am bored by the finer points of the in-game virtual bowling experience, just as some kids are enthralled by the ability to kill anyone in the game. In other words, when the game asks me to bear numb-faced witness to something I can do in real life, I am bored; the inverse of this is that I am enthralled when it offers me the chance to do something I can’t do in real life, like kill someone. I’m pretty certain that I’m psychologically incapable of actual murder, even in self-defense; if all the kids out there are equally excited when killing innocent people, that must mean that they, too, consider it something they could not possibly do in the real world. Maybe I’m on to something or maybe I’m being a jerk, though hey, there you have it. Fill in the blanks and win a Nobel Peace Prize.

The irony-loving mass media is alive, of course, with “sarcastic” “news” regarding the “lighter side” of GTA. How it’s not all about an eastern-European immigrant seeking revenge in a dark city — you can also eat hot dogs from street vendors, go bowling, play pool, obey traffic laws, et cetera. Few people, however, are adequately applauding the taxi system. What a brilliant addition — you can now hail a taxi, or call your cousin (who runs a car service) to summon a limo to your current location. This element right here isn’t “new” — it’s been around since Earthbound on the Super Nintendo, where you could order a pizza and have it delivered a randomly calculated interval of time later, even way outside of town — though it is quite necessary if a game is to create a “believable” world. It’s not just “realistic” — it’s courteous, and at the same time dead obvious. How bizarre was it, anyway, that the only way to travel in previous GTA games, at the beginning, was to literally steal an innocent person’s car? That’s a pretty huge oversight, I dare say. Of course, many cash-hungry game designers lifted the idea verbatim, resulting in all travel in Jak II, a game where you’re supposed to be saving people from oppression, being the result of hijacking the innocent peoples’ vehicles. By putting taxis into GTA IV they’ve elevated the game to the next plane — a higher plane than even the ability to pilot jet planes. Their simple presence makes the game all at once come together into something harmonious. Try riding a taxi from one end of the city to the other, and not skipping the driving scene. You can use the right analog stick to look out the window as the taxi streams over a bridge, golden sunset outside. It’s gorgeous. For an instant, that Holodeck future slips into view, and anything looks possible. Sometimes your taxi is stopped at an intersection in thick traffic, and the guy in the car next to you says in a loud voice “Man, this why I need a helicopter.” Classic. Then the weird little uncanny valley touches pop in: you’re walking down the street, and the game’s physics engine is excited enough to show you how people can drop cups of coffee if you bump into them. Of course they don’t pick the coffee up — it’s spilled, gone — though when it’s raining and you bump into someone and they drop their umbrella, they get appropriately peeved, and then just keep walking without picking the umbrella up again. No one remembered to tell that AI that it didn’t want to get wet — just that it should be carrying an umbrella until being interrupted.

And then there are the vast deserts of the brain: here, in this city, you can go to a comedy club, you can get drunk and watch the screen wobble terrifyingly. You can browse a hilariously-written semi-parody internet, with dead-hilarious PR copy for things like fictional beverages; you can read a “child beauty pageant” website and then, upon logging off, find yourself assaulted by a SWAT team. So why can’t you sit on a bench by the side of the road? Why can’t Niko sit down in a diner when he orders a hamburger? Why does he have to eat standing up? When you consider all the budget that must have been appropriated to the awesome radio stations, you really have to wonder about things like this.

In spite of how delicious and heavy and perfect I find the vehicle physics in GTA IV — this is GTA post-Burnout, of course, so the mouse-cursor physics of previous games just won’t do anymore — I labored, for the first twenty hours of play, to complete GTA IV without “stealing” a single car. Once I realized that cars taken during missions — like, when there’s a bike right there in front of you at the start of a mission, and you’re obviously supposed to ride it — don’t count as “stolen”, my quest was energized. I eventually gave up, though, because I accidentally stole taxis too many times. You have to hold the Y button to enter as a passenger. If you don’t hold the button all the way up to the part where Niko opens the back door, then he decides to steal the car. You might say that it doesn’t matter, or that it’s a weird thing to complain about, though really, with GTA IV, Rockstar has given the vehicles realistic physics, it has gifted the human bodies with realistic weight, it has included missions where you must choose to kill the target or let him live. It’s a “small” oversight that the game underestimates the difference between “I’m going to open the back door of this cab and get in as a passenger, and tell the man I want to go home” and “I’m going to walk up to this cab I just hailed, break the driver’s-side window with my elbow, drag the driver out by his neck, throw him onto the pavement, kick him in the ribs, get in his car, slam the door, sneer, and say ‘Nice car — JERK!'” Even in the mind of a man who was, say, in the military, I’m pretty sure there’s a cosmos-wide ravine in the mind between these two notions.

Then again, there’s apparently an Xbox Achievement, or something, awarded if you steal something like 600 cars. (I think?) Why can’t there be an Achievement for “clear all story missions without stealing a single innocent person’s car”? Probably because the game isn’t programmed to track something like that. They should get on it. It would be . . . nice, I guess. Maybe, if you manage to beat the game in such a way, you get a free super-car of some sort.

Of course, once I’m playing this game online, I have no qualms about being a jerk, stealing cars, standing in the middle of the road with a pistol, free-aiming, shooting drivers in the head, et cetera. It’s the New Hilarious. Once GTA IV emerges on the other end of the tunnel as The Only Game On Earth for Xbox Live kids, maybe that’ll spur on the team’s confidence in making a more strictly focused singleplayer. Who knows. Either way, I guess it’s a testament to the main character’s likability and his placement in the story — I didn’t want to make him do anything ridiculous. Speaking of Niko — I really think his voice could have been better. That they got a guy who isn’t Eastern-European kind of makes sense, if you think that maybe it’s, I don’t know, a jab at Super Mario. Still, they hadheckin’ Ray Liotta for Vice City — the least they could have done is get the lead singer from Gogol Bordello to do the voice of the main character. I mean, he’s a pretty great actor himself, and he’s even from New York. If you asked me, they kind of missed an opportunity.

Having seen how well they did with the GPS / cellular phone age, I kind of hope that the next GTA side-story will be set at least twenty years in the future, and possibly in some gritty Tokyo or Hong Kong replica, though maybe that wouldn’t work out, because what would the people talk about on the radio? They’d have to get so much more creative. (“Creative” is not a word I’d apply to the humor in GTA IV, perfect as it is most of the time — you need only read the comments thread on aYouTube video of a presidential debate or see two beer commercials or stand in an American supermarket for three minutes to be able to write a thousand jokes of this quality.) Part of GTA‘s charm is the heaps of social satire; in GTA IV, the radio segments are so well-written that they make even homophobia clever: the pundits will slam the violence in the game, though say nothing of the heaps of homophobia. While we’re at it, I have to wonder, since when are the “conservative” people the ones who support war? Since when is not wanting anyone to die unnecessarily strictly a belief of nose-pierced purple-haired freaks? No — must not start typing about things like that. Must go back to finishing this paragraph, and this review, with something that looks like the fantasy of a very fat person, so that people reading just the last sentence will get the impression they want to get: Yeah, I’d like a GTA: Near-Future Asian Metropolis, with squealing math-rock on every radio station. Man, I’d play that game all night! I’d probably have to switch this website’s rating scale to one-to-ten, just so I could give it a ten!

–tim rogers


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