Why Grand Theft Auto IV was the Pinnacle of the Series

In 1997, a developer called DMA Design created a monster. It sold a million copies, largely due to the controversies and bans that went along with the then-revolutionary concept of selling what was basically a virtual crime simulator, but the original Grand Theft Auto was a true gaming landmark whose long-term repercussions have been felt persistently in the twenty years since.

Now flash forward to 2017, a world where Grand Theft Auto V sold seventy million copies, garnered countless game of the year awards, and is still among the most played games in the world nearly two years after its release. Rockstar Games runs the show now, and under their guidance the monster has become an unstoppable juggernaut.  The series on the whole has sold over two hundred and thirty five million copies, so I think it’s safe to say that GTA is as much a gaming institution as any franchise, which brings up the natural question of which game should be considered the standard setter.

Allow me, gentle reader who is perhaps still raging in indignation at my presumptuous title whilst mentally listing off the various technical achievements of Rockstar’s latest or waxing nostalgic for one of the series’ previous entries to make a case for one of the most divisive entries. I say that more than any other GTA game, Grand Theft Auto IV acquitted itself as an outstanding gaming experience while both pushing the medium forward and conveying an artistic respectability to its story that the series never had before and has not had since. The critics roundly applauded it, but gamers are more divided and tend to prefer its successor by a large margin. But screw those people.

Yes, GTA V crafted an amazing world to play in with lots of stuff to do, but its characters are silly archetypes. Entertaining, yes. The satire is strong with this one, but in maximizing the doofy madcap fun, they left a lot by the wayside. A lot of the elements that made GTA IV special weren’t designed to appeal to the dudebros that make up a substantial portion of the franchise’s player base. You know, the ones who will spend way too much time in the stripper-groping minigame and still reflexively stop for every prostitute and then cackle while running them over  with their car afterwords to get their money back.

The world of this game felt more alive than any other game at the time, or maybe even since. Liberty City was filled with sights to see and things to do that made it feel like much more than a video game where you run around performing arbitrary tasks for wooden NPCs. It was a true virtual experience. I spent hours surfing the in-game internet and sitting in my virtual home watching the television programming. I placed personal ads on a dating website and actually got responses. I’d never seen anything like this and GTA V’s greatest strength was in reproducing some of this. Only they didn’t do it nearly as completely.  

The most widely hated feature of GTA IV was part of what made it so different, the dreaded “hang out” missions. A lot of gamers balked at having to play darts or whatever with NPC’s while they advanced the plot and built characters, but I personally found these oases of normalcy in such a historically senseless series to be a fantastic addition. You could literally pull out your cellphone, call up just about anybody you’d met in-game, and go out on the town with them and do whatever you felt like with their accompaniment, complete with unique commentary.

Going to see virtual reproductions of stand-up routines from actual comedians and vaudeville-style shows at the theater, stumbling out of a bar together drunk off your asses, and the twisted humor of taking a date to a strip club were all fun (and mostly optional) diversions and for my money, more fun than the usual “two dudes talking in the car while you drive from objective to objective plus the occasional cutscene” standard that had been what passed as story in the past. The surprising and often hilarious conversations made for excellent character development and fleshed out the NPCs as more than just one-note jokes that appeared at the beginning of the appointed mission, and then vanished.

But this is all coming from an RPG gamer who adores character interaction and immersion. I spent like half an hour after every Mass Effect mission seeking out every single crew member on the off chance that they had something new to say. So of course I’d like that GTA IV let you get to know characters in a new and interesting way in different settings. “But broooooo”, you ask, “what about the rampages, bro? I just wanna blow stuff uuuuup.” Well, that’s a whole other thing, and I will return to it shortly..

On some level, GTA has always been striving towards art’; usually in the form of satire. They make fun of the over-the-top violence with over-the-top social commentary, setting the stage for a unique and silly tone that celebrates the inevitable goofiness that ensues when you let a gamer do whatever they want. GTA IV dared to be different. It told a serious story and invited gamers to join them for the ride. I mean, how many video game enemies have you blown up just because they were there and the game you were playing wasn’t interested in doing anything more interesting? Ninjas have kidnapped the president! The bad guy stole your girl! Rescue the princess! KILL ALL OF THE THINGS.

GTA IV was not short on things for you to kill or reasons to kill them. But it did put you in the shoes of a character who questioned the point of it all, and that seems to have made people uncomfortable. Maybe they should be. The story put you in the shoes of an immigrant arriving in America with big dreams of leaving his life of violence and corruption behind. Naturally, it turns out America is full of more of the same because wherever you go, people are bastards. That’s why days after a US president bans Muslim immigration for fear of the theoretical violence they might maybe bring some day since brown people are all alike, a French-Canadian goes on an anti-Muslim murder spree and is declared a ”lone wolf” due to his whiteness. Because art imitates life and life is one big satire. Over-the-top comedy is not really necessary anymore. We have become the comedy.

Having you stop in the middle of your oh-so-urgent story mission to run around with a katana killing random gang bangers on some pointless “rampage” for some arbitrary achievement or whatever detracts from the story any way you slice it (pun intended). In fact, one of the criticisms leveled at GTA IV was that the serious tone of the story was a bad fit for player behavior. That sounds to me like more of a criticism of the player than the game. Any game can craft a story with a given tone and then have it ruined by gamers being gamers. A bunch of co-op Halo: Reach players teabagging each other every step of the way might detract from the whole “dramatic last stand” theme, yeah? The adage is wrong. Don’t hate the game. Hate the players.

GTA V managed to find a humorous context for one of the characters to have rampage missions, and it worked. But they counterbalanced this by adding in all of the features of GTA IV and leaving them empty. I called almost every NPC in the game on my cell phone to try and set up some dates or hang outs and over the dozens of hours I spent in single player, maybe two characters ever picked up. And it was a long list. The dating site was back, but not one response was ever received. It was like Rockstar had every intention of bringing these features back and then just said “meh, fuck it” and left parts of them in there without never actually adding the content. This made GTA V feel incomplete. They should have excised all traces of these features if they weren’t even going to flesh them out properly.

The early GTA games were great fun, GTA III was a true landmark with its 3D gameplay, Vice City was a joy, San Andreas represented a whole other level of depth with its character customization and RPG aspects, and GTA V is a technical marvel and its multiplayer aspect has given it legs even beyond its legendary predecessors. But in terms of giving narrative respectability to the franchise and depth and immersion to the sandbox world, developing characters you genuinely care about, and generally pushing forward gaming as an entertainment medium, GTA IV stands out, even in a franchise that has never not been associated with peerless quality. It may not be the most popular with fans, but in terms of gaming as an art form, no other entry can compete with that pedigree.