Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Strange City Called Home

May 4, 2008
A Strange City Called Home

IN the opening moments of Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest chapter of the cinematically styled video game franchise, two men are standing at the side of a boat, watching a familiar sight drift into view. Through their eyes, we see a digitized, 21st-century retelling of a scene that greeted numerous generations of new arrivals to an unknown country: the eastern end of a long, narrow island, with a towering metal spire emerging from its belly, and a diminutive green statue beckoning from a tiny point off the island’s southern tip.

We think we know what we are seeing, until one of the game’s characters identifies the land mass for us.

“Liberty City,” he says to his shipmate in a vaguely East European accent. “You ever been?”

And before I even sat down to play the game, I could honestly say that I had.

Liberty City, the pixilated playground where the action of Grand Theft Auto IV occurs, is New York City, and it is not. Like previous installments of the game, which has sold more than 70 million copies in the last decade — abbreviated G.T.A., in the same sanitized way that Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC — this newest edition (released on Tuesday for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 systems) sets players loose in an environment closely modeled on a real American metropolis, usually at some notorious time in its history.

The environs of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, released in 2002, were inspired by 1980s-era Miami, the pastel-hued setting for crime dramas like “Scarface” and “Miami Vice.” For a 2004 sequel, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the game relocated to three interconnected cities based on Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, against a 1990s backdrop of gangsta rap and gang violence.

While moving its story forward to the present day, G.T.A. IV largely restricts itself to a single city — one at the height of its prosperity and during an ebb in crime. The game makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it is designed to look, sound and feel like the city I have lived in for nearly all 32 years of my life.

As many others have already noted, Liberty City is a dead ringer for New York: It’s divided into boroughs with distinct populations and architectural styles; it has most of the same suspension bridges and historic landmarks in the places you’d expect to find them; and its streets are always teeming with traffic and unruly pedestrians.

This game is hardly the first to try to replicate some portion of the New York experience — programmers have been trying to do this for decades. But Grand Theft Auto IV is the most contemporary attempt at this experiment, and may be the most realistic made available to a mass audience.

It’s also a game that has an extra layer of resonance for indigenous New Yorkers. With all the knowledge, confidence, predispositions and prejudices we possess, we’re not only better equipped to detect the many references and insider jokes, we may even come out of the game thinking differently about the real-life New York we’ve always known.

For a native New Yorker, the game is both comfortingly routine and eerily disorienting; you find yourself playing because it is a limitless escape and a consequence-free confinement. Liberty City is like nowhere I’ve ever visited, even as it tries with all its heart and soul to remind me of a place with which I’m already intimately acquainted.

MY initiation into Liberty City came a few days before G.T.A. IV went on sale, in the downtown loft offices of the game’s publisher, Rockstar Games. As I tooled around the electronic streets for a few hours under the supervision of two Rockstar employees, I was sometimes playing the game myself, and sometimes watching as someone else played it for me. I generally played by the rules, but for the purposes of this story, I occasionally made use of a special cheat feature to travel through the game in ways that a typical player cannot.

When that boat from the game’s opening scene finally docked at Liberty City, my character, a rugged-looking immigrant named Niko, found himself on the docks of a Dumbo-like neighborhood, in a borough the game calls Broker.

Indeed, much of Liberty City’s map is made up of direct analogues of real New York neighborhoods and locations, often renamed with winking, sophomoric monikers that could have come from Mad magazine: Manhattan is Algonquin and Queens is Dukes; the giant neon Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City advertises a beverage called Sprunk; and the MetLife skyscraper on Park Avenue has been replaced with the Getalife Building.

Even if I didn’t recognize this computer-generated tribute to Dumbo from its hilly terrain and its array of converted red-brick factories and dilapidated loft spaces, I might have known it from the disoriented feelings gathering in my gut. In real life, I have hardly spent enough time in Dumbo to know my way around it; if I were abandoned there as part of some urban Outward Bound adventure, I probably couldn’t find the nearest subway station without the help of a G.P.S.

On my television screen, I could see the silhouette of Manhattan on the horizon, but I had no idea how to get there. My digital discomfort was just as palpable as it would be if I were experiencing this world in three dimensions.

Following the game’s directions, I drove my character to the neighborhood that is Liberty City’s equivalent of Brighton Beach, where, true to its inspiration, all the shop signs were in Cyrillic lettering, and the few passers-by could be heard, in snatches, speaking Russian and Ukrainian. Niko, my alter ego, did not yet have his own apartment — for starters, he would have to sleep on someone else’s foldout couch in a ratty tenement with walls covered in graffiti inspired (so I am told) by tags that the game’s designers had seen and photographed in Brooklyn.

There was something amusingly authentic about Niko’s predicament. The game’s British creators seemed to know that given the choice, most players would probably run or drive straight into Manhattan — the version of the city they know from their own travels, or any number of films and television shows — and ignore the other boroughs. Here, as in the real world, entry into the heart of the city would have to be won through patience and hard work.

A few steps outside Niko’s temporary lodging, I found myself in Firefly Island, the game’s answer to Coney Island, complete with a giant Ferris wheel and a rickety wooden roller coaster; both attractions were closed and the area was devoid of pedestrians.

