Why Critics Want Grand Theft Auto IV to Be the ‘Godfather’ of Video Games

Photo: Courtesy of Rockstar Games

Grand Theft Auto IV is expected to smash and grab as much as $400 million this week — but money isn’t everything. For years, the producers at Rockstar Games have told anyone in earshot that they don’t just want cash: They want respect. They’ve boasted they don’t make toys, they make art, and that their flagship franchise is on par with The Godfather, rather than Mario Kart. Past controversies over prostitute-killing and pixelated sex have obscured that highbrow message, but with Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar is finally getting its wish. The game not only has a perfect score of 100 on Metacritic so far, critics are comparing it to the great populist art movies and TV shows.

GTA IV, raved GameSpy’s Will Tuttle, “is on par with the finest films by directors like Martin Scorcese [sic] or Francis Ford Coppola." "It's like playing an episode of The Sopranos," said Crispin Boyer of Electronic Gaming Monthly. “I now know how film critics felt after screening The Godfather,” mash-noted Game Informer critic Andrew Reiner. GTA IV is so massive, and packed with so many small innovations, that it makes sense that most of the gaming-press reviews would be ecstatic, laundry-list raves detailing the improved fighting systems, improved car handling, character movement, and unprecedented level of detail. But undergirding the game's reviews — especially in mainstream media outlets — is the insecure sense that GTA IV must be more than a mere game in order for people to take it seriously.

The Times (which appropriately compared the game to Mad Magazine and Dave Chappelle) opined that it was a “thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun.” Entertainment Weekly’s contorted rave was almost baffling: “Its criminal themes notwithstanding, GTA IV is more than a state-of-the-art videogame: it represents a compelling (if bloody and violent) example of both the narrative and immersive power of the medium.” Slate’s sharp review by Chris Baker points to GTA IV’s often disturbing realism, but also overreaches for seriousness, ending on the dour kicker: “It’s a living, breathing place — and when you’re forced to kill, it’s nothing to celebrate.”

But why shouldn’t fun be the highest goal of a game, rather than the cultural critique the Times so appreciates? Why would you want to discard the game's criminal themes, as EW seems to imply? Take away its criminal themes, and there is no GTA IV. And while the game's victims do seem more real and its ethical dilemmas are more complex, as Slate notes, the killing is still, honestly, very satisfying. And the game’s biggest innovation is its multiplayer feature, which offers countless new ways to gun down up to sixteen of your friends without consequence.

As reviews have noted, in GTA IV, you’re not the anonymous killing machine or paper-thin thug of most games. You’re Eastern European tough guy, Nico Bellic, and you’ve got a traumatic backstory, even. Method-acting gamers, rejoice: you’ve finally got motivation (so what if it’s hidden until twenty-odd hours into playing). You arrive in Liberty City dreaming of mansions, sports cars, and threesomes — and instead find an exaggerated caricature of New York, a crass hyper-capitalist joke, where Weazel News reports on the Jingoism Act, rich reality TV stars have rubies surgically implanted in their breasts, and there’s no shortage of dirty work for a fresh-off-the-boat murderer-cum-stunt-driver. The game’s New York is more stylized than realistic: A Coney Island of the dirty mind. It’s a great set-up, pocked with sharp satire, but thirty titty jokes and visits to the Cafe TW@ (get it: “twat!” ha!) later, the Godfather comparisons begin to seem downright bizarre.

Video-game players — and critics — want GTA IV to be everything at once: They want the story to be Moving and Important and Consequential in the manner of Coppola so as to defend their medium. Plus they want to fire rocket launchers from a motorcycle while drunk driving. It’s unlikely that this combination will ever quite work — not just because of the uncanny valley, but especially because the balance of action to narrative is tilted so heavily toward blowing shit up.

It’s a sure bet that more players will spend time crashing cars, playing darts, and killing strangers from Denmark in online multiplayer death matches than ever will actually finish the difficult missions required to complete the narrative. Games do things that no other medium can — and they shouldn’t apologize for doing them so well. And Rockstar makes games that are far more technically innovative than the films of any contemporary filmmakers (who are mainly refining 3-D graphics, not interface or narrative). The intuitive, brilliant radio network that changed gaming in GTA III is even richer here (where else would Karl Lagerfeld, Femi Kuti, and Green Lantern all DJ?) and the game’s deceptively simple cell phone interface is real-world elegant: It allows you to schedule dates, jobs, and murders — and must have other game designers kicking themselves from California to Tokyo.

There’s no reason to apologize for the fact that GTA IV can’t match the visceral humanity of Brando behind that leather desk, or De Niro on that rooftop — or to couch excuses in overreaching justifications. (It’s like the guys who used to say that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a rapper — hip-hop never needed such overblown validation.) As a relatively young medium, videogames don’t have to get caught up in the high-brow, low-brow trap — and they shouldn’t. Games don't have to be as moving as The Sopranos or The Godfather; they can be as funny as Superbad or as fight-heavy as The Matrix. Or they can just do the hoodoo that they do so well — and forget about the comparisons. Before too long, we'll be reading reviews of novels and TV shows and films that say they aspire to the sandbox creativity, the liberating amorality, and the groundbreaking open-endedness of Grand Theft Auto IV. —Logan Hill

Related: Rockstar Games’ Dan Houser on Grand Theft Auto IV and Digitally Degentrifying New York
Grand Theft Auto IV: So, How’s the Culture in Liberty City?