Thinking about GTA IV

A couple of months back, the gaming community was abuzz (thanks to a well-played hype engine) about the upcoming official trailer for Grand Theft Auto 4. What was the time period? Which characters would be in it? Where would it be set? Would they move on to new locations like Mexico or Europe, or would they return to the U.S.?

At the time, with a smug “experienced developer” sense of authority, I felt fairly certain of what GTA IV held for us. When they finally released that first trailer, I was surprised… they made a couple of choices I expected, and some others that I didn’t.

What led me to my assumptions were a few elements that I felt were key to the original success of the franchise:

1) The GTA series is pure Americana. Pop culture oozes from it, from the advertisements and radio stations, to the culture around guns and cars, and their acquisition. Sure, back in the stone age there was a GTA expansion in London, but the series has been locked and loaded on the U.S. since it became a phenomenon with GTA III. With the former DMA located in Scotland, this is no accident… we’re seeing America exaggerated through the lens of an outsider, and Americans and overseas audiences are eating it up.

GTA had to return to the U.S. with number 4. The only question was what city? Liberty City makes total sense… Once the series tackled Miami and California, there really aren’t any remaining cities with the worldwide recognition and cultural punch. (Sorry Chicago and Seattle, you have limited visibility to gamers in, say, Spain.) Plus, New York is still the most iconic American city there is.

2) GTA has always been both stylish and stylized. For all the controversy and violence in the game, it was never graphically realistic… and that worked in its favor. The situations were so over the top that when you caused a 10-car pileup or were pounding on someone with a baseball bat, was counterbalanced with the style to create a more amusing image than ghastly… sort of like Bugs Bunny with a bloody chainsaw. Sure, gamers have clamored for more realistic graphics like they always do, but I was genuinely surprised that they moved closer to photorealism with the new one.

While gamers have become more desensitized violence in games, there still is a line there as you approach realistic victims and more realistic results of your actions. I worked on the Soldier of Fortune series, which depicted accurate wounds, with enemies screaming and the whole close-up-and-personal ordeal. It did fairly well for its time, but it was a decidedly hardcore affair with no pretenses of mass-market sales numbers. I always felt that one thing that allowed GTA to get away with what it did without crossing that line of repulsion was that their characters and physics were so over-the-top. It’ll be interesting to see how their turn towards the photorealistic goes.

3) GTA has always delved into romanticized crime cultures. The Mafiosos and Miami drug smugglers of GTA III and Vice City have long been given a shiny, appealing gloss in movies and television. As nasty as those people could be, there still was a bit of fantasy that made people ask themselves “what would it be like?” With San Andreas, the series took a turn towards the L.A. “Boyz in the Hood” gang culture, which was a bold step since it’s much less romantic than the other two… However, it had a huge well of rapper and hip-hop culture to delve from, so it’s no wonder that it was an equally huge success.

The biggest surprise with GTA IV then is the choice to move away from all that and dig into the Russian mob… The player is a new immigrant pursuing the American dream. It’s compelling because it is by far the most iconic story in New York City. However, keeping the player under the foot of the Russian mob is shockingly removed from previous titles. There’s no fantasy in that at all… the Russian mafia are well-known as a bunch of very dangerous and scary individuals. Very few souls dream idly of that life. Plus, with the player remaining reasonably poor for the duration of the game, there will be less of a carrot of “living the high life” once the story is played through.

Of course who am I to question a company that has created a series that has grossed over a billion dollars in sales? The gameplay will be awesome as usual. The rabid fanbase will follow the well-told tale wherever it leads them. While most new franchises get about 30 seconds to snare a consumer’s attention, where a crime drama centered on the Russian mafia would almost certainly fail, GTA IV will be a success. It would take a quarter or less of the sales of GTA’s previous incarnations to be a success, but it’ll be interesting to see what the impact of these choices will have. Perhaps it’ll open people’s eyes to even more interesting stories for games to tell… let’s hope so.

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