I’m driving along in a 1963 Cadillac trying to hold the lumbering sway of its heavy chassis straight to the road as I rumble down the city street past the usual castaways and early risers. I can’t feel it but the steam coming out of their mouths makes me think it’s a bit chilly out, though at least one or two of the morning denizens are blowing cigarette smoke, not just hot breath. From the radio in my Caddy rise arpegiated synth lines, sawtoothed and filtered, beatless but rhythmic, like a ca. 1993 ambient chillroom set. The sounds lift and expand taking my view up the pink walls to the roofline, then higher to the dawning skies. A synthetic voice like a female Hawking intones the moment of eternity, speaking softly to the evolutionary imperative of our cultural awakening. Rich pads wash under it all merging with the engine of my Caddy and the sounds of the morning as I roll on down the streets.
It’s sunrise and I’m back in Liberty City.
I haven’t spent much time at all in the great MMO’s like World of Warcraft or Everquest, but a part of me lives and breathes in the otherworld of Grand Theft Auto. I have deep memories of slamming a stolen Sentinel (BMW clone) down the blurring night streets of the first Liberty City in GTA3, under the glowing lamps and through the fog, the pounding beat of the rave channel banging and echoing in dubbed out midnight madness. One of those songs is a signature for me – an anthem – yet I’ve never known it anywhere else. I played Vice City and San Andreas too, but I’ve never been that concerned with the missions. For me it’s about the immersion and the place-ness of it all. An open landscape rooted in reality yet free of enduring consequence.
I’m in the new Liberty City and I’m struck by the light. I’ve come to really appreciate a good lighting model, having worked on some in the past and having had the opportunity to see the warmth of truly rich algorithms. The world of GTA4 is heavy with reds and yellows making it feel more earthy and warm. Underneath the raised railways, light and shadow are splashed across the streets filtered by the steel webwork above. As I drive below my car flickers dark & light in shadowed semaphore. Flying over the city islands in a cheat-enabled helicopter the sun washes across the water like a giant fish catching the light across a thousand shiny scales. I can see boats far below skipping across the surface. The sunsets are beautiful, casting a pink orange glow across the building facades. It deepens to red and then blue as night falls and the moon ascends.
The city is alive, crowded with traffic and pedestrians and little bits of trash blowing past. Birds take flight as humanoid bots engage each other, driven by runtime AI imperatives. I saw one car rear-end another. Both drivers stepped out and began cursing each other. In moments, fists were flying and a brawl ensued. At another moment I was accosted by a Russian who ran into me on the sidewalk. He didn’t like the cut of my jib and began attacking me. Fortunately for me (and him, given my heavily-armed status), a cop car had just been passing. It stopped and out came two officers who detained and arrested the man, stuffing him into the back of their cruiser to be whisked away to some deep digital prison. Even polygons can go to jail.
On my cellphone I get calls from my cousin Roman pleading for rescue from his angry Albanian loan sharks. Then a call from my new girlfriend, Michelle, who wants a second date (there are friends in the game and how you treat them will determine the opportunities presented to you in the future). Hopefully it won’t be back to the bowling alley – the site of my bitter defeat on the lanes. But really, I just want to drive around and harass the cops. My cellphone also lets me enter cheat codes to stock up on weapons cause I’m not feeling very safe on these mean streets without a rocket launcher and a heavy caliber assault rifle. This place is violent and sooner or later somebody is gonna step up on me, be they local hood or bad cop. Maybe I might slam my stolen SUV into a police cruiser or accidentally run down some pedestrians on the sidewalk while changing the radio station (I love Weazel News! The game is rife with rich socio-political satire that very much reflects my own new-millennial sensibilities, skewering many of the malicious entities stalking our planet). Or I might land my helicopter on the roof of a ten-story building and begin sniping at gang members down on the street. The point is, sooner or later I’m gonna do something that will upset the cops enough to come after me. Then it’s just a hail of gunfire, exploding vehicles, SWAT teams, and fiery helicopters raining down from the sky.
In one firefight I was getting shot by an LCPD officer as he marched straight at me, his pistol popping hot lead into my chest. I struggled to find a weapon, finally raising a shotgun to his face. He fired one last shot as I pulled the trigger and, as the color bled out of the scene and the camera tilted and pulled away, both he and I flew backwards from each other, blood flying with our bodies falling to the pavement in gravity’s final embrace. A short re-spawn and I’m back on the streets, fitted with milspec gear and an unbidden lust for mayhem.
