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Music, Nostalgia, and Force: Grand Theft Auto and Sensory Immersion

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Wednesday, Jul 22, 2009
It wasn't the sights and sounds of Liberty City that mesmerized me; it was touching the city for the first time.

It was two related things that first drew me to the Grand Theft Auto series: music and nostalgia.


Nostalgia immediately gripped me when I first booted up Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (my first experience with a Rockstar game).  The blue field with the thick border that emulates a Commodore Vic 20 operating system immediately transported me back to the 1980s.  I was delighted by the sounds of the heavy tapping of a Vic 20-style keyboard and the words, “LOAD: VICE CITY,” followed by the command any computer geek from that decade knows well enough, “PRESS PLAY ON TAPE.”  It was as if I was sitting once again at ten-years-old before the television set, reaching out to press play on the only “floppy drive” that I knew how to load a game from, the Vic 20 tape deck.


The nostalgia for playing games in the 1980s was quickly replaced, though, by another set of positive memories.  I lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, quite near Miami, until I was five, and I visited grandparents in the city at least once a year for my entire childhood.  The box said Vice City, but it looked like Miami, felt like Miami, and the tunes playing on the radio, “Cars,” “Africa,””Kids in America,” all of these contributed to my familiarity with the setting, both place and time.  This was Southern Florida in the 1980s.  I knew it because I had seen and heard these things before.


Rockstar’s commitment to details often not considered by game designers in the early part of this decade is for me the real achievement of the Grand Theft Auto series.  Building a town and an era based on the foundations of the little details that you take for granted, architecture, weather patterns, and the music that accompany it, was a revelation for me in 2002 and represented the first time that I wanted to talk about a video game world, rather than simply a video game.


I had heard of this game called Grand Theft Auto III at the time, but it sounded fairly stupid, something about boosting cars and running over hookers—not really my idea of a proper game.  I was partial to puzzles and RPGs.  However, while I immediately went out to purchase a copy of GTA III after completing the main storyline of Vice City, it remained a pale shadow of the nostalgic experience of living in Vice City.  Had GTA III been my first Rockstar experience, it might have been my last.  The world of GTA III is interesting and immersive for a number of reasons but lacked the brilliance of Vice City‘s ability to wed what was so familiar in reality to me into a meaningful virtual experience just by creating the proper ambiance through artifacts of sight and sound.


San Andreas was likewise a positive experience for me of such a thoroughly living virtual reality.  The 1990s were years that I knew well, having attended college and grad school during this period of time.  I had some familiarity with Los Angeles and San Francisco (though, I had spent much more time in other areas of Southern California when I was a kid, like San Diego), and while rap wasn’t exactly a genre I knew especially well, taking on the role of a gangbanger in SoCal blasting Dre and Snoop seemed authentic.  The addition of the final missions in Los Santos that paralleled what I had seen myself on television of the LA riots just added to the sense that the state of San Andreas felt vividly alive, and if not an experience evocative of personal experience, at least one that had a kind of cultural historicity to it.  The music, major events, and clothing of the period all felt right, and once again, I felt like I had entered a very familiar and very real space due in large part to the nostalgia generated through music and style rather than mere exposition and plotting.


The reason that I bring up all of this navel gazing about my personal experiences with Rockstar’s worlds is that I recently completed playing Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars in addition to GTA IV and The Lost and the Damned.  While I enjoyed all three games and certainly applaud Rockstar’s continued commitment to the details of world building, I found myself disappointed with that element that had so transported me in my experiences with the earlier games in the series: the nostalgia and historicity evoked through music.  Actually, The Lost and the Damned has some extremely immersive ambiance like biker clubs blasting hardcore thrash that contributes to the expansion’s seeming versimilitude (in addition to what seems to me to be—though, I have to admit no real direct knowledge of the subculture – some fairly authentic representations of biker life).  Generally, though, GTA IV‘s soundtrack left me a little cold with few tunes that I knew well and thus nothing to anchor some sense of time and place in my experience of this new iteration of Liberty City. 


Likewise, the Nintendo DS’s limitations in being able to provide a full array of “real” songs to listen to while cruising the Liberty City streets bummed me out a bit.  I admire the way that Rockstar chose to feature a few radio stations that produce something sounding like techno or rock music admirable.  The near .wav quality of the tunes is mildly evocative (and kind of cute in a retro kind of way) but lacks the nostalgic power of actual familiarity with the sounds of an actual car stereo.


Nevertheless, Chinatown Wars still hooked me a great deal, and it was certainly a sense of immersion that I felt in the top down, slightly more cartoonish DS world that in part was responsible for this.  I had to think a bit more, though, about what was producing this immersion in a hand held version of GTA to figure out why I found this new game so compelling.


On reflection, I believe what it was was Rockstar’s smart use of the technology at hand.  While the radio was disappointing to me, Rockstar’s clever near parody of its own radio stations was smart.  However, what really dragged me into this experience of GTA was less related to setting and ambiance provoked by sight and sound and more related to the additional sensory experience that Nintendo products have recently focused on providing.  It wasn’t the sights and sounds of Liberty City that mesmerized me; it was touching the city for the first time.


In the opening sequence of Chinatown Wars, the game’s protagonist, Huang, is grazed by a bullet.  Thinking Huang dead, a couple of thugs dump him in a car, which they then proceed to drive off a dock in order to dispose of the body.  Witnessing these events from overhead on one screen and looking at Huang’s dazed responses on the other for those moments, the perspective then changes to what is probably the most overtly immersive points of view that a game can provide, a first person view of the interior of the car.  You, as Huang, look out of the windshield of the car at the rising bubbles in the ocean as the car sinks towards Davy Jones’s Locker, and you are instructed to break the glass using the DS’s stylus.  Tapping at the window and seeing spider webs of glass appear exactly at the spot that you tap, feels forceful.  When the glass explodes, that force feels altogether real and relieving.  You have just physically altered a car in Liberty City.  It “feels” just right.


Throughout the DS experience, the game offers these momentary breaks in the standard action that allow you to “feel out” what you are doing in the city from moving quantities of drugs between a lockbox and a car trunk to smashing a padlock off of a gate.  More significantly, though, for the first time in a GTA game, I legitimately felt like I was boosting a car because the stylus allowed me to unscrew the plate on a steering column with quick circular motions and—better still – had me twisting together two wires to actually hotwire the thing.


Like my familiarity with the sights of the city being emulated by Vice City and the sounds coming from my speaker, I have stripped wires and spliced them together before (maybe not on a car, but speaker wires for sure).  The twisting motion required by the use of the stylus was a familiar one, and like when the other sensory details that helped more fully immerse me in GTA experiences of the past, this near tactile experience generated these seemingly familiar sensory connections to a world. Basically, it made the world come alive under my fingers.


Immersion seems to me to be one of Rockstar’s fortes in game design and adding the ability to experience the world through physical force seems an appropriate one in a game committed to exploring violence and physical violation.  In some sense, evoking a Miami reminiscent of the era that produced Al Pacino’s turn as Scarface (as Vice City does) is impressive but that was already achieved in the medium of film.  Rockstar has expanded its capacity to provide immersion through a sense that other media rarely get to involve their audience in (but video games through their interactivity can) and one ever so appropriate to the crime genre—the actual feel of getting your hands dirty.

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