The Good, the Bad, and the Future: Grand Theft Auto IV

Take another look at this generation's perfect game, and then look ahead at what Rockstar could have in store for GTA V.

February 17, 2010 - One of the meanest lines I've ever written about a game was in reference to Grand Theft Auto IV's story, which I described as "the kind of Godfather/Soprano's fan-fiction that a couple of over-zealous masochists might grind out in a coffee house." I read the column again after I finished The Ballad of Gay Tony, the last apparent, installment in the GTA IV cannon. I remember writing the line, trying to pack all of the different feelings I had about the game and its characters into a single sentence. The game was nearly perfect, and yet it was frustratingly incomplete. Metacritic has the aggregate critical response at a near-pristine 98, while user reviews hover uneasily at 79. So what is the truth about Grand Theft Auto IV? Almost two years after its release and with both downloadable episodes out, the GTA IV cycle is finished; Rockstar is ready to move into new territory. Before the gaming world moves on, it's worth looking back to appreciate GTA IV's achievements, remember all the things it missed on, and imagine what could possibly come next.

The Good: A Better Bowl, and a Touch of Grime
Before anything else Grand Theft Auto IV was hailed as a work of unprecedented scope and detail. Hilary wrote it "gives us characters and a world with a level of depth previously unseen in gaming and elevates its story from a mere shoot-em-up to an Oscar-caliber drama." Seth Schiesel praised it as a "violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of social satire disguised as fun." Leigh Alexander called it an "essay on freedom of behavior, a fantasy world where morality is suspended, both subjective and selective." So how do all these impassioned adjectives manifest themselves in the actual game?

Some games pull inspiration from film or literature. GTA IV attempted to pull inspiration from reality.
The series has often been compared to a sandbox but I think a fishbowl is a more apt analogy for IV. You can't build whatever you want but you can visit a lot of different locations and watch prepared pieces of content as a payoff for having discovered those places. Like a fishbowl filled with microscopic details, it's easy to take for granted in a quick view. Every neighborhood has its own character, from the filthy grime of Bohan to the glittering sterility of the financial district in Algonquin.

Depending on where you are you'll see a parade of eccentricity in the background if you just stand still for a few minutes and watch. You'll see fistfights, car accidents, panhandlers, prostitutes, businessmen, cops, joggers, people dancing, you'll even catch inane snippets of conversation that tie it all together in a vulgar package. If suspension of disbelief is the most essential quality a work of fiction can earn of its audience, Rockstar North has done its due diligence. More than any previous GTA game, IV pins you to a place and mood with a flood of nuance.

Likewise, the sense of visual atmosphere is stunning. The use of color, and the way the lighting model embellishes it, is spectacular. I still remember the opening moments in Hove Beach, walking Niko through the shadowy filth of subway underpasses and dilapidated bodegas. Even in daylight there is a nauseating gray-green haze that underscores to Roman's doomed sense of optimism, and Niko's gullibility at having believed in it. The art and story are meticulously connected in a way that most games cannot rival.

The most controversial element of IV is the gameplay, and Rockstar preserved the essential formula of driving, shooting, interspersed with an occasional mini-game while adding some refinements. Shooting is made much more manageable with a cover system and a lock-on system that doesn't leave you always targeting dead bodies. A new physics and animation system were added, making car crashes and reaction animations different every time. Rockstar North embellished the looping sequences of driving and shooting with a lot of audio-visual flourishes to give each sequence some uniqueness and plot-specific context.

While the gameplay formula within missions was often repetitive, the characters, context, and frequency of those missions are left up to players. Instead of forcing players down a one-way cinematic tunnel, Rockstar North gave us a story that expanded in concentric circles, like a DVD box set of a TV show. The writing was, likewise, an impressively mounted arrangement of characters, motivation, backstory, dialogue, and Easter egg potpourri. The script was over a thousand pages long (ten times the length of a Hollywood movie) and featured a dizzying amount of recorded dialogue and embedded texts, emails, and telephone conversations. Gay Tony also features one of the best dancing/sex mini-games that I've ever played.

Something I hadn't picked up on in the formula of storytelling, which Hilary pointed out to me, is that players always wind up working for creeps trapped in a downward spiral. This formula is especially poignant in both The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Johnny and Luis are given scraps of hope for a better future, but they're indentured to wretched humans drowning in a sea of drugs, delusion, and cretinism. After each completed mission the story seems to spin further and further out of control. The more successful you are as a player, the worse things become for the characters in the story.

