Grand Theft Auto IV

At the time of its release, Grand Theft Auto IV was hailed as the most important moment in the development of games as art, and their mainstream acceptance as such. It had the usual controversies, from reactionary conservatives as well as genuinely-offended feminists. The perfect scores poured in, then the imperfect scores, and the game’s adherents and detractors went to war in the comment sections of every review site on the internet. At times it seemed more was written about the popular frenzy surrounding GTA IV than about what was actually on the disk. With time, and the realization that GTA IV has neither revolutionized the public perception of games nor caused the world to end in an orgy of violent teenage crime, the game itself has started to come into focus. Grand Theft Auto IV straddles the line between the emergent play of pure sandboxes and the directed play of linear experiences, and so in many ways represents the best and the worst of video games, the boundlessness of their potential, and the tawdry limits of their imagination.

A tale of one city

GTA IV‘s setting, Liberty City, is about the only part of the game that received near-unanimous praise. Leigh Alexander wrote that the triumph of the series is world-building, especially since the world being built is so similar to our own. In her view, the constant complaints about what you can do in GTA games are really just complaints about the possibilities of our own world. Lorenzo Wang points out that the weather effects, lighting, and sense of place are key aspects in making the world resemble a humming metropolis. The incredible level of detail built into the game’s systems make the simple act of exploring this space a magical experience, according to Daniel Purvis. Tom Armitage argued that this detail and scope overwhelm the player at first, just as they do Niko, and make it so that the player shares his process of acclimatization.

Yet the city offers more than just a sense of raw majesty and immensity of scope. Chris Remo found that what really sold him on Liberty City as an immersive world were the mundane parts of Niko’s life. Watching TV, hanging out with friends, and slowing down for tolls engaged him with the city more effectively than the continuity of its landscape. Lewis Denby similarly found that GTA IV‘s greatest beauty lay in its ability to capture small, idiosyncratic moments that allowed him to get lost in the world. IGN blogger Napoleon1066 felt that this attention to mundane behaviors made Niko and the other characters more relatable.

Another part of Liberty City’s power was in its reactions to the player’s behavior. In this regard, the Euphoria engine governing character movement proved to be particularly effective in making the world believable, as Tom Francis explained. Euphoria and the AI governing pedestrian responses were also particularly effective in making Chris Baker question his violent actions. Jim Sterling pointed out that when the player fights Liberty City, the city fights back in believable ways. This pattern of reaction led Bobby Schweizer to describe public spaces in GTA IV as threatening, from a gameplay perspective, because of the possibility of taking bullets from so many directions and the likelihood of drawing police ire.

The praise was only near-unanimous, however. In a three-part piece for The Observer, Laura Cumming waxed rhapsodic about the city, but Bidisha dismissed it as being neither arcane nor realistic enough to be compelling. Mitch Krpata complained that occasional AI breakdowns, particularly with respect to the street cops, shattered immersion. And PixelVixen argued that the Liberty City was merely a great toy.

The curious case of Niko Bellic

Magical or mundane, the player experiences Liberty City through the persona of Niko Bellic, once a soldier in the Balkan wars, who has been irrevocably scarred by his time in that conflict. Bitter and cynical because of his experiences, Niko becomes part of the criminal underworld not because of a burning desire for wealth or power, but because murder is the only profession for which his life has prepared him. As Heather Chaplin writes for NPR, Niko moves through the city at a deliberate pace, as if physically weighed down by his past, and he feels little joy in what he is doing. Blogger Vitz711 concurs, taking the view that Niko’s journey into the criminal underworld stems from a loss of hope and loyalty. Niko is not proud of his actions, writes Jim Sterling, and through his interactions and the behavior of the game world the player gets to share that feeling. Despite his moral ambiguity, Niko seems to have a code, and Tony Rice, like many players, found himself making decisions based on what he thought Niko would do.

And yet, Niko does show a kind of joy – a drunken appreciation of power. He shouts out boasts in the game’s firefights, and it seems that once the gun enters his hand, he doesn’t mind killing so much after all. In the cutscenes, he constantly bemoans the violence, but that doesn’t stop him from murdering his way across Liberty City once the game part starts, as Trent Polack and Shamus Young point out. While Krystian Majewski felt that Niko’s tragic background made practically any behavior plausible, others were not so convinced. Spencer Greenwood felt betrayed and alienated by the awkward way the dealt with Niko’s attitudes towards crime. In part three of  a cross-blog dialogue, Stephen Totilo stated that he couldn’t interpret the character as anything other than sociopathic scum. N’Gai Croal, however, pointed out that the game shows us an endless procession of self-deluded characters like Manny Escuela and Brucie Kibbutz. Could Niko’s nice-guy routine fall into that pattern as well?

