When Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City came out on April 29 last year, it sold 3.6 million copies in one day. By the end of the week, sales were up to 6 million, for a total take of about $500 million. Which means, if you go by that number (and Guinness does), that Grand Theft Auto IV owns the biggest opening of any entertainment property in history. In comparison, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 took in a paltry $400 million during its first week.
And Grand Theft Auto IV wasn't even the most commercial entertainment option on the bill. As Dan Houser, one of the prime movers behind the Grand Theft Auto series, points out, the game opened opposite Speed Racer and Iron Man. "I thought that was an interesting moment," says Houser, an affable, shaved-headed Londoner who talks so quickly that he's almost untranscribable. "You have a video game about an immigrant discovering himself and losing himself in America and that's the video game and then the movies are about a superhero in a metal suit and a car based on a cartoon." (Download TIME's interview with Houser.)
He's right: it is interesting. It's one of the enduring paradoxes of the Grand Theft Auto games or maybe the paradox lies in the culture around them? that people who don't play them think of them as the epitome of mindless virtual violence, whereas in fact they are, with each installment, more and more radical and sophisticated experiments in storytelling. Depending on whether or not you're a gamer, this statement is either preposterous or so staggeringly obvious that it's almost not worth making. (See the top 10 video games of 2008.)
Grand Theft Auto IV tells the story of Niko, a haunted veteran of an unspecified, nameless East European conflict who washes up in Liberty City looking for a new life. (Liberty City is, like Gotham, a darker version of New York City, with satirical flourishes. The Statue of Liberty has been replaced by the Statue of Happiness, which holds aloft a coffee cup instead of a torch.) Over the course of the game, Niko slugs, shoots and carjacks his way up (or maybe down) the ladder of the criminal underworld. As he does so, he gradually realizes that his new life is no less senseless and violent than his old one turns out the Old World and New World aren't that different. The New World just has better marketing. America was Niko's last illusion, and you watch it shatter at high speed and in high definition.
One of the challenges of telling stories in video games is that the entire medium is subject to technological upgrades on a regular basis. Mastering it requires surfing a learning curve that is steep and, so far, infinite. With the previous generation of hardware, for example, characters' faces were too flat to sustain real closeups, and there just wasn't enough horsepower to support a lot of Stoppardian banter. "We simply couldn't stream in much dialogue, 'cause it was so hard to stream the world in on PlayStation 2," Houser explains, "whereas now we can have the characters constantly talking to you. The emotions on PS2 had to be quite black and white. Now we can get a little bit more gray in there."
That world has become so complex that Houser and his team have to use diagramming software to keep its various components straight. "It's an absolute bastard, because you're trying to track 50 characters," he says. "And the thing that makes it more complicated than, say, a TV show or a novel is that you as the player have choice. You can always do any of five or six things at once." Imagine Victor Hugo trying to write Les Misérables with Jean Valjean under the reader's control and you'll get some idea of what Houser is up against. The player is both the audience and the ghost a mischievous poltergeist in the machine.