The Bad: Chasing Delusion and Controlling an Albatross
How do you make a game about driving and shooting into a satire about the great American delusion? And how do you meld something intrinsically nihilistic with a drama about loyalty, debt, and mafia dogmatism? The two are thematic opposites and it's hard to see them co-exist in the same universe. The great trap of GTA IV is that its cutscenes are filled with character nuance while the gameplay wobbles back and forth between fish-tailing race sequences and sloppy shoot-outs where progression comes from killing an arbitrary number of cops/Russians/Italians/Orthodox Jews/Albanians/Jamaicans. It's a game where you're allowed to go wherever you'd like in Liberty City, but the options for what you can do are always narrowly defined.

The biggest hurdle for Grand Theft Auto is the mixing of a driving game with that of an action game. On-foot missions still feel awkward to me, with the camera pinioning around lazily in contrast to the chaotic firefights it's capturing. Niko, Johnny, and Luis all have a momentum to their movement that makes the first few steps in any direction feel unresponsive, while coming to a stop often involves a skidding half-second delay. Moving from cover to cover in the middle of a firefight while wrestling the slow camera feels like competing in a spelling bee with a mouthful of Novocain. It's a third person shooter played with the mechanics of an arcade racing game.

The game does a good job of distracting from the core third-person mechanics with hyperbolic explosions and some over-the-top setpieces (e.g. chasing someone to the top of the Empire State Building with a police helicopter circling). But when there aren't any bedazzling pyrotechnics in the background, it can often feel like a slog.

If you're not interested in following the cookie trail of story missions you can: play pool or darts, get drunk, ride the subway, go to the strip club, go on dates, buy clothes, check email, read a satiric version of the internet, fly a helicopter, go skydiving, play golf, play old arcade games, eat fast food, and arm wrestle. The variety is exceptional, but it's also shallow and unrewarding. Skydiving in Gay Tony is great fun, as is flying a helicopter and appreciating from above the crooks and corridors of the city that seems so overwhelming from ground-level. The other options are more about distraction than any actual sense of play.

GTA IV has third-person action that pales in comparison with the rest of the experience.
Darts, for instance, is a stiff and unrewarding process of guiding a crosshair over a target and pressing a button. There's not much thought to arc, angle, or speed. There aren't any tournaments, nor does spending your time in the bar introduce you to new characters or payback your invested time with anything other than distraction. Dating is a dull process of playing chaperon for an NPC who'll ramble in conceited fashion until you're ready to drop her off again. You can choose to press your luck or just drive away, but both options yield low-level results. Having sex at the end of the date is rendered to a simple cutscene in which the camera rises up a building front while double entendre's are exchanged. "Oh Niko, you're such a good listener."

The story is the backbone of the experience in IV. It's a black comedy in the form of Greek tragedy. Niko, Johnny, and Luis are all hopeful characters with some modest goals for the future. Each carries the weight of their tragic flaw in that they've chosen to build their plans for the future on the quicksand of the violent idiots who surround them. They've each put their faith in the worst possible characters, and that misplaced loyalty becomes the turnkey of destruction.

Where the story falters is its utter saturation in black-hearted irony. The more each plot unfolds it becomes apparent that everyone with whom you might align yourself is a disaster. The story lacks the plausible seduction of Othello and the intimate mistrust of Aeschylus's Agamemnon. No one makes a convincing case for their cause, from Roman to Tony, the protagonist is always bound to serve the openly idiotic. After a few hours it's hard to care about any of them because they are so easily indentured to these cretins, and never show more than flippant indifference to the horrors of their own actions. Niko's quest for revenge against an old junkie from the Serbian army is incoherent given how easily (and unavoidably) he kills cops, security guards, and a platoon of faceless goons who stand in his way.

Hegel had a different definition of tragedy, something that arises when two just forces come into conflict. This structure would be an especially powerful one for GTA. It's what happens in the Godfather when Michael has to choose between his civilian career and defending his father from attack. It's what happens in Miller's Crossing when Tom has to choose between saving his own life or his one true love's brother. It's what happens in No Country for Old Men when Llewelyn chooses between trying to escape with the money and sacrificing his own life so his wife will be spared.

These scenarios become excruciating because there's an honest case to be made for both sides. In GTA, everyone is treated with the same satiric sneer and after thirty hours of doing their dirty work, I feel like they all deserve to be punished. I'm not opposed to black-hearted experiences like that. I appreciate games like Kane & Lynch and Haze for their blanket indictment of everyone in the game world. But it's a narrative experience whose credibility wilts with every successive mission in GTA. The goal is a deluded illusion, but the problem is that it never seems otherwise. Spending thirty hours chasing an obvious delusion is just as dramatic as it sounds.

