February 22, 2011

GTA4 – What stuck? Part 1/3


I’ve never thought of myself as the kind of person the GTA games are marketed for. I dislike the violence (essentially because it's violence without any personally meaningful context), have very little interest in cars or driving, and have never really gotten into traditional police or crime fiction. The pop culture marinade the series swims in is interesting but otherwise I’m obviously not in the target demographic. That said, though, the GTA games are very good. And popular. So I decided to try GTA4 and see whether it would grasp my interest better than the original GTA or Vice City did.

Overall the experience was somewhat bland. I just don’t seem to be able to get that much fun out of the series. I enjoyed some segments, and am of the opinion that GTA4 is an exemplary piece of good interactive entertainment, but to be honest I finished it more out of curiosity than enjoyment. The experience was similar to the first GTA and Vice City. The games lack things that I specifically like, even if they do at times manage to surprise me in a positive way.

My tepid disinterest is not a particularly enchanting topic, though, and GTA4 really does deserve better than that, so I decided to write something positive about the game.

Here’s a mixed assortment of moments and concepts that stuck, presented in glorious three-part format.

Part 1: Killing someone

Yeah, I know. GTA games have a lot of killing, no surprise there. But it’s very interesting! The violence is so varied and presented on so many different levels. There’s the very obvious in-your-face violence of the cut-scenes, the killing sprees the missions demand, and the often overlooked collateral damage of carefree driving the game mechanics invariably lead to. No matter what the plot of the game is, there’s always a narrative of bullets and carnage weaving in and out of the player’s focus.

When I started playing GTA4 I dutifully avoided running over pedestrians, hitting other cars and inconveniencing anybody. In other words, I paid a lot of attention to the violence. Not acting homicidal in the morning traffic just felt like the right thing to do as a newly arrived alien (with which I refer to both myself and Nico; we were both new to Liberty City after all). As expected, during the course of the game this changed. After about 15 hours of play I took notice of how different my playing style had become. I cut corners, plowed through sidewalks full of people and spared no thought for passers-by when spraying bullets in downtown shootouts. The desensitization to the game’s particular brand of violence was palpable. This was interesting to note. Of course, getting used to the violence didn’t take as long as 15 hours. Realizing I’d slid down the spectrum of violence, however, did.

I wonder if my experience has any relation at all to how people in real life become accustomed to acts of violence? When you start paying a lot of attention to rather abstract things like mission objectives, anything that’s between you and finishing the mission easily becomes secondary. Pedestrians mattered to me only for as long as I thought of Nico as a lost guy in a strange city, without any greater ambitions or plans. Once I got a higher purpose, something to struggle towards, everything else was pushed back. It was easy to disregard everything outside the target of my immediate attention. If my attention was on pursuing a fleeing gangster, it didn’t matter if I killed a couple of pedestrians in the process. They weren’t people, really, they were just something in the way of accomplishing the mission. Hindrances.

Does it work even slightly in the same way with soldiers, police or anyone else who regularly has to exist in a discourse of violence? I have no idea. In any event, I must hasten to note that I don’t want to indicate any causality between fictional violence and real world violence. I think it’s obvious that they are two very separate things. Getting used to violence in GTA doesn’t make me used to real violence, or to violence in, say Demon’s Souls or any other game. I’m just wondering if the basic mechanism of desensitization works the same way. And I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if it did.

Broker Bridge, scene for the most harrowing personal experience of death in GTA4. 

Interestingly, out of hundreds of deaths there was only one that really stuck with me. It happened when I was speeding along the Broker Bridge. I was going full speed, and just as I was nearing the end of the bridge a cab changed lanes, ending up right in front of me. My car slammed to the cab so hard that Nico flew through the windshield and rolled a good long way on the asphalt.

When I ran back to my car I noticed the driver of the smashed cab was slumped over his wheel and the cab’s horn was blaring a steady unnerving note that kept on going and going. The sound of that horn, operated by the weight of the deceased cabbie’s body on the wheel, haunted me for a long time.
I can’t really tell why this one death among many felt so meaningful. At best I can guess as to what caused the emotional connection. I think it may have been the banality of it. It was such a mundane scene, if one can say that of a car crash. I mean, there weren’t rocket launchers, mobsters or drama of any kind involved. Just me seeing how fast I could go, and an unfortunate cab driver who didn’t see the idiot coming. Situations like that happen every day, all over the world. Perhaps I was struck by the accuracy of GTA’s simulation, the perfect reproduction of the thoughtlessness of drivers everywhere. To make me first reproduce that ignorance and then realize the gravity of my mistake is a great testament to GTA’s depth and complexity.

(The incident also got me thinking about how the GTA universe doesn’t seem to have airbags. It would be terribly inconvenient and silly, sure, but their absence is subtly jarring in a game otherwise so minutely detailed and faux-real.)


  1. Great post! I think your point in particular about losing regard for pedestrians once there was a mission is spot-on.

    It's one of the less savory aspects of the human psyche, but with the right conditioning, apparently almost anyone among us can be made to see the loss of other human lives during war (or any circumstance with an assigned objective, manufactured or not) as unfortunate collateral damage, as opposed to each one being recognized as a unique and profound tragedy.

    Perhaps it's actually very good for us to play games like GTA, because it provides a lot of insight into how our minds work and respond to such situations. This will sound morose and soap-boxy, but maybe if we pay more attention to this tendency, it can wake us up, and we'll stop allowing ourselves to create situations where some human lives are worth more than others.

  2. In a very interesting lecture I attended few years ago the speaker said that the target practice methods used in armies worldwide are in part fashioned to condition soldiers to shoot at targets when commanded to. The key word being "targets", not enemies, opponents, hostile combatants or anything else. If you repeatedly practice shooting at targets, it distances you from the idea of shooting living beings. And once you have your target range routine to fall back on, shooting becomes easier in a real combat situations.

    Or, that's the theory anyway. I have no idea if that's how things really go. I never went to the army even though that's sort of expected of men in Finland :D

    But be that army conditioning method true or not, I concur that the human psyche can be made to commit all kinds of grim stuff. And I think the history of our species has too many fine examples of that.

    On a brighter note, I think your soap-boxy observation is very astute. I'd wager gamers (some of us, anyway) have an enhanced ability for empathy and compassion exactly because games have put us through so many situations that have forced us to examine our thoughts, feelings and reactions, be it consciously or otherwise. Experiencing difficult situations and decisions that challenge our comfort zones ultimately makes us more compassionate and understanding.

    All in all, what I'm getting at is that games have the potential to build a groundwork of empathy that no other media can really match.

    Which is just paraphrasing what you said, now that I think about it. Inception, dammit! :D

  3. I've always had issues with playing GTA and the way other people play it and you've very succinctly voiced them, so thankyou.