Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #5: Grand Theft Auto IV

In PC, PS3, Xbox 360 on October 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Title: Grand Theft Auto IV

Format: PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Released: 29th April, 2008

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I often associate gaming with guilt. I love getting lost in luscious, fully-realised worlds, following the hero’s journey, developing a character from an underpowered weakling to an all-conquering powerhouse; it hooks me every time. And yet. When I play, there’s always a little snag jaggling at the corner of my mind, quietly whispering the words: “You’ve got better things to do, Jon.”

These whisperings are not entirely without merit; I spend a lot of time playing games. But there is a difference between gaming time that is earned, and gaming time that is taken; during the former you relax, immerse yourself completely, and it is from this state that the great gaming memories and experiences are taken. During the latter, your focus is off, moderately difficult challenges seem impossible, and your mind constantly pulls out of the action for air, the unfinished loops of the day catching in your thoughts, tangling and pulling – vying for your attention.

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It’s not a pleasant experience; you want to immerse yourself more deeply in the game to get away from that naggling voice, but the responsible part of your brain knows this is the last thing you should be doing. You never fully commit to the experience, instead participating in a sort of gaming limbo, ploughing through a level mechanically – not without flashes of enjoyment – but essentially phoning it in, not quite willing to surrender to the game, but not wanting to face the outside world either.

This has certainly been my experience, but only when I was gaming when I shouldn’t have been. But though this phenomena exists, never has it applied less, than to time spent with Grand Theft Auto IV. I’ve talked previously about saving up holiday time to indulge in a game, but any other gaming vacation seems small fry when compared to the campaign I waged to play GTA IV.
It was April 2008, and I was in my final year of studying English Literature at Durham University. I’d had a blast on the course, but found myself constantly spending my hours pursuing other, less academic, interests – be it theatre, getting pissed with my mates, or videogames. I’d by and large got the balance of work and play just about right, and was on for a low to medium 2:1. I certainly wasn’t going to drop to a 2:2, so all I had to do was maintain my low-to-mid 60s average to get the grade I knew I deserved.

Then on 29th April, GTA IV came out. I had been bought a PS3 as a big surprise birthday present from my housemates and family, and was making good use of it. The Orange Box had delighted, especially Portal, but apart from that, I had yet to really stretch the PlayStation 3’s silicate legs with a truly killer game. Plus, as students with time and loans on our hands, we also had one of the best entertainment set ups my impressionable eyes had ever seen; each member of the house contributed a wing to an entertainment colossus that included: Surround Sound, a 37” HDTV, Sky TV, PS3 with 2 and Xbox 360 with 4 controllers. In 2008, (and in fact, now) it had everything you could ask for. All I needed was the right game. Then I read a review in Edge magazine of GTA IV.

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10/10. There had only been 8 titles that had ever been awarded 10/10, and each one was the kind of game your purchase a console for. So GTA IV, this hugely well reviewed, latest update of one of my favourite series of all time, was being released, and I had the perfect set-up on which to play it.

There was only one slight problem: all my exams.

May 2008 was peppered with 5 exams, each about 3 hours in length. I had finished my dissertation by this stage, but I had to haul myself through a shit-load of exam-condition essays before I could even think about setting foot in Liberty City. Because I did order it, you see. GTA IV arrived damn near 29th April. I remember it looked perfect.

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I pried the plastic-wrapped case from its cardboard package, and hastily unwrapped it. The manual smelt of awesome game. I inserted the disc, promising myself I was only going to seek proof that it was as good as people were saying before packing it back up and getting on with revision. The install took a tantalisingly long time; promising a huge, detailed world of depth and variety to get lost in.

Then I started playing.

The hour was scintillating. Housemates came and went, marvelling at the graphics, pointing out little touches like the mobile phone menu and contributing advice like: “Oooh, nick that car and go run over that fat guy!” It was GTA, but so much richer, more layered and (if you wanted it to be) more mature than ever before. The hour ended with Niko Bellic stood alone on a rainy walkway, bloodied knife in hand, as the midnight lights shone out across the city, the body of the first man killed in Liberty City at my feet. I remember stopping for a moment and looking at the skyline, feeling acutely like I was on the cusp of a great journey, thrilled at the prospect of this whole dark, exciting world to uncover.

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But not just yet. I saved my game, and took out the disc. I placed the box under my bed, but not before removing the map of Liberty City from it and putting it on my wall. It became my target through those next three weeks; my holiday destination; my reward for three years of (relatively) hard work.

And there it stayed. I didn’t touch the game for three weeks. Then, on 23rd May, I finished my final exam. It was weirdly anti-climactic. After so much writing and thinking and red bull, I walked out of the exam hall into bright clear sunlight, blinked, and then realised eighteen years of education were over. It felt strange. Directionless and free at the same time.

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I don’t remember what I did after that; I’m sure I went out for drinks with other coursemates, and probably had a few celebratory cigarettes, but after a while I found myself back home. None of my housemates were to finish their exams for at least a week. I had this glorious entertainment system that was really not going to be used much over the next week, one of the most deserved breaks I’ve ever earned, and one of the greatest games of the last five years to play.

I poured myself a beer. I made a tea. I got a glass of water (I like this triumvirate of drinks; it gets me drunk, refreshed and rehydrated at the same time) and lay down on our leather sofa, which sat perpendicular to our TV, with my feet up and PS3 controller in my hand.

As I fired up Grand Theft Auto IV, the week stretched out in front of me. After this? Partying and celebrating with my best mates. And after that? A summer of something ridiculous before real life came a-calling. And after that? Who knew. Anything and everything.

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But on 23rd May, 2008, as the late afternoon sunshine poured through the window, I sat back, the cold, black PS3 controller in my hand slowly being warmed by my body heat. And that naggling little voice in my head went:

“Tell you what, though, Jon. You’ve earned this one.”

 

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  1. […] to it for years. You’ll recall, regular readers of this blog, just how much its predecessor, GTA IV, blew my mind. That was in 2008. At time of writing, that was nearly six years ago. 1.) Holy fuck […]

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