Slate contributor Chris Baker was online at Washingtonpost.com on May 1 to chat about the narrative richness and moral conundrums of Grand Theft Auto IV. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Chris Baker: Hi everyone! This is Chris Baker, and I'm a senior editor at Wired magazine. I'm here to answer your questions about a piece I wrote for Slate about Grand Theft Auto IV, as well as whatever you'd like to know about the series or about games in general.
Bethesda, Md.: I own a PlayStation 2, any chance that they eventually release a modified version of Grand Theft Auto IV for the PSP and PS2? Do I have to bite the bullet and get a PlayStation 3?
Chris Baker: Hi there! GTA4 really pushes at the edges of what the Playstation 3 (and the Xbox360, it's available for two game consoles) can do. I don't think there's a chance of it appearing on the last generation of game consoles like the Playstation 2 or the original Xbox. I'd say you'll probably need to bite the bullet ...
Cleveland, Tenn.: Does it still have that stupid eat/exercise dynamic?
Chris Baker: You're referring to the way that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas let players customize their appearance by eating a lot to become fatter or by starving themselves to become thinner. There were also in-game gyms where you could log time on an exercycle or doing reps on a weight bench to make your character more buff. This actually figured into the game play—certain female characters preferred guys who were a little big-boned, or who had lots of muscles. You needed to alter your body type if you wanted to woo them.
That's gone from this game. Eating food still replenishes your character's health, though. (Just shot in the face? Stop off and get a hotdog, and you'll be good as new!)
GreenwichJ: This game is evil and should be banned ... that's what my wife said when I bought it. Her opinion was entirely based on a couple of newspaper articles. Which really begs the question—what's more dangerous, "murder simulators" like Grand Theft Auto IV, or sensationalist journalism designed to scare the masses half to death?
Chris Baker: There certainly is a lot of hue and cry in the mainstream media surrounding games, especially GTA. Jack Thompson, a lawyer who's often tapped to appear on TV news and comment on games, had this to say:
"Grand Theft Auto IV is the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio. We now have vaccines for that virus. ... The 'vaccine' that must be administered by the United States government to deal with this virtual virus of violence and sexual depravity is criminal prosecutions of those who have conspired to do this."
Grand Theft Auto IV is definitely not for kids. (It's rated M for Mature, the equivalent of an R rating for films, and can't be sold to anyone under 17. I'd seriously caution any parent to learn more about the game before deciding if it's appropriate for their kids.)
But there hasn't been any definitive research showing that virtual violence in video games can spill over into real world behavior.
There's an excellent new book out by David Hajdu called the Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. It looks back at the hue and cry surrounding comics in the early 1950s. I think to a certain extent, the hysteria surrounding video games nowadays is similar to what Hajdu describes, and lots of new mediums seem to spark this kind of reaction—especially mediums that are very popular with young people.
Manassas, Va.: Well, I am a big fan of Grand Theft Auto, and I love the game. The fact that I like the game does not mean that I go killing people in real life. Would you consider that the game somehow helps relieve stress in teenagers, and that it is better to play a game that is somehow sadistic but doesn't hurt anybody?
Chris Baker: I think playing an action game can be cathartic. Here in the Wired office, my fellow editors and I will take breaks a couple of times a day to go kill each other for 5 or 10 minutes in Halo 3, and it's a great stress reliever.
I'm not sure about the appropriateness for teens. But certainly a lot of kids' play involves imaginary good-versus-evil combat—cops and robbers in the park if not cops and robbers on a game console.
Chicago: Have you talked to other people who are morally disturbed by the game's story? Is this a common reaction?
Chris Baker: Yes, I've talked to a few other reviewers who've played through the game. My friend Will Tuttle, an editor at GameSpy, compares the game's story to Doctorow's novel Ragtime. But he said that the violence was frequently unnerving, and carried more weight than in past entries in the series.
"They're using the Euphoria engine to create disturbingly realistic ragdoll animations," says Crispin Boyer, a Senior Executive Editor at the 1UP Network who gave the game an A+. "Nail a pedestrian with your car and they'll bounce around like Evel Knievel botching a bike jump. It's sickeningly real—kinda makes your stomach lurch sometimes."
