Monday, August 11, 2008

my life of humiliation with grand theft auto iv

I am a bad driver.

I have driven a car only twice in my entire life. Once when I was twelve, once when I was twenty-eight. Is there some kind of algorithmic relationship between 12 and 28 that can usefully predict when I’ll next get behind the wheel?* I’m 37 now. Please send in your proofs for extra credit.

Given my spotty history with driving, it’s no surprise that I have trouble with virtual cars. In Grand Theft Auto IV, I have fishtailed, backed over or rammed into lampposts, dumpsters, pedestrians, front stoops, and just about every piece of urban infrastructure programmed into its endless cityscape. I have been playing for two days, and already I have: driven into the water, Michael-Scott style, by referring to the map instead of my surroundings; tried to hop a meridian, only to find my car tumbling through the air onto the train tracks below; I’ve even taken a helicopter for a quick spin into the azure grave of the Atlantic.

I have also failed quite spectacularly at walking. Within the first minute of game play I managed to climb up a 70’ tower and casually jump over the railing when my thumb hit the wrong button. In addition I am prone to leaping onto the roofs of cars when I try to enter the vehicle. The lifelike way in which I jump up and then stand around casually, as if it’s no big deal to hang out on top of a car, hiya how’s it going, yup this is my Impala, is excruciatingly embarrassing. It doesn’t matter that the passersby are little bits of code. They still look at me funny.

The Grand Theft Auto franchise has pretty much become the standard bearer for interactive violence. Everyone knows by now that you can pick up a hooker, have sex with her in your car and then run her over for a full refund. You can ram a helicopter into the side of a building, stage a slaughter in an Irish pub, and generally enact every irrational urge you've ever had on a crowded street. It offers, according to its fans and detractors, unlimited license to flout morality and the law.

The truth is that GTA IV offers you the same sort of humiliations found in real life: a crappy apartment, abusive bosses, passive-agressive girlfriends and people who beat the snot of you if you get in their faces. Your character, fresh-off-the-boat Serbian immigrant Niko Bellic, has a quiet macho dignity coded into him, but the city is more than a match for the schmuck controlling his movements. The lamest in-game moment came when I unwisely chose to practice my fighting skills by picking a fight with a woman sipping on a cup of coffee and wearing a smart down vest. I needed to brush up on my dodging and kicking skills, so I picked what I thought would be an easy mark. I walked up and threw a punch, figuring that she would drop or run.

This was a mistake. She dumped the cup of coffee, pushed me back and put up her fists. I was so surprised by her instant aggression that I failed to dodge the next three or four blows. I kicked her, more to keep her away than to beat her up, which caught the attention of some guy in a black cap and a leather jacket. He ran up and proceeded to pummel me. Panicked - I didn't know you could feel a genuine, confused sense of panic in a video game - I ran to my car and got in. Then, in a remarkably fluid cinematic moment, the Starbucks-drinking woman and the man in the leather jacket pulled me out the car, dragged me onto the asphalt and started kicking my pathetic prone body.

This was a fight I could not win. I got to my feet and started limping away, thinking that once I rounded the block they would lose interest and go back to their preprogrammed aimless wandering. Instead they followed, block after block, the man hurling insults ("you want to beat up on a woman, motherfucker?") and the woman calling out "Excuse me!" every few seconds. I wasn't falling for that one. Eventually a guy in a red plaid jacket joined in, following along and periodically kicking me in the butt as I dragged my body forward. I wondered how many people would start crowding in behind me, each one champing to smack a piece off the idiot who picked a fight with a random woman. I had to limp back to my cousin's crappy apartment to get rid of them.

Oh yes, and while I was running around? A woman I bumped into shouted at me, "It's called soap! S-O-P!"**

The most humbling moment came when I realized that I didn’t know how to quit the game. That is not a euphemism for video game addiction – I literally did not know what button or option to select to end play (bear in mind that I had been staring at the TV screen for a couple of hours at this point). The controller presents you with a mass of buttons and joysticks, each of which have different context-dependent functions. Only one button gives you the option of quitting the game. It lies smack dab in the middle of the controller, a glossy malign nub with the Playstation logo that resembles a piece of flair. Playing for an hour or more turns you bloody-minded, though. Instead of flipping open the manual, I did everything I could think of to die.

My first attempt was to get arrested. This is remarkably easy to do; there is a prominent police presence in Liberty City, and all you have to do is walk up to a cop and punch him in the face, then stand still while he arrests you. Game over? Not quite. You rematerialize in front of the local precinct station, except with your weapons confiscated and your wallet lighter (the cops take bribes). So I tried a few more times, running people over, ramming cop cars, etcetera. No dice. I was still in the game.

My second pass involved inspired attempts at suicide. There are a million paths to injury and death in Grand Theft Auto IV, but the simplest method is simply to walk into traffic. It takes a few tries - often the vehicle will slow down and the driver will curse at you inventively - but one good freeway hit-and-run will send you flying - if you're lucky you'll go over a guard rail and drop several stories. As with an arrest, though, you find yourself plunked down in front of the hospital, which has patched you up and charged you for their services. If GTA were set in Toronto, at least you could get some free healthcare.

