'Grand Theft Auto' Steals the Spotlight There is growing hype surrounding the recent release of Grand Theft Auto IV. Early reviews praise it for its unparalleled interactive features, an all-star hip hop soundtrack, and its "lived-in" look. But critics of the game say that it's too violent and inappropriate for teens

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NEAL CONAN, host: If you haven't seen your boyfriend since Tuesday, or friends have mysteriously disappeared, we can solve that mystery. On Tuesday, Rock Star Games released "Grand Theft Auto IV" for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It's already surpassed the one-day sales record in the U.K., beating out "Halo Three," and it's expected to sell nine million copies in the U.S. by the end of this year. Early reviews praise it for its unparalleled interactive features and all-star hip-hop soundtrack and its lived-in look, but critics of the game say it's violent toward women and should not be sold to teens under 18. And yesterday, Mothers Against Drunk Driving came out in opposition to the game, saying it promotes driving under the influence.

Today, we want to hear your review. Have you played the new game yet? We've got somebody online who's been playing the game for 28 hours. What do you think? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can also comment on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We begin with Adam Sessler, he's the co-host and managing editor of the show "X-Play" on G4TV and joins us from G4TV studios in Los Angeles. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. ADAM SESSLER (Co-host and Managing Editor, "X-play"): Hey, it's very nice to be here.

CONAN: And I gather you love this game?

Mr. SESSLER: It really is a very, very impressive game, and I would have to say that I'm a little bit jaded to impressive games, as I have to play them quite frequently. But just the size and robustness of what they created, which really feels like a very living city that you function in, in addition to a very interesting narrative that goes along with it.

CONAN: And the detail, the level of detail, I'll confess, I've not played it, but it's said to be amazing.

Mr. SESSLER: It really is. Now, they've done this before. It really started back with the game "Grand Theft Auto III," which created this Liberty City. And it wowed people, in the fact that you could move around what felt, at the time, like a very living city. What we didn't know was what it really could be like, which is what we're seeing in "Grand Theft Auto IV." Every neighborhood has its own distinct feel. Every corner seems to feel unique from other ones. Everybody who is walking on the street seems to have a very distinct personality. It really is an amazing thing just to take in visually.

CONAN: And I've heard that, for example, there are all kind of levels. One reviewer heard a radio news story - this is in the game - heard a radio news story about a serial killer terrorizing the town. After clicking on a lawyer's web page to set up a meeting, the reviewer got sidetracked surfing a MySpace parody site that had a banner ad for a blog hosting service. Browsing the blogs revealed an entire history of posts from a disturbed individual, who then is revealed to be the serial killer.

Mr. SESSLER: Yes, it's amazingly creative what they put into the game. Another amazing point of detail that I noticed is, you have a cell phone in the game, and, if you're listening to the radio and the cell phone rings, you actually get the crackle on the radio that you normally would in real life. I mean, they've gone down to that level of detail. And you think it sounds kind of silly, but really, it does make the entire experience feel that much richer.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the line. Jason is calling, Jason from Valdosta in Georgia.

JASON (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JASON: I'd like to, first of all, just reiterate all the points that your guest has made. One of the things that I've found about this game that I really do like is the main character I've found so far is different in a very fundamental way than all the other ones from "Three" that I've played. Most of the other main characters have some kind of shady past that really makes them a negative character, kind of, not necessarily evil, but just a step above that, really, to the main character. Like I've said, so far that I've found, he's not really overtly negative. I mean, he's a soldier. I mean, he's done things he's not proud of, but he was a soldier. And he's on a revenge mission, more, you know, more than anything.

CONAN: Adam Sessler, this is Niko, correct?

Mr. SESSLER: Right, yes. This is Niko Bellic. He is the main character of the game. He comes from somewhere from Eastern Europe that is unidentified. I'm just deciding it's one of the Baltic countries, and I think the caller is very, very accurate. The previous games tended to traffic in very, very broad stereotypes.