The Future: Making Small Talk and London Calling
The ending of Gay Tony brought the whole miserable quest for diamonds to a conclusion. Luis and Tony barely survive an all-out assault from the Italians only to see the diamonds handed over to a cruddy homeless man in the park. As they walk into the sunset having killed their enemies and survived the chaotic ordeal with nothing to show for it, it's hard not to think about what will come next. In lieu of releasing yearly iterations in new cities Rockstar has so far preferred to tell side stories in Liberty City with downloadable episodes. After Gay Tony, all signs point towards a new beginning for GTA V.

The first question about any new GTA game is the setting. Rockstar's barbed hands have reimagined Los Angeles, Miami, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and London. Dan Houser told Variety that IV was a conscious move away from the cinematic homage in III, Vice City, and San Andreas. "The thing isn't to try and do a loving tribute or reference other stuff," Houser said,. "It's to reference the actual place itself. And then we realized, why would anyone making a TV show in New York know it better than us now that we lived here 10 years?"

We've been there before.
Wherever the franchise goes next, it seems likely that it will be a place that someone at Rockstar has a strong dramatic intuition about. Thinking of enticing first world metropolises leads to a short list of untapped candidates, with London and Tokyo seeming like the most obvious choices. Given the Houser's are native Londoners and Rockstar North operates out of Edinburgh Scotland I would venture that the UK is as good a bet as any for V.

London was the setting for two of the David Jones-produced mission packs for the PC original. Outside of New York, it would be hard to imagine a place that Rockstar and the Houser's know more intimately. London is also overstuffed with the rough elements for a GTA game. It's got a long and colorful history with immigrants from Jamaica to Pakistan. Likewise it has a strong sense of class and a particularly absurd tradition of aristocracy. Most importantly, it has a fabled tradition of a criminal underground.

In terms of gameplay, there's little reason to expect a serious departure from form. Though I yearn for some non-combative options for story missions, the shape of GTA will likely be a long and drawn-out process of navigating through a city looking for unhinged masters to serve. The game will be brimming with cutscenes about loyalty, trust, greed, and the over-estimation of one's abilities, while the bulk of the gameplay will be spent simply driving from point A to point B. The combat will likewise retain its character of absurd stand-off's in parking garages, docks, parks, night clubs, and national monuments, punctuated occasionally with something over the top (like a tank, helicopter, or, maybe, a few angry members of the British Royal Guard).

What will probably evolve are the lifestyle elements in the game. This was hinted at in IV, with Niko's clothing sometimes affecting the way dates responded to him. Niko's friends and partners would, likewise, feel hurt if he wasn't spending enough time with them. Expect the next iteration of GTA to build on these ideas with even more connection between your choices outside of the main story impacting how people react to you and who'll want to continue being your friend.

A conversation system like the one in Mass Effect would be a welcome enhancement as well. It might be a little much to expect the main story in a 40 hour game to have branching dialogue throughout, but it would add some life to the stale dating system and could be especially powerful in setting up some moral crises like having to choose between killing two friends.

And a shuffleboard mini-game in a pub would probably be a much better replacement for both darts and pool. Adding effects of drunkenness to the shuffleboard game would be a bonus too. If anything, the last eight years of 3D Grand Theft Auto games have taught us it's the minutiae that matters as much as the master strokes.

Finally, expect the best part of the game to remain the driving experience, GTA's real unsung hero. For how much disappointment and dislike I had for IV, I still marveled at it and selected it as one of the best games of 2008. Even today, there is something wonderful about simply being in another place. I can't remember many of the characters or plot points, but I won't ever forgot the beautiful daze of driving a car in first person through Liberty City, listening to the radio play and letting my thoughts wander.

Navigating through the concrete grid, switching from shadowy urban blight to glittering skyscrapers, I felt a perfect disembodiment. The music coaxed my emotions this way and that, from anger to sweetened nostalgia, and I felt a sense of speeding through time without any destination. Those moments are as filled with life as any I've experienced in years.

I think part of the anger I felt towards the story was a reaction to just how much it clashes with the mechanical heart of the game. It's frustrating to have such an evocative and open-ended experience suddenly weighted down with the constrictions of episodic television, narrated by the plodding logic of criminals. It's a sharp and uncomfortable waking. Though the juxtaposition of these erect mammals with the glimpses of some personal peace in motion is exactly what the game has always been about. And in that case, not so unlike real life after all.

Where would you like to see V go?


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