The Wall Street journal posted a review of Grand Theft Auto IV today written by Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown.
It's a good review, and clearly written by someone who has both a good sense of the virtues of the series' innovative gameplay (what he aptly terms the “grammar” of the series, its mix of driving and third-person adventure in a sandbox environment), and a familiarity with the narrative texture of the previous installments of the series. Diaz is clearly a fan of the games, and for that reason his argument that the favorable comparisons to The Godfather bestowed upon the game by several members of the enthusiast press betray a serious lack of critical perspective is persuasive and well-taken. GTAIV is a great game, but The Godfather it ain't. As someone who has hopes for games as art I don't think there's any shame in acknowledging that the young medium has yet to produce anything whose cultural value is comparable to the great works of cinema.
Diaz faults the game's plot on the grounds that it fails as a depiction of the immigrant experience. I think his reasons for this claim are contestable, but I want to quote another point Diaz makes: “For me, GTA IV 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. GTA IV is a game that allows you to forget how screwed-up and complicated things are in the real world; it could have done more, it could have put that screwed-up complicated world front and center.” I think the charge that the game is uncomplicated in its depiction of the world and the immigrant experience in particular is quite right; the game isn't centered around the challenges that face most immigrants to the United States: earning a living in a context where the conditions of employment are likely to be exploitative, avoiding Immigration authorities, and so on.
But I think that this charge misses the point that GTAIV's most successful mode of critique is not gritty realism but broad satire. The creative team at Rockstar games, the series' developer, has exactly one satirical tool, and it consists of taking the various elements of American culture-- its television, its movies, its advertising, its products, its various ethnic and professional stereotypes-- and ratcheting up their vulgarity to maximum. Rockstar's team has a definite flair for the grotesque, and when this technique works it succeeds in exposing the essential vulgarity and cheapness of the recognizable real-world counterparts of the game's virtual products. In this sense the real object of critique in the GTA series is not the depredations visited on immigrants in the Bush era but American consumer culture of the last four decades. In GTA's New York, the Statue of Liberty is replaced by the Statue of Happiness, and she holds a coffee cup aloft in lieu of a torch.
Now, this isn't Gulliver's Travels, to be sure. But it's not a consoling picture of our culture, either. There's something to be said for using a video game to hold a funhouse mirror in front of American life. This effort doesn't go off without a hitch, certainly (The game becomes very unfunny when it devotes its general mean-spiritedness to caricaturing those marginalized in American culture-- homosexuals, women, and minorities. Mitch Krpata noted his queasiness on this score in a blog post.), but the satirical take on American culture the game presents offers something beyond mere escapism.