My love of Grand Theft Auto runs deep. The moment I first fired up Grand Theft Auto III and was set free in a modern-day city is one of the most singular and unforgettable game experiences of my life. As the rain came down in Liberty City, I knew that I was experiencing something new and important, a revolution in games whose influence on the future of the medium would be tremendous.
What was so new and exhilarating about GTAIII was the opportunity to explore and discover a world that looked and felt like places I'd lived. Most games were relegated to realms of science fiction and fantasy. Here was not just a contemporary city, but a city that felt lived in; it was grungy and grimy. It had strip clubs and liquor stores. It wasn't trying to present an idealized, escapist portrait of urban life. It was holding up a mirror to the dirty, downtrodden realities of so many American cities. No, it didn't spend much time analyzing the multifaceted ills of our society. It wasn't trying to be The Wire, and though the biting satire on the radio smartly skewered our consumer culture, the game often devolved into broad, lowest-common-denominator comedy. Though social criticism was scant in the narrative, concerns about socioeconomic strife were inescapably woven into the texture of the world. I was inhabiting a dirty, troubled city in a video game, and it was exhilarating.
GTA is much more than the sum of its gameplay mechanics, more than its structured missions and the freedom to go on crime sprees.Beginning almost immediately after GTAIII was released, gameplay elements of GTA began cropping up in many other games. I remember being shocked when Jak II, of all games, lifted much of its structure and gameplay from GTAIII, and of course, other franchises like True Crime and Saints Row have been inspired not just by GTA's gameplay, but by its urban environments and crime-oriented subject matter. I played and enjoyed some of these games, but none of them ever got inside me the way GTA games have. The experience always reinforced my belief that GTA is much more than the sum of its gameplay mechanics, more than its structured missions and the freedom to go on crime sprees or blast things to bits with a tank. With a significant amount of news about GTAV about to break, I'm hoping that these qualities I find essential to the texture and the experience of Grand Theft Auto carry over to the newest entry in the series.
An authentic sense of place is crucial to the experience. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas used Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas as the basis of its three cities, and as I traveled around, I was constantly struck by just how authentic so much of the game's virtual world felt. It wasn't just the big details--things like the Watts Towers, the Golden Gate Bridge, the hotels on the Las Vegas Strip--that made San Andreas a compelling stand-in for these cities I knew so well. This seemed like the easy stuff. No, it was so many other things--the murals on the sides of bars, the tiny houses in poor neighborhoods and the mansions in the hills, the distinctive buildings that only locals would recognize and appreciate--that made San Andreas feel like so much more than just a place designed for a video game. It was a place I could believe in, a place where just finding a good song on the radio and driving around felt like a little getaway, albeit a getaway to a typically complex, diverse, beautiful, and ugly part of America.
Though other games in the GTA mold have had urban settings, they've often felt a bit too shiny, a bit too artificial, to pull me in. Rockstar does its research. It understands cities, and knows how to design ones that feel organic. I had never visited New York City when GTAIV was released and drew me into its reconceived Liberty City, but it nonetheless felt to me like a real place, simply because the characteristics of its various neighborhoods, and the way they fit together, were believable. When I finally made my way to New York City, I found that I recognized far more of the real city from my experiences in the virtual one than I had anticipated.
GTA isn't just about the places, though. At its best, it's about its characters and the things that happen to them, about issues both personal and political. I think that, more than any other series, GTA has challenged conventional notions of who and what games can be about. While many games are about space marines or ninjas or heroes of destiny, the stuff of fantasy novels or action movies, GTA: San Andreas gave us Carl "CJ" Johnson, a young black man who comes back to the poor neighborhood where he grew up after his mother dies in a shooting that's seemingly gang-related. I felt that CJ wound up being irritatingly inconsistent, but in 2003, it was refreshing just to have a game about a minority character, and a story that dealt with real social problems.
