Sun, May 11, 2008 - Page 13 News List

Is 'Grand Theft Auto IV' art?

By Peter Conrad, Laura Cumming and Bidisha  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

This photo released by Rockstar Games shows a scene from Grand Theft Auto IV.


1. Peter Conrad, Observer writer and critic

As a non-driver who hardly remembers being a teenager, I don’t belong to the demographic category targeted by video games. But I agreed to man the console of Grand Theft Auto IV because I’m curious about the future. Can it be true that this geekmobile will have more customers than Hollywood’s noisiest, flashiest blockbuster? Industrial spies report that the movies may soon vanish into the gadget I was gripping, with its fiddly gearsticks and handbrakes, its zoom control and directional pad: technology is being developed that will enable you both to direct and to perform in the film you’re watching.

I spent an afternoon hijacking cars and totaling a satisfactory number of pedestrians. My alter ego at the wheel was a granite-visaged eastern European thug called Niko, sent to ferry his mobster cousin’s cronies around New York. I realized — once I got over the lethal joy of running red lights and skidding on to the pavement — that I had signed on as that dreariest of nocturnal drudges, a minicab driver. But I soon gave up asking where I was going, or why. The plot is an excuse for motion: cinema is kinesis, and I’m happy enough to watch John Wayne riding or Steve McQueen driving or Matt Damon running. Hitchcock once likened his films to rollercoasters, and interestingly GTA IV skirts the derelict funfair at Coney Island in Brooklyn. Hitchcock knew that he was programming sensations, infecting audiences with motion sickness as his characters struggle to control runaway cars; smirking sadist that he was, he would have liked the way video games place us in the driver’s seat and allow us to crash and burn.

GTA IV is about the revved-up tempo and suicidal trajectory of our mechanized lives. But it has a more reflective dimension: games like this dramatize the interplay of fate and chance, or destiny and contingency. Niko’s cousin asks what he’s doing in America. “What’s anyone doing?” he shrugs. “I’m just trying to make the right decisions.” That’s also the gamester’s occupation. Do I go left or right? Forwards or in reverse? Do I return the call in which the slinky Michelle begs for another date? Such decisions are quickly, unthinkingly made, but their consequences unfurl peripherally in a nuclear chain reaction. “This is fucking chaos,” someone says during a highway snarl-up. In fact, it is chaos theory: I began as a fluttering butterfly an hour ago, and the result of my impromptu thumb-twiddling was this thunderstorm of concertinaed metal and squirting gore.

Although GTA IV takes place in a mythically somber America, its producers are based in Edinburgh, and I suspect they have designed a satire on the self-destructive superpower across the ocean. Liberty City (which is what they call their version of New York) enshrines the glutted liberality of capitalism, but the freedom it offers — to turn this way or that, to drink Patriot beer or the imported brew called Pisswasser, to go bowling or lap-dancing — deludes us with variants of the same thing. All routes lead to a dead end. “You got capitalism,” snarls a voice on the car radio, admonishing the Americanized Russians in a cabaret called Perestroika. “Now enjoy what you asked for.” In the game’s guidebook, an ad for a grease-clogged burger rants against the liberal obsession with healthy eating and asks: “What are you doing to us, America?” The designers may be voicing the same complaint, which is why they create a virtual realm and goad us to sabotage it. “Is your best friend a terrorist?” a shock jock on the car radio asks as I dry-hump the competition on a freeway. If I could have seen my face in the rearview mirror, I might have winced. With the console in my hands, I was indeed a terrorist. A minute later, the screen faded to black. Had the X-Box 360 malfunctioned? No, it was my fault: I was dead, though I had the satisfaction of taking several fire hydrants, lamp posts and letter boxes with me. Not quite the World Trade Center, I know, but I am a beginner. Is this a game, or a holy war conducted by other means?

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