Monday, March 2, 2009

A Liberty City Story

The Grand Theft Auto games, as we all know, are routinely criticized for their brutal violence. Whether it's the brutal lifestyle of crime that the stories dwell on, or Youtube videos of mindless rampages through the city, the series is steeped in violence. It's part of the appeal, and I'm not here to attempt to condemn or condone it. I have fun playing the game and I'm perfectly aware that what's happening is not in the least bit real.

On the other hand, the simulation of the city, traffic, and people within it often comes together to make for some uncanny moments. I've played nearly 100 hours of GTA IV, and one moment stands out in my mind as the only time I actually felt disturbed and a little sick by my actions in the game.

The Xbox 360 version of the game has an achievement called Chain Reaction. To unlock it you must cause ten vehicles to explode in ten seconds. I started my attempt by hijacking a parked bus in Star Junction and driving it to the nearby bridge leading to Broker. I then turned it so that I was completely blocking traffic on the bridge. After a couple minutes I had a nice little traffic jam of a dozen cars or so in front of me.

It takes a lot to rile the citizens of Liberty City. You can walk around in public with a weapon drawn, and while a few people may make a surprised exclamation, they don't really seem frightened by a man walking around with a sniper rifle or rocket launcher drawn. It's only when you begin aiming it at people that they begin to freak out. Perhaps the constant threat of death at the hands of terrorists or, more likely, the inept Liberty City Police Department have hardened them to the supposed dangers of an armed common citizen.

With my herd of vehicles waiting to be exploded, I climbed on top of the bus and surveyed the road in front of me. Several drivers honked angrily and hurled profanities my way. Others tried to creep forward, causing a few fender benders and even more cursing and gnashing of teeth. I switched to my grenades. There were no reactions. Then I pulled the left trigger to aim where I wanted to throw.

The drivers went nuts.

People began screaming. Instead of angry exclamations of profanity, now they were terrified. Some tried to back up, but were unable to because of the cars behind them that impatiently ran into their bumpers before. They were trapped. They had nowhere to go, and all they could do was look at me in horror as I prepared to end their previously mundane in-game existence. The few smart ones got out of their cars and ran away as fast as they could. In all of this, they had gone from amusing avatars made to resemble people to realistic people reacting to a sudden, unexpected, and horrifying situation. I suddenly found it difficult to say to myself, "It's just a game." While I certainly wasn't confusing it with reality, the elements of the simulation managed to convey how real people would likely act in that scenario. I thought, "Wow, this is kind of sick."

After a couple seconds hesitation, I lobbed all of my grenades into the drivers' midst. A large series of explosions engulfed the bridge and traffic, including the bus upon which I stood. My body was thrown around the pillars and supports of the bridge, and I laughed at the hilarious rag doll effects. The achievement didn't unlock, but the moment I actually felt discomfort and remorse for my in-game actions is not one I'll soon forget. I think the game unlocked an achievement for itself in that moment.
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