There are certain events in American — nay, world! — history in which every single person remembers where they were when the news broke. Just ask anyone who was alive at the time where they were and what they were doing when important events occurred — the assassination of JFK, the Challenger space shuttle exploding, the Berlin Wall coming down, the OJ verdict, 9/11 — and I can almost guarantee you they can give you details of that moment down to the outfit they were wearing. These events truly resonated with people because they fundamentally changed the way they thought about the world, and at some deep-down level of consciousness they knew that things from that point on would never, ever be quite the same.
Grand Theft Auto III did this for gamers.
Think about it — if you’re a lifelong gamer you can probably tell me where you were the first time you played GTA III, who you were with, and how it made you feel about the medium. I was in 9th grade hosting a sleepover with a couple of friends the first time I saw it. My friend brought over his copy of the game and we waited for my parents to go to sleep so we could indulge in the wanton hyper-violence the franchise quickly became known for. This marks the first time I can recall ever staying awake an entire night playing a videogame. I didn’t sleep! How could I? The game was fucking incredible. I spent hours just driving around the massive city, trying to get a feel for the biggest map I had ever seen in a game. Once I found the Rampage missions it was over — there would be no sleep for me.
If you’ll excuse the cliché, this game was a game-changer. Literally. It changed the landscape of gaming. How many games over the years have copied the formula GTA III perfected? I mean, hell, for years after the game’s release games that did the open-world style were called GTA clones. And almost every game made now still employs this design. Do we have “levels” in games anymore? No! 99.9% of games on the market today directly emulate whatGTA III was able to do in 2001.
But, what happens when you make such an industry-altering innovation? If you’re Rockstar Games, you go for the money: Vice City took the open-world motif to the 80s where it was able to ooze with style; San Andreas saw the advent of the gangster rap era while basically tripling the original game’s map; a few spinoffs took the games to mobile devices. These are acceptable moves, as the hardware limitations were still present. But after the PS2 era, Rockstar had the opportunity to innovate yet again with the HD generation on PS3 and Xbox 360.
GTA IV came out! Finally, a new numbered sequel in the main series. But let me ask you this — where were you when GTA IV hit? You have absolutely no fucking clue, do you? Don’t get me wrong, here — GTA IV is a cool game. The map is huge, the graphics are good, there’s tons to do (you can watch Ricky Gervais do a stand-up routine, which is equal parts hilarious and bizarre). But new and shiny does not a great game make (shoot me for that one). GTA IVsold well, and was mostly well-received by critics. But at its core, it’s really just the PS2 classic with a fresh coat of paint.
This brings us to the PS4 and Xbox One generation. Again, the hardware tech now allows a huge leap in memory and processing over the last generation. This presents an excellent opportunity for GTA V to really be something special! So what did we get? A huge city, some clothing options, and now you can play as three different sociopaths instead of just one! Well, alright. Again, there’s nothing actually wrong with the game (and the inclusion of GTA Onlineis a fun, if relatively tame, addition) but there’s really not much setting it apart from the absolute onslaught of open-world games out there (I mean, shit, just in between GTA IV and V Batman had three of them!). [Author’s note: Yes, I know V was technically a port to PS4 from the previous generation. That being said, eat me, I’m making a good point, here.]
Grand Theft Auto is still an open-world game after all these years. We still play as violent sociopaths willing to do whatever it takes to live out the American Dream. You still get to pick up hookers, do weird sex stuff to them, let them out of your car, and bludgeon them with a hammer to get your money back. That’s all well and good and everything, but what the hell, Rockstar? Where is the innovation you so gloriously wrought back in 2001? Why is making more of the same GTA in an already-crowded market your goal?
Why is Grand Theft Auto just another game?
It’s a hard truth, but a truth none the less. The series is really nothing more than just another game franchise at this point. I remember the days of being incapable of putting the controller down. I longed to take a rocket launcher and cause as much mayhem as I possibly could in the middle of a crowded intersection. I’d spend hours driving around, weaving in and out of traffic to both avoid pedestrians and damage to the vehicle. I’d look up custom missions posted on the internet instructing the player to take down a particularly-dressed NPC, complete with their own made-up backstory and reason for elimination. The world GTA built was full of endless possibilities and just plain fun around every corner. So, what went wrong?
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. At this point, with 492 entries in the Assassin’s Creed series, and another 93 split up between Just Cause and Far Cry, Rockstar should be pretty fucking flattered. Through no fault of its own, GTA has created a gaming landscape of eerily similar titles. With its success, it sabotaged its own ability to truly stand out in the market.Saints Row does over-the-top better. Payday does high-stakes, team-based crime better. Crysis does shooting better. In almost every single field GTAinnovated, someone has come along to one-up them. And by making essentially the same game every outing, the series can’t possibly reclaim the crown they built with their own blood and reclaimed prostitute fees.
