WE THE SOLIPSISTIC ONLY
Ah Grand Theft Auto. Mirroring the dated sensibilities of the aging, white mob-men it so often features, there’s a strict reverence paid here to the self-mythologized “good old days” of open world GTA games. For all the shiny new victories money clearly buys, there’s numerous vestigial organs clinging on.
As before, the GTA protagonists can engage in a whole collection of mini-games. Now you can play golf or tennis or other sports, which will upgrade your athleticism stat, which will make Franklin or whoever run slightly faster for longer. With GTA’s story telling more robust than ever, these kinds of distractions seem increasingly trivial.
GTA’s decision to disperse the player’s control across three different playable characters that all contribute to one larger story was a fantastic move – there’s no second guessing that. But it created a calamitous by-product not typically visited upon the Rockstar faithful: much of the replayability has transitioned away from the traditional exploratory type to a ‘new game’ expression.
GTA’s near limitless replayability has always owed itself to autonomous exploration and unfettered mischief. This is still largely true, but now only multiple playthroughs will uncover some of this sequel’s gems. Unlike, say, Mafia, this title is simply too unwieldy to expect any but the most zealous fanboys to slog through multiple save files. Unlike, say, Skyrim, there’s simply not enough variety in the character building or other gameplay mechanics to make another playthrough worth the trouble just for the story.
These novel bits of writing are everywhere, not just in cutscenes. Side characters are chosen to help with some certain facet of the heist based on their stats, leading to unique conversations and events during missions. Unfortunately these side characters only improve when they see action, again encouraging the player to stick with one throughout the course of the entire game and miss the phenomenal writing that other ancillary characters deliver.
Ultimately this is something of a backhanded compliment – it means that story beats are so compelling that there’s a drive to see everything from every point of view. That says a lot about the strength of the writing and characters.
But it also leads to a blasphemous line of inquiry: is GTA best served by remaining an open world game? Grand Theft Auto’s two greatest strengths are arguably stepping on each other’s toes.
Ask yourself these two questions:
When you want to GTAbout (wanton, gleeful destruction), are you ever simultaneously exploring the city/taking allies’ phone calls/stumbling over new characters/checking your investments?
When you flit from mission to mission and experience the story, do you want to be worrying about pissing off the police/managing your properties/gathering collectibles/driving across the city without company?
No and no? Where does the utility of the overlap between GTA-as-open-world and GTA-as-multi-dimensional-story make itself present? Which is more valuable?
Rockstar is attempting to straddle another dichotomy as well though, creating an increasingly vast philosophical rift.
GTA-as-open-world is attempting to parody culture from the god’s-eye perspective, sharing its disdain equally with every member of its populace in the (supposedly) ideology free ads. It forms the backdrop of the player’s carnage as they cause havoc with (presumably) similar indiscretion and disregard for things like gender.
GTA-as-multi-dimensional-story is where scenarios depicting misogyny, fetishized violence (as opposed to nonsensical), reactionary ideas about money and success, etc. really crop up. It’s apparent in the conversations held, demographics of the protagonists, the side characters encountered, etc. It provides the foundation for the experience of the storyline, regardless of which character is chosen or the order taken.
My guess is that different writing teams compose these two sides of the GTA mythos. It’s yet another example of the multi-faceted GTA beast that is simultaneously responsible for its wonderful complexity but also a limiting factor when addressing the series’ perpetual issues.
Grand Theft Auto V, a game that attempts to have its cake and eat it too, fittingly marks the beginning of the end of this generation and this approach to its own self-image. Next time around expect some of these wrinkles to be ironed out.