Grand Theft Auto IV: The Sandbox That Gets Sand Up Your Shorts

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by Kyle Ackerman

Sometimes I miss New York City. Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV isn't the real New York City – it's a condensed caricature. But the fidelity made possible by the latest generation of consoles and the detail added by the team at Rockstar North made Liberty City close enough to the Big Apple to make me listen for the rumble of the subway and the mixed smells of burnt pretzels, sour garbage and laundry vents. The landmarks are all there, from Lincoln Center and Grant's tomb to Coney Island's Cyclone roller coaster and the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows. (Different names, but still.) But it's not the landmarks that make Liberty City so accurate. It's the little details: the architecture in the nameless buildings; the style of familiar stores; the street-level garages of particular hotels; the barriers in the middle of streets; the ever-present scaffolding; and even the signs reminding me that it's a two-point offense to "block the box." The South Street Seaport was so perfect that I started to think "Hey... there should be a heliport just past the Seaport that I don't see." Then, as I cruised further south, the heliport popped into view, and I discovered I could take helicopter tours. The city felt so real that I was transported back to the city I was both ecstatic and sad to leave a few years ago. Sometimes realism &ndash even virtual realism &ndash isn't as great as it's cracked up to be.

When Good Choices Feel Like Bad Ones

In fact, Liberty City was realistic enough that I, as Niko Bellic, felt like I should just get a job in finance, find a nice apartment and settle down for a stable life in the world's fictitious financial capital. That feeling only got stronger when I found myself submitting Bellic's resume to the website of a prestigious law firm as part of the game's main plot. But that's not fun. I did that in real life – I'm not looking to spend my recreation time recreating a real life devoid of excitement. So the question is: How much reality is too much?

That's what makes Grand Theft Auto IV so interesting to me. Frictionless Insight already has a review of Grand Theft Auto IV, and despite the fact that the game retails at $60, given Frictionless Insight's review criteria, you can't argue with the five-star rating since the game literally offers hundreds of hours of play. But for all the realism in Grand Theft Auto IV that demonstrates the game is leaps and bounds beyond previous, single-player open world games, a lot of it isn't actually fun.

Choice is the Key

Grand Theft Auto IV BoxLet's get one thing clear: Grand Theft Auto IV isn't about good or evil. It's not about corrupting children or undermining family values any more than it is about creating art in a new medium. (Can anything that's market-tested be considered true art?) Grand Theft Auto IV is entertainment, and it's entertaining because the game is about choice. And where past Grand Theft Auto games have bulked up limited player choice with the illusion of choice, Grand Theft Auto IV jumps over the line into a world of real choices. The player can spare some victims and make meaningful decisions, where past Grand Theft Auto games were about "discovering" a stunt jump or taking a really good photograph of an obvious landmark.

Importantly, choice is really the source of fun. Watching a movie might be entertaining, but it's not interactive – I don't get the same level of engagement from a movie that I get from a game. Even going as far back as coin-operated games like Dragon's Lair, where interactivity involved watching a scene and pushing a joystick or pressing a button, that limited interactivity made the game so much more passionately involving than leaning back and taking in a cartoon. And choices need to be meaningful. It's nice that you can customize your ring tones in Grand Theft Auto IV, but if there weren't a solid game underlying that decision, no one would care.

The crux is really in letting the player decide how much realism is fun. Many games have crossed the line between realism and fun. The trick with Grand Theft Auto IV is that the game lets you make that choice. So while it's superb that Grand Theft Auto IV brings games to a new level of reality, reality by itself isn't fun. Being able to choose which parts of reality to experience is a LOT of fun. And that's where Grand Theft Auto IV gets my mixed blessing.

Taxis in Grand Theft Auto IV represent the perfect balance between reality and freedom of choice. You can call a cab nearly anywhere in Liberty City and get the cabbie to drive you to the (legal) destination of your choice. You could choose to experience a realistic cab ride, sitting in the back and ogling the scenery or making cell phone calls as you wait at every light in the city. But you can also ask the cabbie to gun it, or just press a button and (for a few extra bucks) skip the ride entirely. That choice eliminates the parts of cab rides that just aren't fun, while allowing cabs to improve the game experience, giving players the option to skip all that time spent driving between parts of the city. And Rockstar North made a number of good calls in eschewing universally undesirable realism – they didn't make all cabs disappear or become unavailable as soon as it starts to rain.

