How Grand Theft Auto 5 Moves The Series Forward
In both Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto 4 – and Vice City and San Andreas before them – Rockstar channels its ambition into two areas that sometimes feel like they’re conflicting with each other: firstly, the open-world freedom of its gameplay, and secondly the cinematic impact of its story and characters. In Grand Theft Auto 5, the developer is shooting for a new plateau with both. Story-wise, we’ve moved on from a single character and will now be following a trio of protagonists, bringing the game closer to an HBO drama than a film in terms of narrative scope. The world, too, looks more open, detailed and reactive than before, both within the cities and out in the countryside.
Watching the latest Grand Theft Auto 5 demo, I was blown away by that world. Much as I loved Liberty City, in retrospect I mostly loved looking at it; I could never forget that I could only actually enter about 1 in 500 of its gleaming buildings. As Franklin parachuted over the mountains of GTA 5’s Blaine County, I could see deer stopping for a drink by a river, hikers making their way up a dusty trail, a group of guys on a fishing trip, some ATVs racing up a mountainside… it was very much alive and inviting in a way that previous GTA games haven’t been, for me. It felt like you could go anywhere and find something to do.
This is best exemplified by the incredible attention to detail when you go underwater. When Trevor threw on some SCUBA gear and hopped off the side of a boat, I was expecting the usual sparse underwater trench with a few floating bits of seaweed – not circling sharks, deep underwater ridges, schools of fish, a barnacle-encrusted wreck and shafts of sunlight shimmering through the water. It’s properly explorable down there, assuming you aren’t crippled by a paralysing fear of sharks. You can literally dive for sunken treasure. This marks a huge step forward for Rockstar’s worlds.
The three-character structure potentially marks a huge step forward for Rockstar’s storytelling.
The three-character structure potentially marks a huge step forward for Rockstar’s storytelling, too. Right now Grand Theft Auto 5 reminds me of the Sopranos, and not just because it stars a rich and miserable gangster going through a mid-life crisis on his therapist’s couch. The Sopranos tackled the dissonance between a life of crime and love for your family, between the desire to escape the life of a gangster and the dark compulsions that pulled its characters towards it. Grand Theft Auto has attempted to tackle that before with Nico Bellic, but for a lot of people it wasn’t quite successful.
It was sometimes difficult to reconcile the difference between the character that you play, potentially blowing up gas stations and causing massive pile-ups for fun, and the Nico that you’re shown in cutscenes. If I’m a war veteran who’s sick of conflict and has come to America to try and find a better life, why am I running errands for petty gangsters? If I’m a good guy, deep down, then why am I killing so many people? I reconciled myself with Bellic by seeing him as a tragic figure – a guy who’s so defined by violence that he doesn’t know any other way of life, who’s come to America in search of better and finds that human nature, and his own nature, is the same everywhere he goes. He’s sucked back into crime because that’s all he knows.
Grand Theft Auto 5, by contrast, stars a hillbilly psychopath, a rich and miserable former gangster, and a guy ostensibly trying to make his way out of gang culture, who plan and carry out heists for fun. I can’t see there being as much ludonarrative dissonance with this cast of characters. But encouragingly, what we’ve seen of Michael’s dynamic with his family (who mostly seem to hate him, kind of like Tony Soprano’s) and Franklin’s background suggests that GTA 5 isn’t jettisoning the idea of saying something meaningful, either. All the things you might do in the game that could seem dissonant or contradictory in one single character make more sense when spread out across three.
All the things you might do that could seem contradictory in one single character make sense when spread out across three.
Individually, too, GTA 5’s characters offer different things. Few TV shows can sustain 50 hours of story by sticking with one character’s point of view; with three, Rockstar has the flexibility to move between them to pace the both story and the gameplay. Seeing Michael beat up a bunch of gang members with a baseball bat might not gel too well with the reformed-gangster-trying-to-be-good that we see in his cutscenes, but Trevor after a few too many whiskies? I can definitely imagine that.
You can see already that Grand Theft Auto 5 really is aiming higher than Rockstar ever has with both its world and its storytelling, and it’s seeing these two things working in tandem in this demo that makes me properly excited about the game. So often in video games you have to choose between them: you can have a narratively excellent game that doesn’t leave you much room to shape it with your own actions and explore beyond its linear confines, or you can have an open-world game with reams of gameplay ambition but little definition around its story or characters. But Grand Theft Auto 5’s world looks astoundingly rich, and its three-character structure could solve a lot of the narrative problems that video games often rub up against. If it gets both of them right, it will be a landmark achievement.
Keza MacDonald is in charge of IGN’s games coverage in the UK. You can follow her on IGN and Twitter.