GTAIV as a Serious Game

I know this is very late and untimely, and I haven’t written or posted anything on here for several months, but I feel I have to share a few quick thoughts about Grand Theft Auto IV. My roommate with the X-Box 360 has returned from vacation and I’m stealing time to play it whenever I can. As much fun as the game is, I can’t help thinking that it’s a failure.

If the pre- and concurrent release hype was to believed, GTAIV was the videogame equivalent of The Godfather. Obviously I’m not the first blogger to point out that this isn’t the case. GTAIV isn’t an “art” game for the same reason Max Payne isn’t art cinema—it panders to audience and genre expectations. No matter how many human touches Rockstar imbued GTAIV with—Niko’s stooped frame, his perpetually droopy-eyed and exhausted face, some surprisingly affecting voice acting—the game is still enslaved by its mechanics. I can imagine the conversation between Rockstar and their target audience:

Rockstar: We’re going to make a game that makes the player question their own violence and think about the ethics behind their avatar’s action.

Audience: Cool! I still get to murder prostitutes and blow shit up with a rocket launcher, right?

Rockstar: Yes.

Audience: Awesome, broseph. Throw me another Bud Light!

The range of ethical perspectives on display in GTAIV is necessarily limited because the game forces you to perform criminal acts. Now, if the developers had given the player a choice in how they choose to pursue Niko’s American Dream, that would be a bit more interesting. Allow me to play game designer.

The fighting-crashing-shooting-exploding gameplay mechanics could remain basically unchanged, instead of winning by progressing more or less linearly through a series of missions, the player could win by accumulating enough money to make a life for himself, or maybe by keeping up a modest but livable level of income for a number of months. Money could be earned either from working for thugs, assassinations, running drugs, etc., or through driving a cab, working at a newspaper stand, or selling hotdogs. This would lend the player’s decision to turn to crime some weight—it’s not required, it’s a choice. Now I know this completely misses the point of the GTA experience, but it would be interesting, and it would lend the game some stronger “serious” cred. Also it would probably be incredibly boring (most game-players, however well intentioned, would probably want to turn to crime after five hours of preparing and selling hotdogs). Just random thoughts—I might post more on this game after I finish it.

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~ by Ian D. on October 22, 2008.

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