May 15, 2008

Grand Theme Auto: '08s Biggest Game Has Something to Say

Commentary

In 2000, Sega released Shenmue on an unprecedented 70 million dollar budget for the Sega Dreamcast. Set in Yokosuka, Japan, the developers set out to put the player in a living, breathing recreation of small town life in the 1980s. While the story was pulled along through encounters with seedy fellows and the mystery of who killed your father, much of the game was spent working odd jobs, making acquaintances, playing parlor games, and talking to sailors. It was one of the first games of its kind, and while the resulting gameplay was boring more often than not and the big budget production was ultimately a sales disaster, the immersion in the world was unparalleled. In the eight years since Shenmue's release, few games have matched that sense of place, that feeling of being somewhere that could be real. With the arrival of Grand Theft Auto IV we have a game that does for New York City what Shenmue did for Yokosuka and a thought-provoking social commentary and morality play to boot.

Like Shenmue, GTAIV presents its world not as a stone-cold accurate rendition of its base city, but as a world that nails so much of the aesthetics of the real thing that any geometric inaccuracies are moot. The infamous skyline looms in the distance in the initial hours of the game and when Algonquin, Liberty City's rendition of Manhattan, becomes available the trek across the bridge as the towering skyscrapers approach and nearly swallow you whole is nearly as awe-inspiring as the real thing. And it's not just those big moments that define the game and its world. On the contrary, it's the little touches that continually caught me off guard.

The minute details of our reality that Rockstar has brought into GTAIV can be easy to take for granted, but there are moments that hit so close to everyday life that I found myself stopping and wondering if I'd imagined them. You'll simply accept many of its touches like potholes, garbage in the water at Coney Island, dead leaves collecting in the side streets, and the ambient noise which is constant in all but the most remote areas; all elements that subconsciously immerse you in the world. Then a moment will come along that's a little too real. Cars clink and clank as they settle and cool down when you leave them. Phone signal is lost in tunnels and the radio makes that bip bip-bip-bip bip-bip-bip interference noise just before you get a phone call. A wild throw in bowling will send your ball into the opposite lane (something I've experienced in a real alley).

It's not to say the game is truly realistic. All of those details are at odds with the total disregard for traffic laws and wanton destruction you eventually cause. When you're flying over the city firing rockets out the side hatch of a helicopter you won't be thinking about how true-to-life it all is. No one is going to claim that GTAIV is a life simulator, but the downtime between missions can be entirely pedestrian. Even the opening missions border on mundane, a chance Rockstar took that paid off, drawing attention to all the elements of the world that set it apart from nearly any game before it. It was several missions into the game before I'd even fired a gun, and by then I'd already gone on a date, received a text message, watched TV, and got completely wasted, taking a taxi home.

The networked lifestyle you take on becomes one of the major themes of the game. While all of our technological advances have been slowly fed to us to the point where managing friendships over the internet is the standard, GTAIV is the first game to simulate it. With a fully functional cell phone, internet, email, TV, and radio, you forge friendships, relationships, and memorable events for the first time in a game, and it puts a little perspective on things. The absurdity of buying ring tones from your favorite in-game TV show, setting up online dates, and replying to emails from mom in a game made me realize how much we take it all for granted in real life.

Just as Shenmue was about life in the 80s (in Japan, anyway), GTAIV is about life now. All these immersive elements come together to tell a story with resonance. While the protagonist, Nico Bellic, is fresh off the boat in search of the American dream, a story that's become timeless, his path is certainly modern. When pushed to kill off a character I'd grown to like, after the deed had been done I stopped at an internet cafe and found an unread email from them, saying how glad they were I'd helped them out and suggesting we hang out soon. I wanted to try out the online dating site in the game, and when I picked up the girl I felt bad that I'd turned Nico into a murderer and a cheater, having a girlfriend at the time. Experimenting further I picked up one of the series' infamous prostitutes, selected from three different "services" and watched with shame as the dialogue and animation was much more graphic than the hilarious car bouncing (with the two parties sitting quietly in their respective seats) I was used to from previous GTAs.

It's that detachment from everything that made the previous Grand Theft Autos nothing more than a violent playground for me, but here all your actions carry a little more weight. Even driving, which was so stylized in previous games and much more realistic here, can say something about a person. While I never followed traffic laws, I made a point to never run over innocent pedestrians, and I almost always paid the bridge tolls. At the same time, when it came to the so-called bad guys I found myself to be ruthlessly opportunistic. A dirty cop asked me to take down a local dealer, and rather than meet him face-to-face I blew his head off with a sniper rifle from across the street and ran off on a motorbike. I later found out if I'd gone and talked to him I could have worked things out more peacefully.

You can't always feel bad though, as the game pushes Nico as a character as much as you are his puppet master. He's one of gaming's strongest protagonists, with a story to be told and moral compass all his own. When forced to kill one key player or another, there is no option to let them sort it out themselves, or kill both. Take that as limited game design or keeping the plot to only two possible paths, but I saw it as part of Nico's character. He's a soldier, he's given a mission, and he carries it out. The option of sparing both of their lives was never there for him.

The limited freedom of choice, the realistic world juxtaposed with excessive violence, and the borderline misogyny (a topic for another article entirely) threaten to tear down the whole thing. Ultimately, Rockstar strikes a balance and it all comes together. Few games (and almost no action games) push you to think about the world, or even about yourself, and when games stop simply being about rules or beating an opponent, it's the ones that make you reflect that will ultimately matter. It's weird to say all this about Grand Theft Auto, but in this newest version it's true. And while Shenmue's living, breathing world was an inspiration for GTAIV, GTAIV will surely be an inspiration for an even more memorable game. Hopefully we won't have to wait another eight years.
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