December 10, 2009

Decade Jumpoff: Grand Theft Auto And The American Narrative

Released in October 2001 for the Playstation 2 console, Grand Theft Auto III shook the world with it's controversial violence, scope of it's story, and complete realization of it's world (even down to it's radio stations). Video games had never been like this before, and if you believe the numerous accolades the game has received, video games were never the same after. It pioneered the open "sandbox" game where everything from peacefully driving a taxi cab for money to going on murderous sprees was possible. And while this was a huge reason why the games were so successful, it is not the only reason. As ye olde high school english teacher once said to me: "It's all about the story."

Whether it's bank robber Jesse James, depression all-star John Dillinger, or fictional characters such as Michael Corleone or Tony Montana, the criminal is massive figure in American storytelling. Part of the reason the GTA series is so successful is because it taps into this outlaw spirit that America loves. We can relate to the protagonist's struggle to get to a better life but we also want them to do it in a fantastical (i.e. violent) way that we as law abiding citizens cannot.

However just as stories around campfires evolved into books and then into movies, GTA is the next jump in terms of the criminal narrative. GTA IV was the first game in the series to present choices to the gamer. And while the writing isn't winning any Pulitzers, the many narrative parts of the massive story show how effective a video game can be as a narrative. This great article from SLATE magazine perfectly exemplifies this point.
At one pivotal moment, Bellic has to choose between killing two people—one a total jerk who could help advance his career, and one a good friend who can't do much for him. There's no right or wrong decision here—well, actually, there are two wrong decisions—and players will struggle to make the choice. No cheat code or online FAQ can help you here.

While I don't see the video game replacing the book or the moving picture any time soon, GTA is the series that shows the true narrative potential of video games. In the next decade the medium as a true storytelling tool will definitely evolve, and don't worry, I hope it goes someplace more than killin cops with flame throwers and icing criminals with baseball bats (but that's still kind of fun).

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