There’s good news, and there’s bad news. Want the bad news first? The series created a monster, and if it’s ever going to reach that level where people remember which pair of socks they were wearing the first time they played it, it’s going to take a fundamental shift in the way the game is approached. That’s not easy, folks. I almost divorced my wife when she switched us from coffee to tea, so I can only imagine what changing the way you develop your pride and joy would do to someone. But like I said, there is some good news to this — it’s not too late. Gaming is bigger than ever right now, and if there’s anyone who can capitalize on the medium’s growth, it’s the guys who helped make it the massive industry it is today.
I have a few suggestions, Rockstar. You can bill me later.
In with the new. GTA III had a decent narrative. It had good gameplay. It felt natural and fun to be in the world it created. But what was one of its biggest selling points? It broke new ground. You played as the antihero, the bad guy, who lived in the moral grey area. That’s great, but every game since then has followed this archetype to a T with little variation. What’s worse, is outside of a few isolated incidents the main characters are white men in this role — white men with a soft criminal past with little motivation outside of “getting back on top” (I don’t count Franklin in V because he was the chocolate to Michael and Trevor’s reverse Oreo). Rockstar, for the love of God, give us something new! Let me play as the only black member of a biker gang, who finds out that he’s accepted because he’s always been a part of the group, but also has internal conflicts with the gang’s otherwise racist tenets! Let me play as a Hispanic young man who joined a gang because his father left at an early age and was accepted into the gang as family, but has extreme reservations about their violent antics that directly contradict his Spanish Catholic upbringing! LET ME PLAY AS A WOMAN! Make her unique! She was the Prom Queen back in high school but found respite in petty crime after having life basically handed to her for her good looks and charm! Rockstar, do something different! If there’s anyone one Earth who can make a compelling character outside of what we get from Call of Duty, it’s you!
Back to the basics. I think the general consensus as to the meaning of “progress” is simply “doing more” when it comes to sequels. The series has certainly taken this to heart, as the map and scope of each one keeps getting bigger. But you know what? I’m tired of driving through miles of backwoods-ass California mountain highways just to get to my next objective. Having a huge map is nice to put on the back of a box, but traversal through it is simply not fun. Let’s take things back a step and focus on a small, vibrant city. GTA III, despite the fact that there were like two buildings in total you could enter, felt like a real city. Let’s bring that back by making more — if not every — buildings open. Maybe the next mission requires you to get into this apartment building you don’t have the code to, so you have to convince someone to let you in. Or maybe a new contact gives you the code to their building so now you have permanent access to it. Or maybe someone you meet during a mission tells you to meet them in a condemned building on the other side of town, and you have to move through the tape and debris to get to the room on the seventh floor in which they wait. I’d rather have a concentrated map the size of Downtown Norfolk with organic buildings, traffic, and pedestrians than one encompassing the entirety of the LA valley where it takes you 15 minutes real-time to get from one end to the other. Less can be more, here!
It’s what you do. I’m all for saving your game and going on a rampage throughout the city, randomly blowing things up and picking people off after a long day at work. You can re-load your save file after that shit, and the game will be none the wiser. But make me semi-responsible in the meantime! Make me balance my homicidal tendencies with being a normal, functioning (or at least to serve the story, inconspicuous) human being. You know how inSkyrim when you steal cheese from someone in Whiterun and get caught then flee like a bitch to Riften and the guards there are like, “Yo, come with us?” That’s what I want in the new GTA. Suspend this part for missions, sure, but when I’m driving around and run over an entire little league baseball team as they leave a Chuck E. Cheese? Make that shit count! Don’t give me two wanted stars, because all I have to do is sit in an alley with a hooker for two minutes, and it goes away! They treat that shit like a slashing minor penalty in hockey, and it’s silly. Better yet, let me bribe the police to get out of it if I get caught, or maybe even do dirty work for the police chief by starting a gang war or taking out a political rival or something. Steal the rivalry system fromShadow of Mordor and replace the orc bosses with cops, if you have to. Just make it matter!
Grand Theft Auto is a money-printing machine, and one of the biggest brands in gaming. But it got to that point by breaking the mold of the games industry and giving players something entirely new. It needs to do that again. It needs to give me something that no other series can. I’m 29 with a spouse and a full time job — I can shoot random people and drive the wrong way down the freeway in basically every game now. Rockstar, give me a reason to love GTAagain.
Make Grand Theft Auto great again.
This is a repost of a blog I contributed to Maintain 55, the companion blog to my Podcast, Nerd and Long. The original can be found here: