Grand Theft Auto IV comes out tomorrow. Looks like it might be the best in the series, certainly one of the best games of the year. The early reviews gathered at Metacritic have an average score of 99 out of 100 as I write this. Rockstar Games, the gaming company that has made Grand Theft Auto, estimates a pre-order demand around $400 million. So it’s big. Huge.
I will make a simple argument. It is the combination of creative anthropology, sophisticated game design and game play, and the right brain hooks that makes video games like Grand Theft Auto work so well.
Take creative fiction, and add world-building and a do-it-yourself story, and then you have what I mean by creative anthropology. Some Geek Love through role playing and fantasy, mixed with narrative to get the cultural buy-in.
So here’s GameSpy: “The very nature of the American Dream is the central theme in Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV, a gaming masterpiece that is a picture-perfect snapshot of the underworld of today’s big cities.”
The New York Times gushes, “The real star of the game is the city itself. It looks like New York. It sounds like New York. It feels like New York. Liberty City has been so meticulously created it almost even smells like New York.”
And now for the characters, as described by IGN and the NY Times.
The wild cast of characters is part of the reason things are so entertaining. The voice acting is top notch and the characters are each immediately identifiable and unique. Some are loveable, but there are many who are despicable. There are cringe-worthy conversations, where you see Niko being sucked into the depravity of these peoples’ lives to earn a few bucks or gain a long-sought revenge… [These are] characters that you’re immediately able to connect to. They’re almost all bad people, to be sure, but each of them has character weaknesses and vulnerabilities that make them real. Characters have reasons for doing what they do, and it’s apparent that they also have morals and inner demons as well. The cast plays perfectly into a fascinating story that is not only is easily the best of the franchise, but one of the best you’ll find in gaming anytime soon.
Besides the nuanced Niko the game is populated by a winsome procession of grifters, hustlers, drug peddlers and other gloriously unrepentant lowlifes, each a caricature less politically correct than the last. Hardly a demographic escapes skewering. In addition to various Italian and Irish crime families, there are venal Russian gangsters, black crack slingers, argyle-sporting Jamaican potheads, Puerto Rican hoodlums, a corrupt police commissioner, a steroid-addled Brooklyn knucklehead named Brucie Kibbutz and a former Eastern European soldier who has become a twee Upper West Side metrosexual.
Start with a dream and a place, and then add the characters. That is the creative anthropology. Or maybe just good storytelling.
The Game Play
Too many games are ruined by bad game play. It gets in the way of both a good story and those brain hooks. But Grand Theft Auto IV takes no liberties in this domain. It is the flesh that ties together culture and brain.
But it’s technical flesh, gaming flesh. Here’s IGN. “Though many missions boil down to the same basic parameter — go to location, kill people to get to target, chase target, kill target — it never feels repetitive. The locations of missions, the variety in the enemies, the dynamic aspects of the AI, and the dialogue keep GTA IV from ever feeling stale. In fact, this is a game that can be enjoyed with multiple playthroughs. It’s just that good.”
The cellphone as mission interface, the new combat system and the new cover system get covered, and then the physics. “You will see the effects of NaturalMotion [video demonstration] throughout the game, whether it’s how bodies react when you slam your car into them or the way a gangbanger leaps away from a grenade. The physics system is the connective tissue that grounds the action into something resembling reality. And it’s one of the main factors that makes GTA such an impressive-looking game.”
It all adds up: “That a game with great AI, an awesome physics engine and a detailed open world runs so well and with such short load times is a technical marvel.”
Seth Schiesel in New York dials in on a different but equally dynamic aspect of game design:
At least as impressive as the city’s virtual topography is the range of the game’s audio and music production, delivered through an entire dial’s worth of radio stations available in almost any of the dozens of different cars, trucks and motorcycles a player can steal. From the jazz channel (billed as “music from when America was cool”) through the salsa, alt-rock, jazz, metal and multiple reggae and hip-hop stations, Lazlow Jones, Ivan Pavlovich and the rest of Rockstar’s audio team demonstrate a musical erudition beyond anything heard before in a video game… It is not faint praise to point out that at times, simply driving around the city listening to the radio — seguing from “Moanin’ ” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark” to “The Crack House” by Fat Joe featuring Lil Wayne — can be as enjoyable as anything the game has to offer.
Immersion, reward, desire, and avoiding frustration and boredom—these are the brain hooks that set a game apart. The best games will make them run together into addictive fun.
So here’s immersion, Schiesel style: “I’ve spent almost 60 hours practically sequestered in a (real world) Manhattan hotel room in recent weeks playing through Grand Theft Auto IV’s main story line and the game still says I have found only 64 percent of its content. I won’t ever reach 100 percent, not least because I won’t hunt down all 200 of the target pigeons (known as flying rats here) that the designers have hidden around the city. But like millions of other players I will happily spend untold hours cruising Liberty City’s bridges and byways, hitting the clubs, grooving to the radio and running from the cops. Even when the real New York City is right outside.”
Reward? IGN shows how GTA IV does it at levels well beyond having a good score. “The dialogue in GTA IV is rich, funny, brilliant, insightful, and engaging. So many times your reward for beating a mission isn’t a new weapon or an elaborate cinematic cut-scene — it’s just dialogue. That is often reward enough.”
The good gameplay keeps the hours from getting frustrating, no sand thrown onto the brain gears. And little boredom either, not when there is so much to do: “The glittery urban landscape was almost enough to make me forget about the warehouse of cocaine dealers I was headed uptown to rip off. Soon I would get bored, though, and carjack a luxury sedan. I’d meet my Rasta buddy Little Jacob, then check out a late show by Ricky Gervais at a comedy club around the corner. Afterward I’d head north to confront the dealers, at least if I could elude the cops. I heard their sirens before I saw them and peeled out, tires squealing.”
Finally you’ve got to want to keep playing. Reward and immersion knit together by technical flesh with such a felt world can do that. That’s what makes it compelling, as we hear from Game Informer. “It’s been days since Grand Theft Auto IV’s credits rolled, yet I can’t seem to construct a coherent thought without my mind wandering off into a daydream about the game. I just want to drop everything in my life so I can play it again. Experience it again. Live it again…”
The Wrap Up
Anthropology prides itself on being a holistic discipline, on providing rich and varied examinations of human phenomenon. That’s definitely a part of neuroanthropology. And video games too.
“Everything in GTA IV works in harmony. The story would be nothing without the city; the city gains realism from the physics engine; the physics complement the improved AI; the AI would make no sense without the new cover system. And on and on.”