Grand Theft Auto IV: Almost Great Art

There is little doubt in my mind that videogames are one of the major emerging art forms of the late-20th century and beyond, but how do games stack up against other more established narrative forms like books and movies. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and videogame fan Junot Díaz wrote a piece in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal that examined the new Grand Theft Auto IV and the comparisons it has drawn to works like The Godfather and The Sopranos. Diaz argues that certain elements are inherent in all great pieces of narrative art and that those elements are missing from GTA IV:

GTA IV sucks you the hell in but its narrative doesn’t move me in any way or shake me up or even piss me off. I get madder when I crash my car in the game than when Niko makes a stupid decision in the cut-scenes (the movie-like interludes that players don’t control). GTA IV for all its awesomeness doesn’t have the sordid bipolar humanity of “The Sopranos,” and it certainly lacks the epic flawed protagonists that define “The Godfather” and its bloodier lesser brother “Scarface.” Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human. Does GTA IV do that? Not for me it doesn’t, and heck, I love this damn game.

According to Diaz though, videogames do have the potential to be a powerful form of narrative expression:

What’s interesting though is that GTA could have been exactly what some folks are claiming it is. For all its over-the-top aberrance and brash transgressiveness, GTA IV doesn’t really wrestle with the radiant feverish nightmare labyrinth that post-9/11 America has become. Which is too bad. When you’re as lost as we are in this country, maps, no matter from where they come, are invaluable. It could have been that popular art blade that cuts through all pretensions and delusions; it could have been the map that we’ve been needing. But for that to have been possible GTA would have had to have put a small portion of the people playing the game at risk of waking up, even if only for a second, from the dream that is our current world.


  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    Games are games and I don’t know if the film comparisons are a good thing. Take Metal Gear Soild 4 as an example – it’s barely a game, wants to be a film and bores the bejesus out of me.

    GTA4, as a game, is good fun. The narrative is simple but I think there is more to it that is missed in these quotes – the world itself. There is more bite in the radio stations (particularly the fake advertisments), the shop names, the lines pedestrians and cops deliver than there is in the story. For me, that’s exactly how it should be. It’s a game. To be played. A world to live in, not to watch passively.

    If you’re looking for it to be a film, it will always disappoint but I, for one, don’t want my games to be films and think the comparison is pretty pointless.

  • Aaron

    I’ll never understand why GTA IV got so much critical praise, when truly artistic, interesting games like Mass Effect are totally ignored.

  • amid

    Bitter Animator: I don’t think the writer of the piece was looking at it through the prism of a film; he was only addressing those who had compared it to film and TV works. What I get the sense that he’s saying is that if a game is going to make attempts at characterization and narrative, as other art forms do, then it should explore those possibilites to their fullest potential. There is nothing preventing a game like GTA IV from being elevated into something greater than “good fun” and “simple,” as you put it.

  • anon

    I think they get ignored because the majority of the game community isn’t looking for “great art”, but entertainment. They don’t want Scarface for its critical subtext, but for the badass attitude that also made it such a hit in hiphop circles (I’m generalizing to make a point).

    For me, it’s been years and years since I’ve played any games, but my two favorites are still Mario64 and Metal Gear Solid. That last one really pulled me into the character relationships, etc. Sure, there are a lot of cutscenes to watch, but that’s okay. The parts that were the game, combined with the radio that’s constantly being used to contact you and say things to you, made me identify with the character I was playing, even care for him, and other characters in the game, which was then used in the cutscenes to tell the story.

    To me, it was the most exhilirating game I ever played, and the best art in a game I personally experienced.

  • Gobo

    I was always impressed with the level of storytelling that the GTA series used, but GTA4 really takes it to a new level. The story is shaped by key moral choices you’re given, and Niko evolves into as solid a character as Tony Soprano. By the end, you really feel like you’ve lived with these characters in a way that a movie can’t deliver. The narrative might not have the same depth that a linear story can be crafted into, but a game like GTA4 engages and moves you in unique ways.

