It's tempting to believe your own hype. If you're Mike Myers coming off the success of Wayne's World, Austin Powers, and Shrek, you can honestly believe that spending five years perfectly honing the art of the fart joke really is a kind of genius. If you're hotshot producer McG, creator of The O.C. and Supernatural, you can think that Terminator 5 and The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious are high-concept masterpieces that a salivating public desperately needs to consume.
And if you're Rockstar Games, you can come to believe that people buy Grand Theft Auto games to experience their gritty realism, superlative storytelling, and deep, believable characters.
I say this not to denigrate the GTA legacy. The strange little trilogy consisting of GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas are the definitive gaming experience of the last decade. Most games would settle for any one of exciting high-speed driving, visceral explosive mayhem, or a vast and lovingly detailed urban playground to explore, and GTA has, up until recently, consistently nailed each of those elements with laserlike precision.
Sure, GTA is a franchise about stealing cars, driving them very fast, and then blowing some shit up. But it does it on an epic scale. Which is where, I think, the brain crazies eventually set in. Because it's an easy bit of carelessness to think that an epic scope requires an epic story.
This is something that GTA developer Rockstar very much wanted to do. They wanted to create a protagonist as deep and as complex as their faux-American sandbox cities. They wanted to introduce gamers to a man whose pain and angst they could virtually palpate, even as they fired an endless stream of rocket-propelled grenades at police helicopters. A man who aspired to the heavens even as he stuffed dollar bills into the G-strings of coked-up strippers. This is Niko Bellic, recent eastern-bloc immigrant determined to chase the American Dream and outrun his past as a violent madman - no matter how many innocent civilians he has to beat to death with a baseball bat along the way.
What's being aimed for here is tragedy. It's the story of a man held hostage by his past and repeatedly sodomised by circumstances beyond his control. In the PR for Grand Theft Auto IV it played out pretty attractively, but in execution it was something different. Rockstar promised their game would make tragic violin music play in our heads, and we were all pretty excited about that until they showed us the skull drills and the tiny, tiny violinists. This was not a game of subtle storytelling. It was the equivalent of opera rendered in musical farts; lowbrow, off-putting, and hard to remain in the room with after the first five minutes.
"I'm not gay," declares Niko's cousin Roman in one cutscene. That's good to know; it's not really something we had any lingering questions about, but as exposition goes it's pretty to the point. No one asked him about his sexuality; it's something Roman volunteered. Everyone loves a chatty character, right? Two missions later, Roman says it again, and the point becomes clear - homosexuality is hilarious. Homosexuality, and also "titties", which Roman takes the opportunity to discuss every time he opens his mouth.
This isn't observational comedy. Nobody's suggesting human sexuality is wryly humorous. This isn't a stand-up comedian enquiring, "So, what's the deal with gay people?" It's that schoolyard brand of funny where merely using the word "titties" is enough to provoke sniggers, year-in, year-out. You don't have to understand what "titties" are - the important thing is that everyone else is laughing, and you should too.
That's - let's be fair - exactly what GTA has been serving up in lion-sized portions for more than ten years now. It's nothing new to say that Rockstar is endlessly happy to use the words "woman" and "prostitute" interchangeably, and off-handedly equate "gay" with "mentally unwell". They paint their entire cast with the same psychopathic brush, whether they be male, female, or Jamaican, so there's some equality there, but you're still left with the impression that it's less of a deliberate artchoice than simply that they don't know any better.
Shallowness has never been the bane of a good game. The Mario Bros would not be noticeably improved by attempts to subvert Mario's broad Italian stereotypicality. Pacman requires neither motivation nor backstory (animated TV series notwithstanding). And similarly, an optional layer of depth is rarely anything but a boon to a game. It's great to know that Mega Man has a rich and storied continuity, and at the same time it's perfectly okay to just not care.
Where it all goes wrong is when the developer ties you to your chair and demands at gunpoint that you take them seriously. "This is modern day Shakespeare," screams Rockstar, waving their snub-nosed pistol alarmingly for emphasis. "This is the finest goddamn story ever told by humans. In the future, when Facebook replaces Wikipedia as the font of all knowledge, the group entitled Dictionary Definition Of Pathos will have pictures of our game in its gallery." And then they pause, and add, "Titties," and snigger.
