‘Grand,’ but No ‘Godfather’
June 28, 2008; Page W3
I am one of them, the early adopters. I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto since the beginning. I was there in 1998 when GTA was a throwaway with two-dimensional graphics on the original PlayStation. I was there in 2002 when Tommy Vercetti, the main character in a follow-up, blew a “Scarface”-size hole in Vice City. I rebuilt my gang with CJ, star of another sequel, San Andreas. Sandbox games (which is a fancy way of saying a game where you can ignore the game’s objectives) shot through with criminal aberrance have always been a weakness of mine. Call it the American in me. Call it permanent adolescent.
So it’s 2008 and the latest edition of the GTA franchise has come upon us like corporate lightning. The new game took in more than $500 million in world-wide sales in its first week. The critical reaction has been widespread and adulatory and in certain corners beyond over-the-top: GTA IV is better than “The Godfather,” better than “The Sopranos,” better than say, a novel!
GTA IV’s wild acclaim is something that’s been in the air, something I’ve been thinking about as I play the game, shooting digital cops, creating traffic jams, and robbing ATM users. The gaming news and review Web site GameSpy said GTA IV “is on par with the finest films by directors like Martin Scorcese [sic] or Francis Ford Coppola” and also compared the game to novelist E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” Game Informer’s Andrew Reiner wrote “I now know how film critics felt after screening ‘The Godfather.’ ” And an artist declared on New York magazine’s Web site that the GTA series was “the most important artwork of our time.” OK, let me be clear: I love GTA IV and I have no doubt that it is art, but an equal to “The Sopranos” or “The Godfather”? Narrative art of that caliber is distinguished by its ability to re-organize our preconceptions, to shift us into a world that’s always been there but that we’ve been afraid to acknowledge, and I’m not convinced that GTA IV pulls off that miracle.
|See the trailer for the videogae “Grand Theft Auto IV.” Video courtesy of Rockstar Games.|
GTA IV is brilliant, but despite what virtually all the reviews claim, it ain’t the revolution. If you played GTA III or higher, GTA IV won’t exactly catapult you to higher plane of existence or induce metanoia. GTA III was the revolution, and established the grammar for the franchise. That grammar — the toggling back and forth between driving game and third-person adventure, the sandbox play with its many missions and bizarre admissions, the hot tunes in the background — is why we’re even talking about GTA in these pages.
GTA III brought a level of immersion, a depth of play never before seen in videogames. Other games allow you to play God or a hero but GTA III came the closest to letting you play something far more basic and far more strange. It let you, in a way, play a person — an aberrant criminal killer of a person but a person nevertheless. Sure, GTA III offered up cool characters and fantastic missions and canny game mechanics but more importantly it was a game that gave its players the ability to shape the game to their own peculiar interests. You wanted to spend weeks building up a business or collecting a dandy wardrobe or raking in millions through gambling and robbery? Go for it. GTA III let you have that one thing that all players in any game crave: agency. GTA III wasn’t just two games in one: GTA III was whatever game you wanted it to be and each and every one of those games was, because of the mechanics, because of the characters, because of the world, intuitive and gripping. GTA III was the tipping point: Everything else after was, no matter how awesome, just another better brighter, smoother version of the same.
|Photo illustration by Sergio Capursi/WSJ; Rockstar Games (stills); iStockphoto (frame, nail)|
|GTA IV (2008)|
What else is the new GTA not? Well, despite all the critical adulation over GTA IV’s characters and purported subtlety, this isn’t a game that is nuanced or subtle. Like the pulps that are part of its narrative DNA, GTA IV operates in broad strokes, crude characterization and over-the-top stereotypes — this is a game where a shotgun to the head is the height of discretion. The GTA series made its name by being “hard-core” (or, if you prefer, tasteless) but the latest game certainly ain’t half as hard-core as even Steven Seagal’s “Out for Justice.” (Check out the final corkscrew-to-the-head death match.) Hell, GTA IV ain’t even half as hard-core as some of its predecessors.
What makes the GTA games so deliriously fun and so successful (beyond the genius of their mechanics and execution) is that you’re not playing reluctant heroes in the Campbellian tradition; you’re playing some straight-up thugs. No Name (aka Claude) from GTA III starts out a bank robber and all around amoral dude, and his quest for vengeance doesn’t exactly reform his character. And what about Tommy Vercetti (voiced by none other than Henry Hill himself, Ray Liotta)? Tommy is a cold-blooded hitman coke dealer and you win the game by slaying your enemies and taking over Vice City’s underworld, not by recanting your evil ways. CJ in San Andreas, the first black lead, starts the game out trying to put his gang back on top before being sucked into the machinations of a crooked cop. In other words, these were not your mom and dad’s action heroes. These dudes were straight bad. With Tommy or CJ as your moral compass, running folks over and robbing prostitutes (sometimes killing them in order to scoop their money) didn’t seem like too big a stretch.