During the climax of San Andreas, the streets of Los Santos erupt in riots when a corrupt cop is found not guilty. It was a deliberate echo of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but it didn't feel cheap or tacked on in the least. The game was largely about people in power (in this case, corrupt cops) abusing that power, and the way the seething rage of the populace erupted in the game's finale was fitting and memorable. San Andreas wasn't just a game about jacking cars and going on crime sprees. It was about bigger things.
More than any other series, GTA has challenged conventional notions of who and what games can be about.Though the writing was inconsistent, there were a few great moments that suggested a promise unfulfilled. For me, that promise was delivered on in GTAIV. Here was a game with cutscenes that took their time observing their characters, a game that understood that not every moment needs to move the plot forward, that time spent just listening to characters speak to each other can deepen our sense of connection to them. In Niko Bellic, it gave us another character who is unique in the annals of video game protagonists, a man from Eastern Europe who came to the US to escape his troubled past and live the American dream. Like so many people who come to America, he finds that the reality is quite different from the image he has bought into.
New to the series in GTAIV was something I hope to see return in GTAV: moral choices that occupy a gray area in which neither choice is right. Moral choices in games have gotten more thorny and complicated in recent years, but still, none have troubled me as much as those in GTAIV. Some people feel that the GTA games represent some of the most immoral experiences games have to offer; I couldn't disagree more. There can be no real examination of morality without confrontations of things like free will and acts of evil. GTAIV gives you freedom and forces you to make some excruciating decisions with terrible consequences. If that's not moral storytelling, I don't know what is.
Earlier GTA games had less detailed visuals and more exaggerated displays of blood and violence that made wanton acts of violence cartoonish. The greater realism of GTAIV made me feel like taking a life was a drastic act that had real finality to it. I'm glad that GTA gives you the freedom to wreak havoc as you see fit--I understand that it can be a lot of fun to just go on rampages--but I saw Niko as a man with demons who was trying to be a good person but couldn't escape his past, and so I kept innocent casualties to an absolute minimum. Carelessly taking innocent lives in GTAIV just didn't sit right with me. Given that Saints Row has now established itself as a playground of the absurd, I hope that GTAV continues to feature moral, thematically rich storytelling with strong human elements, like Johnny Klebitz's complex concerns for his drug addict ex-girlfriend, and Luis Lopez's strained relationship with his mother.
There can be no real examination of morality without confrontations of things like free will and acts of evil.And then, of course, there's the music, lingering in the background and providing essential support to the game's themes and world. I think Rockstar had it easy with Vice City and San Andreas; looking back on a place and time, the definitive music stands out. With GTAIV, Rockstar faced a greater challenge, but also had more freedom to create a musical texture that it felt worked within the world, rather than being able to rely on a historical one. I think Rockstar succeeded with flying colors. Tunes like Hello's "New York Groove" worked as celebrations of the game's take on the Big Apple; Marvin Gaye's timeless song about life in a poor neighborhood, "Inner City Blues," reflected the game's concerns about the hollowness of the American dream; and the catchy pop tune "O Tebe" by Russian group Ranetki Girls is a perfect fit in a game that recognizes that the United States is a nation of immigrants. I'm eager to start finding out what sorts of songs might make their way onto the soundtrack for GTAV. I'll be surprised if Red Hot Chili Peppers' bittersweet ode to Los Angeles, "Under the Bridge," isn't on the list.
But all of this speculation can get me only so far. What the best GTA games have always done, and what I hope GTAV does as well, is surprise me by doing things I don't anticipate. Will I rise to power in a massive corporation and make decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of American workers? Will the knotty issues of immigration and border patrol politics come up in the narrative? Whatever the plot entails, I expect that we'll get a culturally diverse, socioeconomically complex, vibrant world to inhabit, and the opportunity to see it from the perspectives of both the privileged and the unfortunate. In any case, I can't wait to visit Los Santos again and discover what it has to offer for the first time.