Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)

For the first few hours of Grand Theft Auto IV ,I found myself behaving abnormally in a games: I acted as if the world of Liberty City was real. Fresh of the boats, I took control of Niko Bellic, a European immigrant who came to live in America with his brother, Roman. As I drove him home from the docks, I did my best to follow the rules of the road, stopping at red lights, waiting for pedestrians to cross and watching out for oncoming traffic.

Somehow, the presentation of the world made me want to behave and adhere to the rules. Perhaps it was because the world reacted back in an immediate way. If I hit someone’s car, they might come out and fistfight with me. If I bumped into a person, they’d flip me off and yell. Rockstar North crafted a world that made me question the ethics of my actions within a fictional world not through moral choices, but simply through creating a world that reacted to my behavior.

Deviating from the social norm attracted attention and the world pushed back. Pulling a gun on someone and the cops might show up, drive on the sidewalks and the pedestrians would swear and scream. And yet the game is about eliciting the player to commit immoral and socially unacceptable behavior, creating a tension between narrative and mechanics.

At first, I had few qualms carrying out the early missions. They were simple enough, driving a shady guy across town or intimidate a shop owner into paying off a debt. But when I had to rough up a few guys for cash, I was hesitant. Something about the world made me want to behave, to be a good citizen, to not act out. Eventually, I gave into the whims of the game, in large part because I wanted to progress the narrative.

I remember the first time I killed someone in this game. I was hanging with Little Jacob, a hash smoking Jamaican who wanted me to watch his back over a drug deal. As we walked to the meet, he handed me a gun. We got to the meet, I took a good vantage point to oversee the deal and, of course, everything went to hell. Soon Little Jacob was surrounded by thugs with guns.

I hesitated, waited, wondering if I could just let Little Jacob kill them. Then they started firing at me. Survival instincts kicked in and I wasted the group in short order, finishing off the last man with finesse, a casual headshot. Afterwards, I justified my behavior in my mind. They jumped us, threatened our lives. It was self-defense, pure and simple: us or them.

But it wasn’t long before I was asked to go a step farther, to seek out and kill a man in cold blood because he owed a debt. The thug I was working for probably deserved to die more than this guy, but I decided to show up and see if there might be a way to sort things out. The target fled the instant I spoke to him. I chased him up to the roof of a building, fired a few shots, trying to stop him. I even fired a round in the leg, causing him to stumble.

As I walked up to the fallen figure, he pulled himself up, and tried to fight back. He had no gun or blade, just his fists. After taking a hit, I switched into survival instincts. I yanked out a knife and stabbed him in the ribs. I hesitated, realizing that this man was no real threat. But the damage had been done, the momentum of the stab caused him to stumble and he teetered off the side of the building, falling to his death. I had just murdered a man and it left me with a terrible, unsatisfied feeling.

For a while, that hesitation and guilt still lingered. I still felt bad about the man who I cast off the building, a man who probably had a family and just took a loan to make ends meet. But after one murder, the rest didn’t seem as big a deal. I began to justify my actions again, seeing my victims as thugs, mobsters and dealers, people who were a plague to the city, making myself a dark vigilante.

Of course, it was flimsy logic at best. I was a hired gun, working for men just as bad, if not worse, than my targets. And the bad people dying would be replaced by more bad people, giving my boss an even more powerful and domineering position in the city. At least before, there was such bickering among criminal organizations no one could do too much harm. I accelerated the progress, helped the cancer grow throughout the city, consolidating organized crime into a few families and bosses.

Grand Theft Auto IV took me through an exhausting and complicated series of moral conundrums, many of which were not emphasized, underlined or punctuated. They simply happened as a result of the world Rockstar North created. While I could go on about the solid writing, the cool missions and the weight of the mechanics, it all feels so unnecessary because for so long I didn’t play Grand Theft Auto like a video game.

But once that initial part came, once I got past the whole morality phase, the game lost its luster. A regurgitation of missions, a densely unnecessary string of subplots and a series of events that escalated into spectacles of violence so epic and ridiculous that the inherent gaminess emerged. The ending brought me back to that feeling of hesitation I felt in the early hours of the game, I only wish it had come hours earlier before the luster wore off due to repetition and redundancy.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing