So, I thought I would go into a little more detail about my decision not to purchase Grand Theft Auto V.
I am fan of the crime genre. It and horror stand together as my two favorite genres so when the series began it was a moment of real excitement for me because it offered a break from the video game industry’s seemingly endless litany of sword and sorcery and space opera entries.
But as the series wore on it begun to develop exactly the same traits that make a lot of longstanding series become stale. Good crime fiction (that is stories about criminals as opposed to detective or police fiction) is generally driven by two concepts, the thrill of transgression and the development and constant threat of consequences.
The early GTA games specialized in the latter. Not just in the giddy thrill of cutting loose in a virtual city but also in the games core storytelling, the leads were criminals who were taking part in an escalating series of transgressions that were both exciting and made for fun character arcs. Tommy Vercetti’s search for revenge and CJ’s quest to protect his friends and family were particularly strong examples of this.
This combined with the pulpy, heavy duty genre pastiches that made up the earlier games drove my enthusiasm for the series (in 2002 it was revelation to see video game designers who were even aware of Scarface and Heat, let alone gave players the chance recreate scenarios from those stories, the same was true for hip-hop heavy references in the next game).
But with GTA IV the series moved from pulpy transgression to the consequence focused crime stories we associate with headier film and prestige television drama.
The problem was that the series completely failed to integrate what makes consequence focused fiction engaging, let alone integrate it into the gameplay.
For example in David Simon’s The Wire the criminal half of the story is driven by the constant moral mathematics the characters must endure (consciously or otherwise) as they are forced to choose between the strict Darwinian relationship between their humanity and the cynical pragmatism that rules their environment.
GTA never offers players that. Even in the stronger plot and character moments nothing has weight because nothing has consequence. The game never offers players it’s “where’s Wallace” moment, only constant reminders that things are very serious despite never putting that weight on their shoulders.
Similarly the series never captures the doom drenched suspense of something like Breaking Bad where with every act of the protagonist dig himself deeper and deeper into a hole that will eventually swallow him, an experience that become all the more intense because it is never clear when Walt has passed the point of no return. This sense of doom is completely lost because again nothing has the kind of weight needed to give these experiences any ability to affect the player.
In essence Rockstar has foresworn what made their earlier games appealing without capturing what makes the stories they are trying to imitate so effective.