Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto

Several weeks ago, I came across a lovely article on Kotaku about the opening act of Grand Theft Auto IV, in which immigrant protagonist Niko Bellic first arrives in a fictionalized United States and explores his newly adopted home of Liberty City.

As the author Kirk Hamilton explains, it’s a rather slow start for a GTA game. Niko undertakes some decidedly ordinary tasks — defending his cousin Roman from loan sharks, driving for his cab company, going out on a date — that ease us into the game’s driving and shooting mechanics. In the process, we are gradually introduced to Niko’s new social circle — a girlfriend, criminals to do business for, and Russian mobsters — and his surroundings, the run-down industrial neighborhood of “Hove Beach.”

While GTA IV was cautious and restrained, other Grand Theft Auto games thrust you immediately into the action. Just after the opening credits of Grand Theft Auto V, you were stealing a pair of supercars from a wealthy residence, racing through the streets of downtown Los Santos, and then escaping from the police. Similarly, 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas inserted you right in the middle of a gang war, fleeing a drive-by shooting on a BMX bike and then smashing up a local crack den.

In GTA IV, we get a sense of how the Liberty City criminal world operates before we dive into the over-the-top car chases, assassinations, and SWAT shootouts — we see the loan sharks at Roman’s throat, the neighborhood crack dealers struggling for turf, and the shopkeepers being extorted for protection money. Taking things slow allows us to connect with Niko’s brave new world in a way that the chaotic exposition in San Andreas and GTA V does not, so suggests Hamilton in a brilliant summary of his GTA IV experience:

Each time I return to GTA IV, I want to leave Hove Beach less and less. I know I’ll never feel more immersed and attached than I do in those opening hours. Nowhere else in GTA IV feels as real or familiar to me as Hove Beach. Nowhere in GTA V does, either. For all of the newer game’s candy-coated indulgences and technical wizardry, it never matched its predecessor’s powerful sense of place.

I was struck by the idea that a video game like GTA IV could have a “sense of place” — what I would call a sense of a distinct culture and community within a specific moment, location, and universe. Urbanists, geographers, and sociologists alike speak of the greatest cities as having it. Architects strive for it. As Hamilton has already noted, one way GTA IV achieves a “sense of place” is through its meticulously crafted introduction. But how else does the game outshine GTA V, its universally acclaimed sequel? Continue reading “Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto”