Chris Baker discusses the treatment of violence and morality in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 1 2008 2:23 PM

Kill Joy

Chris Baker takes readers' questions about the treatment of violence and morality in the new Grand Theft Auto video game.

(Continued from Page 1)

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Washington: My sense is that this game is a bit darker, and challenges one's morals more than previous editions of "Grand Theft Auto." But does it still retain some of the fun irreverence for which the series is known?

Chris Baker: Absolutely. There's some quirkiness in the main storyline, and of course you get a lot of humor through the mass media. I wrote a brief impression on that for Wired, it sort of gives you a sense of the dark satirical edge to the GTA games. Click here to read it.

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New York: Okay full disclosure—I am a geezer who is not a gamer, but I am getting more and more interested in it. My IT guy who helps me keep my business going is a major gamer and makes fun of me, as does one of the guys in the office. They are "Halo 3" heads. That's the background. So I am old and inept but wanting to know more. Reading about "Grand Theft Auto IV" is making me very very curious about gaming. How does one go about getting some first-hand knowledge in preparation for becoming a gamer?

Chris Baker: I'd start by renting a game console and a few games from Blockbuster, to see if you really want to sink hundreds of bucks into this hobby. The Wii is very accessible, but GTA4 is only available on the PS3 or Xbox360.

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Washington: "Grand Theft Auto IV" is a lot slower and less cartoonish than "Vice City" and "San Andreas." Plus, it seems like there are police everywhere! Do you think by making a senseless crime spree more difficult to execute in "Liberty City," it diminished the cathartic value the series provides nice kids from the suburbs?

Chris Baker: Hi there! The cops certainly are smarter and harder to elude in this latest version. I think the developers are consciously trying to minimize the amount of random killing sprees players go on by making it harder to evade arrest. Some people are sure to be frustrated, but the central story is so much more compelling, I didn't mind.



Besides, the new online multiplayer modes are the perfect outlet if you're craving senseless violence. You can compete in chaotic street races that play out like the chariot sequence from Ben Hur, but with machine guns instead of whips. Or imagine sixteen players running around an ersatz Ellis Island, each armed with a rocket launcher.

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Alexandria, Va.: I beat the game Fable playing a relatively "good" person. For replay, I tried to beat it "evil." Couldn't do it—early on, to be evil, you have to steal dolls from kids. Even as a game, I couldn't do it.

Chris Baker: The game Bioshock, which is brilliant, also turns on whether the player can bring themselves to create a really terrible act or not.



That being said, I think non-gamers really don't understand the way that a player might do something terrible just as an experiment, to see what happens, to see how many options the game designers have created for them. It's not necessarily proof that you're a bad person to test the limits of a game's possibility space—though many of us will want to quit and restart the game from a point before we did something wicked.

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Washington: I have read that the lead guy now has a conscience. Is this true? How does it work?

Chris Baker: The lead character's conscience is mostly expressed through the game's excellent dialogue, and through morally ambiguous situations he finds himself in.

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Seattle: I have played all the Grand Theft Auto 3 games, including "Vice City" and "San Andreas." I was wondering how much time Rockstar took to model the city in Grand Theft Auto IV after New York? Some of the locations (like the virtual Times Square) really look spot-on. Did they have a big staff on the ground?

Chris Baker: It truly is mind-boggling how detailed the recreation of the Big Apple is in the latest game. Rockstar Games is headquartered in NYC, and I know that they went on fact-finding expeditions to Cali for San Andreas and to Florida for Vice City (bunch of pasty Scottish game designers got terrible sunburns!)

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: If Wolfenstein 3D, the original DOS-based game released by id Software in 1992, is the benchmark, how far up the evolutionary scale would you place Grand Theft Auto IV? I played the original Wolfenstein on our company's computers (engineering firm) back then. I was impressed at how far gaming had come since the '70s, when Pong arrived on the scene. I assume progress in game development, like much of science and engineering, is exponential. Is game development keeping up with the expectations that hype and younger generations place upon it, or is it entering the region now of flatter returns, where actual results start to dampen desires, to borrow another metaphor? Thanks much from an old engineer.

Chris Baker: I think you'd be amazed at the scope and the depth of the game world in GTA4. Steal a car and it really will take you 15 or 20 minutes of driving to traverse the environment—even longer at rush hour. It's certainly as mind-boggling to me now as Wolf3D was to me in 1992.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm an adult gamer, and I generally like open-ended worlds where you can do as you like (like Oblivion, say). I've avoided Grand Theft Auto games like the plague, though, because I honestly feel bad killing people in games. In Bioshock, for example, I can't bring myself to "harvest" the little girls, even if they are monsters. In Mass Effect, I'm the good guy, and only play the bad guy role to see what other options are there. So my question is: Is Grand Theft Auto IV any different? Is there a way to be a "good" guy? Your review appeared to imply there was, but I don't want to play a game for hours if I'll feel guilty. I have real life for that.

Chris Baker: There's no way to be good in GTA4—there are degrees of badness and shades of gray, but it may not be what you're looking for.



If the violence of GTA puts you off, I strongly recommend picking up Bully to get a sense of the cleverness and the richness that Rockstar Games are capable of. (It's available for Wii, Playstation2 and Xbox360.) The developers call upon every cliché of high school from the Breakfast Club to Archie Comics to Enid Blyton to Saved by the Bell, and create this brilliant kid-friendly GTA-at-a-private-school game. It's built around adolescent rebellion and mischief instead of drive-bys and drug trafficking.

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