Video Game Things

Musings and opinions on aspects of video games.

My Take on GTA 5

I started playing GTA back on PS1, with GTA 2. It was top-down then and looked every inch the silly “crime” game it was meant to be. Pedestrians existed only to be squashed by your car, police existed only to chase you when you did wrong, cars existed solely to be stolen by you. It was a silly, enjoyable game.
Time passed. The days grew colder. Then warmer. That happened a bunch of times. GTA 3 came out. It was still the same cartoonish, comical, OTT game as 2 was, and it was all in glorious 3D. It was the first game world I completely lost myself in. I used to stand near the airport and wonder which city the fake planes were flying off to (I was a stupid child). Then came Vice City and San Andreas, which were much the same as 3. Big cities, crime, stupidity, silly movie references. All around fun that existed all in a little world of their own.
GTA 4 was an odd but welcome game. They stripped out a lot of the excess stuff (planes, jetpacks, a lot of side missions), but in return we got things like ragdoll physics and much better driving physics and crashes. This made the world much more believable, and as a result the story was much darker, as it should be. There were still a huge amount of missteps (eg. generally bad writing, Niko going on killing sprees while still being “nice” in cut-scenes, excessive shoot-outs, general lack of interactions with the world), but at least it brought things down to earth a little and tried to be something more serious and grounded like its systems.
GTA 5 is a stupid game, filled with awful writing. And yet, its world is utterly wonderful, beautiful, artistically vivid and just plain old sexy. The physics are great, the animations and lighting are great, the new dynamic music is great, the world itself is more detailed and believable than any other GTA and yet, it messes it all up. So why does the bad writing mar all of these great achievements?

Every GTA game is made up of two parts: Mission GTA, and Free Roam GTA. Mission GTA comprises all of the main story missions only, between the time you enter the begin marker, to the time the mission complete music plays, comprising any cut-scenes and action in between the two. Free Roam GTA is what you do the rest of the time, eg. the side missions, exploration, killing sprees, car crashing and theft, police chases and so forth.

From GTA 1 to GTA 5, Free Roam GTA has increased in quality immensely. This is mostly thanks to increases in technology. For example, in GTA 5 you can beat a car with a hammer and watch the body slowly dent inwards. In Vice City, hitting a car door with a hammer would just make the door change to a totally destroyed version of the same door, and then fall off. Shooting someone in GTA 3 makes them play a “dying animation” and then play a “dead animation”. Shooting someone in GTA 5 makes them fall over, their limbs contort, makes them fall down stairs or over railings, makes their gun go off in their hand, makes them cry out in pain, shows a bullet-hole exactly where the bullet entered the person’s body. Simply put, GTA’s worlds, by all the systems they have chosen to use, have exponentially increased in how much they are grounded in reality and ergo are far less cartoonish and comical than they once were. Yes, the systems stylised and warped for their means (eg. car crashes don’t disable cars as much as they should) but they’re choices Rockstar made, not limitations imposed on them by technology.
The main problems with GTA 5 lie in its Mission GTA. It’s odd that the problems with Mission GTA are much the same as problems with video games as a whole, and how much they illustrate the problems triple-A games are facing now that technology is plateauing. The missions have barely changed at all since the days of GTA 1. You’re still stealing cars and killing fifty people for badly drawn stereotypes. Only now that the world feels so much realer, the terrible, awful writing can be seen in all its horror.
Maybe it was always like this. I just don’t remember any of the other GTAs being this bad. If you’ve played 4 and I mention the names Little Jacob, Brucie Kibbutz, Playboy X, you know exactly who I mean. If you’ve played 5 and I mention Steve Haines, Devin Weston, Dave Norton, I guarantee you’ll have to think for a while to remember who they are, and even then you’ll struggle to remember what they do in the story.