*I always find it funny that ‘behind the wheel’ refers to a steering wheel, not the tires, of a car. Wait, I don’t find that funny at all.

**Thus far my favourite GTA insult. My next favourite, which was not really sensible enough to qualify as insult, was the guy who shouted out "FUCK rehab!" when I ran into him.


Schmutzie said...

I felt this vague sense of discomfort at watching your virtual character beat a woman up in a park just because you wanted to see what would happen, but then I thought about how I hated her stupid vest anyway. So there.

trinity67 said...

I sat at my desk at work (frittering away the last fifteen minutes of work) reading your blog and giggling insanely to mysef - goshkins but are you EVER a good writer!!!

Anonymous said...

OK. I"m old. I'm tired. "scuse me. Did I say "tired"? I'm retired. And need something to fritter away my time before the death rattle. Would you advise me to get that video? I wouldn't mind a little blood and carnage in my life. It's been a little dull around here just listening to my arteries harden. Can you recommend a particular Play Station? There seems to be a million.

palinode said...

schmutzie - Yeah, I felt a bit uncomfortable at first, but as soon as she started hitting me back I decided to ditch my lingering notions of chivalry.

trinity - Thank you! I'm glad I lightened your work day a bit.

dana - I definitely recommend that game. You can spend your time as a cab driver, or you can run around the city blasting away at citizens with a shotgun. I'm not a dedicated video game player so I find it a bit hard to master the controls, but after a bit of practice I'm sure that difficulty will disappear.

As for which game system to get, there do seem to be a million of them. I recommend the Playstation 3 with the 80 gigabyte hard drive, because you can play Playstation 2 and 3 games on it. The major downside for the PS3 is its price tag - it's the most expensive console out there - but it plays Blu-Ray discs and you can turn it into a powerful home computer if you want.

Sparkliesunshine said...

For someone whose video game playing history is Nintendogs and Brain Age* I found this whole post fascinating. I have, of course, heard of Grand Theft Auto, but the detail they put into the game is amazing.

So wait, the other character saw you hit the woman, came over and attacked you and then followed you several blocks?! How did he know?

Plus you can't get yourself killed? I'm in awe. I had no idea games these days were this vivid.

* Well there was old school nintendo before that when I was little, but I don't think playing Zelda just to get enough points to buy some potion in a cave counts as experience.

Anonymous said...

Playstation 3 w/80 gb. Got it. MY first video game was when I was 30 and it was PONG where you used two knobs to knock a ball on the television screen, back and forth, back and forth....for hours of fun

palinode said...

sparkliesunshine - Yes, a passerby on the street came up to me while I was fighting the woman and started hitting me. All kinds of random behaviours seemed to be programmed into the people of thei city. The bastard wouldn't leave me alone. And when I tried to run away, I bumped into a guy in a red plaid jacket, who decided to take offense and joined in on the game of kick-my-ass. Yesterday I was trying to talk to someone on my mobile phone when a couple of guys st Trust me when I say that in the world of GTA, it's better to have a gun and not need it than the other way round.

Some of the areas are relatively friendly, if a little surly. But in other neighbourhoods, especially at night, gunshots can break out and all of a sudden you're hemmed in between cops and random criminals. I ended up being pursued by cops while I was taking some guy around for cab fare, mostly because I backed into a police car when I tried to get away from the shooting. The game is just vivid and varied enough that it's possible to talk about as if it's a dynamic story.

Also, if you set the action to 'cinematic mode,' which does a freakishly good job of imitating a film camera from a number of angles, you can pretend it's a movie. A friend of mine likes to turn the radio to the jazz station, then drive around areas of Manhattan featured prominently in Woody Allen films. He calls it the GTA Woody Allen tour.

dana - My first video game was also Pong, but I was a tad younger than 30.

Happydog said...

Been reading both you and schmutzie for awhile but I just had to comment on this post. I too giggled insanely at your post! I'm totally fasinated by these high tech computer games--but as a women of a certain age feel a bit intimidated by them. Also I'm afraid I'd become a 14 year old boy and never leave the house or eat another vegetable.

Schmutzie said...

You are being featured on Five Star Friday:

lotus07 said...

An excellent review. This sounds like nothing more than an urbanized / ghetto version of the Sims, with guns and knives. I didn't like the Sims and I doubt I would like this one. I am more of a Super Mario Sunshine sort of guy. That is more of an acid trip than anything else.

For violence, I am currently playing Medal of Honor: Rising Sun on my Gamecube. So for, I have died about 8 times from sniper fire in a crappy little Phillipine town in 1941. Gotta love virtual reality.

palinode said...

Happydog - That sounds like a great slogan: Playstation 3 - You'll Never Eat Another Vegetable.

Schmutzie - Woot, obviously.

lotus07 - I like the whole Super Mario line and its psychedelic cutesiness, but it's never going to make the leap from Nintendo to Playstation. Damn them all.

On a different note, I was in the actual Philippines a couple of years ago, and no one shot at me. It's a lot friendlier in the real world. But death is much worse.