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.
As you'd probably expect from the reputation of the series, Grand Theft Auto IV includes—let's quickly consult the label—blood, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and use of drugs and alcohol. Yes, concerned teenage boys of America, if your parents are irresponsible enough to let you get your hands on this, you can still kill and maim and plunder and screw until your heart is full. But there's a difference this time: The violence is no longer cartoonish. Shoot an innocent bystander, and you see his face contort in agony. He'll clutch at the wound and begin to stagger away, desperately seeking safety. After just scratching the surface of the game—I played for part of a day; it could take 60 hours to complete the whole thing—I felt unnerved. What makes Grand Theft Auto IV so compelling is that, unlike so many video games, it made me reflect on all of the disturbing things I had done.
I didn't do much reflecting during the earlier GTA games. Sure, there was always some snappy dialogue and a few interesting twists, but the GTA story arc never amounted to much more than a pastiche of classic crime and gangster thrillers—the fun was spotting plot points lifted from the likes of Goodfellas and Miami Vice. After about 10 or so hours of play, though, I would always start to lose interest in the core story. But while the plotlines have been relatively predictable (if unrepentantly violent and profane), the games' worlds are so large, and the range of activities you can engage in so limitless, that Grand Theft Auto is known less for its game play than for free-form mayhem. As such, GTA's image has come to be defined by the most extreme stuff that players are allowed to do, not the comparatively tame stuff that they're compelled to do. Grand Theft Auto is known as the game in which you can pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then kill her and get your money back. You never have to do that to advance in the game; the world is simply so open-ended that you can do it. (I imagine that's no comfort to Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton.)
The distinction between what you're allowed to do and what you're compelled to do is more meaningful to people who actually play games. All of us have tested the limits of what Will Wright calls a game's "possibility space." In a World War II game, for instance, it's informative to try to shoot your own sergeant the first time you play. It tells you instantly if the game will let you kill your comrades—some do, and some don't—and whether you need to worry about causing a friendly-fire incident. More often, players will resort to this sort of boundary-testing when they become bored or frustrated with the game's more concrete goals. I'm the type of GTA player who polishes off around half of the missions, an accomplishment that unlocks large swaths of the game world and scores you access to nicer crash pads and more powerful weapons. But then there's invariably some mission that's so involved and difficult, or requires me to crisscross the town so many times to get back to the starting point, that I give up and go for lower-impact entertainments, like turning on the cheat codes so I'm invulnerable and have a tank and a rocket launcher with unlimited ammo. Then I try to rack up a body count that would make Attila the Hun jealous.
I'm guessing that fewer players will reach that breaking point with GTA IV. I'm not even close to finishing, but based on my play experience so far, and in talking with reviewers who have finished the game, I get the sense that freewheeling killing sprees will no longer be the main draw. This is partly because the central missions and story are so well-conceived and well-written compared with previous iterations of the game and partly because the violence is far more disturbing.
The narrative of GTA IV is a variation on the rags-to-riches tales found in gangster movies dating back to the original Scarface and Little Caesar. (Only you don't get your just deserts in GTA. Or if you do get your just deserts, you can simply restart from your last save point and try again.) Our anti-hero is Niko Bellic, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who has done terrible things that he'd like to forget. Follow the game's missions—he'll do work for the Russian mob, Irish gangsters, the Mafia, biker gangs, Latino drug kingpins, Rastafarian arms dealers, and corrupt congressmen—and you'll commit innumerable murders and thefts to get ahead.
Chris Baker is a writer and editor in San Francisco.
Still from Grand Theft Auto IV. Copyright 2008 Rockstar Games.