Musings: The Future of Grand Theft Auto

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Grand Theft Auto 4: The Lost and Damned is fantastic. I might go as far as to say I liked it more than GTA 4 proper. It plays out like a dirty gangster flick, like any GTA game, but the writing and voice acting seem particularly well done, especially for manic gang leader Billy Grey, throughout its about eight hour length. The missions never quite soar as high as Niko’s bank heist, but I found myself more compelled to continue by the characters and their relationships than by the mission structure.

Many of GTA 4’s failings can be attributed to the game’s length. The repetitious missions, the decay of Niko’s character, the damn annoying cell phone (yes, I know it can be turned off, but I shouldn’t need to do that) all begin to detract from the experience at about hour ten. Condensing the experience seemed to cure most of those problems. What I would like to see Rockstar do with their GTA games in the future, and especially with downloadable content for GTA 4, is to continue fleshing out the amazing city they have built with more shorter and personal narratives like that of Johnny Klebitz.

Niko’s story in GTA 4 is in no means a bad one, it’s most definitely one of the best ever told in its medium. I would argue, however, that GTA 4’s greatest strength is not telling this grand “rags to slightly better rags” storyline, but introducing this new Liberty City. Niko’s story plays out like a tour of the city. You are slowly introduced to each of the city’s boroughs and neighborhoods, the various criminal factions, the culture, all the while building Niko’s new life from the ground up. After the entire map is opened up and you’ve pulled off that bank heist, making you rich as hell, the experience seems to deteriorate though. Leading masses of cop cars and helicopters through the streets never got old, but the missions sure did. I felt like there was just nothing new to see. I had traveled the city end to end chasing and shooting folks and it was solely up to the missions to propel me through the narrative. This is where the game starts to fall apart.

Thirty hours is a long time. Shaping a narrative of that length must be a gargantuan task. It’s no wonder then that many complaints have been lodged against GTA 4’s latter hours. With an experience this massive it’s nigh impossible to polish every bit of plot and dialogue, which makes a product like The Lost and Damned so incredibly logical.

In Liberty City Rockstar has created the single most well realized and true to life game world ever. What The Lost and Damned proves is that Rockstar, being the wonderful storytellers that they are, can craft shorter, more personal narratives that in the end, while not as epic as Niko’s, are far more effective in their ability to develop complex and consistent characters and hold your attention until their conclusion. Rockstar’s next move should be to continue on the path that the Lost and Damned has established. Let’s not hurry ahead Vice City just yet when there is a meticulously crafted and divinely realized Liberty City still left to flesh out.

I’m constantly brought back to the title Grand Theft Auto Liberty City Stories. Unfortunately, Rockstar already made a game by that same name, which only told one story, but it is a perfect descriptor of GTA’s next logical step; a game containing short narratives about the lives of citizens in Liberty City. They need not even be as long as The Lost and Damned, perhaps only 3 or 4 hours a piece. Each story would last long enough tell a compelling narrative without giving it a chance to peter out and ultimately contribute to developing the true main character of GTA 4, Liberty City. This formula presents possibilities for some truly mature story telling. I don’t mean blood and cursing, I mean deep examinations of characters and emotions, things that the video game industry has been unable to widely approach. Rockstar has been teetering on a line between narrative break through and sophomoric clichés for quite some time. Perhaps the range of expression possible in this multi-story format would allow them to finally push their stories in a more truly mature direction.

Now, most people will probably say, “Matt, you’re crazy. I don’t play GTA for the story, I play it to run over pedestrians and shoot dudes.” That’s fine. You can stick to GTA 4 or maybe my pie in the sky GTA game would have some sort of sand box mode where you just pick a character model and run around creating mayhem. Either way, the evolution from San Andreas to GTA 4, and furthermore GTA 4 to The Lost and Damned, seems to indicate that narrative quality rather than wacky hijinx is sitting prominently in the forefront of Rockstar’s plans. There must of course still be room for all that other stuff, but the stories should be front and center.

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

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