I was chatting with Mary Jane at Forbes last night about GTA IV, and over the course of discussing the way the game unfolds we actually stumbled upon what I think has long been the true genius of the GTA franchise. For all the talk in the press of the nasty stuff that the game enables you to do, very little of the discussion ever goes beyond that. As I mentioned yesterday, the vast majority of GTA coverage tends to be of the mechanics, and it's clear that what GTA really excels at is giving you the freedom to do whatever you want. Just because you can do something though, doesn't mean that you have to.
The true genius of the franchise is that it makes YOU the monster, rather than presenting you with a monster to control.
There's nothing making you run down pedestrians. You don't have to shoot the cops when you're trying to escape from that warehouse. There's nothing that says you have to get your jollies from hookers. Sure, you do have to take out the bad guys, and there are some terrible things served up as part of the narrative, but the truly monstrous things are, for the most part, purely voluntary. The franchise has been doing this since the early days, but the depth that Rockstar has brought to Niko's character makes it far more apparent. He is a reluctant monster. A recovering monster who only really becomes evil when you direct him to be so.