Duff reviews Grand Theft Auto 4
Most of you will have heard of Grand Theft Auto 4 by now, the quintessential “urban sandbox” game where players can steal cars, shoot cops, perform ridiculous stunts and generally live out violent fantasies with no consequence.
Many journalists have condemned this game, but I was determined to keep an open mind. Sure, the drones at NBC and CNN might be stuck in their suburban middle class paradigm, but I am an educated, enlightened member of the digerati.
They might look on the GTA release as an excuse to drum up parental outrage, but I was going to look past the stereotypes and judge this game on its artistic merit.
I fired up the game, grasped the controller and cleared my mind of all prejudice. Five minutes later, I was ready to march on Washington.
I can’t accurately describe the facial expressions I went through as I played this game, but the dialog sounded something like this: “Okay, so I just press this… Ow! Hey, that guy hit me! Can I… Oh, I see. So I just… Wow! Is that guy dead? So you just press this thing and kick him until the money pops out? Can I take his gun? How do I get a car? Well, that was easy, what happens if I… Why are there sirens? The police station? I just stole a car right in front of the police station? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Moral outrage aside, the most annoying thing about GTA4 is trying to use the controller. Stealing cars is easy, but driving them is fiendishly difficult. The vehicles all have unique handling characteristics, and they all require a high degree of dexterity to operate properly — a degree of dexterity that I do not have.
Watching me play GTA4 was like watching a monkey try to open a bottle of Ritalin. My frustration level started high and got worse as I played. After an hour of escalating rage, my friends actually had to grab my hands and pull the controller away — like parents trying to take a steak knife away from a toddler.
I killed dozens of people while playing GTA4, but none of these killings should really qualify as murder. Most of the killings were caused by incompetence, as I flailed and struggled and consistently failed to operate my own body.
The mix of brutality and slapstick was so perfect, the playback would look like a really violent episode of “Mork & Mindy.”
Most of the killings went like this: “No, wait, I didn’t want to turn! How do I… Whoa, now I’m going faster! How do I…” My question was interrupted by a thump and a dwindling scream as an old woman bounced off my hood and flew over the roof of my cab. The sound was so good, I actually heard two thumps — one when I hit her and another one when she landed on my trunk.
I hit the brakes and tried to get out, inadvertently backing over her twice in the process. I ran to her side and delivered three precise kicks to her head as I looked for some kind of “CPR” or “911” hotkey.
I stood in the street as cars whizzed by, horrified by what I had done. Unable to face it, I turned to my friends. “She’s not really dead, is she? Any minute now she’s gonna stand up and stagger to the hospital, right? Right? Guys? Why won’t anybody answer me?”
Welcome to stage one of Grand Theft Auto: denial.
But GTA4 isn’t just about violence; it’s also about sex. Sex is a very utilitarian thing in the GTA universe. I learned this the hard way, when my character started suffering from blurred vision and a pronounced limp.
I asked what was wrong and my friend said, “Your health is really low. You need to visit a prostitute or eat a hot dog to get it back.”
Yes, in GTA, eating a hot dog and visiting a prostitute are roughly equivalent things. Other reviewers might wish to speculate about how accurately this mirrors the male psyche, but I think I’ll just move on.
I didn’t know how to find or recruit a digital prostitute, so I handed the controller to a friend. The sex in this game has been the subject of a thousand editorials and a dozen lawsuits; I had to see what the fuss was about.
I thought it would be pretty easy to see the sexual content in this game, but finding a prostitute in GTA4 turned out to be a two-hour ordeal. You have to find the right car and go to the right neighborhood. Then you have to wait for the right time of day.
GTA sex workers, plentiful as pigeons when you’re on a job, are remarkably hard to find when you’re looking for one.
I won’t go into detail, except to say that sex in GTA4 was a profound disappointment. On the grand scale of erotic experience I would rate visiting a prostitute in GTA4 somewhere between visiting my academic advisor and standing in the checkout line at Sears.
I haven’t wasted this much time for this little payoff since that time I watched “Porky’s” on TBS.
That’s what I really took away from my journey to Liberty City. The violence was rendered in magnificent detail, but the sex was kind of an afterthought — typical of our media in general and of the world of video games in particular.
Make no mistake, GTA4 is an ugly, brutal game. I was bothered, not just by the violence itself, but by the sexy nihilism of the whole thing. GTA4 felt like a rap song or a Tarantino film — turning violence into something funny and cool.
I could make excuses for it if the victims were all mobsters and crooked cops, but most of the victims in GTA are normal people — innocent civilians caught in the path of this digitized psychopath.
The brutality took me out of the game and ruined what is, technically, an amazing experience. The story is very strong. The city is rendered in stunning detail and the physics engine is incredible.
The characters are stereotypes but you can see flashes of charm and depth from time to time. I felt an odd mix of admiration and disgust as I put down the controller and walked away from GTA4.
My friend Sarah said it best. “This game wasn’t meant for us, Duff. If we had this at home we would just ride around all day, obeying traffic laws and listening to the radio.”