The greatest game I never thought I’d play, and the terrible thing about preconceived notions

“Wait,” my brain says as I type, “Didn’t you already talk about Mass Effect in this same vein?  Are you going to rehash things already?  Jeez, lame-o.”

Well now, hang on a second; it’s true that I didn’t expect to play Mass Effect or  let it become the obsession that it did.  But I’m talking about a game that, given my gaming past, I really didn’t think was right for me: Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA 4).

Grand Theft Auto 4 cover for the Xbox 360 © Rockstar, Mircrosoft, et al. (source)

Man, my fingers…well, they itch a little thinking about GTA 4.  Should probably get that checked.

But now I must do a flashback.  Sorry.

Prior to college, my choices in gaming were largely driven by my parents.  My siblings and I asked for games and they got us the ones they deemed “appropriate.”  (This was however, as evidenced by Street Fighter, DOOM, and a few other titles, not a perfect vacuum.)  As a result, we had mostly family-friendly action/adventure platformers – Mario, Donkey Kong, Metroid, Mega Man, and so on.  We also had a few sports games, RPGs, and, as I mentioned, the rare fighter or shooter.  Once I left the nest, gaming took a back seat to life and other disregards to my personal safety, but I still occasionally found time to play; and those games were still mostly action/adventure platformers.   It really wasn’t until I met my fiancé and his Playstation that the vast world of gaming opened up for me.  However, even though there was a new (to me) expanse of games, my gaming needs had mellowed and I still stuck close to what I knew when I did play — that meant platformers and a few RPGs.  And this made me perfectly happy.

I was introduced to the Grand Theft Auto series through the third game, which was released in late 2001.  My “lover not a fighter” indignation deemed the game reckless and needless.  I didn’t jack cars, I didn’t kill innocent civilians, I didn’t have ties to scary mobsters, I didn’t solicit hookers, and I didn’t see how those real world actions would be any fun to play.  I wanted to escape into a game world that was fun, bright, and lively; I certainly did not want to play through through the dank unpleasantnesses that some people, frankly, live through.  So fast forward seven or so years to the release of GTA 4.  We got the game, and despite all the awesome reviews, hype, and watching my fiance have a pretty good time playing, I wrote it off as a boys-only game that was not for me.

And besides, I was totally addicted to Mass Effect at the time.

Damn Volus. Did I really just spend an hour helping you, and all I get in return is information I already knew?! You suck. (source)

So what made me eventually want to play GTA 4?  Well, the sequence of events probably went something like….

**It’s my 4th ME playthrough.  I’m playing as a “bad” Shepard and he kinda sucks.  Nobody likes him and I don’t like him either.  I’m getting bored.

**My fiance: “You should really try GTA 4; I think you’ll like it.”

**Downstairs bastard neighbor: I just got me a gee-tar and I’m going to play non-stop all weekend.  On Saturday nights, I’m going to invite over all my asshole friends and we’re going to drink and play the gee-tar real shitty like.  I’m going to make you hate humanity so much that the only way you’ll be able to deal with it by shooting your way through a virtual world of crime and filth.

A dozen of these guys downstairs would have been a million times better.  (© source)

Yeah, something like that.

Now I’ll admit it wasn’t until a few missions in that I really warmed up to the game and Bellic, but once I did, I was hooked.  (I won’t go too much into the story or gameplay — you can find perfectly good reviews all over the interwebs, or just click here and here).  There was something so earnest about him despite his shady background.   As Bellic’s story progressed, and as he was driven farther and farther into the city’s rancid underbelly, I couldn’t help but be drawn in.  I wanted to “help” Bellic do the right things knowing full well that most circumstance were beyond anyone’s control.

No really, he’s harmless. The gun, it just fell into his hands. (source)

The game’s overall story was really fantastic  – the plot lines and arcs made sense.  Bellic’s beginning, middle, and ending stories play out very cohesively and there was never a sense that your main missions were “busy work.”  (And like most sandbox games, you could deviate from the story at just about any point to take on side missions.)  Granted, it took me awhile to get used to driving and I’d hit the occasionally glitch, but the general experience was fantastic.  I liked that Niko, a seeming loner, had to go out and forge relationships, and then work on maintaining those relationships to whatever degree the player chose.  As much as I enjoyed the main missions that involved fighting, shooting, and car chases, I also liked having to put Niko through the occasional mundane ritual, such has having to dress up for a date or meet a friend for bowling.

But more than anything, I loved exploring Liberty City.  I had a tremendous time discovering new parts of the city, new people, new cars, new music, and new reasons to revisit the theme park, bars, bowling alleys, comedy revues, and strip clubs.  I sunk about 40 hours into the regular missions and then almost another 60 just exploring and doing side missions, and I still never made it to 100% complete.  As an advocate for non-completionists, I shouldn’t be worried, but this is the only game in which that nags at me a little.  (Though I know it will never happened because I absolutely HATED GTA 4’s goddamned motorcycle and helicopter missions. Sorry Rockstar, but those rides-like-they’re-on-fucking-ice motorcycles are the only reasons I haven’t picked up the Lost and the Damned.)

GTA 4 really proved me wrong on so many counts.  What I had initially thought to be a silly, violent, and boys-only game, turned out to be one of my most favorite games of all time.  Since then, I’ve turned off all my preconceived notion about video games.  Each one is right for everyone when given the chance; though some are right for no one (*cough* E.T. *cough*). And GTA 4, it was right for me.

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