Grand Theft Auto IV – Exploring the Mundane

Jonathan McCalmont @ 27-05-2009

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?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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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.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan 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. ]

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10 Responses to “Grand Theft Auto IV – Exploring the Mundane”

  1. Kingfelix says:

    Frutrated academic turns every thing he looks at into an essay. Yawning.

  2. Sweetnuts says:

    I’m assuming you meant “frustrated”. Criticizing others generally works better when you don’t make stupid errors.

  3. Mintos says:

    GTAIV is not realistic for many reasons:
    1.It doesn’t make sense
    Immigrants usually buy small businesses to support themselves. Why the hell doesn’t Niko just get a hotdog stand? It also has a lot of smaller flaws I won’t get into.
    2.It’s full of cliches
    Irish cops, Russians in furcoats, even mobster loan sharks. Every last character in GTAIV is a stock character that shows no research was done beforehand.
    3.It refutes itself
    Now if what you say is true Niko is poor ugly bloke right? Thing is he gets more money than he’ll ever need. Sure his world is fairly expensive but he has none of the worries of the real world(rent, debt, taxes, etc). It seems Rockstar took a great idea, did some things good, but didn’t want to think outside the box

  4. Jonathan M says:

    Mintos – Realism isn’t an absolute though. It’s more a matter of degree. and I think that GTA IV engages with the real world in a more detailed manner than any of the other GTA IV games. It also manages to keep things under control for a lot longer before it goes nuts (the rubber band snaps back as I put it in the piece).

    I thought it did rather well up until you wade into a crack house, kill everyone and then kill the cops on the way out. I looked up and realised I also had more than enough money for someone to start a new life, realised that the game was probably going to go on for about another 20 hours and realised the shark had been jumped but for a while, I think the game did something really worthwhile.

    I was also mildly annoyed that the Zero Punctuation review seemed to completely fail to realise this. I really like Saints Row 2 but there’s no way that it’s an artistically superior game, it just allows the rubber band to snap during the first mission.

  5. Billicatons says:

    Great article. Interesting; well put.

  6. Dave says:

    The gap in the argument for me: what is it that makes the “rubber band” snap back towards tank-driving gonzo nonsense, away from realistic mundanity? The answer, I’m afraid, is that driving a tank is fun! Anyone willing to rent a cardboard box for $2K a month can live in a realistic Manhattan; driving a tank through it is the kind of transgressive fantasy that most people can only realize in videogames.

    In your analysis, it seems like the mundanity of GTA’s prologue is the achievement, and the regression to formula (mayhem!) is the failure, but their relationship must be more complex. GTA is not just a really good implementation of The Sims that happens to run off the rails into mass violence; the insane mass violence is there for a reason, has been there since the inception of the modern GTA formula (GTA III in 2001) for a reason.

  7. Dave says:

    Do you think of the necessity of “fun” as an unfortunate reality of the games industry, which developers sometimes overcome to produce art? (I ask in seriousness!)

  8. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Dave —

    I think you may be right that ‘fun’ may be an active ingredient in the band snapping back but I think it’s a good deal more subtle.

    a) I think that all kinds of games (even table-top RPGs) struggle with increasing power levels and the desire to make each adventure better and bigger than the last. So I think that the longer any game lasts, the more likely they are to start including gonzo elements simply because they’ve run out of mundane stuff and need to go ‘one better’.

    b) I think that there’s quite a narrow definition of ‘fun’ involved here. Yes driving a tank around the place is fun. More importantly, everyone knows it to be fun and it’s a proven value of the word fun. the GTA franchise is built upon rampages, even though the taxi cabs in GTA IV cut down on those kinds of distractions (whilst also brilliantly conveying what it’s like to live in a big city. I live in London and I know that Camden is a tube ride away or a cab ride away but I don’t know exactly how far it is or how I’d drive there. In previous GTA games you basically drove everywhere and so engaged with the cities in a way that only real world cab drivers do).

    So I think it’s partly problem of game design inherent in continuing narratives and partly a question of innovation vs. conservatism. I also think it’s simply a question of people running out of ideas. As with GTA : SA, the innovation lasts a certain amount of time but then the tried and tested formula reasserts itself; simply put the designers run dry and still have game to fill.

  9. Max Cairnduff says:

    Part of the issue isn’t it, is that it’s easier to increase game diversity and duration by introducing new ingredients than it is by using existing ones in new ways.

    To parse that slightly, many FPSs suffer from a phenomenon where to prolong gameplay big bads are introduced, or new monsters with immunity to your best attacks, or some variant on that theme. There tends to come a point where the game stops using existing foes in new and clever ways, and just throws harder foes at you.

    That’s because, IMO, it’s much easier. To have a decent length game with a consistency of threat which varies because it comes at you in different ways is creatively hard, to prolong game length by bunging in a new and tougher threat is actually much easier – no longer a creative challenge at all, merely an easily solved technical one.

    Equally, it’s creatively hard to come up with ways to make small number of opponents challenging for a decent length of game, but throwing in waves of them is easy. Once you’ve programmed for one, replicating them isn’t that big a deal. This leads to absurdities such as in the sometimes excellent game Mafia, where you wade through literally tens of people to your goal, along the way sacrificing all sense of verisimilitude (or even, there, fun). It’s easier to throw in waves of bad guys than to think creatively of how to use two bad guys well.

    Few games get around this, because the challenge is a creative one, not a technical one. Off the top of my head Operation Flashpoint is the only one that comes to mind.

    Good piece by the way.

  10. Jonathan M says:

    Sorry… didn’t notice this was here.

    Hmm. I would class different enemies as being a part of the same lazy design quirk you suggest. It is easy to throw in grunts with green hats that are immune to shotguns, but at the same time it’s quite easy in design terms to pass from grunts to ubergrunts who have retractable arms allowing them to reach out to you from further away. Enemies are just stat blocks ultimately, even if some take more effort to draw than others.

    By contrast it’s quite difficult to keep coming up with tactical challenges without resorting to the same thing only dealing more damage. That’s a game AI problem.

    for example in the D&D game I was running, it struck me as easier to go from 1 HD monsters to 2 HD monsters to 2 HD monsters that are immune to sleep. That’s a very quantitative approach to design. I found it more rewarding and tougher to think more about how the monsters would deploy and how they’d act. If you do that, in principle you can use the same monster over and over again. You’re just posing different challenges. The struggle is to keep coming up with new challenges.

    In the case of GTA the “you run in, kill a load of guys, do something, run out and lose the cops” is a tried and tested challenge. Keeping things interesting without lapsing into that model is a new design challenge every time a mission is conceived. This is one reason why I think the design of GTA games have improved : each time they return to the games they have a wider idea of what works and what doesn’t. It’s just frustrating that the designers aren’t more ambitious in trying new stuff to keep that elastic band stretched.