I am a bad driver.
I have driven a car only twice in my entire life. Once when I was twelve, once when I was twenty-eight. Is there some kind of algorithmic relationship between 12 and 28 that can usefully predict when I’ll next get behind the wheel?* I’m 37 now. Please send in your proofs for extra credit.
Given my spotty history with driving, it’s no surprise that I have trouble with virtual cars. In Grand Theft Auto IV, I have fishtailed, backed over or rammed into lampposts, dumpsters, pedestrians, front stoops, and just about every piece of urban infrastructure programmed into its endless cityscape. I have been playing for two days, and already I have: driven into the water, Michael-Scott style, by referring to the map instead of my surroundings; tried to hop a meridian, only to find my car tumbling through the air onto the train tracks below; I’ve even taken a helicopter for a quick spin into the azure grave of the Atlantic.
I have also failed quite spectacularly at walking. Within the first minute of game play I managed to climb up a 70’ tower and casually jump over the railing when my thumb hit the wrong button. In addition I am prone to leaping onto the roofs of cars when I try to enter the vehicle. The lifelike way in which I jump up and then stand around casually, as if it’s no big deal to hang out on top of a car, hiya how’s it going, yup this is my Impala, is excruciatingly embarrassing. It doesn’t matter that the passersby are little bits of code. They still look at me funny.
The Grand Theft Auto franchise has pretty much become the standard bearer for interactive violence. Everyone knows by now that you can pick up a hooker, have sex with her in your car and then run her over for a full refund. You can ram a helicopter into the side of a building, stage a slaughter in an Irish pub, and generally enact every irrational urge you've ever had on a crowded street. It offers, according to its fans and detractors, unlimited license to flout morality and the law.
The truth is that GTA IV offers you the same sort of humiliations found in real life: a crappy apartment, abusive bosses, passive-agressive girlfriends and people who beat the snot of you if you get in their faces. Your character, fresh-off-the-boat Serbian immigrant Niko Bellic, has a quiet macho dignity coded into him, but the city is more than a match for the schmuck controlling his movements. The lamest in-game moment came when I unwisely chose to practice my fighting skills by picking a fight with a woman sipping on a cup of coffee and wearing a smart down vest. I needed to brush up on my dodging and kicking skills, so I picked what I thought would be an easy mark. I walked up and threw a punch, figuring that she would drop or run.
This was a mistake. She dumped the cup of coffee, pushed me back and put up her fists. I was so surprised by her instant aggression that I failed to dodge the next three or four blows. I kicked her, more to keep her away than to beat her up, which caught the attention of some guy in a black cap and a leather jacket. He ran up and proceeded to pummel me. Panicked - I didn't know you could feel a genuine, confused sense of panic in a video game - I ran to my car and got in. Then, in a remarkably fluid cinematic moment, the Starbucks-drinking woman and the man in the leather jacket pulled me out the car, dragged me onto the asphalt and started kicking my pathetic prone body.
This was a fight I could not win. I got to my feet and started limping away, thinking that once I rounded the block they would lose interest and go back to their preprogrammed aimless wandering. Instead they followed, block after block, the man hurling insults ("you want to beat up on a woman, motherfucker?") and the woman calling out "Excuse me!" every few seconds. I wasn't falling for that one. Eventually a guy in a red plaid jacket joined in, following along and periodically kicking me in the butt as I dragged my body forward. I wondered how many people would start crowding in behind me, each one champing to smack a piece off the idiot who picked a fight with a random woman. I had to limp back to my cousin's crappy apartment to get rid of them.
Oh yes, and while I was running around? A woman I bumped into shouted at me, "It's called soap! S-O-P!"**
The most humbling moment came when I realized that I didn’t know how to quit the game. That is not a euphemism for video game addiction – I literally did not know what button or option to select to end play (bear in mind that I had been staring at the TV screen for a couple of hours at this point). The controller presents you with a mass of buttons and joysticks, each of which have different context-dependent functions. Only one button gives you the option of quitting the game. It lies smack dab in the middle of the controller, a glossy malign nub with the Playstation logo that resembles a piece of flair. Playing for an hour or more turns you bloody-minded, though. Instead of flipping open the manual, I did everything I could think of to die.
My first attempt was to get arrested. This is remarkably easy to do; there is a prominent police presence in Liberty City, and all you have to do is walk up to a cop and punch him in the face, then stand still while he arrests you. Game over? Not quite. You rematerialize in front of the local precinct station, except with your weapons confiscated and your wallet lighter (the cops take bribes). So I tried a few more times, running people over, ramming cop cars, etcetera. No dice. I was still in the game.
My second pass involved inspired attempts at suicide. There are a million paths to injury and death in Grand Theft Auto IV, but the simplest method is simply to walk into traffic. It takes a few tries - often the vehicle will slow down and the driver will curse at you inventively - but one good freeway hit-and-run will send you flying - if you're lucky you'll go over a guard rail and drop several stories. As with an arrest, though, you find yourself plunked down in front of the hospital, which has patched you up and charged you for their services. If GTA were set in Toronto, at least you could get some free healthcare.
*I always find it funny that ‘behind the wheel’ refers to a steering wheel, not the tires, of a car. Wait, I don’t find that funny at all.
**Thus far my favourite GTA insult. My next favourite, which was not really sensible enough to qualify as insult, was the guy who shouted out "FUCK rehab!" when I ran into him.