At this point, the outraged response to the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series of video games, Liberty City Stories, is pretty much obligatory. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is lobbying to get the video game rated “adults only” (effectively killing it in the U.S. market, where major console manufacturers won’t support AO games) — because there’s one scene in the game where you have the option to drive drunk. Apparently none of the good ladies of MADD have ever played GTA, since if they had they might have discovered that when you try to drive drunk, the video game informs you that you should take a cab. If you do drive, the cops immediately chase you down. Which is exactly the sort of move you’d expect from this sly, fun game, which hit stores last week.
GTA, made by edgy Rockstar Games, is basically a driving-game franchise packed inside an intriguing, disturbing, elaborate urban world where you become a character whose life options are all connected to your ability to drive around in various cities. Usually, you’re some kind of bad guy or shady character. Think of it as the video-game equivalent of a TV show like The Wire or an urban gangster flick. What has made GTA so popular among gamers is the way it combines the fun of a driving game with the sprawling possibilities of gamer choice. And I think that’s what non-gamers find so confusing — and therefore threatening — about it.
When you jump into a car in GTA, you aren’t rated on your driving skill. You don’t have to stay on a pre-determined track. Sure, you have to complete a mission, but you can choose to just drive around insanely, exploring the big worlds of the GTA games, beating up cops and murdering people at random if you want. You can take drugs and get super-speedy, or ram a truck into a building. Essentially, you don’t have to follow the rules to have fun. If your definition of fun is wanton cartoony destruction — which it clearly is for a lot of people if box office returns and TV ratings are to be believed — so be it.
Liberty City Stories is set inside an alternate version of New York City and takes the player even further into a world of narrative choices. You play a character named Niko, a Serbian war vet who comes to Liberty City to get revenge — or to make peace with his past. Along with several other characters, he’s just trying to get by in a huge city, and gets sucked into a world of crime and murder along the way. As you get deeper into the game, you realize that your interactions with characters are just as important as running your car missions. You can’t get anywhere without making friends, connections, and plunging deeper into Niko’s troubled past.
In addition, the game is full of smart, satirical details: You can watch TV, surf the net, and listen to the radio for hours of original content that pokes fun at U.S. media. Most of your communication is by cell phone, which adds a simple, realistic touch.
If Liberty City Stories were a movie, it would have been directed by Martin Scorsese or David O. Russell and we’d all be ooohing and aaahhing over its dark, ironic vision of immigrant life in a world at war with itself. But because Liberty City is a video game, where players are in the driver’s seat, so to speak, it freaks people out.
And yet there are other video games out there, like the family-friendly role-playing game The Sims, where players can torture people to death in ways far more disturbing than those in GTA. I was just talking to a friend who told me gleefully how he’d taken one of his Sims characters, stuck him in a VR headset, and walled him into a room with just an espresso machine. The character kept drinking coffee and playing the headset, pissing in the corners of the room and crying until he died. Other players have reported that you can stick a bunch of characters in the swimming pool, remove the ladder, and drown them. Then you can decorate your yard with their tombstones. That’s not the point of the game, but people can do it.
The reason why these horrible things can happen in The Sims is exactly the same reason why they happen in GTA: These are cutting-edge video games defined by player freedom rather than a prescribed narrative loop where veering off the racetrack means “lose” rather than “find a new adventure.” When you give players the option to explore their fantasies, you’re going to get some dark stuff. Yes, it’s disturbing. But it’s also the foundation of great art. •
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who has just started playing Liberty City but has already read all the spoilers for it.
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phobialist.com: Remember in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Lucy diagnosed Charlie Brown with pantophobia? If you’re afraid of something, there’s a phobia named after it — but beware if you’re agoraphobic. Fear of dirt, fear of the color yellow, and fear of flutes were some of the more entertaining entries we discovered by glancing through this quick