Test Driving “Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony”: Game Face Column
October, 29 2009
Wall Street Journal, 10.29.09
Like many fans of the Grand Theft Auto series, I stayed up late to download the new episode “The Ballad of Gay Tony” which was released today for the Xbox 360.
Well, perhaps not late enough, I hit the sack and tried again in the morning.
The developer Rockstar Games, like many videogame makers, has been releasing episode packs to extend the life of the game beyond just the disc. (The dystopian “Fallout 3″ has been doing something similar, for example.) While the original GTA IV plot followed Niko Bellic, a scruffy, Eastern European hitman, in his violent jaunt through a New York City-clone, “Gay Tony” allows you to become a Puerto Rican hitman, Luis Lopez, defending his boss, Tony Prince.
Rockstar Games, led by the creative team of Dan and Sam Houser, do their best to bring out the details and personalities of the cities they create. (All of the GTA titles are based on a fictional adaptation of a real place.) What’s interesting about “Gay Tony” is its deep dive into Liberty City’s club scene. For anyone who’s been to New York’s Meatpacking District, the setting will be familiar–the game evokes the area’s mystery and gritty charm. (Good news: no one vomits on your shoes in the game.) It’s also replete with club characters from “the bridge and tunnel” crowd from New Jersey to flighty nymphs.
In case you’re wondering, yes, Gay Tony is gay. This isn’t the first time that Rockstar has introduced and spotlighted homosexual characters. The original GTA IV missions featured several gay characters including Bernie Crane, a gay aerobics instructor who’s having an affair with a “family values” politician. Unlike the scarf-wearing, effeminate gay men earlier in the series, Tony isn’t as broadly-drawn. He’s more of a partner than comic relief.
Games rarely have a strong sense of authorship, but with GTA IV and its subsequent episodes, the player gets the strong, satisfying feeling that someone–someone smart–has constructed the environment around you, with wit and a sense of style. Just as Woody Allen bent his image of Manhattan around his own humor and sensibilities, and Martin Scorsese explored the mean streets of the Big Apple, the Housers and their team have made New York a fascinating and terrifying place.