While they still use that kind of stereotype satire in this game, I almost want to say it's more Bechtian in the way that they're using it. There's a greater sense of true, pointed satire at the sense of the immigration experience in the United States and even a sense of commentary on the American dream. The main character, from the very beginning, seems astounded that, you know, all these things he heard about America really are turning out to be real, and that really is an impetus to driving him through this game in the criminal underworld.

JASON: Yeah.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call.

JASON: Thank you.

CONAN: And also with us on the line is Jim. Jim is in Los Angeles, where he's been playing this game for 28 hours straight. Jim, thanks for taking the time to call us. Is the game on pause?

JIM (Caller): No, no, I actually finished last night at 9 p.m. I went from 5 p.m. Tuesday to 9 p.m. last night.

CONAN: So you've managed to get some sleep in between now and then?

JIM: Yeah, I got about a solid 12. I could use a few more though.

CONAN: I suspect you're right. I wonder, why did you do this? Is it something you just got caught up and kept playing and playing, or were you trying to establish some kind of Guinness Book of World Records?

JIM: No, no, no. I do a show called the "24-Hour Video Game Review" for Bushleague.tv, and the whole premise of the show is that I play a game for 24 hours and review it as I go to let the viewers know if it's worth spending the money on. And this was the second one I've done, and it was also for a Guinness World Record attempt.

CONAN: At the - was it better in hour 26 than it was in hour two?

JIM: You know, it was pretty good. The game itself was great the whole way through. It's just, in early a.m. hours, around hour 12 of game play, that's when, you know, personally, it became a little rough to play. But no, the game was great all the way through.

CONAN: And your thumbs, are they sore?

JIM: No, absolutely not. PlayStation makes a very smooth controller.

CONAN: And as I understand, there are two different versions of this for different players, which one - you were using the PlayStation one?

JIM: I was playing on PlayStation 3, yes.

CONAN: And did you finish the game? I mean, did you get to the final end? Are you done?

JIM: No, no. I got about 28 percent through the game. There was…

CONAN: 28 percent?

JIM: Yeah.

CONAN: This is going to take you a long time to finish.

JIM: Yes, yes it is. There's a lot to do. There's a lot of side missions and stuff to get caught up in. You know, even if you're stuck on a mission for a while, you can take a breather, run around, find other ways to make money. You can do things like play pool, play darts, bowl. There's a whole set of sub-games within the main game.

CONAN: And what's your favorite part?

JIM: My favorite part is just the look of it. It's so cinematic. You know, the cut scenes all look great, and there's times, within the actual game play, where the camera angles switch and it gives a cinematic look to it. It's just visually a very impressive game.

CONAN: And would you say it's worth the money?

JIM: Yes, definitely. You know, it's something that will keep you busy for a long time, and I haven't even gotten to the multi-player aspect of it yet. But, you know, even if you beat the single player within a week, you've got a whole world of multi-player, and you've got a whole, you know, group of, you know, sub-plots going on to play on that. So totally worth it.

CONAN: And I understand that later additional features for this game, features within features, if you will. They could be uploaded, at least to some systems.

JIM: Yes. That's what I've heard. It's apparently in August. X-box will have some exclusive downloadable time to add for it. No word yet on what's that going to be.

CONAN: Thanks very much and congratulations.

JIM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: John Bruce Thompson is an attorney in Miami and an anti-video game activist, and he joins us now by phone from Miami in Florida. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN BRUCE THOMPSON (Attorney and Anti-Video Game Activist): Good to be with you.

CONAN: And I understand that you think one of the characters in "Grand Theft Auto IV" is based on you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, they go into a lawyer's office and they kill him. I had my house vandalized today, by the way, by gamers. I get calls, death threats all the time from gamers saying that they want to kill me. And, by the way, the game has had no effect on my attitudes or behaviors, which is interesting. But yeah, the real issue here, though, is the fact that there's so much sex and so much graphic sex in this game, that the distribution of it to minors, which is occurring, is a criminal act, and I'm working with various law enforcement agencies, hopefully with the result that Take-Two corporately and the Chairman Strauss Zelnick will be indicted for that because this is way way over the line. I say that as a lawyer, knowing where that line is.