I’m crouched and sidestepping across the road, targeting several LCPD cops and pulling off shots at each. There are at least 6 squad cars parked sideways all around me, lights spinning and sirens blaring. Some have dead cops in front of them, others have officers crouched behind open doors yelling and firing guns at me. Two SWAT helicopters circle overhead, speaking through loudspeakers while firing heavy artillery on my position, city skyscrapers rising up above like Anubin guards at the gates of the Underworld. Their numbers are declining but they’ve got me out-gunned. I know I’m going down but how many can I take with me? The car next to me is on fire and two cops are stalking towards me, firing. I pull out a grenade and as the silver bullet with my name on it sears deep into my chest, I drop it to my feet, pin pulled, falling to my knees. The two cops are right next to me, stunned for a second, then turn to run just as the fuse hits the charge and all three of us are blown several yards into the sky like fiery twisted rag dolls, arching off each in our own singular trajectory pulled inevitably back to the earth just as the car explodes and flips itself in a giant fireball of twisted metal.
It’s the little things like this that make me glow with happiness. The sheer magic of physics and agency. The emergence of such rich and staggering complexity from a simple set of rules. The reality teased out from so many lines of code. The place is alive and feels so whether I’m there or not.
I haven’t played many of the missions. I will, but only to learn more about the city. Like, where the internet cafe’s and strip clubs are, and which buildings I can enter. The place is so huge it takes a monumental effort to get an understanding of the geography. I keep trying to remember street names and neighborhoods, referring to the map to cohere it all into a consistent sense of place. This is a challenging task when your inner cochlear equilibrium is telling you you’re sitting on a couch, not hurtling down a boulevard. And it’s just so big. Liberty City is modeled after New York City and it really looks and feels like it’s gotten pretty close. Rockstar (the game maker) has included a multi-player mode that allows up to 16 people to enter into the world and play missions. Cops v. Robbers, Gang Battle, etc. But it’s clear that the goal, given enough computational meat, will be to turn Liberty City into a persistent MMO. Imagine if hundreds or thousands of user could populate the city 24/7…
I want it. I would pay for that. It could become my Evercrack. Even now there’s a part of me, a piece of my self, that lives in Liberty City. In some moments of reflection I am a humble but well-armed Russian immigrant walking the streets under that beautiful orange-red haze of sunset, waiting for the lights to power on and glow in the night fog. Waiting for the restrictions of the default world to shift imperceptibly enough to break some of the constraints of law and society. I’ve never bought into the notion that video games make kids violent. Bad parenting and abuse makes kids violent. Judgment and hatred makes kids violent. Ignorance and fear lands kids in jail and kicks them out onto the streets. For me and most, these worlds enable the imagination to come closer to daylight. They are sandboxes of the Self. Playgrounds of the mind. Liberty City happens to be a playground somewhat prone to violence but it’s also a place of fun, lit with humanity and humor.
As these places become more real and engage more eyes, the content will open up. To advertising, of course, but also to home-brew music and video. To Twitter feeds and blog RSS. Ap Wire news will spill into game world video displays. What if I could design a bot skin that looked just like me? Put it on a bot, add my own voice clips, and then watch recorded video of that bot’s experiences in the game world while I’m away? Imagine CCTV’s on virtual street corners that pipe live feeds to real-world desktop clients or http? Imagine smart mobs and political protests by avatars who have modded their characters to hold signs or wear furry costumes. MMO’s should be hackable and prankable, wired to the web and mobile devices. I want to use my game cell phone to call other players across the city. I want to use my real-world iPhone to call and see people inside Liberty City. I want the lines to blur more and more between reality and virtuality. I want the spirit of imagination to ingress deeply into the world of humanity.
And I want fast cars and powerful weapons that don’t really kill anyone.
Grand Theft Auto IV delivers in great measure. The world is deeper, more alive, warmer and richer. Traffic snarls and the citizenry engage and react. The city is enormous yielding endless hours of fun and immersion. So much to explore, so many cars to jack, with an engaging narrative weaving through the streets and alleyways. GTA4 is a caricatures of America, witty and sarcastic, painted across an inconceivable amount of polygons pulsing to the currents of floating-point mathematics. It’s a playground for 30-something children of the modern West, reaching out to live the myths of a street warrior culture peddled by media and fiction. Most of all, Liberty City is a model for the ongoing ingression of mind into matter and the wiring of datastreams into the social consciousness. Half the joys of GTA4 are the expectations and imaginations of what future iterations will bring to the genre… what fictions will become real and how the bodies we inhabit will reflect into such immersive virtual worlds unbinding the Soul and Self from flesh.
Perhaps I’m gushing with fanboy glee but I have a sense, as of yet unwritten, that something very deep and transformative is occurring in the digital lands we’re moving between…