I finally escaped by ducking into a subway station, and while catching my breath, I decided to explore a bit. That's when I stumbled upon a lovely piece of artwork: A huge mosaic of a subway train on the second level. It looked precisely like the mosaics you see in the New York City subway, except even more ambitious and gorgeous. And I was thinking, "Man, who put this thing here? Who thinks of this stuff?"
Well, Rockstar Games did. The Rockstar developers are utterly in love with the idea of the American city: the riot of decay and grandeur, the garish commercialism, the violence and beauty, the architectural delights hidden in every corner. With GTA IV, Rockstar has produced an ode to urban life. Which is to say, they're not really giving you a game to play with -- they're giving you a city.
The attention to street-culture detail is obsessive, practically Sistine. Each street corner is a piece of randomly generated theater: Primly dressed art students wander around with portfolio cases, homeless crack addicts mutter to themselves as they brush past hipster dudes toting Starbuckian sleeves of coffee. Like all the in-game voice acting, the ambient dialogue is both superbly acted and super weird. ("I forgot to tell you, I need more socks. They are all fucked!" brayed a Russian émigré into his mobile phone as I wandered by.)
The game isn't a celebration of gangster life. GTA never was; for all their bad-boy reputation, Rockstar's designers are adept satirists of American excess. Indeed, they pretty much share Charles Dickens' moral view, wherein those in the big city who gain power are inevitably corrupted by it. (I nearly drove off the road several times while shaking with laughter at the parodies of right-wing talk radio -- complete with incoherent, anti-immigrant nativists, slavishly pro-government commentators on the Weasel News network and ads for "baby buying" services.)
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