CONAN: And...

Mr. SESSLER: Well actually, if you don't mind that I step in there, Neal. Having played the game, I have yet to actually discover the graphic sex that Mr. Thompson is identifying. There is...

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, apparently you haven't - aren't very good at finding that. Maybe you weren't looking, but it's up at IGN.com. It was provided by Take-Two to News Corporation, and they put it on the web. So it's out there.

Mr. SESSLER: How were you - no, no, no. I am aware that...

CONAN: Excuse me, Adam - Adam - Adam - Adam.


CONAN: Can I ask you a question here?

Mr. SESSLER: Sure, go for it.

CONAN: OK, thanks very much. John Thompson, let me just ask you. First of all, you've been involved in lawsuits with this company for some time, which is why you think that they might have a joke at your expense by making a parody of you in this game.

Mr. THOMPSON: No. I've been - I don't really care about the parody of me. That's not the point here. The point is that this company is engaged in criminal activity and is mentally molesting minors for money. This is the most graphic, most incredibly sexual product ever been distributed en masse to American children. That's...

CONAN: And have you...

Mr. THOMPSON: And it's a criminal act, and that's why I intend to have them held accountable for it.

CONAN: And have you played the game?

Mr. THOMPSON: It just came out, and I have a life. And the gentleman said he's been playing it what, 20-some hours? And he's 28 percent of the way through it? The point is that the sexual material, which has been described in the reviews and which you can see with your own eyes that Take-Two has provided to News Corporation, is in the game, and, in fact, the descriptor on the game, the ESRB descriptor, says, "strong sexual content."

What I have seen is lap dances, simulated fellatio and cunnilingus, S and M between two women while a man watches, language of prostitutes to people in cars, that I can't use on an FCC-licensed station, and then killing of the prostitutes by shotguns, machine guns, and ramming them into rocks with your vehicle to kill them after you've had the sex.

CONAN: And...

Mr. THOMPSON: Now, if that's appropriate entertainment for teens, then things have pretty much changed in this country and not for the better.

CONAN: And which law enforcement agencies are you working with?

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm not going to tell you.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for speaking with us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm done?

CONAN: You're done.

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, great. Well, I'll go play the game now.

(Soundbite of hang up)

CONAN: Good luck.

CONAN: We're talking about "Grand Theft Auto IV." Our guest is Adam Sessler, co-host and managing editor of the show "X-Play" on G4TV. If you'd like to join the conversation, have you played the game? You got a review? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

CONAN: And Adam Sessler, I do have to ask you. There is, at least according to all accounts, considerable amounts of sex and violence in this game and, indeed, killing prostitutes seems to be part of scoring points in the game.

Mr. SESSLER: Well, no. The killing of the prostitutes isn't, doesn't give you points. In fact, the game doesn't even sort of work on a points basis. For some reason though, ever since "Grand Theft Auto III," this notion that you have to kill prostitutes in the game has been pervasive, even though - yes, you can, through the course of playing the game, but in no way is the game telling you that you have to do that in order to proceed.

CONAN: But if you...

Mr. SESSLER: But at the same time - yes?

CONAN: If you're one of those people who thinks that violence and sex in video games can influence the behavior of young people, well, you could be concerned about this.

Mr. SESSLER: Yes, and I think the point is that Mr. Thompson was very, very off base on - this game was made by adults for adults. It received an "MA" rating, which stands for Mature, and says so right there on the box. It also says it's intended for people 17 and older and then gives very clear descriptions of what's in the game.

Obviously, this has been sold to minors, probably at some stores, but the intention is with that rating, it is not supposed to go into the hands of children. And I don't think that anyone, be it on the marketing side or people who made the game, are in any way being deceptive about it and try to actually encourage children to buy it when they shouldn't be.

