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?
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?