Grand Theft Auto: Masterpiece or Abomination?

In less than 36 hours, one of the most anticipated—and most demonized—games in years will hit the shelves. Grand Theft Auto IV, the “true” successor to the groundbreaking Grant Theft Auto III, has been the focus of intense criticism ever since being announced. But while GTA IV will undoubtedly be filled with extreme violence, it may also be a masterpiece of human creativity.

On Friday, IGN reviewed GTA IV, giving it a highly elusive perfect score. Calling it “masterful” and an “American dream,” IGN says GTA IV is the greatest game in nearly a decade. Since the press embargo ended this morning, many other reviewers are reaching similar conclusions.

No real surprises there. What’s surprising, however, is that unlike its somewhat one-dimensional predecessors, GTA IV offers unprecedented character depth along with an “Oscar-caliber” storyline. And it also depicts the ugly downside of crime in the same vein as epic films like Goodfellas and Scarface, retelling the classic story of a struggling immigrant coming to America in search of fortune, haunted by the experiences of a past life.

Naturally, Grand Theft Auto’s release has re-ignited public debate over how games affect kids and whether new laws are needed to protect children from the gratuitous violence found in many video games. GTA has been a favorite target of politicians for the past eight years, and the usual suspects like Jack Thompson and Tim Winter have predictably spoken out against GTA IV. But parental controls are more robust than ever, as Adam has documented, and some have even suggested that kids should be playing Grand Theft Auto. Despite the recent explosion in hyper-realistic violent games, violent crime rates have been dropping across the board. Maybe games like GTA are just another harmless outlet for kids to express violent behavior, much like playing cops and robbers.

As game budgets have swelled and public interest in gaming has expanded, more games than ever transcend the stereotype of gaming as a juvenile pursuit with little artistic merit, reminding us that games can be artistic expressions on par with books, movies, or songs. Critics whose gaming experience consists of having played Pacman in an arcade may belittle gaming as a trivial pastime, but anybody who has played Bioshock or Gears of War or Oblivion knows better. Games can critique the harsh realities of modern society and offer insight into the nature of the human soul in ways that less interactive forms of media cannot. Likewise, games deserve both critical admiration and legal protection.

Of course, GTA IV is no Mona Lisa. But the way things are going, it’s entirely possible that the next timeless masterpiece of artistic expression will be created not with a brush or pen, but with lines of code.