CONAN: Do you really believe that? I mean, a rating like that is almost guaranteed to put it in the hands of every 12-year-old in the country.

Mr. SESSLER: Yes, I'll have to concede that. Now, on the same note, I used to sneak into R-rated movies when I was young, and I think I turned out rather balanced. I guess some people could contest that, but I definitely think I have. And I think that, for all things, outside of even video games, that you know, when you're 12, and you're a little bit older, you want to be an adult, you know.

And those things are parts of the adult world have a greater allure, and that's why people are drawn, especially to "Grand Theft Auto." It's by no means the most violent or depraved game that's out there, it just happens to be a very popular one and becomes this touchstone for everyone's anxieties, I think, about the very medium of video games.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Daniel, Daniel with us from Utica in New York.

DANIEL (Caller): Hello, am I on right now?

CONAN: Yes, you are.

DANIEL: Hello, Adam. I'm a big fan of the show.

Mr. SESSLER: Thank you so much.

DANIEL: Yes. I actually bought the special edition of "Grand Theft Auto IV" when it came out on release day. I'm a big fan of the games. I've been with it since the beginning of the games and "Four" is absolutely amazing.

CONAN: And so...

Mr. SESSLER: Yeah, I would definitely agree.

DANIEL: Yes. And I was seeing - earlier, I heard that Mothers Against Drunk Driving has spoken against the game for promoting drunk driving. I do not believe this is true. I at no point saw in the game the promotion of drunk driving.

CONAN: Isn't there a feature - excuse me, Daniel. Isn't there a feature where you, as the character, can get drunk and then get in the car, and it responds as if you're driving drunk?

DANIEL: Yes. The main character of the game can get drunk, and you can enter a vehicle. But it actually makes game play more difficult. And, in the game, when you're trying to do something, it makes driving the car a lot harder, and it actually makes whatever you're doing more difficult.

CONAN: Yet, because the main character, who's a glamorous character, is doing, I guess you might see how Mothers Against Drunk Driving could fear that this might lead other people to do it. Anyway, Daniel, thanks very much.

DANIEL: The game shouldn't be in the hands of irresponsible people. Like I was listening when Mr. Thompson was on, and I am actually doing a school report, my senior thesis, about controversy in video games. I've actually been following Mr. Thompson and his escapades against gaming, and I think he's a little ridiculous because...

CONAN: All right...

DANIEL: Because I think it's - as Sessler said earlier, it's being sold to adults being made by adults. It's not a...

CONAN: And, if you were 12 years old, how long would it be before you had this in your house? A week? Two Weeks?

DANIEL: No. I guess not long.

CONAN: I guess not long. Daniel, thanks. I just want to get another caller in, but thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we have time for Amy, and Amy is with us from Fremont in California.

AMY (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I have not played this game, but my husband has. And I was present when he played through "Three," and now, when he's playing through "Four." And just as a listener, I really, really dislike this game. It's got horrible radio stations that play awful music, but the thing that gets me is the language and the way that people talk to each other, and the way he reacts to it. He just finds it all amusing, and I don't think there's anything funny about, you know, crashing cars and using childlike language and, you know, killing women. I don't find that funny.

CONAN: Adam Sessler, we're going to give you the last 30 seconds.

Mr. SESSLER: I think the fact is, this game is not for everybody. But obviously, it's following kind of an amoral path and the anti-hero. And for those that are out there that like video games and like that kind of a story, I think it's appropriate. For those that don't, it's very easy to avoid it.

CONAN: Amy, thanks for the call and good luck suffering through "Grand Theft Auto IV" with your husband.

AMY: Thank you.

CONAN: And Adam Sessler, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. SESSLER: My pleasure.

CONAN: Adam Sessler, co-host and managing editor of the show "X-Play" on G4TV. You can read about his video game series on our blog at npr.org/ blogofthenation. He was with us today from G4TV studios in Los Angeles. Tomorrow, it's Science Friday and Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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