Remember the day that the first GTA 5 trailer
hit? Remember how excited everyone was, and how the internet stopped working
for an afternoon, along with everyone who was reading the internet? I was bored
out of my mind that afternoon. Here I was, in an office full of excited games
journos during the biggest and most significant gaming reveal of the year, and in truth I felt more like a vegetarian on Christmas Day.
You see I’d never liked 3D Grand Theft Auto. From GTA 3 to GTA 4, the series had consistently bored me to tears. Of
course, the vastness of what Grand Theft Auto was doing had always been impressive.
Thoroughly respect-worthy, in fact. But, being no fan of the series’ moment-to-moment gameplay or mission design, it always felt to me like a franchise coasting by on map-size alone. Map-size, and the fact that countless ‘less
engaged’ gamers the world over will always buy it for the simple, dubious fun
of smashing stuff up. Microsoft's game-completion stats potentially agree
with me on that latter point.
The thing is, I didn’t care about Grand Theft Auto’s
world-building. If anything, the series’ vast game-worlds just compounded the problem. With a huge, immensely explorable city but nothing interesting to
do in it, the artificiality of the situation rang through the entire experience like
a church bell that I happened to be sitting inside while a giant struck it with
the very hammer of Thor. I wasn’t wandering around a real, living place, as
many felt they were. I was moving a camera around a scale model built out of
cardboard boxes and cereal packets. I get that GTA 4's narrative was
supposed to create a sense of isolation, but the series had always felt that way to me. Like I was an
outside observer looking at an as-yet unpopulated developer test-environment,
trying desperately to find something fun to do.
But now GTA 5 has happened, and I’m merrily stuffing down
turkey and sausages until I’m ready to burst. And then stuffing down some more.
In fact the whole thing makes me wish for some magical temporal postal service,
so that I can send some back-dated excitement to that first trailer day.
Because simply, GTA 5 has deftly and completely fixed every
problem I’ve ever had with GTA, and finally given me the experience I always
wanted from the series.
Fittingly, it’s not the immense scale
of GTA 5’s San Andreas that’s done it for me, but rather the way the game
operates on a much more microcosmic way. And perhaps ironically, it’s about the
way that the granular stuff then finally feeds into a satisfying, nourishing
For starters, the new approach to characterisation changes
everything. GTA 5’s protagonists work for me in a way that none in the series
has before. Partially I think it’s a result of the game’s abandonment of its
traditional ‘rags to riches’ schtick. The old approach always felt to me like a
product of game design rather than writing, using a default lowly outsider
character as an easy way to parallel the player’s progress through the game.
Michael, Trevor and Franklin, however (the first two
especially), are long-established, successful characters in their own environments
before the start of the game, with the histories and fully-fleshed personal
baggage required to make them real people, with real lives and stories, from
the start. That’s a good beginning, but things go much further and much deeper than that. Because in GTA 5, it's all about the way the story
is told. And Rockstar isn't the only one telling it.
The dynamic of three protagonists sharing one narrative
doesn’t simply provide an interesting new device; rather it accelerates an
immense secondary narrative within my own relationship with my player-characters.
No longer am I on the outside looking in, my avatar and myself standing in the
rain with our faces pressed up against the window, watching the grand
pseudo-simulation going on inside. Instead, there are two stories, playing out
separately but feeding into each other constantly. One is made up of Rockstar’s
scripted missions and cutscenes. We turn up to that one when required, and enjoy
what we’re given. The mission design is excellent these days, and the gameplay
mechanics finally enjoyable in their own right. But at the same time, we’re
creating a wider, dynamic narrative that’s entirely our own.
Let’s say that Michael is planning a heist. We go about our
business, doing the necessary planning to set things up. Some things go well,
some things go wrong--I might screw up a mission, find a new approach, get
caught in a random police chase or gang fight along the way, etc.--but
ultimately we get there. Then I jump over to Franklin, who’s going about his
business unaware that any of this is going on. We hang out, we explore, we
window-shop for a few clothes that he can’t yet afford, and we do a Strangers
And Freaks side-mission or two. But whatever we do and however we do it, it all
feeds directly into my perception of who my
Then I switch back to Michael, who doesn’t know about
anything that Franklin and I have been up to. My Franklin
is evolving slightly differently to Michael’s Franklin (in that way that real people’s
whole selves are always somewhat different to the way they’re variously
perceived by the people who know them), and when Michael is making plans and
recommendations regarding his new friend, that matters. For a more explicit version, see the early scenes in which I'm playing as Trevor, getting to know and even like the big unstable nutjob, but simultaneously hoping he doesn't mess things up for Michael and Franklin. While knowing that eventually, I have to get him to a place where he could.
Suddenly I have a
brilliant narrative tension, where I am simultaneously the audience of the
story, its co-writer and it omnipresent narrator.