Of course, this sort of contradiction can be tolerable if you can convince yourself that you have no other choice. Sinan Kubba points out that Niko is a man resigned to his unhappy fate, totally aware of the futility of his situation. Could that self-perception relieve him of any principles he claims to have? Daniel Weissenberger takes this a step further, arguing that Niko’s emotional passivity is one of his key traits: he allows himself to be defined entirely by the things others have done to him. Niko may hate being a violent person, while at the same time believing he can be nobody else. In a conversation with a girlfriend, Niko can say that his war experiences “ruined” him. Is that a fact, or just his excuse?

Perhaps such ambiguity was unavoidable in a game of this kind. As Wes Erdelack points out, in this sort of game poses a dilemma: “The game’s protagonist must reflect the player’s choices, on one hand, and be someone in particular, on the other.” Tom Armitage points out that the player’s decisions about how often Niko hangs out with his friends gives the player unintentional control over his understanding of the character. The incoherence of Niko’s character might even reflect a design response to Erdelack’s dilemma. As one participant in a round table discussion at Valuable Games put it, Niko might be a kind of “ideological salad bar” of many motivations so that players can pick their favorite one and run with it. This gives the player a simpler kind of control over the perception of the character.

Drawing a line in the sand

The presence of a strong central character like Niko spotlighted GTA IV ‘s departure from previous entries in the series. As Stephen Totilo pointed out in part 2 of a cross-blog dialogue, the sandbox gameplay that had been the calling card of the series was supplanted in this game by a focus on character and narrative, which he felt was detrimental. N’Gai Croal welcomed the new direction, but felt that at the core there was a fundamental disconnect between the  developer-directed narrative of the cutscenes and the player-driven story of the gameplay. In the case of Grand Theft Auto, where the character’s behavior and the sandbox gameplay are, by their nature, transgressive, the imposition of a restrictive linear narrative can feel particularly limiting.

The problems caused by the combination of the dynamic sandbox world and the linear scripted narrative were recognized in two main forms. The first of these was the inability of the sandbox play to affect the story. Duncan Fyfe describes the issue succinctly: “it’s like a movie stapled to a video game.” Whatever choices the player makes don’t have any connection to Niko or even the story; they’re broken down into a pre-written framework. Ben Fritz points out that GTA IV allows the player to do so many things that are at odds with Niko’s character that one starts to wonder why nobody says anything. The free-form gameplay stretches credulity in other ways, as well. Participants in the Valuable Games roundtable wondered why Niko’s use of prostitutes or visits to the strip club had no effect on his romantic relationships. The narrative, even in its incidentals, found it impossible to accommodate the player’s freedom to shoot anyone. Tom Armitage, in a pair of posts, related his frustration that GTA IV negated his decision to kill the control-freak Jeff, and his mixed feelings when the game eventually offed Jeff for him.

The other significant problem, albeit one not unique to this entry in the series, was the excessive authorial control exerted in the game’s missions. As Shamus Young points out, the missions in GTA IV were over-scripted, brittle affairs where the player must figure out exactly what the developers wanted him to do or repeat them ad nauseam. Chuck Jordan argued that you’d have to play each mission at least twice: once to find out what to do, then again to actually succeed. GTA IV employs restrictive mission objectives that diminish the sandbox feel, according to blogger Zulu. Moreover, the game cheats by making certain characters or vehicles invincible until a particular set piece is completed, a fact that outright infuriated Arthur B. Several writers liken the experience to acting a part in an action movie where you don’t know the script.

This feeling likely stems from the admitted influence of film on the Rockstar games. As Dan Houser stated in a wide-ranging interview with Ben Fritz, Rockstar sees their competition as being the movies, not other games. Not everyone sees this effort as a positive. In a diatribe, Boss Nonnu argues that the obsession with melding games with film is embarrassing and juvenile. In the first part of the cross-blog dialogue, Stephen Totilo explains that the game fails on this point anyway, and never gets us to the point of playing a movie, in part because it defeats its own aims.