    Aaron: well, GTA4′s easily the best-written game I’ve seen, and the sheer scope of its world is hard to conceive of.

  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    Sorry, I just saw comparisons to the Godfather, the Sopranos and Scarface. I guess there aren’t yet game equivalents to these, although I’d point anyone looking for more towards Silent Hill 2, probably the most emotionally engaging I can think of while still being a game.

    But, like I said when you move past the “good fun” and “simple”, there is much more to GTAIV. It is something greater. Just not in the same way that a film is (the comparisons as presented in the article).

    But, yes, games can get better of course. They are still in their early stages.

  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    Actually, at the risk of hogging the comments here, I think the article brings up a few interesting questions.

    One thing I’d wonder is if GTAIV is the best example to be the poster boy for games? It’s a huge, hyped massmarket success no doubt but then is that like using Shrek as the example of animated films? Wouldn’t that do animated films a disservice?

    For the post-911 commentary, yes, GTAIV would have been a great place to really let rip on that and could have been a far more important game as a result. But the developer is Scottish. Is it their place to do that? And the US market was such a key part of making it a success I think, while they are keen to poke fun, there are lines they were afraid to cross simply because they might affect sales. To present an example, the game features violence left, right and centre without a problem and talks about sex a lot and yet shies away from showing even one breast. Strippers don’t strip. I can’t help thinking that Janet Jackson and US breastophobia is the only reason for that.

    So I think they were very conscious of achieving that massmarket success. Rockstar probably felt they rocked one boat too many with Manhunt 2.

    And then (after this, I’m done – honest) I wonder, maybe we’re looking for the wrong things here. I mean, we don’t look for an engaging story in a game of tennis, do we? Or even solitaire? Games can be like interactive movies, yes, but is that where their strength lies? I guess escapism can come from being immersed in other worlds and that’s a great draw but I also wonder if it’s more about the game itself? Like a sport?

    More and more games seem to be going online and these are definitely becoming more like sport than interactive movie experiences.

    An interesting article, no doubt. Thanks for posting it.

  • Gobo

    “There are lines they were afraid to cross simply because they might affect sales…”

    That’s very true. The game is chock-full of violence, drug use, and their trademark brand of toilet humor (the NASDAQ is renamed the BALSAQ, for example), but they’ve learned from their experience with the Hot Coffee fiasco and such. The last GTA game had a really abhorrent gay-bashing mission; in this one, you have to protect a guy from being gay-bashed.

    I wouldn’t want GTA4 to be the poster boy for games; it’s far too easy a target for hatred. However, it had the most successful debut of any entertainment product in history — better than any film to date — so it deserves its attention.

  • http://www.shamoozal.com frank

    MGS4 is awesome and blew my mind. it has great art direction, a compelling if kooky storyline that has managed to span seven games (20 years worth), interesting and well developed characters you actually care about, and has amazing and addictive game play. i never got into the GTA games, but i can see what the fuss is about.

  • Doodle

    I think he’s looking at the wrong game. For me ICO is the first (and so far only) game that i can honestly call “art”.

  • PorkyMills

    I’m an avid gamer and I have to say that so far, there just aren’t that many games that are artistic enough for the whole medium to be called as art, or to warrant comparison to more established art forms, like movies. That’s become games were made purely for the purpose of entertainment, and they still are – the only difference being that before they were mere distractions from mundane activities, now their scale and interactivity has pushed the industry to expand beyond the likes of Hollywood and movies. One negative impact has been that designers never got the chance to explore the artistic side of games. In the days of Super Nintendo, the majority of gamers were children and teenagers, and thus the artistic capacity of video games went neglected. Now, though the market includes the whole spectrum of the demographic and has adults as the core of its audience – the cost for making a game that is of technically superior quality (and features high-quality CGI, voice acting, motion-capture and whatnot) is astronomical, and developers are afraid to take any risks. Besides that reason, games have always been seen as a commercial commodity rather than an art form, and even prolific game designers like Miyamoto see the medium as one for entertainment, rather than art. All of these reasons are why I believe games never flourished as an form, though the potential is there.

