With the recent news of Grand Theft Auto’s delay to September of this year, Rockstar’s newest installment in their iconic series has been the talk of the town. Game delays are to be expected, and with companies as big as Rockstar, they generally serve to create a more polished product upon release. As such, no one is overly annoyed with the release date being pushed back, but many are wondering what sort of direction the game will take.
Everyone knows that the game will almost certainly stick to the “Rockstar Formula” of an open world with mission-driven gameplay that is often entirely optional and abandoned for rampant vehicular manslaughter. They’ve deviated a little from this, especially with the story driven L.A. Noire, which largely ditched gun-play in favor of mystery solving, but kept the core mechanics. These games have become par for the course, with many other companies copying the template and adding a slight spin on it, such as Square Enix’s Sleeping Dogs (i.e. GTA: Kung Fu Edition), and have received success in doing so. However, the last full GTA instalment, Grand Theft Auto IV, features the comparatively gritty tale of Serbian criminal Niko Belić in an equally gritty and depressing rendition of Liberty City. Now the question on everyone’s lips is: will GTA V return to this murky setting, or instead venture back to the series’ sillier roots?
Fortunately, trailers for the game seem to indicate the latter. If you look at the first trailer for GTA IV, it’s clear that Rockstar were trying to push the size of the world and the idea that they’d created a buzzing and “realistic” city. The first trailer for GTA V, however, paints a much happier picture. Though it’s still tailored to show you how deep and detailed the setting is, everything from the visuals to the 80’s style music to Michael’s voice-over paints a more vibrant picture. Even the protagonist talks of re-capturing that “magic,” much like the series itself hopes to do.
GTA IV came out in a time when gritty and realistic translated to muddy and brown, and this was reflected in the game’s aesthetics. It’s something that left many fans disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the game has still sold over 25 million copies to date, so it’s far from unloved, it’s just loved in a slightly different way. In San Andreas you could jet-pack around the place, and everyone drove a bus to the top of the highest mountain just to drive it off again. These silly moments are still present in GTA IV, such as the radio stations, or the Statue of Liberty containing an enormous beating heart. While this would have been comical in a game like Vice City or San Andreas, because of GTA IV’s tone, this comes across as a bit more disturbing. It was clear that Rockstar had started to take themselves more seriously, as evidenced by Dan Houser’s (Lead writer on GTA IV) comments in an interview with the Telegraph:
“The main skill is not in writing fun one-liners – although hopefully one can do that or not – it’s in having good structural craft. The main challenge for us is that the story has to flow easily in a very complicated way.”
This reflects the game perfectly. It has the vestiges of comedy, but they fall behind the story that the developers wanted to focus on. The story in GTA IV was one of struggling in a criminal underworld larger than oneself, a daunting and serious topic. Niko comes to the US to escape his violent past, only to be thrust into another world of violence. This seems hypocritical coming from a game that advocated violence from the get go, and shows some cognitive dissonance on GTA’s part. Violence is fun, but also dark and cruel. Players don’t need to be reminded of this in a game that’s usually as light as GTA.
Dan is leading the writing team for GTA V as well, as he has done for almost every GTA game since 1999. This is interesting, as we’ll get to see if he continues his foray into serious, story-driven writing, or reverts to the less sincere side of things. You have to remember, this is also the man that brought us Vice City, San Andreas and even the zombie-laden add on Undead Nightmare, so it’s clear he’s capable of taking himself less seriously.
Though Houser denies that he’s working off of GTA IV’s criticisms, stating instead that he’s working on making a different game, he does seem eager to revert to the series’ past. When asked how GTA V would compare to an older installment, GTA III, Houser said:
“Does it feel like the same game? It feels like the great-great-great-grandson of the same game. It feels like we did do a lot of work each time to evolve it on.”
This would certainly seem to indicate that we might see a push to the fun-driven gameplay, as opposed to the story-driven narrative. That being said, upping the silliness can be a double-edged sword.
On the opposite side of the spectrum sits THQ’s Saint’s Row: The Third, a game that took the GTA formula, along with the little silly bits, and turned it up to 11. From giant laser jets, to gargantuan sex toys as weapons, Saints Row oozed absurdity from all angles. The game’s still very fun, no doubt about that, but the wackiness loses its sting after a while. What makes being stupid in games fun is that you’re doing it in a realistic(ish) world. Since Steelport is such a ridiculous place anyway, the player’s actions aren’t as comical.
Interestingly, it is the more mature crowd that want this return to silliness in moderation. The younger demographics, that make up the majority of Call of Duty or Battlefield sales, love the idea of realism and a dark, merciless world. They get their kicks of immersing themselves in the life of a criminal, as dark as it may be. The older gamers, perhaps fueled by nostalgia, want that return to the slightly campier days of yore in which you could run over old-ladies without feeling like a horrible person. As mentioned, it’s easy to go a bit too far as Saint’s Row did and ruin the effect, but a studio as prolific as Rockstar is more than capable of delivering this tricky balance between a believable world and a fun one.
All in all, GTA V’s delay will almost certainly serve to better the game upon release, both in a mechanical sense and in a thematic sense. Come September, hopefully we’ll all be giddy with joy as we mess around in a world that facilitates nonsense, but doesn’t fully condone it.