Monday, April 28, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV: Compassion and Consequence

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While the enthusiast press has spent the last 24 hours trying to outdo each other with more and more outlandish ways of saying "Grand Theft Auto IV is very, very good," I have to say that my favorite piece of criticism so far came from the New York Times. Seth Schiesel's excellent piece does a wonderful job of conveying what it's like to step into Niko Bellic's boots, and work through the tragic story at the heart of Rockstar's latest masterpiece.

To say that GTA IV is a game I've been "looking forward to" would be a spectacular understatement. I've been chastised in the past for using expressions like "my favorite" and "best ever" in association with this franchise, but time after time it delivers so perfectly. San Andreas is still one of my favorite games ever, and now GTA IV continues to make my jaw drop each and every time I pick up the controller. For all the talk of its violence, and its grit, IV is a truly elegant game. The way the story unravels, and the characters blossom is a thing of real beauty.

As I've mentioned before, in the run up to the release of the game we were asked for a "parent perspective" comment from a lot of different new outlets. As you'd expect, a common theme in the questioning was the ugliness of GTA: the sex, the drugs, and the violence. Reporters would ask why such a cold, heartless game was so popular. What no one understands, it seems, is that when you wipe off the blood, and the "smell of titty" (as Niko's brother Roman so eloquently puts it early in the game) what sets GTA apart is that it has heart.

After reading all the enthusiast press reviews, I was surprised that very few of the reviewers looked past the mechanical "perfection" of the game, and really stared into its soul. If there's ever an audience willing to go deeper on a game of this magnitude, I'd like to hope that it's gamers. Grand Theft Auto is such an established franchise, that for the enthusiast audience there is much that needn't be discussed. The mechanics of the game can be taken as read. Yes, the combat is better, and the lip-syncing is wonderful, but these are things we expect from the newest generation of one of the world's most successful games franchises.

Given that the infamy of GTA precedes any rational discussion of it, there is much to be said about what lies beneath. If you look past the graphics, or the controls, or even the wonderful performances from the numerous characters, this is a game that genuinely has something more to offer. The reporters asking about the ugliness would be surprised to learn, for example, that the notion of "consequence" has been alive and well within the franchise since 1997. Doing bad things makes life difficult for the player. This is something that fans have had plenty of time to get used to, but to many it's quite a revelation. Beyond this, the real soul of IV is Niko himself. Much as CJ was far more complex than just a stereotypical gangbanger in San Andreas, GTA IV bares its soul through it's antihero. Complex, tortured, self-loathing, and deeply flawed, he is far more than the crude caricatures we so often see in games. He frequently questions the ugly things he is forced to do, he bares his soul to strangers little piece by little piece, and he shows compassion for targets he is sent to kill. As the game world opens up, so too does its central character. The satirical view of modern day America is viewed through his eyes, and while the game is many things; witty, violent, challenging, intriguing, and exciting, what it really represents is a modern day tragedy.

As Schiesel says, it "sets a new standard for what is possible in interactive arts."
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