Arlington, Va.: Is there anywhere in the new Liberty City where I can get some good coffee?
Chris Baker: You can't get "hot coffee," but there is a mission where you can get some "warm coffee." (Inside joke for GTA players; not sure it's worth explaining to non-geeks.)
Bethesda, Md.: Chris—you commented that the violence is more realistic and disturbing in GTA IV. Suppose you shoot someone and then hide around the street corner ... do passersby start to assist your victim? Do an ambulance and police car show up after a short time?
Chris Baker: The crowd does respond realistically—some people will flee, and others will run aup and help or try to fend you off. An ambulance will be called, and some passersby might dial 911. In general, the way pedestrains react to you—and to each other—is amazing. You can actually just stand around watching people, listening to their phone conversations, watching them have fender benders and getting into fights, etc. with no involvement from you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
Washington: Hey, do you see more video games taking this approach to development, in terms of providing detail and depth in story-based games that give the user a feeling of an interactive "movie-based" environment? Or will Grand Theft Auto be the only series to tread that terrain (aside from Saints Row)? Thanks.
Chris Baker: We've seen a lot of games try and do explorable open world environments in the wake of GTA. Spiderman games let you websling all over gotham, True Crime set you loose in LA and New York, Crackdown was set in a scifi metropolis, Jak 2 was like Mario in a cartoony dystopia ...
We'll probably see even more open world games in the near future. But the design challenges are enormous, and I think some games simply don't benefit from an open world. Let's face it, commuting can be boring.
Washington: I watched my boyfriend play this game for about 20 minutes last night and I, too, was struck by how Niko has a background and a conscience. I remember the past games featured a main character who just didn't care about anything and you didn't care about him. But taking a girl out for bowling and conversation? That made me think running over hookers might not be as fun with this character.
Chris Baker: Yes, the conversation you mention also stood out to me. For people who haven't played the game: The protagonist is a newly arrived immigrant about to go on his first date. He suggests that they go to the "fun fair", the in-game version of Coney Island. His date is bemused and a little put out that he'd want to do something so cheesy, but she feigns a little enthusiasm to be polite. And then they go bowling. It may sound mundane, but the richness and subtleness of the characterizations surprised me.
Alexandria, Va.: Any word on a PC version?
Chris Baker: Not yet! Fingers crossed ...
Falls Church, Va.: "But there hasn't been any definitive research showing that virtual violence in video games can spill over into real world behavior." Fine, but the person I know who works in public elementary schools says that the kids with the worst ADD problems, lack of focus, etc., also tend to play the most video games. I'm headed outside, see ya.
Chris Baker: Hi! There's definitely a question of causation versus correlation. Are kids with short attention spans drawn to games, or do games give kids short attention spans?
Games aren't simply immediate gratification in some cases. Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good for You points out that many young gamers are learning about delayed gratification from games. You need to save up your in-game money or points for some long-term (eg ten hours later in the game) goal.
Alexandria, Va.: So what is the difference in the violence in games I played as a kid (Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, Sword fighting (with sticks or wiffleball bats))? Did parents complain when Johnny came home saying he just scalped 20 injuns? Seems to me that parents and society is at an upheaval because video games are something they don't understand.
Chris Baker: I agree wholeheartedly.
I guess the knock against games would be that when you're playing Cops and Robbers, at least you're interacting with other kids and getting some exercise. But many gamers are playing with others, either through online mutliplayer or with friends there in the room. And games like Dance Dance Revolution and the upcoming Wii Fit are great exercise ...
St. Louis: Chris, are the regulators getting any traction on censoring games, Or is it just a flash in the pan that will go nowhere? Personally I'm a lousy gamer but my son, who is now a middle-aged bank vice president, chills out several times a week with GTA or something equally gruesome, as do all his friends. All of them have been playing violent video games since they were in middle school, and they represent a cross-section of law-abiding citizenry. If society is going to crumble, it's more likely to be from the gas prices, in my humble opinion.
