Not only is the landscape of "GTA 4" at least twice as big as the "GTA 3" games, it is infinitely more detailed. You can almost smell New York -- in the game it's called Liberty City. You can see the stains on the asphalt streets, the shadows of the elevated railway, the blurred sidewalks in a thunderstorm. Bullets kick up dust as they ricochet, or ablate metal as they thump into the side of a car. You kick in a window and the glass shards fly.
In the distance, beyond the Broker (Brooklyn) Bridge, Algonquin (Manhattan) glows in the sunlight like every borough kid's fantasy. (In a clever analogy to real life, the game's biggest challenge is to get to Algonquin despite all of the obstacles put in your way.)
Not only is the scope of "GTA 4" amazing -- it incorporates nearly all of greater New York City, right down to the neighborhoods -- but so is its precision: You can turn on the radio and listen to different stations, watch television shows, even use your cell phone (which is how you access cheat codes).
There are restaurants, bars and stores you can literally enter and walk around, even make purchases. And, amazingly, you can even meet a date and take her to the bowling alley for a game or two. And to think that this is not some hothouse virtual world prototype running on a supercomputer somewhere, but an actual product being distributed by the millions of units to everyday consumers to run on their home machines. That's a miracle.
It is this last that interests me most. As I said, I'm not a gamer, and so for me "GTA 4" is just another parenting challenge, the latest bit of violence and mayhem being inflicted by adults on my children. So I can't really say that I wish the folks at Rockstar Games good luck on their new endeavor.
And yet, the designers at Rockstar (as well as the gamer folks designing "Metal Gear Solid," "Saints Row," "Bioshock," "Call of Duty," etc.) deserve a standing ovation for technical achievement. With each new generation of their product, they have inched ever closer to realizing an alternative world that feels as complex and subtle as our own.
So, the real question: Why is this towering achievement only taking place in the game world? Why is no one (besides about 300 million kids around the world) noticing this breakthrough and figuring out how to apply it to their own business?
To jump from "GTA 4" to, say, Amazon.com or eBay or any retail site, is to literally leap backward into the last century. The "grown-up" sites are clean and nice, but they are also static and boring. They are still dragging behind them the legacy chains of their beginnings as print catalogs. They may add a little streaming video (wow!) or some crude animation (gee!), but ultimately they are dead on the screen.
But why? What "Grand Theft Auto IV" shows us is that it is possible to create a compelling, visually rich, and very lifelike alternative reality in which we adults, instead of machine-gunning drug dealers, might inhabit an endlessly sunny version of the real world -- and in this alternative reality we would be able to walk into a store (instantly modified to our interests), quickly search the entire inventory, and, if interested, make a purchase.