The game opens with a close up of a fat man having sex - because sexuality in the overweight is inherently hilarious - and moves quickly to the apparently unrelated exploits of our protagonist, Niko Bellic. Niko's a man who's just made the journey from Somewhere-That-Used-To-Be-Called-The-Soviet-Union to the balmy shores of America, and is quickly disappointed to find it's not quite the land of milk and honey he'd envisaged. He's pretty conflicted about what to do with his life, and he'll talk about that conflict in endless, vague detail as he takes long, dull drives across the city, goes on extended, half-assed fetch quests for people he can barely stand, and engages a succession of girlfriends on chorelike excursions the game refers to as "dates". Those dates! Never has the process of trying to get laid felt so mechanical and unexciting.
It's GTA as told by a cut-rate Martin Scorsese, where action and plot progression are implied but not seen, and gameplay and interaction are replaced by long, slow cinematic pans, and the sight of neon lights reflected in dark puddles on rain-slick streets tells more than clear goals and understandable missions ever could. The sandbox is gone, and while you may briefly believe you're driving around a large, living city, in reality you're chained to the wheels of a giant, diabolical Simon Says. GTA IV has a series of hoops, and by gum, you're going to jump through them.
The awful mission design is best evidenced by an early job given to you by a Jamaican acquaintance. You're given a description of what you have to do, but it's in Jamaican so thickly-accented that even Niko confesses to not having understood it. Which is a great joke, until it's time to actually complete the mission. Lucky there's some monosyllabic onscreen mission text to get you going. It's a five minute drive from where you get the mission to where the associated gameplay actually starts (a drive that must be repeated each and every time you fail out of the mission), and when you get there you're shown a drug dealer and asked to "follow him without being seen".
This is the game's first on-foot tailing mission, and there's no explanation of the relevant mechanics. The goal has nothing to do with "not being seen" (the dealer looks straight ahead at all times with neck-brace intensity) and more to do with staying within about four to fifteen metres of the dealer while he moves. The limits of the safe tailing zone are not explained, or graphically indicated in any way. When you fail out, there's no indication of what you did wrong - the dealer just starts running, and after a while you lose him.
The dealer's path is a masterpiece of bad game design. It takes him down a back alley, into a residential apartment building and out of the same building through its backdoor, and then across a road to enter yet another building, where he eventually ascends to a third-floor apartment. Who does that? Who walks through somebody else's house to get to their own? Moreover, you could have reached the final destination quite handily by car, but the game for unspecified reasons makes you do it on foot.
The mission ends with a sudden and violent firefight against a half-dozen heavily armed thugs. It transitions from stealth to combat without warning, and of course when the ambush inevitably kills you it's back to the start for another five minute drive and extended stealth sequence before you can try the fight again. It's terrible, but what's more terrible is the central conceit - that the task is put before the outcome. The goal of the mission is to eliminate a nest of drug dealers. A good game would give you the end goal and ask you to find a way to execute it, with tailing this dealer being a strong contender for the dominant strategy. A bad game - which this is - orders you with laughable sternness to do some tailing and then asks at the end, "By the way, can you kill these dudes now?"
What happened to driving around and blowing some stuff up? What happened to those games that revelled in letting you bring your own unique style to a non-stop orgy of velocity and violence? How did the sun-drenched fantasies of Vice City and San Andreas metamorphose into the dingy, depressing muck of GTA IV? I was buckled in for sixty hours of fun but the game I ended up playing couldn't have been more pretentious if it had been wearing a beret.
It sickens me - it physically sickens me - the critical acclaim that many outlets showered GTA IV in. Not every game needs to be Citizen Kane, but even in the shallower end of the art pool there's a difference between something as fun as The Rock and something as misguided as Dead Silence starring Donnie Wahlberg. This isn't big dumb fun, it's big ponderous tripe. It's bloated and self-important and good heavens we can do better than this, people.
It's appropriate, I guess in a way. And all I can say is that whoever stole the GTA franchise and took it on a joyride through the unnattractive clums of GTA IV had a whole bunch more fun stealing it than I did stumbling across its burned out chassis afterwards.