Wes Erdelack argues that part of the problem is that vast open worlds with epic stories, like those of GTA IV and Fallout 3, simply cannot deliver taut pacing throughout unless the mechanics of gameplay develop a player narrative that matches the developer’s. Justin Marks uses the example of GTA IV, among others, to argue that developers ought to make the gameplay into the narrative, rather than imposing the narrative as packaging through the use of cutscenes. Chuck Jordan points out that the game doesn’t do a good enough job early on aligning the player’s view of the narrative and the developer’s view of it, and makes the case that the real potential of interactive storytelling lies in collaboration between the player and developer. The closest GTA IV comes in this regard is its approach of doling out new gameplay possibilities as a reward for narrative advancement, as Shamus Young notes in comparing it to Saints Row 2.

The tension between the narrative and the gameplay caused some to view contradiction as the game’s defining feature.  Carlo Barbara described the game as a near-impossible balancing act between often-opposing influences. And even while arguing that GTA IV was the game of the year, Wes Erdelack nonetheless acknowledged, “GTA IV is less than the sum of its parts. It contradicts itself; it contains multitudes.

Full of sound and fury, signifying bullets

Opinions remain divided on whether the story being told warranted the sacrifice of the series’ historical gameplay traits. Trent Polack praised the game’s slow start, because it makes the first real shootout feel like the game-changer that it is. In his view, however, the effort to ratchet up the tension late in the game led to what he called “an uninteresting and nonsensical mafioso finale.” Duncan Fyfe argued that the game fell to pieces as it became more involved in the crime, that the real tragedy of GTA IV was that Rockstar abandoned an interesting story about immigrants for a ludicrous one about criminals. Bidisha, writing for The Observer, dismissed the whole as “bad guy-on-guy thug porn,” and Tom Chick identified the writing as one of the game’s great weaknesses because it eventually sank into stock gangster plots and lowbrow satire. Chuck Jordan felt even that fell flat: “I would appreciate seeing something that genuinely offended me,” he wrote, “as it is, I’m just kind of bored and annoyed.”

The mechanics of the plot also came in for some critique. Justin Keverne, among many others, pointed out that one key motivation of the story – Niko’s need for money – falls apart late in the game, when you’re likely to have hundreds of thousands of dollars. I personally contended that Rockstar were too willing to disregard common sense and character motivation in service of whatever would justify the cutscenes and set pieces they wanted to make.

Many who didn’t care for the direction of the plot nonetheless loved the game’s characters. Blogger dvader654 thought that the supporting cast, particularly early in the game, were colorful, unique, and engaging. He was disappointed that the game later largely discarded them in favor of colorless stock mafiosi. Pixelvixen, herself a fictional construct, felt Dwayne Forge was one of the best supporting characters of 2008. Daniel Purvis felt that the characters of The Lost & the Damned were even more realistic and intriguing. Wes Erdelack argued that the power of the supporting cast  derives from Rockstar’s skill at writing convincing human interactions. But the positive opinion of the cast was not universal. Tom Chick quit The Lost & the Damned because its characters were mainly brutal, simplistic thugs. Tom Cross gave up on the main game because he found its characters to universally fit horrible racist or sexist stereotypes.

Those who did make it to the end found a surprisingly subdued conclusion. No matter what choices Niko makes during the course of the game, he loses someone important to him, and gains nothing from his act of revenge. As blogger yamster points out, the friendship system allows you to create Niko Bellic’s character to some extent, but the story then forces you to destroy whom you have created. In a world full of power fantasies that end in glorious triumph, maybe GTA IV‘s most redeeming feature is that it doesn’t grant its chief thug a happy ending.

It’s a wanted level, not a karma level

Given the popular perception and gameplay reality of the series, perhaps it’s a bit odd to examine the role of morality in GTA IV. After all, this game belongs to a group of crime sims that take the murder of policemen too casually, as Matthew Kaplan points out. Leigh Alexander reported that some New Yorkers, angry over the Sean Bell murder, were interested in the game for precisely that reason. Here you have a game in which, infamously, you can hire a prostitute, then kill her to get your money back. GTA IV doesn’t punish you for that behavior, or move you one notch up or down on a good/evil scale. As Josh Birk says, “You can bring your ethics to the table if you want, but they’re just your ethics and the game doesn’t really give a damn.”