Chris Baker: It must be said that the games industry has a ratings board similar to the MPAA called the ESRB. There's a lot of railing against games, but no traction in somehow replacing this independent ratings board with stricter government oversight.
Also, it's important to note that the Entertainment Software Association, a lobbying/PAC outfit for the games industry, just launched. I think games will soon employ the same sort of lobbying muscle that the film industry and the music industry does. We'll see if games continue to be a media bugbear when that happens.
Washington: What do you think of the idea of letting people play different characters within Grand Theft Auto? It would be a lot more interesting if I could be the cops or the ambulance driver ...
Chris Baker: There's actually a player-created mod of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in which people log on and be taxi drivers or cops.
There's a massively multiplayer cops and robbers game in the works. It's called APB, and it's being headed up by one of the guys who created the GTA games.
Sacramento, Calif.: I have not played the game, but I'm curious about the in-game reality. What is the law enforcement reality in the game? Can the character be arrested and taken to prison? Is so, are there lawyers? Prosecutors?
Chris Baker: Law enforcement is sharper. Some police are suicidally brave, some are shrewd and cautious some will flee at the first sign of danger. Get arrested and you'll pay a huge fine (bribe) and have your weapons confiscated. But then you're back on the street.
Richmond, Va.: I think when "Ambulation" finally hits for Eve Online we'll see the single most immersive game ever made. The technical gameplay, the complexity of how the world works and is driven by player warfare and economics, is already there. But actual characters (aside from portraits glued to the hull of a starship) were completely missing. The new footage and sound design for avatars is stunning. If people want to see where the cutting edge of gaming is, Grand Theft Auto IV is a fine start, but "Eve Online" is the future today.
Chris Baker: Eve is really an astonishing game. I think the experience is sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum from GTA, though. So much of what's so incredibly compelling about Eve is what the players bring to it, whereas GTA is a single-player experience that has been totally planned out and designed before it's release.
Washington: Chris Baker: "Here in the Wired office, my fellow editors and I will take breaks a couple of times a day to go kill each other for five or 10 minutes in Halo 3, and it's a great stress reliever." Where is said Wired Office and are they hiring?
Chris Baker: Hahah! It's not all fun and games, but that is a nice perk of being on this beat.
Chicago: What about the prostitutes and treatment of women? Which is more uncomfortable for you as a man playing this game: killing civilians and cops or paying for fake sex and then killing the virtual sex worker? Also, do you know anyone who has said that the game is an arena to play out their sexual and/or violent fantasies? (I'm not a gamer. Just trying to understand how this could be appealing!)
Chris Baker: Hi there! I think a lot of people engage in these acts just because of the novelty, because it's something a game never allowed you to do before. I don't know of anyone who finds it erotic. And as I said in my piece, that's something that players CAN do because the game is so open-ended; it's not something that players HAVE to do.
Silver Spring, Md.: Hey Chris—as an avid gamer myself, I actually lost sleep anticipating this GTA. My question to you is, do you think the ultimatums that GTA IV gives you in the game (i.e. the choice to knock someone off or save them) is giving gamers the choice to do the right thing? It also proves to be pivotal in the game when these decisions come about ... what do you think about these interactions in the game?
Chris Baker: I think the deeper writing and characterizations add a richness and a level of nuance to a the game. But it's still sort of like the Sopranos, it's about very bad people who do very bad things, though some characters are comparatively more ethical and honorable than others.
Bethesda, Md.: What about "Insane Stunt Bonuses" from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas?
Chris Baker: Still there!
Silver Spring, Md.: On a scale from 1-10 how do you rate Grand Theft Auto IV in terms of graphics, presentation, sound, controls and overall experience? And if you don't mind could you briefly justify those scores?
Chris Baker: I don't do the numerical scoring thing, especially without playing through the game at leisure to really absorb it. GTA4 really is excellent though. There's a bit of frame-rate dipping, and the pop-in that plagued previous versions of the game is still there. But all of the other aspects of the game are absolutely excellent.
Chris Baker: Well, that's all the time I have. Thanks for your questions, and thanks to all of you for reading!