Compared with Tommy and CJ, GTA IV’s protagonist Niko Bellic is somewhat of a milquetoast. He’s more of a reluctant hero in the classic tradition. I mean he ain’t exactly a boy scout, having been a human trafficker in the immediate past, and his descent into hits for hire is pretty swift but overall he’s a moral improvement over earlier GTA leads. Perhaps this is why the critics call him more nuanced, but in my estimation Niko isn’t nuanced; he’s just boring. You don’t play GTA because you want to roll with a Niko. You play GTA because, for a couple of hours, you want to be a Tommy Vercetti. So before you start measuring a game to “The Brothers Karamazov” maybe you should measure it up to its earlier iterations. You might actually see something.
Some noise has been made about Niko being the first immigrant lead for GTA. (“New ‘Grand Theft Auto’ Centers on Immigrant” reads the headline for a story on National Public Radio’s Web site.) Let’s be clear here: GTA IV ain’t some huge statement on immigration. Brian De Palma’s film “Scarface” (which GTA IV has been compared to in reviews) makes this game look as if it knows absolutely nothing about the immigrant experience in the U.S. “Scarface” uses its lead’s status as an immigrant as an engine to drive the story. Tony Montana starts out being interviewed by immigration officials and swiftly being remanded to a holding camp for undesirables from the Mariel Boatlift; it’s here that he begins his blood-drenched rise, a tragic blow-fueled version of “The Rise of David Levinsky.” It’s only when Tony gets “da money” that his immigrant-ness falls away and he actually gets some sex appeal, some respect.
No such process for Niko: At the game’s start he just steps off the damn boat and doesn’t even have to flash a fake passport or worry about being caught up in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid, and despite his fresh-off-the-boat duds and no money, he bags an American girlfriend just by giving her and her friend a lift home. Possible? Sure. But a wicked commentary on the role of the immigrant in today’s loot-and-imaged obsessed U.S.A., GTA IV is not. Trying to glean something about the contemporary immigration experience from GTA IV is like trying to mine African-American history from “San Andreas.” Don’t try this at home, kids.
GTA IV sucks you the hell in but its narrative doesn’t move me in any way or shake me up or even piss me off. I get madder when I crash my car in the game than when Niko makes a stupid decision in the cut-scenes (the movie-like interludes that players don’t control). GTA IV for all its awesomeness doesn’t have the sordid bipolar humanity of “The Sopranos,” and it certainly lacks the epic flawed protagonists that define “The Godfather” and its bloodier lesser brother “Scarface.” Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human. Does GTA IV do that? Not for me it doesn’t, and heck, I love this damn game.
If “Battlestar Galactica,” a show on the Sci Fi channel for God’s sake, is able to create characters as compelling and troubling as race traitor Gaius Baltar and tackle issues as profound as genocide and religious fanaticism without once losing its thrill-factor, GTA should be able to do the same. Niko, as a character, doesn’t surprise, and the choices he confronts don’t make me want to put the game on pause in order to mull things over; they don’t implicate me or reveal me in any way.
For me, GTA IV is more an example of our evasions as a culture, more of a fairy tale, more of a story of consolation than a shattering cultural critique or even, dare I say it, great art. GTA IV is a game that allows you to forget how screwed-up and complicated things are in the real world; it could have done more, it could have put that screwed-up complicated world front and center.
The real world is currently the hardest, most troubling piece of real estate around, and even GTA IV, which wants to dial everything up to 11, can’t, to paraphrase Hammer, touch it. Doesn’t make the game any less worthy or awesome. GTA IV doesn’t have to be “Moby-Dick” or “Beloved” to be the Greatest Game of a Lifetime or even to be worthy of discussion.
What’s interesting though is that GTA could have been exactly what some folks are claiming it is. For all its over-the-top aberrance and brash transgressiveness, GTA IV doesn’t really wrestle with the radiant feverish nightmare labyrinth that post-9/11 America has become. Which is too bad. When you’re as lost as we are in this country, maps, no matter from where they come, are invaluable. It could have been that popular art blade that cuts through all pretensions and delusions; it could have been the map that we’ve been needing. But for that to have been possible GTA would have had to have put a small portion of the people playing the game at risk of waking up, even if only for a second, from the dream that is our current world.
Rockstar Games could have had a field day with Niko as immigrant, Niko as veteran from a war that was screwed up from the start, with Niko as aspirer to an American Dream that might never have existed in the first place. It wouldn’t have taken much to have made some plot alterations, to have had Niko ducking ICE special agents, to have had him actually struggling to get the girlfriend of his dreams, robbing, stealing, killing in order to dress up to local standards, or to end the game with Niko being deported back to Europe. Any one of these narrative additions would have made Niko’s journey and his successes all the more poignant, all the more surprising — would have put a face, a very real, hard face on the American Dream, which for many aspiring Americans, throughout our country’s long checkered history, is a nightmare.
But just because GTA didn’t rise to the occasion doesn’t mean that there ain’t a videogame company out there in the middle of writing the game that will do all these things. Like they said in the voice-over of the original “The Six Million Dollar Man”: We have the technology. We have the technology, the narrative sophistication and an audience willing to take any number of wild illuminating rides as long as they’re couched in the grammar of spectacular addictive gameplay. And the fact that such a game is possible, even if it hasn’t yet materialized, is as much a cause for celebration as GTA IV’s remarkable playability and its stupendous jaw-dropping box office.
Junot Díaz is the author of the short-story collection “Drown.” His debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.