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 the director, 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. 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. 

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.    

17 Comments
18 Comments
Posted by Vitor

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 the director, 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. 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. 

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.    

Posted by MrSnow

Dude summery please.......

Posted by kmdrkul

Interesting read.  If I'm supposed to examine myself based off my experiences from the game, I should be carted off to a mental facility as fast as fucking possible for all the atrocities I committed.  And yes, that includes having sex with hookers then running them over with my car, stealing their money, beating them with a baseball bat even though they're dead, then driving off, laughing in real life as "Evil Woman" blared out in the in-game radio.  
 
Also, you sound like Wilson from Home Improvement in your first sentence.

Posted by sixghost

God, the douchebaggery drips from every word.

Posted by Vitor
@sixghost said:
" God, the douchebaggery drips from every word. "
I originally wrote it a while back for the University of Oxford student paper - there's a bare minimum douchebaggery quota if you want your work to get published there...  
 
But hey, at least I didn't say games were art, right?
Posted by sixghost
@Vitor said:
" @sixghost said:
" God, the douchebaggery drips from every word. "
I originally wrote it a while back for the University of Oxford student paper - there's a bare minimum douchebaggery quota if you want your work to get published there...   But hey, at least I didn't say games were art, right? "
Alright, then it's excusable. Bonus points for sneaking games into your college papers.
Posted by Slab64

I think he meant like a student-run periodical, not something he was turning in for a grade. Although you probably COULD get credit for something like that, it has the perfect "up your own ass" tone that academics will eat right up (I liked it, mind you).

Posted by AlwaysAngry

First word - Kyfrnfrejfire 
 
I stopped reading right there.

Posted by RoujinX

  

  
Baraka was a film done by limited members of the Koyaanasquatsi, including the director of photography. Anyone who's interested in Koyaanasquatsi will find Baraka to be, at the very least, a more interesting film (if not significantly less up-it's-own-ass as the Godfrey Reggio crapfest). 
 
Also, Baraka synchronizes with the Flaming Lips album "At War with the Mystics". So it wins.
Posted by Vitor
@Slab64 said:
" I think he meant like a student-run periodical, not something he was turning in for a grade. Although you probably COULD get credit for something like that, it has the perfect "up your own ass" tone that academics will eat right up (I liked it, mind you). "
That's the one - although I'll admit it was written in my 'games are art' phase before I learnt to stop caring what others thought so much and lost the need to seek validation through others for my own personal interests. 
 
I'm more proud of it for the amount of research I did and the entire Philip Glass/Houser brothers history and the comparison I derived from that than, say, the Shakespeare analogies and definitions of long crazy-assed words
Posted by Chyro

GTA 4 truly had a great sandbox world and the characters were believably flawed humans.  Unfortunately the mechanics of the game really soured my experience with it.

Posted by RichardLOlson

GTA 4 was an awesome game when it came out, but now I'm looking on to new and exciting games.

Posted by Vitor
@Chyro said:
" GTA 4 truly had a great sandbox world and the characters were believably flawed humans.  Unfortunately the mechanics of the game really soured my experience with it. "
It definitely felt outdated - no checkpoints, invincibility on enemies you were chasing just because the game deemed it necessary from a narrative perspective but then neglected to tell you so you'd waste hundreds of rounds of ammunition on them just blaming it on bad aim instead of just telling you not to kill the dude until you reached a certain location and a whole bunch of other issues dragged it down but I still think no other sandbox game has created as believable a world to explore and inhabit as GTA did, no matter how much awesome crazy stuff you can do (e.g. Just Cause 2/Red Faction: Guerilla).
Posted by Jambones

Interesting read, even if I am not the smartest biscuit in the tin. A question though: how are GTA and this film comparable? Surely the story from GTA IV gives it context and meaning, whereas Koyaanisqatsi leaves the viewer to make up their mind about it's significance.

Perhaps I read this a little too soon after waking up. Hah. 

Posted by Sweep

Beautiful post. As far as i'm concerned grand theft auto 4 has always been as much a psychological sandbox as any other. It's success is apparent in it's versatility, allowing the player to dive as deep into it's moral conundrums as they see fit. It's always nice to see that the thought and intent of such an ethically convoluted game do not go unappreciated.

Moderator
Posted by HistoryInRust
@RoujinX said:
Also, Baraka synchronizes with the Flaming Lips album "At War with the Mystics". So it wins. "
Wait. Are you saying that Baraka Wins
 
Would you call Baraka's victory a flawless one?
Posted by dudeglove

I highly doubt others read as deeply as you have into the GTA series. In addition, your analysis is flawed, as GTAIV's story is completely fucking linear and Belic's character is totally at odds with 90% of what most folk do with GTA games - run around and blow the shit out of things (only to be abruptly brought back to Earth every time you hit another cutscene on the pizza boy route). Oh sure, there's the odd 'moral choice' bit thrown in there, but all it leads to is a different apartment, or a delayed ending.
 
The fact that your  first paragraph and last paragraph started with "Koyaanisqatsi - " (is the dash really necessary? ) makes me cringe. Congratulations.

Posted by Vitor
@Jambones said:
"

Interesting read, even if I am not the smartest biscuit in the tin. A question though: how are GTA and this film comparable? Surely the story from GTA IV gives it context and meaning, whereas Koyaanisqatsi leaves the viewer to make up their mind about it's significance.

Perhaps I read this a little too soon after waking up. Hah. 

"
That assumes that the story is the driving force behind your play through yet cutscenes and incidental story elements make up only a small percentage of the experience. Furthermore, with your (admittedly limited) control of the overarching story, you get to decide the significance of your actions also. Did you kill for fun or necessity? Did you drive to the mission marker directly or soak in the atmosphere and vivacity of the city via the scenic route? Are you pragmatic, a romantic or a realist? It's a case where it truly is the journey that counts, not the destination as it's equally as open to interpretation as the film itself was.