Diaz reviews GTA for the Wall Street Journal (link via Maud). Apart from the immediacy of Diaz’ prose, which I have come to enjoy immensely, there are also some weightier issues that Diaz deals with — like art, and what it does to people and so on:
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.
If “Battlestar Galactica,” a show on the Sci Fi channel for God’s sake, is able to create characters as compelling and troubling as race traitor Gaius Baltar and tackle issues as profound as genocide and religious fanaticism without once losing its thrill-factor, GTA should be able to do the same. Niko, as a character, doesn’t surprise, and the choices he confronts don’t make me want to put the game on pause in order to mull things over; they don’t implicate me or reveal me in any way.
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.
The real world is currently the hardest, most troubling piece of real estate around, and even GTA IV, which wants to dial everything up to 11, can’t, to paraphrase Hammer, touch it. Doesn’t make the game any less worthy or awesome. GTA IV doesn’t have to be “Moby-Dick” or “Beloved” to be the Greatest Game of a Lifetime or even to be worthy of discussion.
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.
Rockstar Games could have had a field day with Niko as immigrant, Niko as veteran from a war that was screwed up from the start, with Niko as aspirer to an American Dream that might never have existed in the first place. It wouldn’t have taken much to have made some plot alterations, to have had Niko ducking ICE special agents, to have had him actually struggling to get the girlfriend of his dreams, robbing, stealing, killing in order to dress up to local standards, or to end the game with Niko being deported back to Europe. Any one of these narrative additions would have made Niko’s journey and his successes all the more poignant, all the more surprising — would have put a face, a very real, hard face on the American Dream, which for many aspiring Americans, throughout our country’s long checkered history, is a nightmare.
Take a look!