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How Rockstar’s Vision of America in ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ is More Relevant Than Ever – Glixel

February 12, 2017


I’ve been meaning to link out to the writing I do for different places here on my blog, as a tidy way of keeping track. And I will do – but I recently wrote something that changed a little on its way to publication and I thought it worth using this blog a little differently, to provide a little insight into that process, and also to give me somewhere to preserve the (definitely flawed) original.

Glixel got in touch to ask if I’d like to write something about GTA IV, which last week became playable on Xbox One through backwards compatability. I said yes, partly because in the last couple of years I have written pieces that sum up how I feel about GTA V (“it is with a sense of irony which apparently no longer exists in GTA itself that I present this: a list of reasons why, as a representative of the default morass of accumulated privilege, I feel culturally and morally compromised by some of the bad bits in GTA V“) and Red Dead Redemption (“Spaghetti Westerns are a perfect fit for Rockstar Games. The Spaghettis were, after all, a negotiation of American-ness from afar, a stripped down take on the founding myths of an immigrant nation as perceived by Europeans who never made the journey“) and this felt like a good way to complete the Rockstar set.

It’s perhaps because I had these other two pieces in mind that what I came up with didn’t quite work. It was very probably over-written, definitely included a paragraph too many about Philip Glass, and featured various bits of decorative cleverness. I was, very reasonably, asked to do a rewrite, holding tighter to the headline and argument I had after all suggested. The finished piece is the result of that rewrite – a new introduction, various paragraphs collapsed into each other, an attempt at threading an argument more strongly throughout – and five or six small cuts and edits made by the on-site staff once I’d resubmitted.

The finished piece is up here. I’m only unhappy with it in as much as I didn’t get it right first time, although I am left with a frustration about the original piece. It didn’t work, certainly not for the commission, but it did include things I was glad I had written. So I thought I’d put it up here, on a blog basically nobody reads, as a minor point of interest for people who like to know about how writing works, sometimes.

GTA IV’s faith in the flawed American dream is more relevant now than ever

Rockstar makes games about America. The publisher’s back catalogue is an archived exploration of the culture and geography of the New World in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, an extended study of what this place is and what it means from the perspective of half-in, half-out immigrants who exist simultaneously on both coasts and none at all, with studios in New York, San Diego, and creative headquarters across the ocean in Edinburgh.

If this simultaneous proximity and distance is unique, so are the games that have emerged from it. GTA IV and GTA V are the current culmination of Rockstar’s fascination with America, games set in cities marking out the scope of the country and its possibilities: one the landfall of European immigrants, the first staging post of the American dream, and the other its complicated culmination, a city of light and little substance, a notion that drifted across a continent all the way to the ocean and settled there. Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s period take on the GTA formula, was released in between the two and sits in the middle, in a fictionalised Texas, catching the notion on its way west. Together the three make a perfect trilogy, phasing in and out of time and across the vast spaces of America, telling that story of this place and what it means.

GTA IV is the start of this cycle, and the end of another. Released in April 2008 on a still new generation of consoles, the game is a clean break from the PlayStation 2-era Grand Thefts that made Rockstar the coolest publisher in the world. Playing Grand Theft Auto has been, since GTA III, an experience dominated by constant amazement, derivative stories and flimsy controls unable to touch the gleeful disbelief, the three-dimensional possibility, of a world built for yet barely able to contain us. GTA IV’s redesigned New York stand-in Liberty City retains this sense of wonder but moves on from punkish cartoon playgrounds to offer a more serious study of a city, from brick and iron industrial foundations to spectacular concrete and glass eruptions. GTA IV is a tribute – still suspended in a kind of permanent semi-belief – to New York, itself a scarcely plausible few square miles of human achievement.

It’s no accident that the first trailer for GTA IV was a pastiche of Godfrey Reggio’s wordless documentary Koyaanisqatsi, a film comprised of two hours of beautiful photography that stares open-mouthed at modern civilisation, and the impossible density of life inside the concrete machines we call cities. Cribbing the film’s rhythms and timelapses is a perfect Rockstar moment, one that looks at the terrible power of the city and says “We have made one of these.” The music is perfect, too: of all the tracks from Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, the trailer uses Pruit-Igoe, named for the vast Modernist Detroit housing project we see demolished in the film, an extended anxiety attack at the relentless size of man’s engineered ambitions.

Glass’ track is heard in the game too, part of the rotation on The Journey, one of the many radio stations that fill GTA IV’s air with noise and give the sense of a breathing, moving world of life beyond the bounds of our adventure. There are smart choices all over the game’s soundtrack, New York artists from Gil Scott-Heron to LCD Soundsystem played on stations themed around the musical movements that have defined how the city sounds. But there is something especially fitting about the alarming minimalism of Pruit-Igoe. Koyaanisqatsi isn’t about New York – or at least not just about New York – but Philip Glass is. The composer drove cabs across town in his early career, writing music through the city’s sleepless nights to be performed in the converted industrial lofts of SoHo as the artists moved downtown in the 1970s. His music is as close to a measured heartbeat of the city as it’s possible to get – jagged, frantic, and desperately, spirallingly alive – and the game is never better than during a night time drive surrounded by insomniac lights while it sounds like an alarm through the car stereo.

Glass is also the son of immigrants, Jewish Lithuanians who settled in Baltimore, a journey from Eastern Europe to East Coast also undertaken by GTA IV’s protagonist, Niko Bellic. Niko arrives like the sedimentary layers of immigrants before him, on a boat that carries him from the violence of Europe to a new life heralded, in the game’s opening scenes, by its version of the Statue Of Liberty. It’s an old story and it’s a new story – the meagre beginnings and brickwork Brooklyn neighbourhood are the symbols of a tale told for a hundred years and more, but with GTA IV Rockstar is, perhaps for the first time, not overwhelmed by a handful of cinematic references, and the specifics of Niko’s story – the Yugoslav war, crime networks of Russians and Albanians – are his own.

Niko himself is likeable and bordering on inhuman, as the game dictates he must be. He kills easily and often, but he’s also dry and dauntless, with a dutiful sense of right and wrong, a crucial foil for the series’ previously unfettered psychopathy. With GTA IV the series reaches a point of sophistication where the destructive abandon encouraged by its predecessors sits uncomfortably with its realism. Niko gives us a reason to enjoy that destruction at a flimsy remove, to participate in violence while leaving us room to feel ambiguous about it. “War,” Niko tells his cousin about the experiences which have led to his cold self-awareness “is where the young and stupid are tricked by the old and bitter into killing each other.” There are, of course, many immigrant histories that are not defined by violence. But violence is the only language that GTA speaks, at least fluently, its only way of articulating the story of a man like Niko. And so Niko is, like Red Dead’s John Marston, a man whose darkest deeds are behind him, and a man who will use violence to undo and rebalance the violence he has already done, like sending a rain to halt the ocean.

Niko is, in other words, doomed one way or another, his course set despite the handful of lives that the game allows you to spare here and there. GTA IV doesn’t sell an optimist’s dream of America – Niko arrives to a nothing apartment and finds his cousin’s boasts of riches are tightly-held self-delusions – but its faith in what America represents is somehow the stronger for it. The city itself, the constant unfolding marvel of GTA IV, is evidence of what those like Niko, the tired and poor, are capable of achieving. It is a clear-eyed view of a place wielded together from multitudes, the alloyed strength of the melting pot. It is a game that celebrates a New York built by newcomers to a new world, its own immigrant story giving silent acknowledgement to the power of invitation and inclusion, a power worth being reminded of now more than ever.

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