GTA Not “4″ Me?

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.

9 thoughts on “GTA Not “4″ Me?

  1. Go for Mario Kart Wii if you don’t have it! I’ve never been a huge fan of the Mario Karts, but this one is amazingly fun (and everybody stays in their own cars with no need to steal the cars of others, much less kill hookers). Everybody always raves about nonlinearity in games, but honestly I’m not a big fan of it. I’m a casual gamer and I have an absolutely terrible sense of direction (in real or digital worlds), so my favorite games are generally the 2D or 2.5D (3d environment but 2D railed gameplay) platformers like Super Mario World or Pandemonium where I can just go forward (to the right) instead of having to figure out where to go on my own.

    It’s interesting because when GTA3-type games were first coming out people were saying that video games were finally ascending to the level of film, with immersive worlds and compelling plots. In some ways the Wii is a push in a totally opposite direction, eschewing the near-motion picture quality graphics of the superior machines for simple effects and silly or barely existing stories that could only be turned into films by the executives who greenlit the Caveman sitcom (see: Tron or Doom, even though I didn’t).

    I guess since video games are so much newer than film the question is what do we see as the defining “Citizen Kane” of the medium. If it’s GTA, then Nintendo putting out the Wii is like some old filmmakers watching Citizen Kane and deciding they prefer those silent movies capturing 10 minutes of a train moving. If, on the other hand, we see a game like Pong as the video “Kane” (that was supposed to be clever and sound like video game, but I don’t think it worked…), then GTA overcomplicated things and overstepped the bounds of its medium, trying to be too much like a film. The Wii would then be the system that goes back to the roots of what we love about video games, and Wii Tennis is a much more fitting successor to Pong than GTA could ever be.

    On the other hand, I’m sure there’s room in the market for both types of gaming/gamers for a while, and this post is quite a tangent…

  2. I’ve often thought about how one might map videogame history (all 45-ish years of it) onto cinema history — which games and eras equate to which periods of film style, technology, and exhibition. I tend to see the first 8-bit arcade games as something like the Lumiere Bros. actualites, though clearly Tempest and Missile Command had a healthy dose of Melies-style magic and Edison-style showmanship. As for what might count as videogames’ Kane … good question. I’d probably nominate something like Half-Life (1998). Which would make GTA equivalent to the New Hollywood realism of the late 60s and early 70s — films that coincidentally feature gritty urban settings, like Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver.

    Funnily enough, last night I shared my GTA woes with a child psychologist who studies abstraction and map comprehension in little kids. She pointed out that my continuing love for things like Half-Life and the Quake series suggests I prefer game violence only when it’s “cloaked” in SF metaphor, while GTA (especially its latest version) is too “indexical” for comfort — playing it is unpleasantly realistic, and I don’t want to engage with it any more than I want to actually drive to NYC and start shooting cops.

    You might be interested in this post I wrote some time back on the Wii and its graphic choices. In the meantime, thanks for the tip on Mario Kart!

  3. “I’ve often thought about how one might map videogame history (all 45-ish years of it) onto cinema history which games and eras equate to which periods of film style, technology, and exhibition. I tend to see the first 8-bit arcade games as something like the Lumiere Bros. actualites, though clearly Tempest and Missile Command had a healthy dose of Melies-style magic and Edison-style showmanship. As for what might count as videogames’ Kane … good question. I’d probably nominate something like Half-Life (1998). Which would make GTA equivalent to the New Hollywood realism of the late 60s and early 70s films that coincidentally feature gritty urban settings, like Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver.”

    See, *this* is the kind of question I would be interested in proposing as an anthology as well, even though my interests don’t lie in video games per se, this approach could be something *else* that we might be able to run with…

  4. Niko is a morose and rather passive protagonist, in many ways, and that may condition the emotional affect of the gameplay, which I think structurally is not that different from GTA III. There have been a number of points in missions where I wanted him to do something different, to act differently. But he’s played very consistently in the cutscenes, right down to his body language, and I appreciate that he’s a fully realized character. In some ways, I’m identifying with his fatalism and melancholy, I suppose.

  5. Tim, thanks for the tip. I’m rounding up readings for this fall’s videogame course, so am eager to check it out. Sorry to bail on GTA4 before we had a chance to meet up online!

    Michael, I agree that this might be a kernel for a strong collection. Let’s talk it through at some point in the near future. Are you interested in putting together a panel for SCMS Tokyo?

  6. In somewhat related news: http://www.engadget.com/2008/06/17/amds-cinema-2-0-demo-you-won-t-just-play-movies-you-ll-play/ is pretty awesome.

    As far as the Citizen Kane stuff is concerned, those analogies make a lot of sense and probably would make an interesting book/panel/whatnot. I would just point out that, at least from my perspective (as someone with a bit of a classic gamer bent but not a lot of film snobbery), the Lumiere/Edison stuff is only interesting as an historical artifact or curiosity, and isn’t really something that I would enjoy watching more than once. Pong, on the other hand, is still amazingly fun and infinitely replayable. Personally I’d take the Mario Bros over the Lumiere Bros any day. I guess that’s why I would think that a Citizen Kane is more medium-defining than Half-Life or what have you. In some way the film medium needed the narrative depth that Kane brought to it (and therefore experimental films that go outside these boundaries aren’t nearly as commercially viable). On the other hand, the Wii’s success attests to the fact that the video game medium doesn’t need to be defined by the narrative rules imposed by a game like Half-Life, despite its influence on games like GTA.

  7. I began the summer with the promise to myself that I’d buy an HDTV, a PS3 or Xbox 360, and GTA4 by the end. A trip to Malawi has me appreciating me own TV again, since it’s bigger than any I saw in Malawi. Mind you, that’s not saying much. And it’s unlikely to keep me away from GTA for long.

    That said, in preparation (for buying GTA4, not for Malawi, of course!), I played Vice City and San Andreas before leaving. I was reminded of how much more I like Vice City precisely because of the music. It’s so much more camp and playful, and a giant middle finger to the media effects folk, to perpetrate a horrific act of violence to Hall and Oates. San Andreas added other goodies, but in bringing its music closer to today’s sense of cool, it started to lose me a bit (with some exceptions, as when playing the Country channel). I do worry that GTA4 may make it hard to distance myself with modern music, and a cityscape that’s all too recognizable. And seeing that it’s not possible to mow down a group of hipsters outside a Williamsburg bar or a queue of people waiting to get into an Abercrombie and Fitch, I’m not even sure it’d serve pure cathartic purposes for me, alas.

    But I’ll still try it.

  8. Jon: something tells me that Malawi provided you with experiences that a mere videogame (or mere HDTV) could never top. I’d love to hear more about your trip sometime!

    I never tried GTA: San Andreas, but I did enjoy what I played of Vice City. It seemed like the most tongue-in-cheek of the series, as you point out, yet somehow contained the satire within that eerie simulacrum of (violent) pop culture that is GTA’s stock in trade.

    And yes, maybe you put your finger on what made me uneasy — and finally unable to continue playing — GTA4. It’s such a deeply described world that the distance between my space and its space collapsed; there was no avatarial interval, and the immersion became claustrophobic. I know this makes me a wuss, but, as I said in my post, having turned 42 I allow myself to be crotchety!

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