Going through the motions

In the universally-praised game Grand Theft Auto IV, you play as a swarthy immigrant recently arrived in a new country, beating up the locals and fighting gang leaders on a quest to pick up some coin and get a date.

I liked this game better when it was called Super Mario 64!

Man, that joke gets funnier every time I hear it. And if you enjoy seeing “jokes” get beaten into the ground as hard as a random drug dealer, then you’ll love Grand Theft Auto 4. Wait, what’s the name of that internet cafe? Tw@? I don’t… let me see it again… ohhhhhh, now I get it. That is rich. And you say that gay people are silly? Man, you have skewered American culture with your biting insight, Rockstar. It’s a good thing this game has body armor, because it’s the only thing to keep my sides from splitting.

So whatever, the game’s pre-adolescent writing — aimed squarely at the Spike TV crowd and folks who think “The Man Show” was too highbrow — has already been criticized here and elsewhere, ad nauseam. Nothing more needs to be said. So I’ll only say three more things about it: this stuff makes Joe Eszterhas look like the Coen brothers. And I’ve seen reviews that compare the story and writing to “The Sopranos,” by which I guess they mean it’s every bit as cliched and stilted as one of Christopher’s screenplays. And although the writing varies from the insultingly amateurish to stuff that’s admittedly competent, when I see reviews describing it as “excellent” and even “Oscar-worthy”, it actually makes me depressed to realize how embarrassingly low the standards of the videogame industry have dropped.

But that’s more than enough of that. Nobody (I hope) is playing this game for the story, so how’s the actual game?

In an interview in New York magazine, the co-writer of GTA IV (and VP of Rockstar) was apparently concerned people had gotten bored with the whole hooker-shooting and murder-simulating angle, and had to stir up controversy some other way:

Yeah, fuck all this stuff about casual gaming. I think people still want games that are groundbreaking. The Wii is doing something totally different, which is fantastic. We’re hopefully going to prove that there’s also a very big audience for people who want entertainment in another form, who think of games as being a narrative device that can challenge movies. We always said: We’re not going release a large number of games. They’re going to have the production values of movies.

And I do have to say that playing GTA IV makes me feel like I’m in a movie. Unfortunately, it’s not Shaft, or The French Connection, or even The Fast and the Furious. It’s Groundhog Day.

Because you’ll play each mission over and over and over again until you get it right. And by “get it right,” I mean “play it the way Rockstar wants you to play it.”

Every mission but the simplest ones — at least so far, about twelve hours into the game — have required me to play at least twice. Once to find out what to do, and another time to actually do it. Each time, it plays out exactly the same. And each time, I go away not with the rewarding feeling that I accomplished something clever, but feeling like I did nothing more than jump through a set of hoops the game designers had set up and then failed to mention until the last minute.

And this is all over the place. The game promises a huge, open experience where you make all the rules. Instead, you have to learn how to drive the cars and bikes their way. You have to find the three or four specific buildings that are useful to you, and not just closed-off facades. You have to learn that holding the Y button down for about .75 seconds will let you get into a cab, but holding it for less than .75 seconds will cause you to try to steal the cab, summoning the police. You have to learn that “tailing” someone means staying an exact distance behind them, as they follow the exact same route to their destination. You have to learn not to run out of your apartment, because you might bump into a cop, who’ll instantly shoot you to death.

Every time I’ve tried to experiment, I’ve been quickly smacked down. Want to shoot out a dealer’s tires so he can’t make a clean getaway? Cops come, I’m killed. Want to find a secret way into a warehouse? There’s only the single conveniently-opened window. Want to just drop a molotov cocktail in there instead of getting in a shootout? Can’t do that, burn to death. Want to run over to kill the bad guy who just cornered me in a warehouse shootout? Better not hit that invisible trigger box, because it starts a cutscene of the bad guys running away, and then suddenly gives control back to me, to be shot dead in one second because I didn’t take cover. Want to get some quick health before going on a mission? The pharmacy and the restaurant with a big sign over each aren’t real, but facades — you need to drive six blocks away to the hot dog cart that’s open at 3 AM.

Reviewers and fans are willing to give the game a pass for all this stuff, because that’s just how games work, and because the world is so huge and impressive and nice-looking. And it really, genuinely is one of the best worlds ever created for a videogame. But that’s exactly the reason the constraints shouldn’t get a pass. The more you pretend to offer an open experience, the more glaring it is when you fail to deliver any part of that, and when you punish experimentation.

This is not a “sandbox” game. Sandbox games let you choose to do a lot of stuff, all of which affects the game. GTA IV just lets you choose to do a lot of stuff. In The Sims 2, you can sit and watch TV, and it ups your Sim’s “fun” motive. In GTA IV, you can sit and watch TV, and it ups your desire to bang your head repeatedly against a table at the lame attempts at parody and satire.

It’s also not the “murder simulator” people would like you to think it is. A real murder simulator would be every bit as morally reprehensible, but would at least let you show a little bit of creativity and initiative. Just tell me who to kill, drop me in this awesome city, and let me figure out how to do it within the time limit. Give me a goal and the tools to do it with, don’t just give me a series of weakly scripted events. Or at least, if you are going to give me a series of scripted events, don’t claim that you’re doing anything more rewarding or satisfying than any other type of game.

So if I hate the game so much, why do I keep playing it? Because the world is impressive, even if it reveals more and more of its limitations the more you drive around in it. But there really are jet planes taking off at the airport, and police helicopters flying randomly overhead, and apartment blocks and parks and tourist attractions and a whole island’s worth of stuff I haven’t yet seen. The game’s got near-infinite potential fun, that’s just not being converted into actual fun. At this point, it would be impossible for the story to win me over, so I’m just slogging through until I get to fire a rocket launcher and fly a helicopter, and see the game’s version of Times Square.

And I’m a little nervous and worried that people are going to take away the wrong lessons from this game. That videogames are all about volume, you don’t need to have really great components as long as you throw in enough different stuff. That writing for a game means cutscenes, scripted events, and dialogue. Or that being “cinematic” means being like a Michael Bay movie. People are talking as if this is the Citizen Kane of games, but I’m seeing Armageddon.

On the plus side, though, the game’s got a decent soundtrack. This is the first exposure I’ve had to David Axelrod, and listening to “The Edge” and especially “Holy Thursday” on the radio are perfect accompaniments to the kind of things you wish you were doing more of in this game. I’d put a comment in here about GTA IV cheating, because the music makes it seem better than it really is, but I guess that’d make me a hypocrite.