Tuesday, April 22, 2008

GTA IV: Contextualization Edition


Nikki Finke was kind enough to pick up a post from my blog. In the preamble she described the game Grand Theft Auto IV as “loathsome.” I love Nikki, I love GTA, so I have to address the adjective. I could think of a lot of ways to describe GTA IV. Perhaps “mind boggling in scope,” “unbelievable achievement in game making,” “more technologically complex than the NASA systems that put a man on the moon,” or just “beautiful.”

GTA IV will be released on April 29 by a division of 2K Games called Rockstar. The game is actually the sixth installment in the series, all were created by the same core group of people. At the hub are Sam Houser, Dan Houser, and Leslie Benzies. The three men, together with Terry Donovan started Rockstar because they wanted to make games they would want to play. Mario is fun and all, but why couldn’t you turn off the Sopranos, and turn on a game which did not insult your intelligence? Gamers were aging, but the industry still viewed its consumers as emotionally stunted 12 year olds. Rockstar proved to be right. Today, the average age of a gamer is 33 years old and they want games that speak to adults. GTA IV is an "M" rated game - the industry equivalent to the MPAA's "R" rating - and will not be sold to anyone under 17.

The GTA series drives its medium forward and takes us where we’ve gone in films like Scarface and The Godfather. I am not stretching here, if we look at Roger Ebert’s original review for Scarface, we can easily replace the references to the film with references to GTA and make just as much sense.

The interesting thing is the way Tony Montana stays in the memory, taking on the dimensions of a real, tortured person. Most thrillers use interchangeable characters, and most gangster movies are more interested in action than personality, but "Scarface” is one of those special movies, like "The Godfather," that is willing to take a flawed, evil man and allow him to be human. . . .

Al Pacino does not make Montana into a sympathetic character, but he does make him into somebody we can identify with, in a horrified way, if only because of his perfectly understandable motivations. Wouldn't we all like to be rich and powerful, have desirable sex partners, live in a mansion, be catered to by faithful servants -- and hardly have to work? Well, yeah, now that you mention it. Dealing drugs offers the possibility of such a lifestyle, but it also involves selling your soul.

Isn’t the most troubling part of watching The Godfather, Scarface, or more recently, The Sopranos, feeling like you might do the same thing in the same situation? In GTA, you don't feel it, you do it. In each installment, you play a character, invited to prove himself to the bad guys. Instead of sitting and waiting to see whether Michael can take the gun out of the toilet and put a bullet in someone’s head, you do it. The game is not limited to large missions or tasks. Simple things serve to suspend your disbelief and move you further into the world than a film can. If you don’t like the song playing on the radio in your car, you change the station. If you want to work out, you go to the gym, your muscles will grow. You dictate the action and you make the decisions. While the game is no better lodestone for your moral compass than Scarface, there are consequences to your actions. If you commit a crime in public, the police will be after you. Like Tony Soprano, it may get pretty hot, but also like Tony Soprano the heat may die down without your going to jail.

GTA is violent, but like the movies, the violence is a reflection of our time. In 1972, Vincent Canby called The Godfather “. . . one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment.” Today it runs regularly, unedited, on basic cable. Eleven years later Scarface took violence further to reach same point, and 15 years later, The Sopranos brought more sex and more violence directly into our homes on pay cable. In each case, it was ok to watch. GTA shows us, it is ok to play. The game is a fantasy, it is ok to pretend. Don’t be scared of the people doing this stuff in the game. Be scared of the people doing this stuff in real life.




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