The surprising narrative richness of Grand Theft Auto IV.

The art of play.
April 29 2008 12:32 PM

It's Not Just About Killing Hookers Anymore

The surprising narrative richness of Grand Theft Auto IV.

Chris Baker chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

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The plot of GTA IV doesn't just rehash moments from The Sopranos—it's full of surprise and laced with moral dilemmas. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, in which you played as a coldblooded ex-con, the toughest decision you had to make was whether to wear the plaid golf pants or the blue jogging suit.The protagonist of GTA IV, by contrast, was a combatant in some Kosovo-like conflict, and it's clear that he's haunted by it. He occasionally shows flashes of conscience, and some missions are designed to make you feel uneasy.Bellic works in crime because it's what he knows how to do, not because he has to satisfy his blood lust.

The game's supporting characters are also impressively fleshed out and nuanced. Hanging out and building relationships helps you get ahead in the game, but it can be its own reward. One night, a character named Dwayne invited me out for a night at a strip club. I agreed, part of an ongoing effort to get in good with him, so that he'd make some of his minions available to me when I needed backup. In the car, he told me about his state of mind, about the horrible things that he'd witnessed in prison, about how he'd lost the will to live.The quality of the script, the motion capture, and the voice acting made his monologue far more compelling than the C.G. exotic dancers gyrating in thongs. (In general, the character design is good and slightly stylized. But the more skin you can see, the deeper you fall into the Uncanny Valley.)

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The game's improved characterizations give far greater weight to the act of killing. Grand Theft Auto was never the most violent game going. In the sci-fi shooter Gears of War, you can chain saw enemy aliens until fountains of blood seem to splatter onto the inside of your monitor. But since the game's world is firmly entrenched in the clichés of 1980s blockbusters like Aliens, you feel some distance from it all. There's no such distance in GTA IV, where the physics of death feel shockingly real—bodies can't be blown apart or torn to pieces, but they react convincingly to explosions and severe impacts. Each death is a decision. At one pivotal moment, Bellic has to choose between killing two people—one a total jerk who could help advance his career, and one a good friend who can't do much for him. There's no right or wrong decision here—well, actually, there are two wrong decisions—and players will struggle to make the choice. No cheat code or online FAQ can help you here.

As you go through the game, your terrible deeds will stick with you. And not just in your memory—you'll hear them reflected back at you through television and radio newscasts. Yes, the game world is so detailed that it even has its own mass media. GTA IV's Liberty City is one of the most amazing virtual environments ever made, an ersatz New York City that includes everything from Central Park to Coney Island. You can spend hours listening to the in-game radio (many of the DJs are celebs—fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld holds down the mike on K109, where "Disco Never Dies!"), watching TV (there are cartoons, a Fox-like news network, and reality shows like America's Next Top Hooker), and admiring the architecture (there are homages to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, as well as lesser-known landmarks like the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens). Most amazingly, there's a full-fledged Internet with hundreds of Web sites (surf over to the home pages of the in-game version of Starbucks and Ikea for a few chuckles).

Each player will encounter a million different facets of this virtual world at his own pace and in his own unique order. It's the sort of experience that you can't get from any other medium, and no game has ever done it better than GTA IV. The reputation of the series might be too far gone for nongamers and politicians to appreciate the depth and richness of this amazing game. But Grand Theft Auto IV is not an orgy of death. It's a living, breathing place—and when you're forced to kill, it's nothing to celebrate.

Chris Baker is a writer and editor in San Francisco.

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