Grand Theft Auto is the ultimate male escapist fantasy. Grounded in a heightened reality of prostitutes, car chases and sweltering machismo, the series gives the player the ability to assert authority and control at the barrel of a gun. With only two weeks left until the release of Grand Theft Auto V, I stepped back into this world by replaying the previous entry, Grand Theft Auto IV and looking at a game which defined a console generation and offers clues to the next step. I’ll be trying to focus on some of the game’s elements and themes in each new post and how each worked together to create one of the most important games of this console generation.
Released in 2008, near the beginning of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 life cycles, Grand Theft Auto IV was a media event. Virtually every outlet covered the game, paying particular attention to the way Liberty City, a pastiche of New York and New Jersey felt like a living, breathing character. IGN gave the game a perfect 10, world’s worst grandpa Peter Travers reviewed it as a movie in one of his worst pieces of writing and others called for the game to be burned. This was all to be expected by Rockstar Games, which had become the focus of media’s distrust of the video-game industry following the “Hot Coffee mod” debacle of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Controversy and game worlds were the primary focus of the media but no one noticed how the game tried to bridge two exceedingly different worlds.
Grand Theft Auto IV exists in the precarious place between the past and future of open world games and that’s the world between scripted and unscripted moments. In a way, Liberty City feels vibrant and living. Traffic changes as days turn into night, you’ll bump into sleeping homeless people in Chinatown and women are catcalled on the streets and respond viciously. It’s enough to often make it feel like the world is responsive and bustling, used to just one more gun toting psychopath carving a new home in America.
That is, until it’s not. Outside of the free wheeling rampages and lazy drives, Grand Theft Auto IV is rigidly and tightly scripted. Missions such as “The Snow Storm” feel as if players should have a limitless freedom to confront holed up gangsters but basically boils down to wandering derelict hospital halls with assault rifle roaring and the live-wire chase and shootout of “No Love Lost” show the rigid scripting of the even through cutscenes. Player control is severely limited and the game expects player responses and are designed to challenge those.
Some of this sort of scripting is to be expected. The game notably and simply provides a player tutorial for the first few missions, introducing the concepts of driving, shooting, escaping police and other ideas. It’s a long tutorial, easily stretching for over three hours and the game constantly introduces new elements inorganically. There’s a lot of one and done concepts throughout Grand Theft Auto IV, with characters using the subway to steal cars, the knock out sucker punch, the melee weapon counter attack, and pulling over cars while masquerading as a police officer.
Many of these are used exactly once but the intelligence of the game’s design is the little things these concepts teach. When tracking down a van full of stolen televisions in “Crime and Punishment,” players see the way traffic reacts to a police car with sirens blaring, usually pulling over and getting as far out of the way as possible. It’s a useful skill, one a canny player can use during car chases to clear the roadway or simply to navigate traffic as quickly as possible. It’s one of the rare concepts the game explains subtly, without a pop-in. There are lots of small lessons in playing Grand Theft Auto IV, whether strategically using the police cars, pulling a gun on a driver to stop traffic or using 911 for your own selfish needs. The intersection between hand-holding and player self-teaching illustrates the game’s difficulty balancing the ways players can control the situations the story forces them into.
Those scripting issues show the delicate balance between player control and scripted set-pieces which have become such a harsh focus of criticism during this console generation. Rockstar as a developer seems to have a difficult relationship with players in particular. On one hand, Grand Theft Auto IV is a sandbox designed for maximum player enjoyment. There are guns everywhere, cars waiting to be raced, crashed and destroyed and a seemingly endless number of diversions from bowling to delivering drugs but there are still boxes designed around them. Players can’t find the carbine assault rifle until “Hostile Negotiations” and players are unable to reach Alderney until driving Playboy X home in “Blow Your Cover.”
It’s an intentional design, one clearly meant to emphasize story over player control. A consistent theory has floated around the internet for years in which Rockstar, dissatisfied with players happier to use their games as violent toy boxes than as stories, focused Grand Theft Auto IV on requiring players to complete quests before being able to access the good bits. It fits in line with the company’s more recent offerings, notably the more story focused Red Dead Redemption and the ultimately linear L.A. Noire, but there’s more going on in Grand Theft Auto IV’s intentional design choices, and it’s one aimed not only at limiting player control, but also limiting the protagonist, Niko Belic.
Next Up: It’s time to examine Niko Belic, the face of Rockstar’s changing focus, as well as the characters he surrounds himself with in Part 2 of the Grand Theft Auto IV retrospective.