Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dreaming in a City that Never Sleeps

The beach is deserted. Only the fleeting piece of airborne trash catches the moonlight at this hour. All you can hear is the open air of the distant city. It's deafening, yet soothing at the same time. Across the black river stands the light speckled glass and steel of Algonquin island -- the imposing, cold and beautiful symbol of the American dream.

I was merely an hour or two into the infamous "Grand Theft Auto IV" at this point. Yet, I found myself utterly lost in the vista before me. Immigrant, Niko Bellic, wearing his world-weary stance and early 90's wardrobe, is nothing like me, but at that moment, I completely understood the man. The thought that countless activists were campaigning against this game, as if it were some sort of social ill or anything less than art felt like a personal attack. Moments this visceral are admittedly rare in the game, but that's irrelevant; they are there. In a medium that is eyeball deep in puberty (both in terms of size and intellectual development), one needs moments like these to be reassured that video games' full maturity is indeed coming.

In case you've been living under a rock (or only playing the Nintendo Wii), I'll briefly explain how Grand Theft Auto works. Free to go whereever you desire, within the bounds of the game's (semi)fictional city, you fulfill tasks for various characters. Success may require driving adeptly, shooting accurately, or even having good taste in restaurants. Grand Theft Auto is not simply unparalleled because of its freedom, but also its scope. Sure, the main plot is a crime story filled with violent M-rated action and language, but neither the game's back cover nor it's vocal critics will tell you that much of the game is spent doing fairly mundane tasks, like shopping, eating, dating and (most importantly) commuting.

Each mission you perform is tied together with cutscenes (non-playable "movie" sequences), as well as dialogue that occurs while traveling with others. These story-based aspects are well done. Games are often plagued by lackluster acting, writing, and (as far as cutscenes are concerned) filmmaking. This, however, is decidedly not the case for "Grand Theft Auto IV." The cutscenes often hit all the right dramatic beats. Dialogue is both written and delivered sharply. In fact, Liberty City could be made of paper maché, insofar as every inch of it is built out of excellent writing. From the chatter on the game's dozen radio stations, to the pervasive fictional ads, to the quips of pedestrians, the setting is cohesive, replete and bitingly satirical. There are moments when the city's pulse is so palpable that the experience becomes nothing short of breathtaking. In short, Liberty City is a vivid portrait of the American dream going horribly wrong.

The game blames no one and everyone for this failure and, while this may be only fair way to play it, it's also a near-fatal flaw. We pilot Niko through a plot that is decidedly more serious than the backdrop it plays out before. This plot certainly has its relevance and depth, but it is ultimately impotent. Niko is the game's voice, after all. He is certainly likable, but he seems to trade almost exclusively in his snarky and disillusioned brand of platitude. Because of this, we have to rely on the countless characters he meets to add color and dimension to the world. Yet, Niko is always right next to them, ready to disapprove of their mistakes, while carefully withholding any real judgement, lest he condemn his own lifestyle.

Niko is obviously the result of publisher, Rockstar Games' attempt to add a more serious and mature tone to the series -- certainly an admirable effort. If the series was to grow, it's trademark mayhem and vulgarity would have to be checked with brains at some point. This doesn't only make the proceedings flat, though. It makes them disjointed. Gameplay still boils down to cartoonish driving and violent gunplay. There is the occasional moral choice that the game allows the player to make, but does it really matter if you spare one gangster's life when you drove over sixteen anonymous citizens getting to his hideout?

The gameplay in and of itself is certainly fun. Said mayhem and violence is endlessly entertaining, especially when it takes place in this massive world that, as I mentioned, is often hilarious, even without your intervention. Thing is, most of this rarely ever coalesces with the serious deconstruction of the American dream that Niko's story is supposed to be. By the second half of the game, this dichotomy has proven fatal, as you plod through missions that are increasingly meaningless, only with the exception of a few bright spots in the game's long final act.

Maybe the fact that I no longer linger on the beautiful nighttime vistas of Liberty City is indicative of just how effective the game is at what it sets out to do. After seeing all of the violence and hypocrisy of life in the city, none of it has real meaning to me or to Niko. The American dream really just amounts to a punchline in the joke of a world he inhabits.

Rockstar Games' decision to make "Grand Theft Auto IV" the last in the series is a very wise one. While the franchise's impact on games and our culture at large has been extensive, it is clear by the end of "IV" that it has done everything it can. Now that video games (or the "interactive arts," as you will increasingly hear them called) are, by some measures, bigger than movies and music, it's time for them to leave behind the confusion of adolescence and seek something more -- something as cohesive as it is ambitious.

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