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.

Grand Theft Auto IV. Click image to expand.
Grand Theft Auto IV

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.)

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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.

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.)

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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