I originally bought GTA IV during the fall of my freshman year of college. Most stories that start this way have content like “and I played it until I failed out of five classes” or “it consumed my life.” None of that happened to me. The day I bought it my 360 fell over and scratched the disc. Eventually, I went to some local mom and pop video store to get the disc fixed. Sadly, my intolerable roommate played the game so much that the wait and my interminable annoyance with him combined made me kind of bench the game indefinitely.
But somehow it survived through multiple moves and game purges along the way. I knew that I wanted to play it, but I never made time. I recently read Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, and while I didn’t really learn why games matter, I did find a kind of beauty in what Bissell had to say about GTA IV. I’m about to quote a little of what he had to say, but remember this while you read it: Bissell admits that he was high on coke the entire time he was playing the game. He would kick the habits, both the game and the blow, and then would pick up both again in one fell swoop. There’s something to that, though I’m not sure what, and Bissell never does a good job of explaining how they’re related. Anyway, Bissell had this to say:
When a Liberty City guy in a suit unexpectedly pulls out a Glock and starts firing it at you, you are no longer playing a game but interacting with a tiny node of living unpredictability. The owner of one of the first vehicles I jacked in Liberty City tried to pull me out of the car, but I accelerated before she succeeded. She held onto the door handle for a few painful-looking moments before vanishing under my tires in a puff of bloody mist. With a nervous laugh I looked over at my girlfriend, who was watching me play. She was not laughing and, suddenly, neither was I. (171)
This is something that happened to me quite a few times while I was playing the game. I remember playing GTA III when it came out for the PS2 and laughing as I mowed down pedestrians on sidewalks. But those games never had any kind of realism to them–the pedestrians were colorful little figures that wandered aimlessly down streets. Sometimes they would curse at you as you walked by. The Liberty City of GTA IV, and the citizens that live in it, has a much more organic feeling, and I mean that in all possible ways. It feels thriving and connected, and most importantly, the people in the game feel alive. They react appropriately to horrible acts, by running away or attacking Niko, the protagonist character, head on.
And so I played GTA IV in a haze of wondering if things were right or wrong. Instead of jacking a car and driving everywhere, which I did in all of the previous games, I found myself taking a taxi to all of my meets and mission points. I didn’t want to be disruptive; I just wanted to get somewhere, just like everyone else in the game. And I felt like that really integrated me into the urban kind of existence that Niko Bellic was experiencing. I felt like I was a working stiff who had a hard job.
That extended into the moral decisions that the game forces you into. There are various points where the player is forced into choosing if you will kill or spare a life, usually at the end of a mission. It was always hard for me to choose, and I never had an easy choice to make. Sometimes I ended up killing the person, sometimes I didn’t, but I was always wracked by having to make the decision. Rarely did I feel like I had all the facts in the matter. But I had to make the decision, and in a beautiful way, the game perfectly mimicked the choices a hitman would have to make. It was rarely about money, because money was easy to come by; it was about if I thought it was right.
I have played so many games with moral systems, and all of them are terrible. Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t play at that. When I made a decision, I didn’t get a “+5 Moral Points!” message. I just had a sinking feeling, knowing that I hadn’t made the best decision, and wishing I had made the other. I knew that there were different ways that the scenario could have played out, but they were gone for me.
I wish that more video games made the choice to not make a moral system a game in itself, but an internalized system, something that the player keeps track of.
In any case, I liked the game.