    Few games were made with art in mind. ICO is one. It was inspired by the artist called Chirico, and his influence definitely shows. It’s not only a beautiful game but also a piece of art. The game defies all conventions and is purely an experience. That’s the kind of game that should warrant a look by the author of this article. Though owing to its originality, the game didn’t sell very well and besides getting a lot of critical acclaim, is relatively obscure in the gaming community.

  • http://www.pomofrag.org david calvo

    video games are a medium that can create art, under the right circumstances, which obviously are not yet fully realized. i have played many great “art” games – mass effect, ico, shadow of the colossus, katamari damaci and plenty of great indie projects, like passage or stars over half moon bay, really moving stuff. but the art the video game can create is inherent to the medium, it has to do with the game, not the fact that it can emulate a linear narration, be it prose, film or else. art emerges from world models as a game, designed for the player to use. game is the art. the interactive sphere is crowded with wannabee designers and artists using the video games tropes to create an illusion of interactivity. the real deal is born from pixel and interactive storytelling at its peak (ie Facade)

    links here for you guys – enjoy the trip

    Passage – http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/

    Facade – http://www.interactivestory.net/

    Stars over half moon bay –
    http://www.rodvik.com/rodgames/SOHMB.html

  • red pill junkie

    If you’re looking for a game that’s got incredible narrative, complex characters, lush backgrounds and art design, and is emotionally engaging, then look no further: 2007′s Bioshock is top notch (one of the endings almost made me cry!)

  • Tristan

    what about Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, or Katamari Damacy? Also, to me, the original 2D Super Mario games are one of the few truly great peices of art from my childhood.

    I just wish games would try to be there own form of art, instead of trying their hardest to emulate others.

    Cutscene after cutscene is just something I can’t stand, if i wanna watch a film, I’d rather do that.
    I think that’s why Half-Life 2 is truly making strides with the gamimg community. It deals with the story in a completly different way than anything else. It’s great.

    @Aaron
    what are you saying? Mass Effect is now considered a total classic.

  • http://www.bishopanimation.com Floyd Bishop

    As someone who works in games, I would say that if you are looking to only the cutscenes for narrative, then you’re not letting the game do what it does best.

    For a great “games as art” experience, look at “Shadow of the Colossus.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGO5XEjEp_M

    Games are perhaps the most influential modern art form, giving the audience an active role in the outcome of the story. Don’t believe Roger Ebert.

  • Tom C.

    HALF-LIFE 2 Episode 2 – You will be emotionally tied to what happens during the game and especially near the end.

    The Half Life 2 series has made me more emotionally involved with characters than any recent movie.

    The ending scene for those who are interested.
    *Spoilers*
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFRYgr8pXiw

  • http://attackofthekillerspoilers.blogspot.com Starsky

    If Grim Fandango isn’t art, nothing is.

  • http://www.spiteyourface.com Tim Drage

    In 2004 artist Tom Sachs described GTA as “The most important artwork of our time” and built a “Delinquency Chamber” in which to play it:

    http://www.tomsachs.org/reference/aspen_times_20041231.htm

  • http://mrseanlane.com Sean

    I second the Grim Fandango comment. I think this article is just a load of trash. The writer obviously hasn’t played very strong examples and is instead looking for the most popular games for answers. Just a load of hype, no substance or good examples of whatever point he wants to make.

  • red pill junkie

    I think we all agree tat the best games are the ones that don’t rely on cut-scenes to tell the story, like HalF Life 2, Bioshock, and Prince of Persia—or Gears of War— on a lesser scale. The less cut-scenes, the more immersive the experience. The idea is not to create suspension of disbelief, because the player is already willing to believe any kind story no matter how outlandish it is; the real purpose is for the gamer to actually loose himself inside the game, to play until the sun comes out and still wanting more.

