Watching Grand Theft Auto IV rack up the highest recorded sales in gaming history was one of the most disappointing things I’ve witnessed in 17-plus years of covering this hobby. (PC gamers should get a crack at the game this fall.) If the gaming press is to be believed, GTA4 is simply the greatest game ever made.
This is utter nonsense, even by the game’s own rather warped standards. Putting aside the flaky driving model, clipping problems, and clichéd plot and dialogue, there is a gigantic elephant in the room that the gaming press seems hell-bent on ignoring: the issue of morality. It’s like we’re afraid to acknowledge the rancid, misogynistic ethics of GTA4 because we might give aid and comfort to those who want to control or suppress the freedom of game designers to create. Tough luck. This is simply a vile game utterly lacking any recognizably human moral context.
As Warren Spector, the man behind Deus Ex, recently observed, “GTA is the ultimate urban thuggery simulation, and you can’t take a step back from that... I am frustrated that the games in the GTA series, some of the finest combinations of pure game design and commercial appeal, offer a fictional package that makes them difficult to hold up as examples of what our medium is capable of achieving.”
Exactly right. DePalma’s Scarface has a stronger sense of right and wrong, and The Sopranos is positively conservative by comparison. Like it or not, there is a difference between what movies and games can get away with. The Sopranos is a drama in which the viewer is a passive observer. In GTA, the character is under your control: The choices are yours. That distinction matters.
Go on YouTube and check out IGN’s “GTA4 Sex” video, and then imagine it projected on the screen before the Congressional Subcommittee on Sticking Our Noses in Other People’s Business. Dan and Sam Houser have given the government the gun it’s going to use to put a bullet in the brainpan of the gaming industry.
Why the hell are we defending them?
Thomas L. McDonald has been covering games for 17 years. He is an editor at large for Games magazine.