MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
It has all the hype of a Harry Potter book release plus violence, drug dealing, and carjacking. "Grand Theft Auto IV" comes out today, one of the most highly anticipated videogames ever. Pre-sales are at more than a million copies at $60 each. "Grand Theft Auto" is one of the biggest franchises in the video game business, and it has been mired in controversy because of its R-rated qualities.
Reporter Heather Chaplin played some of the latest "Grand Theft Auto" with one of its creators.
(Soundbite of videogame "Grand Theft Auto IV")
HEATHER CHAPLIN: You play as Niko Bellic. Straight off the boat from an undisclosed Eastern European country, he's been weathered by war, prison, heartbreak. Liberty City is supposed to be your new beginning.
(Soundbite of the videogame "Grand Theft Auto IV")
NIKO BELLIC (Character, "Grand Theft Auto IV"): If is the word for me. I couldn't keep a job.
CHAPLIN: Your cousin Roman lured you to Liberty City with tales of its rich American lifestyle. But it's not long after hopping off the cargo ship that you find yourself in the seedy world of drugs, crime, and loneliness.
(Soundbite of sirens blaring)
CHAPLIN: They call it Liberty City, but it's New York - from the potholes in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the Russian nightclubs of Brighton Beach to the dimsum shops of Chinatown.
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)
Mr. LAZLOW JONES (Writer/Director, "Grand Theft Auto IV"): See, now, that -I just got into a bit of an altercation with that Asian woman. I believe she cursed me out in Chinese.
CHAPLIN: Lazlow Jones is one of the writers and directors on "Grand Theft Auto." He's playing it in the company's New York offices walking Niko through Chinatown. It took about 200 programmers, researchers, translators, actors, artists, directors and writers four years to create this world.
(Soundbite of videogame "Grand Theft Auto IV")
Unidentified Man #1: I am constantly asked, (unintelligible), when did you discover you were magic?
CHAPLIN: With the 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. He cruises down to SoHo before getting back in the helicopter and taking a tour of the oil refineries over in Jersey.
(Soundbite of helicopter taking off)
CHAPLIN: What makes "Grand Theft Auto" so vivid is the feeling as 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.
(Soundbite of videogame "Grand Theft Auto")
Unidentified Man #2: Show some respect.
Mr. JONES: I just bumped into that gentleman and made him drop his coffee. Our Starbucks in the game is called Bean Machine, with All Beams Lovingly Picked by Children in Central America.
CHAPLIN: Lazlow Jones says satirical detail gives "Grand Theft Auto IV" its bite.
Mr. JONES: It's a satire of not only New York, but American consumerism and culture.
CHAPLIN: The Statue of Liberty is replaced by the Statue of Happiness with a coffee cup in her hand. Billboards in Times Square make fun of underwear as fashion.
Mr. JONES: One of the things that we love to spoof in "Grand Theft Auto" are fashion brands. And this is a fashion brand called "Derriere(ph), and it's a huge billboard in the Times Square of the game which features a butt and a strange belt.
CHAPLIN: But the game is more than just satire. Videogames have never been known for expressing the finer points of human emotion. But the more I played "Grand Theft Auto," 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. Everything about Niko feels uniquely Niko. But when a great actor disappears into a character, it's just not something you'd seen that often in video games. Lazlow Jones.
Mr. JONES: You know this fundamental storytelling that becomes so engaging that you find yourself emotionally involved with polygons. None of these exists, but we've made a living, breathing world.
CHAPLIN: Of course. The "Grand Theft Auto" series is just better known for letting you beat up cops and have sex with prostitutes. It was never intended for children. Many gamers are in their '30s, and every game in the series has a mature rating. Still, "Grand Theft Auto IV" will find itself in the hands of teens and preteens.
Mr. JAMES LANTZ (Student, Hudson School, Hoboken, New Jersey): Pretty much every kid who goes to my school will play "Grand Theft's Auto," I'm fairly sure.
CHAPLIN: That's James Lantz, a senior at Hudson School in Hoboken. He's been playing "Grand Theft Auto" since he was 11, and he's psyched for the new one.
Mr. LANTZ: In fact, when I was playing the game, I certainly didn't feel like, you know, a gangbanger or a gangster. I felt like, you know, I was playing a game.
CHAPLIN: "Grand Theft Auto" is so associated with the perceived evils of videogames that doctors Larry Kutner and Cheryl Olson named their book "Grand Theft Childhood." But Olson says "Grand Theft Auto" is different from the typical violent videogame.
Dr. CHERYL OLSON (Co-Director, Harvard's Center for Mental Health and Media; Co-Author, "Grand Theft Childhood"): One of the things the kids told us in focus groups was that they liked the open environment. One said you can be a good guy or bad guy at the same time. And that you could do the missions and get to the top of the, you know, drug-dealing syndicate or whatever that particular version the game had. But you also could drive an ambulance, deliver pizzas, go swimming in the lake.
CHAPLIN: And Olson says the kids in her study didn't carry the game's violence back into their real lives.
Dr. OLSON: They were very clear that this was a fantasy. They didn't admire the thuggish characters, but they enjoyed playing with being those characters.
CHAPLIN: Writer and Director Lazlow Jones says he's frustrated with the level of outrage that surrounds "Grand Theft Auto," but he points to the debut of Stravinsky's ballet score, "The Rite of Spring," which scandalized Paris in 1913.
Mr. JONES: The entire hall erupted into a riot, 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.
(Soundbite of ballet score "The Rite of Spring")
CHAPLIN: Now, Jones says, almost a hundred years later, we look back on "The Rite of Spring" as one of the great compositions of the 20th century. So, he's taking the long view on "Grand Theft Auto".
For NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin in New York.