Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV -- A Skeptical View 1

What's the big deal about Grand Theft Auto IV?

I can't figure out why so many industry people are hyperventilating about this game, even to the point of guessing that it will be the "Highest-Selling Game OF ALL TIME." What is it that makes them think this game will be so successful both critically and commercially?

To explain this view, I probably should mention five points:

  • I'm an avid Explorer who enjoys open-world games like Oblivion and Two Worlds and sim games like Spore.
  • I prefer the fantastic to the mundane.
  • I think computer games play a small part in forming our culture.
  • I play PC games. I don't even own a console.
  • I haven't played any of the previous GTA games.
So just speaking for myself to start with, I haven't heard anything about GTA IV that excites me. (Not like, for example, Spore, which really excites me.)

The one thing that sounds nice is the open-world aspect. I like the idea of being able to roam around and do the things I want to do when I want to do them. Linear games like Portal and Half-Life2 can be powerful when the story is good and the characters are interesting, but part of me likes having more freedom to create my own story in a rich gameworld.

That's a point in favor of GTA IV, then. But simply being an open-world game isn't enough -- the world, the setting, has to be interesting enough to want to spend hours there. And that's where I suspect the GTA series leaves me yawning.

I'm just not interested in "gritty urban" stuff. I don't care for cop shows or detective novels; when I want to be entertained I look for things that take me out of this world. The setting and characters of the GTA games just aren't interesting to me.

The realism also concerns me as it applies to the game's content. Zapping aliens and slicing monsters are sufficiently distinct from our reality that no cultural message is really being sent... but shooting cops and jacking cars is uncomfortable to me. It's close enough to a simulation of reality that it raises questions of whether that kind of thing should be tolerated even as mere entertainment.

Please note that this is not the simple-minded "video games are teaching our kids to kill!" complaint. I've never said anything like that and I'm not saying it here. What I'm saying is that games, like other media, are part of our culture; they both reflect and -- to some small degree -- create the culture in which we live. What we tolerate in our entertainment seeps into our real-world lives.

If so, then how should I feel about a game like GTA that glorifies the seedier, illegal and unethical aspects of modern life? How can I justify promoting even a small additional chipping away at a culture of courtesy, honesty and restraint by buying a game like GTA IV?

I don't want to make too much of that argument. I won't be out boycotting GTA IV; it's not that powerful. But I also don't see any reason why I should be expected to tolerate any "lawlessness is cool" message implicit in its gameplay by participating in its commercial results.

On the console vs. PC front, I've already talked about that.

Finally, there's no nostalgia factor for me regarding GTA IV. I never got sucked into playing the previous entries, so there's no "what happens next?" value in buying the latest installment.

So much for me. What about everybody else?

How far off am I from the mainstream gamer? Am I a lonely voice in the wilderness? Certainly I am on the PC vs consoles issue! But what about the other stuff? What is it about GTA IV that leads industry types to believe that it will appeal so massively to so many gamers?

In short, what does this game offer that I can't get from some other game that doesn't carry the same negative cultural baggage?

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