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GTA4 - The Morality Sandbox

Koyaanisqatsi - In the Hopi language of the people of northeastern Arizona, this word is used to express a crazy life, one out of balance, disintegrating and in a state of turmoil, calling for another way of living. It is also the title for a cult documentary of the same name made in 1982. A documentary film consisting of neither dialogue nor vocalized narration, more a dialogic work, where the poetic and musical themes are so ingrained within its own framework as to make it, in effect, a visual tone poem. A tone set by the juxtaposition of the images and music. Any meaning this film may contain is gained exclusively from the beholder. The film's role is to provoke, to raise questions that only the audience can answer. It is not in predetermined meaning where the value of a work of art is measured but rather, meaning gleaned from the experience of the encounter. And just as this work mixes differing forms of artistic expression, it itself engages in a dialogue with them. All art is dynamic, relational and engaged in a process of endless re-descriptions of the world. We never, in other words, speak in a vacuum.

As Godfrey Reggio said of his film, ‘The encounter is my interest, not the meaning. If meaning is the point, then propaganda and advertising is the form’. And if that is indeed where the value resides, what better way to transmit it than through videogames, a medium which privileges agency over empathy; where the journey takes precedence over the destination. If it truly is your own shaping of artistic encounters through which we create meaning, then a game where you shape and are shaped by the events around you is best placed to do so.

When Rockstar released their teaser trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV, it was pretty much a direct lift from Koyaanisqatsi. They even used Philip Glass’ score from the original, incidentally, the first score he had ever composed for a film, if unwillingly so. But fate and free will have never been on the best of terms. As Glass had never intended to make music for films, so Dan and Sam Houser had never planned on creating the bestselling video games series in history. One which has gone on to smash every record in the entertainment industry. Below is a scene taken from the film with Philip Glass' song Pruitt Igoe, which will be instantly recognisable as from the GTA4 debut trailer also included.

Hoping to become rock stars the two British born brothers joined BMG Music in London and in 1993 joined BMG Music's interactive division after which they founded Rockstar. Their early days in the music industry have left an irrevocable mark on each game subsequently developed. Respectively, the past 3 major GTA games have had an original line up of more than 800 songs from which cuts were then made. As Glass’ score is integral to the storytelling and tone of Koyaanisqatsi, so the soundtrack of each game affects your own experience of that particular journey. Because art is collaborative, our engagement with it is a species of interference. As the separate artistic mediums within the game (whether audio or visual) participate within a discourse, so we do with them. We cannot read or watch anything new without creating it ourselves.

As we draw meaning from that film through its combination of visual representation and sound, so we do the same from our actions on screen in GTA IV. Where that film has no real, preset and determined meaning, so GTA IV has no set path down which you tread. The sandbox genre which it helped create has been turned on its head. Hegel said of Shakespeare’s characters that they were ‘free artists of themselves’. That is to say, mankind has not only reached the point at which external reality can be grasped in its essence, but men and women are potentially endowed with the ability to remake themselves and their world and in a game world such as the one represented in GTA IV, you are provided with just such an opportunity.

As Hamlet is hemmed in by his "environment of horror," so the GTAs of the past have been restrained by the limitations of the hardware and the moral vacuity of their settings and protagonists. The new world of Liberty City represented in this latest instalment is a far cry from the one seen in 2001’s GTA III. As this has been remade anew, so have the characters inhabiting it. No more has the morality been left to the wayside, no more can you go on a rampage and no longer feel the consequences. This is not a story of rags to riches, a glorification of crime, rather of rags to slightly better rags. The moral awkwardness of the protagonist’s situation is fed into a degree of decision-making on your part, too - take a life, save a life; choosing who to side with. There comes a point where you can no longer play this as you did the GTAs of the past. Now it feels so at odds with the main character, a man haunted by his war torn past and whose Faustian pact with the criminal underworld stems not from a sense of selfish self advancement but from a loss of hope and loyalty. But more than this, as you play you can no longer do so without being drawn into that very discourse upon which the game world is founded upon.

Koyaanisqatsi- the expression of a crazy life, one out of balance, disintegrating and in a state of turmoil, calling for another way of living. Superficially it may seem more than an apt description of a game series which has become notorious for gratuitous violence and anarchy. But look deeper and you realise that you are forced to examine yourself as you play. It provokes and raises questions unthought-of in a GTA title and through this meaning can be extracted. If even people who make games where you can run over hookers have a sense of the wider culture and morality, there’s hope for the industry yet.
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About Vitz711one of us since 3:59 PM on 09.08.2008