This article in today's Wall Street Journal eerily mirrors some discussions we've been having around our office about Grand Theft Auto and the nature of Art.
The WSJ's Junot Diaz points out that while Grand Theft Auto IV is a great game, it does not (as some critics have said) rise to the level of great Art from other genres. It is not the Godfather. It is not Ragtime.
Junot focuses on the game's plotline, drawing attention to the difference between the story and great stories from other genres. He (rightly) concludes that the game's story is "more an example of our evasions as a culture, more of a fairy tale, more of a story of consolation than a shattering cultural critique or even, dare I say it, great art." It is pulp. Well-done, compelling pulp, but pulp anyway.
What Diaz doesn't touch on in his essay, is this: Even as pulp, Grand Theft Auto IV, as a whole, is not coherent. GTA IV is essentially three different games, starring three different Niko Bellics, and the three characters have nothing to do with each other.
Niko One lives in the cut-scenes. He's drawn to violence and simultaneously disgusted by it. You have no input into his personality or actions, of course, but you hear him agonize over the sins he's committed. He constantly gives needing money as his motivation for killing innocent people.
Niko Two lives in the missions. While Cut-Scene Niko is conflicted about violence, In-Mission Niko clearly loves it. And, while the story suggests we're "supposed" to be troubled by the violence, when you're actually playing GTA IV, the experience isn't troubling at all. It's fun. Compare GTA IV's combat to Silent Hill 2's. In Silent Hill, fighting monsters is brutal, ugly, and all kinds of scary. It plays out in every encounter, and once you "get it," you run from every monster. Where when you play as Niko, you never experience the ambivalence Niko One has.
Niko Three is the Niko of the open-world. This Niko gleefully drives over curbs, kills strangers without looking back, occasionally starts shooting cops and jumping off buildings for no reason at all, and otherwise tests the limits of the world.
That these three characters can possibly create as powerful a narrative as something like The Godfather isn't surprising. Not to say Art in games is impossible, but it's going to come more from games like Portal, which is coherent as a story and a game, or so I think. Maybe you think something different... let us know in the comments below...and read Diaz's article below.
Wall Street Journal: 'Grand,' but No 'Godfather'