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Blood on the Joystick 

Notes on Grand Theft Auto III

Wednesday, Mar 27 2002
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>> Witness the predicament of the contemporary video gamer: ”I have a problem that I have dubbed Max Payne Syndrome. Whenever I walk back from gym class, I take this really deserted long hallway. If I see a few people coming from the opposite direction, I start walking slowly, and then I think the world is moving slow. I start to strut, in a manner like . . . YOU CAN’T KEEP UP WITH MY MOVES, BITCH.“ So goes a mea culpa by a pseudonymous poster named Septum, who continues: ”Today was the worst. I actually dropped my backpack and laid down on my knees, bobbing my head back and forth pretending I am dodging bullets or something.“

Septum‘s experience is not limited to him or to the game Max Payne. Every kid could offer a confessional about having weird thoughts while stumbling out of the arcade or trying to sleep after marathon sessions on a PlayStation 2 or at the PC. But as games get better, those thoughts get weirder.

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I myself have been fighting some sinister yens after just two days of playing Grand Theft Auto III, a new game from Rockstar and Take 2 Interactive that is as seductive as it is violent and as innovative as it is controversial. I’ve wanted to shove my way through stopped traffic -- with the hood of my car. I‘ve had the urge to ram passing black-and-whites. The other day I saw a transport truck loaded with rebar and wondered how well it would handle speeding off the roof of a parking garage. This subtle distortion of reality, while slightly unnerving, is also a testament to the quality of the game’s design. As society debates the merits of a pastime that makes me want to sail my Jetta off the 110105 interchange, the fact that it does only adds to the growing consensus that the game is probably the best release in years.

GTA III, as it‘s called in gaming argot, allows the player to assume the role of a nameless escaped-con protagonist and take him through the underworld ranks of a fully realized urban dystopia called Liberty City. The best mode of transport is to carjack passersby, and the game’s 200-plus missions require you to pick up extortion money, assassinate stoolies, do in rivals, chauffeur hookers and other like activities.

But the real allure of the game is what you don‘t have to do. Unlike most video games, which are sequential and narrowly circumscribed, GTA III is nonlinear and open-ended. You can complete the missions in any order, or not attempt them at all. The game designers have made Liberty City an eerily detailed environment, with A.I.-motivated pedestrians and traffic filling the streets, engaging in their own spontaneous contretemps -- an environment full of potential. Steal a cab and drive fares around, earning a (somewhat) honest buck. Take a cop car and help reduce the rampant crime by going on a brutal vigilante spree. Go to the hospital, grab an ambulance and become a lifesaver (if you don’t run down any pedestrians, that is). I actually drove around Liberty City for over an hour once, checking out the town and listening to Chatterbox, its local talk-radio station. As I was writing this paragraph, a high school friend wandered by, and when I told him I was writing about GTA III, he came back with, ”That shit is tight, fool! There‘s a whole world in there!“

The best -- and perhaps most insidious -- part of that whole world, however, is what could best be called ”rampaging.“ That’s when you unleash your weapons against pedestrians and police, trying to escalate your fugitive status and still stay alive. As you go from simple desperado to public enemy number one, survival gets harder: Three stars in the upper-right corner of the screen bring out police choppers, four mean the SWAT team shows up, five call in the FBI. If you can get to six stars, the National Guard arrives, armed with military hardware and tanks. There is a whole culture on the Web of posters bragging about particularly hairball rampages, or giving advice about where to make your final stand. I personally have spent hours on end rampaging, taking down dozens of cops and innocent bystanders with each try. When I finally stole a tank from the National Guard, my only regret was that my friends weren‘t there to see it.

All that bloodshed has aroused the notice of the self-appointed family-values overseers. When GTA III was released in October, after a small delay in consideration of the post--September 11 sensitivity to violence, it instantly became a best-seller. And right away Senator Joe Lieberman, the National Institute on Media and the Family and other cultural watchdogs started denouncing it. A Los Angeles Times review likened it to a technically excellent snuff film. Segments about the game’s excessive violence started appearing on local news programs and morning shows across the country. By January, GTA III had been banned in Australia, ”on grounds of sexualized violence,“ according to that country‘s Office of Film and Literature Classification.

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