The problem with GTA 5 is that it tries to have it both ways, and it CAN’T. The games before 4 were cartoon-y both story wise and technology wise. How could anyone expect a serious story from a game that looked and played like San Andreas? When 4 came along, it took the right path. As I said before, there are a lot of problems with it, but at least it realised “hey, everything is so much more realistic, maybe the story should try to be too”. WHY did they forget this with 5? This is the most important lesson they ever learned. No game as realistic as 4, and ergo 5, can treat violence like the GTAs before 4 did. It just doesn’t work. If someone gets murdered in San Andreas and someone else makes a joke about it, I wouldn’t much care. If someone gets murdered in 5 and it’s treated as frivolously, I get fucking mad with the game AND whatever characters are treating it so lightly. Maybe 4 didn’t actually realise this. Maybe they were “getting to know the technology”, which is what it very much feels like, but they did it mostly right either way. The systems that GTA now uses (the physics, animations, graphics etc.) are too realistic and too grounded in reality to allow players to divorce themselves from the violence in it and to treat the shallow characters and pointless shoot-outs as just “part of a game”.
The world itself does not feel like a game now. The parts that remind me that “this is a game” are the pointless shoot-outs, the bad writing, and the ability to go on killing sprees against pedestrians with no long-term consequences.  And Trevor. Oh God, Trevor is the worst thing that’s ever happened to a GTA. As a character, he could work if he was treated seriously. A psychotic serial killer, how the hell could that not work? But it doesn’t. Trevor is a vicious killer and should be treated by the game as such. He’s not funny. It’s not “satire”. Do Rockstar really expect us to find him picking brains off his shoe as “funny”? It’s not. It’s sick. It’s wrong. GTA stopped being a cartoon with 4. Why don’t they see that? And don’t give me that crap about GTA being “just mindless fun”. If the creators wanted it to be mindless fun, they’d go down the Saint’s Row or Just Cause 2 route, giving the player OTT gadgets and weapons and such. If you don’t think GTA 5 wants to be “serious” and is just “fun”, wait until you see two of the endings. They’re the stupidest fucking things in the world and they sure as hell ain’t “fun”. The world itself is too good to just be used for stupid jokes, and they’ve forgotten that. It’s disrespectful to all the work that everyone else put into it. The world and the technology deserve to be taken seriously and used to tell a good story.

So what would I do? How would I fix GTA 5? Well, for one thing, I would break GTA into two parts, which is something they’re already kind of doing with GTA Online. One part would be Story GTA, with some small free-roam elements. This would be a 100% serious story, without jokes of any sort. I would tone down all of the radio stuff, get rid of the television and the internet and get rid of any of the jokes in the world that would subtract from the tone of the story.
Now, GTA loves movies, especially Heat. So why not steal the whole thing, and not just the shoot-outs like a 14 year old would? I would delete all the characters apart from Michael, who is a good stand-in for De Niro’s character. The game starts in prison, with you as Michael. You go to the visitor’s room. Sitting there is a cop, the cop who captured you. Let’s call him Al. The game flashes back three months (or whatever). Boom, you’re playing as Michael, looking much fitter and happier. You’re scoping out a big bank for a job. This takes up a couple of missions. You go to see your team in Sandy Shores. You talk about the plan. Then, you switch to Al. (The switching perspectives thing is very innovative and important for telling stories, and well done to Rockstar for implementing it. It’s a pity 5 uses it for little more than shoot-outs.) Al is a cop, and for a few missions you get to see him do his job, interrogating some perps like in LA Noire, going home to see his family and so forth. A big thing as well is that you can’t explore the full map, so for example If Al drives too far north from the city, the screen fades out and fades in with his car facing the other way, and he says something like “why would I want to go there?” The first act is all about Michael setting up the big bank job. Maybe he has to take care of some “business”, like a traitor he has to kill. Maybe he has to go see his girlfriend and bring her to a restaurant. Whatever it is, it is all very low key until the bank job itself. The gameplay itself is similar to LA Noire. Pedestrians will always dive out of the way of cars without being hurt. Al can’t take his gun out outside of missions, while Michael can, which is in itself treated as a big deal with pedestrians calling the cops if they see your gun. However, Michael can’t shoot at innocents and can only shoot at cops if, for example, they get too close to him and start asking questions or something. This is treated as part of the story, and a big deal. It also influences the ending, with killing cops meaning Michael will die at the end. The characters can only survive about two shots before dying, so the onus is always on escaping whenever  there’s a shoot-out, and whenever a character dies, they’re dead and must load the game or go back to the checkpoint. There are never any missions like “kill all the cops” where you’re just one man against about ten cops who you have to kill, something that happens in GTA 5, and happens a lot, completely undermining believability.
Then, the bank job happens. It goes wrong. A lot of Michael’s crew get shot or arrested. He goes on the run to the far north, to Paleto. Think how amazing it would be to play as both someone who sets traps for the other, and being the one who falls into the trap. Eventually, Michael is caught and sent to prison. This whole thing should take the player around eight to ten hours to complete. Outside of the missions, there would be activities to do but mainly only for Al who, for example, could arrest street criminals. His children might want him to take them hiking in the mountains, opening up that part of the map for exploration for the duration of the activity.
Then, when all the other missions are complete, Michael breaks out of prison. Al goes after him. Michael goes after members of his own crew that betrayed him. Al gets closer and tracks him down. If they REALLY wanted to steal from Heat they could make it end up at the airport, but that’s negotiable. Then, depending on how evil Michael was, Al either shoots him or sends him back to prison. Either way, you can only play as Al from then on, and the entire map is open. See how easy all of that would be? Wouldn’t that be better than the nonsense that’s already there, yet still exist within the same engine, using a lot of the same mechanics or ones from other Rockstar games?

