may 4

Grand Theft Reality

Fittingly, NYT drops its Grand Theft Auto IV coverage in the City section of the paper today. (The other appropriate section might have been Travel.) It's a long tour of the game's version of NYC, told from the perspective of a New Yorker (Dave Itzkoff, also known for covering sci-fi for the NYT Book Review) who wants the neighborhoods to resemble his version of the city. The conclusion is effectively a topographic take of the Uncanny Valley conundrum:

If I truly believed in Liberty City as a functioning community, how could I open fire on my fellow simulated citizens (even if they shot at me first)? How could I tread all over the social contract in a ripped-off truck full of bootleg prescription medication?

And then:

It's not the game's fault that it can't perfectly replicate the infinite variety of New York. But it sometimes comes so close to pulling off the illusion that it invites you to look for the imperfections.

I just bought the game and have only played a little. But the descriptions here and elsewhere sound like NYC run through the mosaic filter on Photoshop. This geographically-confused, post-catastrophe setting resembles Cloverfield more than anything else. (You know, that scene where they get in the subway at Spring St. and end up at 59th St.) Let's compare these two for a second: look how each toys with class, violence, geography, simulation, reproduction, terrorism, sex, and urban geography. This should be the only bar conversation we have for the next couple months.

But back to this desire to adhere to verisimilitude in game play. It's peculiar, especially given the history of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, notorious for its propagation of violence as the narrative of gaming. Yes, peculiar, but also understandable for anyone familiar with the city's grid. The question seems to be, how close of a representation do we actually want? There it is again, the Uncanny Valley, which even popped up on a recent episode of 30 Rock, in the form of Tracy Jordan (himself a refracted mirror of Tracy Morgan) trying to make the first successful porn video game.

Desire and play. I suspect this is what gets lost in the muddled debate about the interplay of reality and fiction in the super-simulation canon. The new cultural critics are "deciders," sprung from both the left (social realists) and the right (values pundits), both trying to impose "this is fiction" and "this is real" logic onto games and movies. But it's not just them -- it is we who, in various ways, all participate in this debate about reality and non-reality, seeking an answer to whether something is either too unrealistic or too realistic.

All this makes me wonder if the question of realism has been overplayed, or if in fact it is the only question, now and forever. All I really want to know is: what makes playing the game so much fun? And how much does "reality" have to do with the answer?


I think you hit the nail on the head with the last question. I doubt Rockstar put much emphasis on "reality" and more on creating a fantasy mimicking parts of reality to create something entirely different.

Typically when we think of picking parts of reality and adding in some social commentary, we get satire on the other side of the equals sign. GTA, however, walks some entirely different path.

GTA feels fun because it's guilt free social debauchery set in a movie set version of NYC. I don't like the idea of dying, or going to jail, but I wouldn't mind mowing down some pedestrians in the game's equivalent Times Square (or in my neck of the woods, Jackson Heights / Cervesa Heights.) All the fun of murdering, drug dealing and killing people in a protracted NYC without any of the bad. Sounds like fun to me.

Hop on sometime and we'll have to grab a game. Xbox live: dextr0us.

posted by randall at 3:06 PM on May 4, 2008

Also, Serious Eats does a hack job on some Liberty City to NYC comparisons.

posted by Aaron at 3:29 PM on May 4, 2008

This is awesome. Don't really have time for anything well thought-out or something like 'an answer', but:

1) For what it's worth, I think you've asked the right questions, particularly in emphasising the relationship between fantasy, desire and reality. What's interesting is that the 'release' of being violent in GTA4 is, you could argue, produced by the other (un)realistic texts that deal with the same sorts of issues.
B) A quote from Will Wright today: ""What I want to do is craft this landscape of experiences where the player has a huge degree of control over what they encounter," he says. "I think that's what games have as an advantage over any other form of media; that the player is half the author of the experience if the game is done well - or even more so. I think this is the first form of medium which has really achieved that and it allows us access to emotional regions that are inaccessible to linear narrative."
C) I'm not sure it's fair to say that lefty cultural critics are about social realism, particularly when they've come to be dominated by post-structuralist approaches to 'reality-as-text(s)'.
D) Related: one way to think about verisimilitude is that it is often an attempt to produce or textualise reality in a particular way (i.e. the 'realness' of The Hills is as productive as it is reactive). Thought of that way, the virtual - like the aesthetic before it - is always a space one returns from, rather than escapes to. Why this is especially neat in gaming is that one produces the text one wants to, in a way that goes well beyond reader-response theory.
E) This is all kinda' obvious and a bit stupid, but hopefully someone will take it up more thoroughly.

posted by Nav at 5:40 PM on May 4, 2008

I don't think it's the reality.. it's the intracasy. they are building something really detailed, but those details don't need to be realistic to be fun.

posted by Stefan Hayden at 6:05 PM on May 4, 2008

I'm a big fan of digital cities in gaming. I think Rockstar has done a great job of walking the line between emulating and approximating with this latest title. The GTA franchise has a lot to offer, and while playing GTA4 I can't help but wonder if they've gone a little too far with their "sandbox inside a sandbox" mentality with this game. Damn all that texture mapping paid off and the specular reflections are quite nice but an in game internet? television? Maybe I should just be playing Second Life...

Even better ragdoll physics would have been more entertaining than an eighteenth radio station.

posted by Greg J. Smith at 1:33 AM on May 5, 2008

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