One consistent defense of Grand Theft Auto games is that they merely make abhorrent behavior a possibility, not a necessity. As Chris Baker points out, the public’s perception of GTA IV hinges on the outrageous things you can do, not the relatively tame things you must do, and the game doesn’t celebrate even the required violence. Yes, you can kill that prostitute, but you gain nothing by doing so that you couldn’t get just as easily by buying a $5 hot dog. Does that turn the situation into a test of your own morality? As a participant in the Valuable Games roundtable notes, really making a moral choice isn’t possible unless an immoral option is available. Some players felt that Niko’s attitude towards his situation and the way the world reacts to him don’t particularly encourage crime, either. Jim Sterling felt that Niko’s character and the depiction of certain interactions made killing, or even hiring, the prostitute seem unpleasant, cold, and sleazy. A subset of players reacted by challenging themselves to act as morally as they could within the confines of the game’s systems: strategies are still evolving to play through the game while committing as few crimes as possible.

The feeling that Niko would act in a certain way often guided player response to moments in the game when Niko can choose between two assassination targets, or to let his enemies go free. As Nick Dinicola mentions in his critique of karma systems, even though the player is free to choose to kill, say, Playboy X or Dwayne, the guiding principles of the main character point towards only one choice, even though there’s no explicit karma system. Several developers who played the game made their choice for just this reason, as did N’Gai Croal. Some, however, did not, and Wes Erdelack argued that the substantially better in-game reward for killing Playboy X poisons this dilemma. In general, however, the game doesn’t explicitly prefer any of Niko’s options, and this absence of obvious moral rectitude in most decisions struck blogger Droll as one of the games strengths.

Players did not generally react as well to the forced choice between Francis and Derrick McReary, in part because the game did not seriously engage the consequences of this decision. Niko’s relationships with the McReary clan continue, and there is little discussion of the missing brother. But this neutering of consequence did not always strip Niko’s choices of meaning. Blogger Jesusofwales praised the game’s willingness to let the player choose Darko’s fate without punishment or reward. Tom Chick concurred, stating that the decision to kill or spare Darko said more about the player than the game, and the somber drive afterward “forced you to think instead of watch or listen.”

Nayan Ramachandran, however, felt that dressing up certain choices as explicit moral decisions only served to trivialize the countless murders Niko committed in missions or just driving around. In this respect, Justin Keverne envisioned GTA IV as a test case for the categorical imperative: when murder and theft are trivial and allowed, life and property become meaningless.

Taking the low road on the American Dream

Is there a larger message in GTA IV to match the elaborately-designed city, a point of view on American life that justifies its violence and tawdry sexuality? When Corvus Elrod asked questions along these lines, That Fuzzy Bastard responded (comment #17) that the game should be taken not as a stab at gritty realism, but rather as an attempt at a Brechtian sendup of the ideas America incarnates. When Junot Diaz forcefully argued in a piece for the Wall Street Journal that GTA IV exemplifies America’s cultural evasions rather than its unpleasant realities , Wes Erdelack similarly replied that the game should be interpreted as low satire, a “funhouse mirror” look at the American Dream.

Spencer Greenwood takes this a step further, arguing that the game critiques the American Dream directly, not in its original form, but in the hedonistic view articulated by Packie McReary. In Greenwood’s interpretation, GTA IV accuses the American Dream of having devolved to nothing more than enjoying life as much as you can and leaving a bloated corpse when you go. Peter Conrad, writing for The Observer, similarly argues that “GTA IV is about the revved-up tempo and suicidal trajectory of our mechanised lives.” You can make any number of choices for Niko, but the best victory you can hope for is a hollow one. G. Christopher Williams comes to a similar conclusion. In his view, GTA IV is a consideration of the pursuit of happiness. Niko Bellic comes to America, lured by his cousin’s tales of riches and hot women, hoping to finally wipe out his horrific past, but the world posited by Rockstar makes that dream an empty one. As Williams puts it:

To condemn GTA as a game that thrives on wanton cruelty to achieve happiness is to condemn other “systems” (like the America portrayed by Rockstar as fixated on a pursuit of happiness) whose “rules” do likewise. GTA provides a game where criminal choice is one of the few options available, but the vision of America provided by GTA suggests a “game” of similar nature grounded in capitalism and greed.
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