GTA 5 has far too many shoot-outs and these are boring and stupid for two reasons: Firstly, we rarely care about who the people attacking the characters are or why they’re doing it, other than the game makers said “a shoot-out here would be good.” Secondly, the shoot-outs are boring because we know that none of the main characters can die or even get injured. Of course, in most fiction we know that the heroes probably won’t die before the end, but this is usually believable because the characters are either incredibly lucky, resourceful, smart, and don’t try to single-handedly kill dozens of armed enemies. They operate within the limits of the real world. GTA’s writing doesn’t. It shouts out “THIS IS A GAME”. There are missions in GTA 5 where people say things in the area of “we’ll be up against 50 trained mercenaries with assault rifles, we’re going to need three men to not just stop them, but to kill them all”. And it works, every time. This is, in the parlance of the game itself, bullshit. It is bullshit. Things like these utterly subtract from the world. That’s my main point. Bad writing isn’t just a “thing” that’s in the world in addition to all the fun stuff. Bad writing is something that actively sucks fun and life from the game.

What about the other part of the game I mentioned earlier, when I said GTA should be split into two parts? It would be the inverse of the “serious” mode, in that it would be Free Roam GTA, with some small elements of story. It would be an “Anarchy Mode”. It would be accessed either via Al or Michael’s phones, or via in-game game consoles. Either way, the mode is shown to be a “game within the game” and entirely divorced from the main story and does not “exist” in that same world. Ergo, it’s completely fun and stupid. It would go completely down the Saint’s Row route. In this mode, the entire game world (the same game world as is in the main story) would be open from the beginning. Like GTA Online, you can completely customise you character. You can kill pedestrians, get into shoot-outs and so forth, but it would all hark back to the days of GTA 3. For example, the physics would be really float-y so when you hit someone with your car they could comically fly a long way away. There would be insane weapons and vehicles. There would be, say, 50 missions and all of them would be something like a mob boss wants you to steal a tank for his mother’s birthday or you have to kill a bunch of clowns with a minigun. You could have superpowers. Silly things like that, entirely divorced from any sense of reality with only the barest bones of a narrative to keep things moving along with the emphasis entirely on traditional “fun”.

There. I’ve fixed GTA. It can have its cake and eat it too. It can have a serious story that makes full use of the amazingly detailed world that people poured thousands of hours into. It can also be a stupid silly game like it was before now. I don’t see how making a GTA this way would make for more work for the people who make it. They’ve already done the hard parts. The writing is the easy bit. And if Sam Houser and whoever else writes GTA is not up to the task of writing the serious story, which I believe, then let someone else do it and let Houser and the rest of them do the implementation. If they don’t like my idea for a Heat rip-off, then rip-off something else. Make a game about a man that snaps, like Falling Down (though don’t make him kill a bunch of people, that would be utterly stupid). Make a story that delves into gang culture and set it in South Los Santos. Do a story like Twin Peaks in one of those forest-y towns. They could even do an original story, but I wouldn’t expect them to go quite that far yet. One step at a time. Show you can do what’s already been done well before you go off and try something crazy that you won’t be able to.

GTA 5 has one of the most beautiful, mature worlds with the most well implemented systems I’ve ever seen. To fill it as it has with excessive jokes and immature things, while at the same time trying to make people care about the characters, does not work. It is disrespectful to all of the work that went into realising that world. It’s disrespectful to the art of video games, to say “this is the best we can do. We don’t even care about story or saying anything coherent. Fuck that and fuck you if that’s what you want. Games are ultimately “fun” by idiots, for idiots”. Well Rockstar, if you don’t listen, you’re idiots and your games are toys. It’s that simple. You’ve already done 95% of the work you need to be both a fun game and a great game. Why not do the other 5%? Take your writing as seriously as the people who do the physics and the animations and the modelling take their work. This would also get rid of any misogyny and the “torture” crap and any other stuff that isn’t just wrong, but doesn’t make sense and drags the entire game down. Listen to me Rockstar. I want to be able to take GTA seriously, and I know you all want people to too. You can. Just do like I say, or do whatever you want in the spirit of the things I say. Then watch the millions of jaws drop all over again like they did when we all played GTA 3.

  1. pat-bren reblogged this from videogamethings and added:
    I wrote a thing about GTA 5 on my other Tumbl. Please read it.
  2. videogamethings posted this