Blasphemous Geometries has turned its attention to computer games, and for its first foray into that sphere Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at the hugely popular Grand Theft Auto IV. How does its reproduction of life’s bitter mundanities strengthen its appeal, and what does that say about the reality it reflects?
As the first Blasphemous Geometries column to look at an individual video game, it makes sense for me to start at the top with one of the fastest-selling games of all time. Grand Theft Auto IV is, paradoxically, the sixth game to appear in the series and the eleventh game to appear as a part of the wider GTA franchise. Since its release in April 2008 it has been festooned with awards and prizes and it remains one of the highest ranking games to feature on the net’s various review aggregation sites. It is not my intention today to toss another garland onto the already swollen heads of the GTA IV developers; instead, I want to use the game to demonstrate an idea.
Since its inception, the GTA series has shared the same conflicted attitude towards the real world that afflicts most games. Early titles largely avoided the problem by being aesthetically framed in a primarily cartoonish manner with crime and then cyberpunk tropes being exaggerated largely for comic effect. However, with the release of GTA III, the series embraced a less cartoonish 3D look that has seen an almost fetishistic obsession with vehicle physics and urban architecture sit cheek-by-jowl with an infectiously childish desire to both satirise the real world and blow it to pieces through a procession of ever-escalating action set-pieces. This conflict is best encapsulated by the opening to GTA : San Andreas.
The first dozen or so missions of GTA : SA are earthy and mundane. When a former gangster returns home to find his gang stripped of territory and his family and friends in disarray, he sets about rebuilding the gang through acts of petty vandalism and violence, all the while dealing with tensions within the gang. However, as the game moves forward, the focus starts to widen and before long the earthy realism of the early missions is swept away by waves of gonzo as government conspiracies, stolen jet fighters and crashing fire engines come to dominate goings on.
The later GTA games display a commitment to the real world that seems to behave like a rubber band. Initially, the games are content to be real and can maintain the mundaneness of their settings without too much effort. However, as more missions are accomplished, the energy required to keep the game from lapsing into fantastical events filled with larger-than-life characters steadily increases until eventually the rubber band snaps back and you wind up driving a tank around the middle of town blowing up police cars and wondering what the fuck happened to the missions where you had to sneak into another gang’s territory in order to spray-paint a few walls.
These same tensions can also be seen in other types of games. For example, sports games combine an obsession with photo-realistic graphics and statistical accuracy with the desire to indulge players’ power fantasies by allowing them to compete against Wayne Rooney or Tiger Woods. Even your-dull-life simulator The Sims 2 faces this problem: while characters start off struggling to scrape together enough money to re-do their bathrooms, they eventually wind up in vast mansions filled with ghosts, aliens, immortality potions and magical hot tubs.
GTA IV is a fascinating piece of game design as it manages to keep that rubber band from snapping back for dozens of hours of game-play. In fact, it probably does the mundane better than any game I can think of.
The first way in which GTA IV embraces the mundane is its limited scope for character customisation. Sure you can buy a better suit, slightly smarter sunglasses and funky trainers but all throughout the game you remain the same craggy-faced Slavic bloke you were when you stepped off the boat. Considering that GTA IV‘s main in-genre rival Saints Row 2 allows you to begin the game as a skinny Hispanic drag queen before turning into a gigantic Black guy with a cockney accent and a top hat before finishing as a butch Asian lesbian, this constraint delivers a surprisingly thematic purity: You start the game as an ugly bloke, and – no matter how much you spend on clothes – you are still an ugly bloke, because that’s what life is.
The game also adds a new social element. Rather than passing from one mission-provider to the next as in previous GTA games, GTA IV demands that you form friendships with these contacts and maintain said friendships by occasionally taking them out bowling or for a night of depressing cabaret. The same is true of the central character’s love interests; you have to spend time with them in order to have a good relationship with them. The fact that these ‘date’ missions sometimes feel like an intrusion as you work your way through the game nicely mirrors the complexities of the real world: if you spend all your time working and none with your friends or lovers, you can’t expect them to be there when you need them.
GTA IV rejoices in providing you with an array of little distractions. Most of the social activities have a mini-game attached to them and it is easy to get sucked into playing pool or bowling instead of working or seeing your friends (especially if you collect XBox achievement points). You can also go online or watch TV in the game, allowing you to explore neo-conservative cartoon characters and all kinds of websites. All of this extra content serves as a wonderful distraction from the rest of the game and – as in the real world – it actually competes with your job and your social life for the few hours you have in the day. In GTA IV as in real life, you can change your phone or the channel a lot more easily than you can change yourself.
However, to say that GTA IV has a rich world is to miss the point. Games such as Oblivion, Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy are full of world-building in the form of cut scenes, expository dialogue and in-game books, but none of this richness is integrated into play – it merely frames the action. GTA IV, on the other hand, takes the alienation players feel from the game world and uses it to imitate the alienation felt by the character – all alone in a strange city, having to force himself to maintain friendships with strangers so as to not be completely isolated – socialising is a chore, but a necessity.
Indeed, what is most intriguing about GTA IV is that its primary themes are serviced not through the aesthetic framing of cut scenes and dialogue, but through the experience of play itself. The game’s aesthetic framing is cleverly adrift from these themes, as while the game itself is all about making your way in a foreign land and the morally questionable paths you have to walk down in order to be successful, the framing is all about the American Dream and an immigrant becoming rich and powerful. The tension between the framing and the play drive home the game’s real message : Talk of the American Dream is cheap and mostly packed with lies, and the reality of modern day America is that if you come into the world poor then the only way you are going to get rich is through crime and sacrificing your principles and your sense of self.
Of course, as in all games, the rubber band eventually snaps back and you find yourself dealing with shadowy government agencies, but for an astonishingly long time, Grand Theft Auto IV looks deep into the heart of America. And it does not like what it sees.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]