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Urbanity, modernity, identity, and Grand Theft Auto IV

In yesterday’s 1UP blog entry GTA4 Killed My Internet, this blogger really only meant to do a little GameVideos cross-promotion for the just-released GTA4 trailer. Still, the blog elicited an interesting back-and-forth among its readers, which we have lovingly reprinted in part just below/behind the cut.

RealHybrid:
Everyone at 1up is a Movies-as-Lit major? I noticed everyone made the Koyaanisqatsi reference… kinda freaky actually.

I’m a little disappointed that [Rockstar elected to set GTA4 again in] Liberty City (New York, durrrr). But I like that its realistic and puuurrrdy…

karmaguy84:
liberty city? are you sure? it looks kinda like new york. ive played gta3 and i didnt recognize anything. weird

superjenn:
Re: movies as literature: I don’t know that it’s so much “everyone made the Koyaanisqatsi reference,” as much as it is the trailer made the reference and other people noticed. This said, yeah, there are a lot of English and Film majors here, and everyone’s really well-rounded.

I did take an interesting class in college, called Urban Mediations: Modernity and the City. We read Manhattan Transfer, Days Between Stations, Invisible Man, and Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, among others, and we watched Metropolis, Blade Runner, other stuff… Anyway, the idea was about the city, mechanization and automation, and isolation. Obviously, a huge component of the class was showing how information technology and communications are to the present-day what the real, concrete city was to older literature, the idea of the internet as a tool for isolation instead of supposed connectivity, and so on, blah blah blah. All this said, you can glean the real meaning of Koyaanisqatsi and why it is Codename Chekhov sounds so down in his voiceover.

escaping_burger:
I think it’s clear that this is Liberty City, but based on the landmarks, it’s my impression that this is not the same Liberty City as in GTA3—i.e., it’s still a fictional version of NYC, but it’s a different fictional version that appears to show more fidelity to the source. This leads me to believe that it won’t necessarily have a layout that similar to what appeared in GTA3, and that there will be no real storyline connections to previous games, as the whole continuity will likely be different to accommodate the new take on the city.

This is all just speculation, but I think it makes sense. I know I’d rather explore a whole new version of Liberty City in GTA4 than see somewhere I’m already well familiar with. It also helps justify the fact that GTA3, Vice City, and San Andreas are supposed to be a trilogy if they don’t directly link in to the games that follow.

If GTA4 is the new GTA3—set in Liberty City and defining Grand Theft Auto for the new generation—it’s my hope that we’ll see a new San Andreas-like GTA a few years down the line, something refined and huge. I think it should cover the entire west coast, although that’s mainly because I (like everyone) want to see my own region in one of these games.

RealHybrid:
You learn something new every day! I wasn’t aware that there were so many film aficionados [among the 1UP crowd]. Sounds like a fun class. So your prediction is that Chekhov will be a loner, and the city will be viewed in a more disconnected fashion to fall into theme, or do you think it was just a snazzy way to set up the trailer?

superjenn:
Everyone here likes movies. Pop culture has context, after all; games have context. We’re all keen on movies and television, and a lot of us are heavy readers, into comics and music and celebrity gossip blogs, that sort of thing.

I think there’s a case to be made that every GTA is about the urban landscape and disconnectivity. The setting of the city is necessary for a game like this. Like other information-saturated sandboxes, the city is full of tools for you to accomplish your tasks. The city is its own mysterious character in the story—you need the Big City. “Grand Theft Suburb” would be a really, really sad game where you have to shoot people you actually know. GTA’s violence relies on anonymity, and the game itself is all about urban anonymity. It’s about the same twenty pedestrians cycling past on the street, about the same certain identical buildings you don’t get to walk into, about how no one notices you unless you run them over with a car.

All this said, you can’t really read that much into a trailer.

edit: Maybe this is a stretch, but I was thinking about this more. In a way, Grand Theft Suburb already exists. It’s about socializing, rather than a lack of connectivity; it’s not really about violence; it occurs in a town instead of the gritty city. It’s basically [Rockstar’s last “sandbox” game,] Bully.

Riptwo:
Wait… So if technology is an agent that can increase one’s sense of isolation, much like physical cities once did, what does it mean if we’re using technology to simulate the sense of isolation one is subject to in a city? Maybe this is the fourth dimension promised by Kutaragi.

Crithon:
BRILLIANT! hee hee, you actually made the GTA4 trailer 10 billion times better.

RealHybrid:
So that constitutes the basis of the gameplay: Disconnected from what you interact with, but the passive part of the game is all about social interaction and connection, which in itself is another form of isolation as you don’t actively participate in anything that builds on the narrative as much as you do fetch quests that advance the story… But isn’t Bully sort of similar, but with a greater focus on character interaction and social dynamics as a general focus as a necessity, whereas GTA seems more isolated because its activities can be spread out further from the narrative because there is no need to justify them?

This is augmented by the fact that all of the main characters (Bully and GTA) were socially outcast (just moved to the region, recently out of jail, anti-social personas)... all of this is basically required as well, in order to facilitate the relentless violence…

All that said, like you said, it’s just a trailer…
though I think we were addressing the series at large at this point…

superjenn:
The points you raise are really good, and they got my gears turning anew.

One commonality between Bully and GTA:SA, I notice—and this is a theme in a lot of literature about Moving to the Big City, as well with information technology and the intarweb—is a fluidity and malleability of identity. Big City literature is about isolation due to losing your “self” against the backdrop of urbanity, a certain physical and existential disorientation. The anonymity of the internet lends itself, too, to a “shedding of the self,” to a fluid identity that changes handles, avatars, profiles, and writing styles as circumstances call for it.

It follows, then, that malleability or fluidity of identity is what sets the protagonists of Rockstar’s sandbox games apart from the heroes of other stories. Much is made of Bully’s protagonist being, less a social outcast so much as he is a social drifter, whose identity is malleable enough that he is able to cross in and out of social circles as he wishes or needs. To some extent, we get the very same out of CJ [the hero of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas], although his truly salient characteristic is something of a customizable malleability, of an open-ended evolution of attributes, which effectively makes my CJ different from your CJ and every other CJ.

So, within very few boundaries, CJ’s identity is always malleable and adjustable to suit. And—here is the connection—the real thrust of so much City Literature is the emotional nausea that comes about when perpetually changing landscapes and contexts demand one’s sense of identity to contort and yield as conditions and circumstances dictate it.

Aside: I know that, in a lot of ways, it’s wrong to demand that videogames be able to be critiqued by just the same thematic criteria as other media like literature and film, but I feel strongly enough about Rockstar’s genre of games that I think they invite discourse, and withstand critical scrutiny. No matter whether the developers actually intend thematic coincidence between their own games and other works about urbanity and modernity, the games themselves are deep enough to invite comparison.


There you have it.

One response to “Urbanity, modernity, identity, and Grand Theft Auto IV” »

  1. Walter says:

    Nice discussion. I wrote up my own analysis of the trailer yesterday as well. My take is that the trailer, apart from highlighting the condition of urban anonymity which the GTA games do so well, offers a distinctly critical stance on America: that the reality fails to match up with its expressed ideals. GTAIII took that stance as well, to some extent, though I suspect it may be more overt in IV.

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