The scene was familiar in more ways than one: it reminded me of The Warriors, a video game that Rockstar created just three years ago, based largely on the 1979 Walter Hill movie of the same name. (You know, the one with the crazy-costumed New York gangs fighting their way from the Bronx to Brooklyn — “Can you dig it?” “Come out and plaa-aaay!”)

THAT game was also nominally set in New York, though I never genuinely felt transported there for one moment. That city seemed a grimy parody of someone else’s grimy parody of the city, one that looked as if our town had been struck by a giant mirror ball full of plutonium.

But I wanted to see more than the few chubby, backpack-toting tourists who were ambling around the Boardwalk. So I had my flesh-and-blood chaperons turn on a hidden feature within their version of the game that allowed me to fly anywhere on the G.T.A. map. And I mean, literally, fly: my virtual self disappeared, and the camera began to hover off the ground, swooping and soaring from the Brooklyn Bridge (er, I mean the Broker Bridge) to the Statue of Happiness, which resembles a wide-eyed Hillary Rodham Clinton hoisting a cup of coffee aloft.

Eventually I touched down in a Times Square that was appropriately cluttered with hypnotic neon advertisements for things I could not really buy, and populated, sparsely, with pedestrians who carried on cellphone conversations, sketched portraits of passers-by and played the saxophone in return for loose change. When I walked into a greasy all-night burger joint, a cashier greeted me with an appropriately indifferent “What?” But when I crossed the street against the light upon exiting, cars actually stopped for me (though they honked their horns).

Having been lulled into believing that I really was in New York, I made the mistake of trying to find my own Alphabet City apartment within the game. I walked down to Chinatown — that took only a few seconds — found what I thought was Houston Street, and made my way to where Avenue A (and my apartment) should have been. But after traversing only a block or two of bodegas and backward-hatted hipsters bobbing their heads to the beats of miniature iPods, I somehow found myself at the southern entrance to Grand Central Terminal.

It was as if some unknown natural disaster had recently touched down and attacked only the portions of New York that I cared for most deeply. My city — at least, the parts of it that I thought of as my city — no longer existed.

So I regrouped and tried to find the high-rise apartment building on East 40th Street where I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. I started at the United Nations, made my way west through a perfect simulacrum of Tudor City (with another saxophone player performing in the park) and within a few short steps had gone all the way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Foiled again!

It seemed a perfectly logical and human impulse, to prove to myself that I was somewhere recognizable by finding the one place in it that was most recognizable to me. Yet there was no way that the game could satisfy this impulse: like a comic-book superhero drawn by the legendary artist Jack Kirby, whose characters’ fists grew larger and feet grew smaller as they flew up out of their panels, the proportions of this version of Manhattan were an optical illusion. The parts that everybody would notice were blown up larger than life; the parts that virtually no one would care about were shrunk to nothingness.

Faced with this catastrophic revelation, I turned to a life of crime. I hijacked cars and crashed them into traffic poles; I raced a motorcycle through Central Park and dismounted just before the bike plunged into the lake (my way of letting the boathouse know I won’t be holding my wedding reception there). I jumped off the observation deck of the Empire State Building, just because I could, though I took no pleasure from the sickening scream my character let out, nor the sound of his jacket flapping in the wind, 86 stories to the ground.

At the urging of my human confederates, I even attempted one of Grand Theft Auto’s missions — tasks I was supposed to be completing to progress through the game properly — that required me to shoot my way through a gang of drug smugglers and steal their truckload of contraband. I did as I was instructed, but my heart just wasn’t in it. If I truly believed in Liberty City as a functioning community, how could I open fire on my fellow simulated citizens (even if they shot at me first)? How could I tread all over the social contract in a ripped-off truck full of bootleg prescription medication?

THE answer, of course, is that I couldn’t, and here is where the paradoxical nature of Grand Theft Auto once again rears its head. Unlike the missions, objectives and narrative elements of a traditional video game, which constitute the game itself — the things you’re supposed to be participating in and following along with in order to actually play — these same aspects of G.T.A. are more like sophisticated distractions to keep you from immersing yourself too deeply in its fictional city environment.

Except that the problem with G.T.A. — one that will in no way dissuade me from playing the game until my digits are raw and aching — is that the more fully you are pulled into Liberty City and the more closely you inspect it, the more you are reminded that it isn’t a city at all.

The neighborhoods do not blend into one another so much as sit next to one another. The traffic varies just enough from one area to the next to convince you that a place is inhabited, but eavesdrop on a pedestrian long enough, and you’ll find that he doesn’t eventually go home to his wife and kids — he just keeps walking and talking in a continuous loop.

It’s not the game’s fault that it can’t perfectly replicate the infinite variety of New York. But it sometimes comes so close to pulling off the illusion that it invites you to look for the imperfections.

When my two hours of game time were over, I left the Rockstar Games offices and stepped out into SoHo at midafternoon on one of warmest spring days of the year. The sun worshipers were out in full force, each of them as distinct as snowflakes: guys wearing oversized earphones and baseball caps tilted at every angle, women wearing minimalist skirts and shorts that gave them only the illusion of being clothed. An amorous couple making their way north hardly noticed me as they nearly crosschecked me into a streetside table of $6 sunglasses.

There was so much uniqueness and so much variety that there was no room to move, and I knew I was home.

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