When taking a cab a couple of nights ago up the west side of Manhattan, I realized that after a couple of weeks of playing Grand Theft Auto IV I had begun to conflate my internal model of New York City with that of the game's own Liberty City. Not the streets — after five years in New York, most of the city still seems to me isolated neighborhoods connected by warrens — but the feel. The hum. The Petula Clark subtext that can both carry and bolster a person or drag them by the ankle into the wet green. Liberty City, as a refined extract of New York City, began to mix with the model in my mind. Walking around the corner to find a cop on the stairs to the F train, I for a moment thought, He's not in anyone's line of sight. I could get away without a problem. I watched the people milling on the subway platform in Brooklyn, many in finery à la mode, and thought how much more authentically people dressed on the streets of Broker.* I noticed how from a distance the profiles of cars in the real world nicely match those in the game. (And where they don't? My mind was happy to throw out the outliers in the dataset.)
As if on cue, my cab drove by a huge billboard for GTA IV, leading man Niko Belic's face — before I played the game, frightening; now, world-weary — looked out over the Hudson. I realized those billboards would soon be down, replaced. But for now the model city reached out into the real one, making Liberty City somehow more genuine than New York by refusing to accept an ephemeral advertisement for the sake of recursion.
It's the first game I've ever played which can be recommended as a method by which to understand the atmosphere New York. Friends have asked me after seeing movies set in New York: Is that what the city is like? Not exactly, I'd qualify. There's this and that. But I've been calling friends from out of town to tell them to play GTA IV.
Is it exact? No less — and probably more — than a guide book or a novel. In fact it's better than a map for expressing the city; no New Yorker understands every cranny, every neighborhood and industrial park, but instead crafts their own model in their head from real experiences, stories from friends, too-stylized transit maps. GTA IV is another model, a distillation of a city I love — or at least a model of which I hold around my internal model of myself — that makes me understand my city even more.
Grand Theft Auto IV is the finest, most attentive simulation of a real world location yet. It's a song to the world's greatest city, crafted by hundreds, a portrait of a city that is incapable of knowing it is loved.
Also you can shoot people in the face.
* Which is, of course, dumb. What people wear is what is authentic. Inversely hence, hipster appropriation of blue-collar style.