Joyless joy-rider: Disenchanted immigrant Niko Bellic is the protagonist of the year's hottest new game.
Joyless joy-rider: Disenchanted immigrant Niko Bellic is the protagonist of the year's hottest new game. Rockstar Games
Sunset in the city: GTA IV plays out in Liberty City, a lovingly detailed game-world analogue of New York — with satirical twists.
Sunset in the city: GTA IV plays out in Liberty City, a lovingly detailed game-world analogue of New York — with satirical twists. Rockstar Games
GTA IV writer talks about twisted magic tricks, the immigrant experience, and why "the Ukrainian Britney Spears" is the perfect deejay for the in-game station Radio Vladivostok.
Content advisory: These trailers contain mature content, including adult language and images of sexuality and graphic violence.
On-Air Sidebar: "Preaching to the Choir"
Celebrity hosts on the new in-game stations include designer Karl Lagerfeld, DJ Premiere, Ukrainian pop icon Ruslana and Afrobeat star Femi Kuti. Sample their performances here.
They call it Liberty City, but it's New York — from the potholes on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the Russian nightclubs of Brighton Beach to the dim sum shops of Chinatown.
This is where you, Niko Bellic, were hoping for a new start after a life of war, prison and heartbreak — and where, not long after hopping off the cargo ship that brought you from your Eastern European homeland, you find yourself mired in a seedy world of drugs and crime instead.
This is Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest in the best-selling console-game series. Released today, the game had pre-sold more than a million copies; in the music business, it would have gone platinum before the first unit walked out of a retail store.
And if reaction to the rest of the series is any predictor, GTA IV will be the subject of concern — the target of charges that it's chock-full of gratuitous violence, that it celebrates criminality.
Shock and Satire
"See, now, I just got into a bit of an altercation with that Asian woman," says Lazlow Jones. "I believe she cursed me out in Chinese."
Jones is one of the writers and directors on Grand Theft Auto. He's playing the game in the New York offices of Rockstar Games, walking Niko through Liberty City's familiar-looking Chinatown. It took four years — and something like 200 programmers, researchers, translators, actors, artists, directors and writers — to create this world.
With an Xbox controller in his hand, Jones hops in a helicopter and heads to Times Square, where he steals a cab — the terrified passenger jumps out — and cruises down to SoHo before getting back in the helicopter and taking a tour of the oil refineries over in Jersey.
What makes Grand Theft Auto so vivid is the feeling that Liberty City is a living organism. It feels like even if you weren't playing, its inhabitants would still be hitting on each other, talking on their cell phones, drinking coffee in Prospect Park.
"Show some respect," a voice growls. Jones laughs.
"I just bumped into that gentleman and made him drop his coffee," he says. Then he points out just what it is that gives Grand Theft Auto IV its distinctive bite: satirical detail.
"Our Starbucks in the game is called Bean Machine," Jones says. Its slogan: All Beans Lovingly Picked by Children in Central America.
Times Square billboards poke fun at the idea of underwear as fashion. The Statue of Liberty is replaced by the Statue of Happiness, who holds a coffee cup in her hand.
"It's a satire of not only New York, but of American consumerism and culture," Jones says.
Under the Surface, a Focus on Story
But the game is more than merely satire. Video games have never been known for expressing the finer points of human emotion. But I took a turn at the console with Jones, and the more I played GTA IV, the more I felt I knew Niko.
He's haunted by violence. He walks slowly, and every action is deliberate, as if he were conserving energy. When he steals a car, he matter-of-factly pulls the driver out of the seat and deposits him on the road. There's no joy in it; it's just what needs to be done.
And everything about Niko feels uniquely Niko — like when a great actor disappears into a character. It's just not something you see that often in video games.
The key, Jones says, is storytelling — "fundamental storytelling that becomes so engaging that you find yourself emotionally involved with polygons. None of this exists, but we've made a living, breathing world."
Parental Advisory: Your Kids Will Play This Game
Of course, the Grand Theft Auto series is known more for letting you beat up cops and have sex with prostitutes than for any kind of emotional maturity.
Then again, it was never intended for children. Many gamers are in their 30s, and every game in the series has come stamped with a "Mature" rating.
Still, GTA IV will find itself in the hands of teens and preteens.
"Pretty much every kid who goes to my school will play Grand Theft Auto, I'm fairly sure," says James Lantz.
Lantz, a senior at Hudson School in Hoboken, N.J., has been playing GTA since he was 11 — and he's psyched for the new one.
Which might alarm some parents. Grand Theft Auto is so associated with the perceived evils of video games that mental-health experts Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson named a book after it: Grand Theft Childhood.
'They Were Very Clear that This Was a Fantasy'
But Olson says Grand Theft Auto is different from the typical violent video game.
"One of the things the kids told us in focus groups was that they liked the open environment," she says. "One said, 'You can be a good guy and a bad guy at the same time.' You can do the missions and get to the top of the drug-dealing syndicate or whatever ... but you can also drive an ambulance, deliver pizzas, go swimming in the lake."
And Olson says the kids in her study didn't take the game's violence back into their real lives.
"They were very clear that this was a fantasy," Olson says. "They didn't admire the thuggish characters, but they enjoyed playing with being those characters."
Lazlow Jones, the GTA writer-director, says he's gotten frustrated with the level of outrage that surrounds the game. But on another level, he understands that sometimes it takes a while for the public to recognize greatness in its midst. He points to the debut of Igor Stravinsky's ballet score The Rite of Spring, which scandalized Paris in 1913.
"The entire hall erupted into a riot," he says, "and there were politicians and people calling for it to be banned, because it was some kind of hedonistic thing that was certainly not art."
A hundred years later, Jones observes, we look back on The Rite of Spring as one of the great compositions of the 20th century.
So Jones, for one, is taking the long view on Grand Theft Auto.
Story edited by Sara Sarasohn and produced by Josh Rogosin. Edited and produced for the Web by Trey Graham.