Grand Theft Auto’s Extreme Storytelling

8 minute read
Lev Grossman

When Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City came out on April 29 last year, it sold 3.6 million copies in one day. By the end of the week, sales were up to 6 million, for a total take of about $500 million. Which means, if you go by that number (and Guinness does), that Grand Theft Auto IV owns the biggest opening of any entertainment property in history. In comparison, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 took in a paltry $400 million during its first week.

And Grand Theft Auto IV wasn’t even the most commercial entertainment option on the bill. As Dan Houser, one of the prime movers behind the Grand Theft Auto series, points out, the game opened opposite Speed Racer and Iron Man. “I thought that was an interesting moment,” says Houser, an affable, shaved-headed Londoner who talks so quickly that he’s almost untranscribable. “You have a video game about an immigrant discovering himself and losing himself in America — and that’s the video game — and then the movies are about a superhero in a metal suit and a car based on a cartoon.” (Download TIME’s interview with Houser.)

He’s right: it is interesting. It’s one of the enduring paradoxes of the Grand Theft Auto games — or maybe the paradox lies in the culture around them? — that people who don’t play them think of them as the epitome of mindless virtual violence, whereas in fact they are, with each installment, more and more radical and sophisticated experiments in storytelling. Depending on whether or not you’re a gamer, this statement is either preposterous or so staggeringly obvious that it’s almost not worth making. (See the top 10 video games of 2008.)

Grand Theft Auto IV tells the story of Niko, a haunted veteran of an unspecified, nameless East European conflict who washes up in Liberty City looking for a new life. (Liberty City is, like Gotham, a darker version of New York City, with satirical flourishes. The Statue of Liberty has been replaced by the Statue of Happiness, which holds aloft a coffee cup instead of a torch.) Over the course of the game, Niko slugs, shoots and carjacks his way up (or maybe down) the ladder of the criminal underworld. As he does so, he gradually realizes that his new life is no less senseless and violent than his old one — turns out the Old World and New World aren’t that different. The New World just has better marketing. America was Niko’s last illusion, and you watch it shatter at high speed and in high definition.

One of the challenges of telling stories in video games is that the entire medium is subject to technological upgrades on a regular basis. Mastering it requires surfing a learning curve that is steep and, so far, infinite. With the previous generation of hardware, for example, characters’ faces were too flat to sustain real closeups, and there just wasn’t enough horsepower to support a lot of Stoppardian banter. “We simply couldn’t stream in much dialogue, ’cause it was so hard to stream the world in on PlayStation 2,” Houser explains, “whereas now we can have the characters constantly talking to you. The emotions on PS2 had to be quite black and white. Now we can get a little bit more gray in there.”

That world has become so complex that Houser and his team have to use diagramming software to keep its various components straight. “It’s an absolute bastard, because you’re trying to track 50 characters,” he says. “And the thing that makes it more complicated than, say, a TV show or a novel is that you as the player have choice. You can always do any of five or six things at once.” Imagine Victor Hugo trying to write Les Misérables with Jean Valjean under the reader’s control and you’ll get some idea of what Houser is up against. The player is both the audience and the ghost — a mischievous poltergeist — in the machine.

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In the game’s newest installment, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, which will be released on Feb. 17, Houser and his team have ratcheted up the complexity even further. Instead of extending Niko’s story laterally by adding a straight-up sequel, they’re drilling down into it vertically: they picked a minor character from Liberty City, a biker named Johnny, and created a story around him that takes place simultaneously with Niko’s, weaving across and over and through it.

At the start of the game, Johnny is acting as the leader of a biker gang called the Lost while the real boss, Billy, is in court-ordered rehab. When Billy gets out, a power struggle ensues. Johnny and Billy have different visions for the gang. Johnny is a tough guy, but he’s got a cool head; Billy, who looks like Ron Perlman and talks like Dennis Hopper, is the wild man who wants to push the Lost deeper into drug-dealing and gang warfare. (See the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of 2009.)

There’s a tragic edge to these men. The great days of the biker gang, if there ever were any, are behind us, and deep down, you sense that the Lost know it. That knowledge gives the men an air of faded grandeur that’s borderline Faulknerian. In their lameness, their expired ’70s-era cool, they’re emblematic of an America in decline. “The whole thing was meant to feel almost like they’re living on past glory,” Houser says. “They think they’re the last true Americans, the outlaws, the free.” But like Niko — who appears periodically in Johnny’s story and is an uncanny presence, since he’s now outside the player’s control — Johnny watches his fantasy deconstructed around him by main force. The further outside the law he goes, the more he sees that he’s just as trapped as he ever was. “He’s no freer than a guy who goes to an office every day,” Houser says. “He’s the same as a waiter. He thinks he’s different, but he’s not.”

You can look at the whole GTA series as a sustained fictional inquiry into the myth of the great American badass — the criminal, the gangsta, the made man, the outlaw. It’s a loving inquiry, but it has a consistent critical distance, an outsider’s point of view. And no wonder: the games aren’t created by Americans at all. Houser, a Brit, is based in New York City, but most of the work gets done by Rockstar North, a team of Scots based in Edinburgh.

Freedom isn’t a problem for Houser. As a storyteller, he feels as though he’s lucked into the lawless, Wild West period of video games. “It’s not academicized,” he says. “There’s no orthodoxy on how things are done, so we can do whatever we want. We make it up as we go along!” As for the ongoing debate about whether games are art, he couldn’t care less. That’s what critics get paid for. “As soon as we get told, ‘Yes, games are high art. They’re almost as high as painting and slightly less than dance,’ it’s over. Freedom is dead at that point. Then the argument just becomes about people’s egos. And my ego doesn’t need to be told I’m an artist. I hate myself already!”

It’s freedom that gives games their distinctive character as a storytelling form. They grant players the freedom to make choices rather than frog-marching them through the action. But therein arises a contradiction: in order to feel as if they’re really interacting, players have to believe they can truly go anywhere and do anything in Liberty City. At the same time, in order for a story to get told, they must be gently but firmly stage-directed through the plot. “You’ve got this beautiful 3-D world that lives,” Houser says, “and it’s got all these background characters and its own Internet service and its own TV shows and all these other things that you can go and do and have wash over you. And you’ve got this story. It’s about finding a balance between letting the player wander off and find stuff to do and then sucking them back in.”

It’s a quintessentially American conun-drum writ small: the right to liberty against the rule of law. Too many rules, and you feel like a puppet. Too few, and you’re stuck wondering what you’re doing there. “You want to avoid that basic fear of terrifying existential crisis,” Houser says. “You don’t want to put that into the game.” There’s enough of that in real life.

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