    Mass Effect was really good too, but I expected more from the sex scenes ;-)

  • Brannagin’s Law

    I do both 2Danimation for film and 3D for video games. IMO the best art/story driven games are the ones that make it so you forget you are playing a game and are part of a bigger experience. That’s the whole definition of a game and that game for me would be Portal. No cutscenes at all, but it still had the best story/game play experience I’ve played next to Shadow Of the Colossus and God of War. GTA is a very straight forward, back and forth repetitive game play experience that you play mainly to see how they tackled the nuances of real life and just how far you can push the elements of their design. Portal allows the player to discover a whole new dimension in thinking and problem solving while looking for your freedom and taking on an overzealous master computer gone mad. That’s true video game art. Not a better take on real life let alone a previous title of a well known franchise. Art for games should be considered the experience plus the ability to forget you’re playing a game. I always know when I’m watching mocap when I go to the theater, but you don’t buy a game for theatrical experience. You buy games for experience itself, not because you can have sex or kill a guy a certain way. Gears of War was amazing but the story was missing… thus I never felt the pull into that universe. That pull = the look, story, and feel of a game. It’s a very delicate combination. And even harder to cook up. It’s the smaller indy studios that strive for something new in the look and the experience that are the pioneers of game art. Not the giant publishers feeding the masses, but true gamers already now this. Sure games are getting amazing looking as tech gets better, but a good looking model and enviroment is not a game alone.

  • http://checkeredgeekcartoons.blogspot.com Zach

    Starsky, I don’t know who you are, but I’m compelled to say I love you for saying that.

  • Josh S

    I agree with the poster near the beginning who suggested silent hill as being a potent emotionally impacting game–of course i can agree with most of you on here about your own respected choices–they all have definite cachet. Which is why I always find discussions such as these as amusing—okami, mass effect, bioshock, these are are all really swell but ascribing the status of art to these games raises weighty issues pertaining to (A)rt,its definition, its classification and how it should be policed–I surely don’t want to be the big lug in front of the velvet rope, people always get their feelings hurt.

  • http://mitchworks.blogspot.com/ Mitch Kennedy

    “Crashing his car” is exactly the main character being flawed, and making a terrible mistake, when he’s supposed to be accomplishing an important task. The player assumes the role of the character. It’s an interactive medium, so the elements in its exposition is a little different than non-interactive media.

    However, as far as plot goes in these games, I agree with Diaz, except that a lot of games long before GTA IV have had interesting plots and characters. Ever play a Final Fantasy game for Super Nintendo, or even Chrono Trigger? That stuff has all of the elements he’s looking for in GTA IV. Those old games are, in some ways, above what books and film are.

    Books are above film in the sense that they can have far more detailed and complex plots and characters. Film is above books because it is completely visual, and the use of cinematography can place the viewer right in the action.

    Video games can be above both books and film, because they combine both elements, and then add the interactive bit. Players can often choose outcomes, save characters or have characters die, collect items and complete side-quests which enrich the plot and gaming experience.

    On top of that, games are challenging, and completing them gives the payer a sense of accomplishment. The fact that people can feel accomplished over the completion of a video game is kind of scary, since people should be feeling accomplished from living life. A scary medium only proves to be a powerful one.

  • http://www.pomofrag.org david calvo

    starsky nailed it ;)

  • http://crowleeey.blogspot.com Tom Crowley

    Like everybody’s said – Starsky’s hit the nail right on the head.

    Games don’t have to be art. But anybody who’s played The Longest Journey, Grim Fandango or Beyond Good & Evil knows that they can be.

  • Christian

    ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Grim Fandango, Beyond Good and Evil, Metal Gear Solid. These games definitely deserve to be considered art. They are also amongst the most interesting and sometimes powerful experiences in the medium of entertainment – whether that’s film, video games or literature.

  • ThomasESR

    I don’t think games should have any kind of narrative at all, the only characteristic of a game is that allow us you to interact with the characters and make your own story. If it have a narrative, you will be bounded to see and do the same things every time! That is how i think games will be in the future.