Going through the motions

In the universally-praised game Grand Theft Auto IV, you play as a swarthy immigrant with a weird accent, recently arrived in a new country. The game’s much-acclaimed, complex storyline has you fighting the locals, occasionally stealing their vehicles, while you wander around an enormous game world, taking on the local gang leaders who are trying to prevent you from achieving your goals of collecting money and getting laid.

I think I already played this game, when it was called Super Mario 64.

It’s a real shame that the game is getting its usual wave of controversy, with immigrant groups and Mothers Against Drunk Driving jumping on the bandwagon for this round. Not because the people complaining are “right” or “wrong,” but because we’ve already been through all this, repeatedly, in the seven years since GTA III was released. They’re games that make you do — and reward you for doing — morally reprehensible things; we know. They still always sell millions of copies, get tons of imitators, and you keep hearing about how influential they are for the next five or six years.

Even Rockstar’s responses are getting tiresome. They make a game where you steal cars and kill hookers, media watchdog groups issue a statement condemning the game, Rockstar responds with variations on the same comments about media over-reaction, politicians looking for publicity jump on the anti-videogame bandwagon, videogame fans write long treatises about freedom of expression.

It’s not even fun anymore to call out Rockstar for being disingenuous in their responses, or to point out that they’re deliberately stirring up controversy to promote sales, because they’ve done it over and over again for the past seven years. It’s not even genuine anymore; it’s just a self-perpetuating machine, a big Bureaucracy of Being Indignant.

And it distracts from what’s really offensive: that they’ve got this phenomenal game world, and they refuse to put a good game in it.

Because the city they’ve built really is outstanding. It’s enormous, and you can go almost anywhere, completely seamlessly. There are fantastic time-of-day and weather effects — fog rolls in off the water in the morning; a storm makes light reflect off the streets, your controller vibrates with every boom of thunder; dusk turns into night and lights gradually turn on. Even taking a subway and passively watching as the train moves through the city is fascinating.

And along the way, you pass case after case of the lamest attempts at “humor” you’ll see in a game. At least GTA III genuinely seemed like something 15-year-olds would think is cool and “edgy”; this just seems like something 30-year-olds would think 15-year-olds would think is cool and “edgy.” It’s 100 million dollars and untold man-hours of development in the service of a morning DJ radio show. I would appreciate seeing something that genuinely offended me; as it is, I’m just kind of bored and annoyed.

I’m not even ten percent into the game yet, and I’ve been wondering how it’s been getting perfect review scores around the board, and I keep getting told that it gets better. That even though I’ve been playing for about 5 or 6 hours, and so far I’ve only taken a horny woman bowling, clumsily shot a gun at some drug dealers in an alley, and tried in vain to catch up to a van and run it off the road, this is only the beginning. But whenever a role-playing game makes you kill rats in sewers for the first 5 or 6 hours, it gets nailed in reviews. So why does GTA IV get a pass?

I already know the answer to that question: it’s for the exact same reason that I bought the game after seeing a coworker drive around aimlessly for 5 minutes. That streaming game world is undeniably compelling. You’ll be driving along and see Coney Island to your left, right down to an accurate representation of the Cyclone. (You can’t actually go into the carnival, of course, but it’s there.) There’s infinite potential there. It always seems like you can and will do anything, even though you’re really just going to be heading from flashing arrow to flashing arrow and watching cutscenes. As bored and disappointed as I’ve been with the actual content, I’m still anxious to get back into the game, because I want to believe it’ll spring something surprising and amazing on me.

I can’t help but think how awesome it would be if they took this kind of technology and money and effort, and made a game actual grown-ups would want to play. And I can’t help but be discouraged at the thought that it would fail, because no one would want to buy it without all the hooker-killing controversy.

And incidentally: it seems like every time I go on a tirade against the game, somebody brings up the awesome feature of being able to sit and watch the hours of fake television they’ve created to play on the in-game TV sets. These are the same people who always say that gameplay is king, old media is dead, cutscenes are evil, non-linearity is the wave of the future, etc. etc. What the hell, people?