Calling a game like GTA IV "hyper realistic" sounds incendiary -- in fact, that's how people like Jack Thompson refer to it. But the unfortunate thing about GTA IV is that it is.
No, I'm not referring to the gameplay or suggesting everyone loves to steal cars and beat whores. I'm not referring to the characters or the storyline either, though those have taken strides forward over previous installments. I don't even mean the atmospheric, highly detailed environments, nor the stunning-scale rendition of New York City, which is just "off" enough to be disorienting.
It's really a shame that GTA IV gets reduced in shorthand to the "crime sim," the "cop killer game," or the "game where you steal cars and beat whores." Because in many ways, it's really the most intelligent and forward-leaning thing we've got, the largest testimonial to the idea that all of that "potential of games as a medium" stuff we discuss is possible.
The best part of the GTA series is its periphery -- the TV, the radio, the background color, the locations, the vibe. At every turn, we encounter exaggerated parodies of paranoid parents, out-there religious types, oblivious hypocrites and people with raging entitlement complexes. It's easy to theorize that these are clever screw-yous to the very groups that deride the game and bemoan its existence. But an even handed look finds equal distaste for game-zombie children, weapons fanatics (so far, my fave part of the game is the knives commercial), escapists, and those obsessed with sex and libertine excesses.
I played through the game for my first couple hours without hurting a thing (except my car's headlights; I'm quite a bad driver). There's no reason to cause havok in the streets -- except that it's fun. Rockstar didn't so much make a violent game as it made a game that lets players be violent.
I'd say it's more a commentary on our society than on the video game industry that, given the opportunity, we have the urge to take things to that kind of extreme. And that principle in general seems to be what drives GTA IV.
As with San Andreas' LA ghetto sons, the story focuses on another demographic that might end up falling through the cracks in the real world, and lets an ambassador from that group live out an at-all-costs rise to fame and revenge story. It's always struck me as a painful, angry sort of game -- even as it laughs at the most terrible aspects of humanity -- and possessed of an emotional complexity that's taken to new levels in the latest installment.
People are mad that you can go to strip clubs and pick up prostitutes in GTA IV. But you can do that in real life; the Liberty City streets show us no more and no less than the worst of what exists in the real world. If people have a problem with the "realism" of GTA, then they've got a problem with society.
Yeah, lots of things in that game are really, really awful. But the sad part is it's not a fantasy - stuff like that goes on in real life. GTA as a series never shies away from the ugliest parts of humanity -- it mushes your face into 'em, and then laughs at you.
The weird thing is that playing it wrings me with a warm rush of affection, too -- you have to love something to satirize it this much, to lash it so brutally. Strange to say it, but it is, it's a really loving portrayal. For a game that's at times hilariously vulgar, it's dazzlingly intelligent.
Anyway, I've said a lot that playing the game means a little something extra to me because I'm a New York resident, and my latest at Kotaku has some surprising feedback from some real New Yorkers on what GTA IV means to them. I generally feel neutral about the articles I write, but I'm happy with how this one turned out, so I'd love to know what you guys think.
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