Selective Reality is the "Real" Fun

Reality in games is fun, as long as I don't have to endure it. I loved going into the Split Sides comedy club in Algonquin and actually seeing Ricky Gervais (or, at least, his avatar) do a brief stand-up routine on pantsless soldiers. But I don't enjoy having to stop on bridges to pay tolls every time I drive to another borough or face another police chase. Perhaps that can be written off as some of the Take-Two Interactive staff taking revenge on the rest of the gaming world that doesn't live in New York City. But those aspects of forced realism made the game less enjoyable.

Grand Theft Auto IV includes a massive parody of the internet, glutted with misinformation and irrelevant gossip. I loved that. I'm amused that there is a working online dating site – because I don't have to use it. I'm not amused that there is copious spam, because to follow the plot I have to check Niko Bellic's e-mail. It would be fine if there were a "spam filter" button, but it's not fun to sort through the e-mail account, deleting spam. I do enough of that every day at work. It was immersive in an effective way when I had Niko Bellic apply for a job online just to get access to an assassination target. And it's also immersive when I have to cope with spam, but it's certainly not fun.

Past Grand Theft Auto games have already toyed with this problem. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had players eating and exercising to manage their weight. Having to go to the gym daily and press a button repeatedly to lift weights wasn't fun. Had it been optional, it might have been an entertaining way to bulk up. But it wasn't. San Andreas also introduced the dating interface. Personally, I'm not a fan, and Grand Theft Auto IV just expands that system.

Another aspect of forced realism in Grand Theft Auto IV is relationships. You don't have to date for sex, but you have to "date" nearly everyone in the game to maintain friendships and working relationships. From Niko Bellic's cousin Roman to other thugs in Liberty City, Niko has to hang out with those guys, going drinking, bowling or visiting strip clubs to keep up good relations. You don't absolutely have to play darts with the Irish gangster, but if you do so often enough, you'll unlock special abilities that are critical for gamers without cutting-edge twitch reflexes. In that sense, hanging out isn't optional. After playing Grand Theft Auto IV for a while, you'll be constantly bombarded with phone calls and text messages from people who want you to truck across town and hang out. If you're a social animal, you'd probably rather be out with real friends. If you're not, this can be really irritating. I wouldn't mind if it were entirely optional, but if you don't go out, your relationships deteriorate. That turns part of Grand Theft Auto IV into a kind of whack-a-mole of managing your "friends'" needs – more like The Sims than an action game.

Give Me the Option

Honestly, I think developers are getting the point that reality is more fun when it's optional. But I don't think developers have entirely accepted this point when it comes to story in games.

Some of the crucial plot points and character development in Grand Theft Auto IV are extremely well-written and surprisingly deep. Especially given the misguided media attention to the game's supposedly depraved permissiveness. Certainly the game is replete with language and themes inappropriate for children, but it's also an engaging and rich story filled with compelling characters – for those mature enough to appreciate the tale. Niko Bellic is a troubled individual scarred by war and forced by circumstances to make a living as an inhuman killer. But he's not without values. He protects friends and family, and while he doesn't obey the law, he respects policemen as men trying to make a living in a difficult world. He is happier protecting an old army buddy from hate crimes than he is killing for cash. Bellic is further customized by the player. My Bellic doesn't visit prostitutes and does his best to avoid pedestrians and collateral damage. Because that's my choice. I don't have to experience most of what ill-informed members of the media think is destroying our children.

Despite the brilliant writing in Grand Theft Auto IV ranging from the core story to the strange characters that wander the streets of Liberty City, the developers understand that not all gamers want plot. I do, but someone who doesn't care can skip cut-scenes and not bother with the story. That's an excellent decision – players can choose to experience what they find to be fun.

But the game is schizophrenic. The main story is brilliantly written, yet the ads and billboards around the city swing to the other extreme of juvenile and crude humor. Beer called Pisswasser? An internet cafe named "TW@"? Come on! Honestly, Take-Two Interactive wouldn't make nearly as much money if that juvenile humor got cut from the game. For a lot of gamers, that's the appeal of the franchise. But if gamers who don't care about the story can skip cut scenes, can't we work it out so that I can miss out on the Pisswasser billboards?

I think that's the real lesson for future games. Let players find depth where they want it. Let games deliver as much optional depth as they can, but don't force it on players. And let us opt out of more than just the highbrow elements of the game. Think about the taxis in Grand Theft Auto IV, and follow their lead.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on May 7, 2008 9:36 PM.

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