Thread Counts, Yo
[New York Times,
13 November 2005]
By RICHARD MORGAN
When we say, ''I'm a New Yorker,'' we sometimes say it with a little sneer. Rats? Mafiosi? Terrorists? We can take it. Bars here close at dawn. Subway doors are ripped open with bare hands. New York's edginess is so endemic, so untamed, that a crack cocaine den was found this year in the otherwise relentlessly genteel Upper East Side. That's how we roll.
At least that's what we sometimes like to think. In fact, New York is no longer such a tough town. On any given day, we're more likely to dial 311 than 911. This is a city of Prada boutiques and pumpkin spice lattes. One of the biggest disasters to strike the city this year was a public-relations gaffe in which a 24-foot-tall Snapple popsicle melted all over Union Square on the first day of summer. The horror!
Nevertheless, buried in the deep recesses of the mind, the hyperbole that paints New York as a gutter of thugs persists. And scavenging off that myth, New York edginess is storming the video game industry. Although the city today is, in reality, one of the country's safest, these games cling to a decades-old notion of Gotham as the crossroads of the seven cardinal sins.
The most detailed game, ''True Crime: New York City,'' to be released Tuesday by Activision, taps the consulting advice of the same retired New York Police Department detective who helped to give the long-running television series ''N.Y.P.D. Blue'' its authentic flavor. The protagonist, a gangster-turned-cop named Marcus Reed, is let loose in a Manhattan-only version of the city that is unspeakably violent, not to mention street-level precise.
Using everything from black-market flamethrowers and grenade launchers to the broken legs of chairs, players ''bust criminals, take down murderous gangs, extort, interrogate, search and seize and dispense justice however they choose -- either by the book or by indulging in the temptations of the job,'' according to a company description of the game.
The game features two actors with well-established reputations for portraying violence-prone characters: Christopher Walken, who lends his voice to an F.B.I. agent, and Laurence Fishburne, who provides the voice of Isaiah Reed, a k a ''The King,'' the protagonist's drug-lord father. And the re-creation of Manhattan is so detailed -- day and night, rain and shine -- that Reed can walk from Inwood to Ground Zero. Or take a cab. Even the subway.
In the retro hooliganism of another new game, ''The Warriors,'' from Rockstar Games, inspired by the cult film of the same name directed by Walter Hill (and based on the Sol Yurick novel), players indulge in the old-school dirtiness of 70's New York street gangs. A multiracial gang wrongly accused of murder fights to defend itself and clear its name in the Bronx, Coney Island and other city locations.
A third new game, ''Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories,'' also from Rockstar, isn't identified as being set in New York, but we know that it is, in the same way we know that the franchise's ''Vice City'' is Miami and its ''San Andreas'' is Los Angeles. The company's tagline for the story, about a gangland war that engulfs the protagonist, Toni Cipriani, is the tip-off: ''There are a million stories in Liberty City. This one changes everything.''
''True Crime,'' though, is arguably the most violent of the three games, such a thug-on-thug festival of fisticuffs that when Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, heard about the game earlier this fall, they asked that it be boycotted. ''It's an outrage,'' Mr. Kelly said at the time. ''It disrespects all police officers and it's done in extremely poor taste as well.''
Mr. Kelly may be up against a powerful myth. But another, equally powerful myth defines how many New Yorkers see their city: the one that makes them announce, ecstatically, that Sarah Jessica Parker lives in their neighborhood -- ''I see her all the time!'' -- or that Jack Kerouac used to get drunk in their favorite bar -- ''this very booth!''
For this reason, the most telling glimpse of real New York life might be found in a far less showy new game being developed by Atari: ''Tycoon City: New York.'' The heart of ''Tycoon City'' is a real estate development adventure in which the first mission is to renovate a Greenwich Village coffee shop. Other tasks include running a hopping nightclub, opening a profitable Broadway show, managing a Wall Street firm, setting up a concert in Central Park, and organizing the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Real-life corporate logos litter billboards and marquees -- Lacoste, Nokia, Toys ''R'' Us -- but the streets themselves are spotless, the landscaping immaculate. If the other games suggest that New Yorkers secretly see Times Square as a bloodbath, ''Tycoon City'' speaks to New Yorkers' obsession with window boxes and prewar cornices.
While the crime-heavy games offer a voyeuristic glimpse into the pre-Giuliani days of Bernhard Goetz and Son of Sam, ''Tycoon City'' offers the opposite: a yearning toward a gleaming future characterized by a gentrified Bronx and a fully developed Brooklyn waterfront.
IN this scrubbed city, we rubberneck for car accidents and keep an eye out for police tape, but we also peer into our neighbors' windows, or the windows of people we wish were our neighbors. About as often as we wonder, ''Was that a gunshot I just heard?'' we ask ourselves, ''Was that a baby grand I just saw in their living room?''
In a way, the two opposite visions of the city represented by these games can coexist only uneasily. It's hard for a person to walk the walk when that same person, upon returning home, must remove both shoes at the door, so as not to scuff the hardwood floors.
When quality of life is measured in thread counts and half-baths, when the only thing that's really distressed in a person's life is his vintage clothing or antique bric-a-brac, New Yorkers are ultimately not so much tough as they are al dente. If New York ever had a slum that could be called Mobsters' Row, it would only be a matter of time before we'd all be raving about the cheap lofts available in MoRo.
back to home page