Oct 142009

My compilation of critical writing about Grand Theft Auto IV has gone up at Critical Distance. If you have a couple of hours to devote to reading some interesting writing about the game that was supposed to change everything then hop on over and get clicking. There’s a lot to read, and I ended up including a pretty diverse set of posts, from straight essays to cross-blog dialogues, to one post from Corvus’ site that ended up in there because of a really interesting comment. Also, because the game appeals to such a broad swath of gamers, I made an effort to dig into gamer-oriented blogging sites like Destructoid and IGN, with uneven success. I found plenty of posts, but many of those bloggers seem to be focused on producing their own reviews rather than a focused essay. Unfortunately, while everybody has an opinion, not everyone has an interesting idea.

One idea plenty of people had was to compare GTA IV to Saints Row 2. This was an easy thought to have because the folks at Volition kept pushing the concept that GTA IV had lost the fun of the sandbox while SR2 had expanded it. I must have scrolled through a dozen bullet-point posts about why SR2 was better (this seemed to be the prevailing opinion). I probably could have hacked together a section about it, but it would have required me to accept a painful quality dip. Instead, I linked copiously to Shamus Young’s compare/contrast series on the two games, which I thought did a really admirable job of examining the competing design philosophies rather than just talking about how much more fun SR2 was.

Another subject that received a lot of coverage was the phenomenally ill-advised “Ladies of Liberty City” video IGN made and then retracted. This was a real problem because the people who responded to that video generally made reasonable points about the GTA series, but often didn’t do a good job of GTA IV itself, mostly because they never played it. I seriously considered a secondary post or sub-section just on this subject, because there was a lot of interesting writing about it. Unfortunately, much of it was undermined by bad fact-checking; a significant proportion of these posts, even some of the better ones, included false information about the content of the game. The sad part is that most of these essays would have been just as compelling without the misinformation. After some internal debate, I had to conclude that making the section would only lead to drama I didn’t want to deal with — in particular I felt that I might end up inadvertently turning those posts into flamebait.

Aside from these, most of the other main threads of commentary made it into the sections you see in the compilation. I feel like I did a little more synthesis in this compilation than previous ones. I tried not to come down on one side or the other of any particular case, but I did try to subtly draw out ideas that were somewhat nascent in the individual essays so that they might attract new writing. One of the ideas rumbling beneath the complaints about GTA IV‘s heavy emphasis on linear narrative is that the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto games is inherently transgressive: the game is about breaking the rules, the boundaries, the laws. In that kind of game, ludonarrative dissonance might be created just by having a linear narrative that denies the player significant input.

I also thought there was an intriguing idea percolating in a couple of pieces that Niko lies to himself about his sociopathic tendencies using the fiction that he has no choice but to be a murderer. Niko, and Rockstar’s handling of him, engendered a lot of negative reaction, but my own feeling was that they did a reasonably good job of exploring a very bad person who, like many very bad people, sees himself as a fundamentally good guy with a functional moral code. But it was also interesting to me to find that there were a number of people who took Niko at face value, and consequently tried to play the game in a way that minimized property crimes and murders. The prevailing opinion is that GTA IV requires a lot of killing, but creative players have been exploiting the game’s flexibility to draw the number of murders down to a surprisingly low level. Maybe that’s ganking the system, or maybe that’s buying in to one part of the system over others.

Whatever you think of the Pacifist Niko Challenge as an approach to rulesets generally, it does underline one key fact about GTA IV. The rules and systems created by Rockstar North allow for a huge range of behavior, but don’t really require any more violence than is typical in any other gunplay-focused game. Popular attacks on the game interpret the most extreme activities that it permits as if they were actions the game requires, often as a consequence of (proudly proclaimed) ignorance. This strikes me as a case of shooting the messenger. If we’re going to get upset about what happens in a game of GTA IV, we ought to worry less about the fact that people can do horrible things in a game, and more about the fact that they actually choose to do them.

One more thing. In order to comply with the FTC I will now list everything I’ve received for free from a game publisher:

That is all.

  One Response to “A good way to spend a day and a half”

  1. I'm happy you put the time into compiling these critiques, because I sure as hell don't have the patience!

    One of the things that struck me about GTAIV, which I tried to highlight in my Lost & Damned review was that Rockstar, given the time, could continue to develop stories set in Liberty City from here to whenever.

    What I would like to see from Rockstar is a game that doesn't rely on people shooting people. I'm sure they can do more to develop their games without the violence at every turn, and it's something that I hope they're working towards.

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