"Grand Theft Auto IV" - it's more than a game
Where do you turn when the country's gone nuts and the land of the free, home of the brave has federal police ordering ferry commuters to...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Where do you turn when the country's gone nuts and the land of the free, home of the brave has federal police ordering ferry commuters to hand over their ID papers?
Options include a politician offering hope that this awful chapter in American history won't last forever, and another vowing to keep up the good fight.I don't have much faith in either one, and I'm as frustrated as the next guy that nobody with real power is calling bull on all the hypocrisy and ridiculousness — until Tuesday, that is, when "Grand Theft Auto IV" arrives.
The raunchy shooting and driving game has been the poster child for violent video games since the series debuted in 1997, drawing outrage for its gratuitous and occasionally smutty content.
But since then, popular culture has caught up. The adult-rated game is no worse than hit TV shows or the movies and lingerie ads you see at the mall.
Like it or not, GTA will probably be the high-water mark for entertainment this year. It may make more on its debut than any movie in history.
Some think GTA could eventually gross $1 billion. Microsoft and Sony think it will sell shiploads of game consoles, and Amazon.com is opening a virtual mobile storefront selling music from inside the game.
Geeks will ooh and aah at the game's cinematic quality and its lifelike characters.
But that all misses what I think is the best part of GTA: It's a game, but it's also satire, lampooning everything in sight. Its biggest guns are aimed at the decline of America's cities, its values and its promise.
GTA tells the story of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European whose cousin promises fame and fortune if he comes to Liberty City, a virtual version of New York where the game plays out. (That's also home for GTA's creator, Rockstar Games.)
Instead of finding freedom and opportunity, Bellic winds up in his cousin's dumpy apartment fighting off debt collectors.
The city's a dark forest, a place where police harass subway commuters and Weazel News is reporting that the Terrorism Interception and Transportation Security Department raised the threat level to Dark Cerulean 4, "citing increased chatter and an upcoming election."
GTA pokes right and left, giving you a chance to steal not only police cars, motorcycles, boats and choppers but also a mock Prius hybrid (the billboard: "Save the planet for only $39,999.")
There's a debate about whether video games deserve to be called art. You wouldn't expect that to be advanced by GTA IV, but the developers are exploring the medium.
Games with political or social messages aren't new, but the trend could get interesting if it spreads in triple-A titles with massive reach.
"I think we're definitely going to see more of a convergence of messaging — they know they've got a captive audience in a certain demographic," said Tom Edwards, a Renton geopolitical consultant who used to advise Microsoft on game content. "Movies do it, music does it, so why not games? You've got the ability to start slipping in certain viewpoints you want."
Intentionally or not, Microsoft's "Halo" series captured the wartime zeitgeist like a chest-thumping, flag-waving Bruce Willis movie.
GTA's more like "The Daily Show" and "South Park" crossed with "The Sopranos."
It will go over like a lead balloon with most everyone over 40.
Unless they're among the bitter and disenfranchised masses, clinging to their game controllers, waiting for Tuesday to finally come.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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