Greetings everyone. I’m back this week with another geek confession. Yes, yet another week of exposing myself to possible flame wars! The subject this week: The Grand Theft Auto series.
The confession – Grand Theft Auto: meh.
I know, right?! But, before you grab your torches and farming implements, let me just say this: I’m not saying that they’re bad games at all. In fact, I’m sure they’re very good games. While I’ve been completely disinterested in the GTA series, I know Rockstar puts out some pretty awesome titles, like the Red Dead series. Red Dead Redemption… amazing. Okay, so that’s a Rockstar San Diego title, and the home console GTA titles have all come out of Scotland-based Rockstar North. Despite that, on popularity alone, I have to assume that the GTA titles are pretty good games. Each title seems like a massive, detail-oriented, polished, undertaking of epic design proportions. The huge, sprawling maps and easy to learn gameplay are really quite impressive. Still, they have never drawn me in.
What I’m saying is that the lack of appeal has nothing to do with the quality of the title. It’s all really just preference.
Instead, my qualms lie in the content of the game itself . I can break this down into three main reasons:
1. Lack of fantastic elements
2. Sandbox/Open-world gaming
3. Subject matter
Lack of Fantastic Elements
Plainly put, despite being able to take an exorbitant amount of physical damage, and holding an entire arsenal in the player character’s pockets, there’s nothing fantastic about Grand Theft Auto. There are no supernatural elements; no ghosts, or witches, or ghouls, or zombies. There are no knights or dragons or wizards that I can fight. No castles or massive underground catacombs, or halls of mountain kings. There is just a binary simulacrum of this world. Similar physics, buildings, and placenames. There are police officers, and regular joes walking down the street, and mothers pushing strollers, and kids on skateboards. You get the picture. It even takes place in modern times. At least the Red Dead series took place in the Old West, and L.A. Noire’s setting was far enough removed from memory to feel like a different place altogether, not so with GTA. It’s just now, here.
For me, video games are all about escapism, and escaping this world to live in a digital one that’s just like it – just doesn’t tickle my fancy. I prefer to be teleported to a different world, where I can do things that I couldn’t ever possibly do in this one. I want to cast magic spells, or throw vigors, or fight ancient monsters, or jump through wormholes. Looking at the GTA world, it all just seems rather… mundane.
Because of that, for me there is no element of discovery, no exploration, at least as far as the world goes. In a GTA world, I am not looking at things for the first time. I am walking a digital me through the same world I have inhabited for my entire life.
I know that people love open world gaming. People love being able to take missions when they want, move the story forward when they want, and spend hours doing ancillary things, like tricking out your ride or playing digital paper-doll with your player character. They like that this digital world is modular, and responds to the forces you enact upon it. They like that there is a multitude of things that you can do in the world, besides playing through the campaign – and that the campaign itself might shift according to the choices you make. For some people, this open world is a big sell. I’m not really into that.
Generally, I like more concise, directed stories. I like being able to appreciate what the writer intended for this story, for this character that I’ve grown attached to. I like seeing the direction of the plot peek out through the gameplay. I want games to TELL me a story. I don’t need to change or overly influence what’s happening, simply because it’s not my story to tell. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like the “choose your own adventure” aspect of a game like Heavy Rain, or the fact that decisions I make in Mass Effect might have lasting effects on the story that’s presented to me. I totally appreciate that. The difference is that despite possible branches that the story might take in those games, there is still a certain pacing to the way they’re told. And, for the most part, actions you take as a player have a real consequence to the story.
I guess, actually, that’s my problem with open worlds. There so much to do that doesn’t move the story along, so much that’s inconsequential to the story arc as a whole. It’s all extraneous, superfluous even.
Video games are like books or movies to me. They provide entertainment for X amount of hours, and provide a pre-packaged, carefully allotted amount of story for me to experience. I kind of view all the open world tasks/objectives like an scene in a film that should have been left on the cutting room floor.
Alright, I get that these side-quests might provide gameplay rewards and gear upgrades, and such, so they’re not completely superfluous. And, I get that games can be an investment. People want more game for the dollars they spend.
That’s completely fine. I just brought up the point because the fact that it’s a huge open-world environment is a talking point for people who try to turn me on to GTA. All I’m saying is that it really isn’t something I find especially desirable.
Finally there’s this. What I’m referring to specifically when I say “subject matter” is that in the GTA games, you’re a bad guy, you may be the most likable of the bad guys, but in the end… you’re a bad guy. You’re a criminal. You, as the player character, are part of some criminal organization, which causes you to find yourself in precarious situations, and in the end has to kill everyone until you’re the last man standing. Anyone that gets in your way, and bystanders even, are mowed down with little consequence. It’s all very Scarface (well, until the end of Scarface, anyway), and I think people root for the main character in GTA like people root for Scarface. It tends to romanticize this type of lifestyle, which flies over my head. When people started talking online about how they just went around beating up and killing prostitutes in GTA IV, it just felt a little weird. I’m not saying that should be censored, necessarily. I’m for sure no fan of that Jack Thompson character (is he even relevant, anymore?) and the whole kerfluffle surrounding him back then. It’s just tends to make light of a situation that some people actually deal with outside of the game – not just the prostitution, but the gang violence/organized crime aspect in general. No doubt, the who and what of the main character are probably what sell people on the series. For me, it’s just not something I want to spend time doing.
Reason, I guess, is it’s a little too real for me, again, going back to the lack of fantasy aspect. I mean, I’m a guy who, as a teenager, lived in Long Beach, CA during the 1990s, when gang activity was reaching a peak. Well, I still live here, but it in the 90s, it was a little crazy, to say the least. Point being, some of the things in a game like GTA tend to mirror real life circumstances. And really, why do I want to be reminded of that? I don’t. It’s not on my to do list. It’s like when I started seeing all these suburbanites busting out with a crip walk in the streets while I lived in southern Orange County. I’d be like, wtf are you doing? Do you even know what that is?
All that being said, GTA V looks like it’s going to be an awesome game. Awesome enough to pull me into the series? We’ll see. The scale of the entire thing is just unreal. Who knows… maybe I’ll end up writing my own counter article to this one. That would require me buying a console, I suppose – unless it’s coming out on Steam. Ooh. The possibilities.
Until then, however, I remain stalwart.
Please don’t kill me.