I’m a little shocked to be saying this, but I don’t think Grand Theft Auto 4 is the game for me.
It was a birthday present from my wife, who overcame considerable resistance to give her husband a gift he had been eagerly waiting to play. Katie’s work in social services and domestic-violence prevention exposes her to some of the worst aspects of sexism and abuse, and she sees the impact of certain kinds of media on young boys as well as grown men in forming social identities and inculcating values. It’s important to note that we disagree profoundly about some of these issues — I’m no fan of effects-based arguments against the media, particularly in regard to videogames, which continue to be among the least-understood social technologies. (At the same time, videogames undeniably function as subjectivity engines, avatarial prosthetics of identity. Adopting psychoanalytic accounts of the filmic apparatus to the new medium, I’ve described first-person shooters as “suture on crack,” and certainly GTA4 [while not a classical FPS] had me thinking and even talking like Niko Bellic after only a week of play.)
But that’s not the primary reason I’m tired of playing — and violent content doesn’t seem to bother me in other games I’m currently enjoying on the Xbox 360, like Half-Life 2: Episode 2. GTA4 just isn’t holding me. I’m finding even the early, easy missions to be depressingly difficult, requiring multiple tries and even some reading of online FAQs and walkthroughs to complete. Worse, the difficulty stems less from my own incompetence than from the way the game and its interface are designed. Everything seems clumsy; my driving sucks, and in a game like GTA4, that’s a deal-breaker. But my larger objection is that the lauded sandbox-style play seems much more rail-driven than in previous incarnations of the series. I miss driving taxis for fares whenever I feel like it. I don’t like the new sense of “laddering” in the need to complete missions before moving on. It was there before as a play structure, but somehow there seemed to be other things going on — a sense of genuinely living city, full of possibility — to distract me from the underlying flowchart that marked my progress.
Plus, and maybe this does stem from the conversations I’ve had with my wife, the gameworld of Liberty City just gets me down. I feel depressed after playing; resuming the game the next day feels like going to work. And that’s not a good sign.
Many things about GTA4 blow me away. I’m struck again by the way the series transmutes urban boredom into loony spectacle, and how the combined audio and visual registers of this version’s graphic regime envelop the player in a rich, convincing cultural texture. And it’s ridiculous, I know, to quit a game of this scope after exploring perhaps .0002% of what it has to offer. Given the awesome sophistication and even elegance of its overall conception, GTA4 is in one sense hard to turn away from. Yet in another sense, I’ll have little trouble swapping it out at Gamestop or the equivalent for some friendly, colorful Wii game that makes me feel happy. Maybe it all comes down to being a year older: as I age, I may not be getting better at gaming, but I’m quicker to realize what does and doesn’t work for me.