Grand Theft Auto IV is probably the only game I’ve ever played that I just cannot decide on. I’ve written about it more than Shadow of the Colossus and I’ve been wanting to talk and rant and prant on about how it works. It doesn’t please me, it doesn’t hurt me and each time I come out of playing it, nothing changes. There’s a cyclical nature to the whole thing that keeps me wanting to find something worthwhile in this windswept world of hyper-reality. I should despise the game for going against Rockstar’s past philosophy of emergent gameplay over scripted sequences. There’s always been an element of that scripted way of events in past Rockstar games, such as all GTA titles functioning as a sandbox that contains linear missions, but never on IV‘s level.
The fact is, I feel like I’m on the shores of discovery. I’m on the land of Liberty yet I feel as if I’m just coming out of the ocean and on to the peninsula of mediocrity. There’s no taste or bite save the atmosphere, there’s a raw feeling about the place but there’s no taint or general feel about things. It feels so weird to be walking in this place of architecture and a city that took months of manhours to make but ultimately feels empty. There are people everywhere; living, breathing and working but none of them look at me funnily. They spout lines about the weather or politics and even tuning on the radio I go deeper within this dream.
The fact is, I’ve never had any trace of fun with Grand Theft Auto IV and it’s unlike any game I’ve ever played. It’s radio stations drew me on to bands I’d never heard of, it’s writing is absolutely pitch-perfect and the pacing of its linear story is more realised than the likes of Red Dead Redemption if you’re wanting to compare Rockstar’s works. Whereas Red Dead functions around zero player empathy, especially ‘that ending’, Grand Theft Auto IV’s main focus of spoiling the party is placing you in this world full of minute details. The cracks in pavement, the chips in paint and the human race going about their lives. If the game is trying to make me feel like I’m inside this world, it hasn’t worked. I feel as if I’ve just been reflected off of this game, like I’ve dived into a swimming pool only to find it’s actually a trampoline. I’m soaring in the air and looking down at this world, it’s calling me.
I need to go back to find out why I can’t connect with this world. The atmosphere is some of the best work I’ve seen in a game. When it rains, it rains. When you get hit by a car, you get hit by a car. These are all tactile feelings but the humanity, or lack thereof, feels so removed that it’s hard to connect with this world. It’s essentially a world without people, a clock without a craftsman. But this shouldn’t ruin the game, since I enjoy those shining moments of nihilistic pathetic fallacy; where the rain and thunder bellow as a firefight wears on with me scrambling around cover for health. There are moments in which I am one with the game, that feel on the level of Shadow, where I can hear the pitter-patter of rain on a taxi cab’s roof… right outside my real window.
Liberty is calling me to explore its innards and find the heart to happiness. There’s a heart within the virtual Statue of Liberty in the game that was documented and YouTubed to hell when the game came out. Sometimes I like to just go there in a helicopter, diving out of the thing and failing twenty times before finally landing on that small balcony. Sometimes I look up at the giant beating heart, an Easter Egg and it shows me something about Grand Theft Auto IV that I haven’t thought of for years. It’s been nearly three years since Grand Theft Auto IV released and almost three years since I started writing, it’s the reason I started writing, I wanted to unearth this displeasure’s pleasure, this oxymoron that bound me to Liberty, I found it in an Easter Egg.
I dub it ‘oxymoronic immersion’, where the game’s rules and restrictions bound the player to be thrown out of the game but visual elements cancel it out in order to create an experience that is neither immersive or disconnecting to the player. The pitter-patter on the Taxi-cab’s roof was cancelled out by the fact that I tapped the ‘skip ride’ button moments later, the bellowing thunderous fantasy of a gunfight become a looping state of immersion when my phone kept ringing from my virtual cousin. These are interactive elements that dismiss the visual beauty of things, this is the beating heart of Liberty. It has a heart of gold but yet it’s an inanimate body of jade colouring.
This is the problem that plagues Grand Theft Auto IV and many games beyond it. There’s a lack of balance, of pure immersion when both interactivity and visual play both intertwine to create an ultimate aesthetic experience. Video-games have yet to master this interactive experience punctuated with visual experience, instead choosing to have a largely visually told experience (middle-man narratives) dotted with interactive elements. These experiences are comprised of oxymorons, a visual splender in an interactive world that provides more enjoyment than actual interaction.
Liberty is calling me still, to find those few moments where I connect on every level. When I can taste the rain-soaked concrete and hear my footsteps on its cold surface, when I can see all the colours of the world in the dim lit street lamppost bulb and all the pains in the world on a pedestrian’s face. I feel so enthralled and often moved by these moments that I feel connected to a world beyond my own, so much so that it becomes my own. For those brief instances I’m not on planet Earth, I’m in Liberty.
Then my cousin calls me.