The reason why I write so much about Grand Theft Auto IV is that Rockstar Games simply did so many things right with it. Rockstar knows we don’t need space marines, fantastic creatures, or apocalyptic scenarios to create interesting make-believe experiences. All we need is quality simulations of common, recognizable situations that a player can handle with uncommon ways, if he or she so chooses. And that’s really the charm of video games and simulations at large: the What If scenarios.
What if instead of jogging in Central Park, I drive through it with a stolen police car, shooting hysterically around out of the window? Or what if I use a motorcycle to jump on the roof of a subway car, while it’s passing under the overpass? YouTube is filled with different kinds of GTA IV trick videos, which is telling how versatile and deep the GTA IV’s sandbox really is.
Then again, experiencing the most mundane operations in a credible virtual setting can be equally fun, if not more. It’s almost comical to admit that one of the most mind-blowing aspects of GTA IV for me was the way taxi trips were conducted. The fact alone that you could now take a taxi to places and not just hijack one was a brilliant, though obvious, idea from Rockstar.
First off, taxicabs in GTA IV serve as a conduit for fast traveling conveniently around the map, which didn’t feel as much cheating as in, say, Fallout 3, in which one just pointed and clicked the location on the map.
But secondly, and much more importantly, the player could choose not to fast travel and thus sit through the whole trip in the backseat enjoying the scenery from a first-person view. And this was in my mind the coolest singular concept that Rockstar came up with the game (besides implementing the Euphoria physics engine).
So, when entering a taxi, the game basically transforms into a completely different experience. It becomes like a theme park ride that showcases GTA IV’s technology up close, proving, in effect, that the engine performs pretty well from a first-person view as well. Furthermore, it forces (not really since you can skip the trips) you to just calmly observe the simulated environment, instead of messing around with it. Rockstar is undoubtedly proud what they did with the world, as it should.
Of course, video games at large are filled with similar on-rail sections that put constraints on player’s movement, but GTA IV’s taxi rides differ drastically from those: The rides are different every time you take one. And you know it, so “anything” can happen (and you can’t do anything about it!).
The real charm of riding a cab for me is indeed that womb-like confined space from which you observe the outside world, seemingly safe from the harms of it. It really feels like you have let someone else to take control of your destiny, and all you can do is to try to enjoy the ride (or skip it by pressing a button).
The taxi rides in GTA IV prove the fact that we generally feel emotions through identification, be it during watching movies, reading books, or playing video games. And, like said, the more familiar and thus identifiable the make-believe situations are, the bigger the emotional impact usually is.
It seems that Rockstar gets this like no other developer in the industry.