Blurring Genres, Lives and Design in Open-World Mosaics: Why ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ Made Games Better

On 29 March 2007, Rockstar Games – through their flagship development studio, Rockstar North – declared its mission statement for the upcoming era of high-definition interactive entertainment: forget what you know, what you expect, and even what you love, about the Grand Theft Auto franchise. This time, ‘things will be different.’ Consciously steering away from the series’ channelling of movie culture, which the developer had successfully accomplished through the ’80s-influenced Vice City and ’90s-focused San AndreasGrand Theft Auto IV represented a moment of maturation for Rockstar Games. The developer now aspired to create something with the potential to surpass the limitations of novels, film and other linear entertainment, whilst also acknowledging the infancy of games as a medium. Promising to provide a truly realised, truly immersive, living, breathing world which pushed the limits of what could be created through realistic simulations, unparalleled atmosphere, and introspective storytelling; it was the combination of these essential elements – on top of a fun, firm foundation of gameplay variety, and the series’ trademark exploration – which gave Rockstar North the confidence to make their dreams a reality and produce experiences of the future. Because of this, GTA IV came to represent a great many things to numerous people – and continues to inform industry expectations today.

Most notably, although 2008’s contemporaneous Liberty City (an intimately reimagined New York City) continued the developer’s tradition of capturing the essence of an American metropolis in the confines of a warped British satire of Americana and American media culture, the tone and attitude which defined this urban jungle was firmly rooted in the reality of a paranoid and compromised criminal lifestyle. Defined by a tortured but affable Serbian protagonist in search of an ailing American dream, Niko Bellic’s bloodstained past in the former Yugoslavia not only offered players a meatier ‘rags-to-better-rags’ plot and sombre character arc uncommon in action games, it concurrently elevated gameplay to become more tactical, visceral and engaging due to the former soldier’s military background. His story was one of anger, empathy and loyalty in a world replete with novelty, where every mistake had suffocating consequences for any chance at a better life.

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Complimented by an iconic supporting cast of comedic allies and intimidating villains, all of whom provided the means for Niko to question the absurdity of a revered yet already-burning Western Babylon, the game catered to individual moods and play styles through an abundance of side missions. Even the title’s exploration of minigames – from pool and darts to bowling – were bolstered by competing against Niko’s mission-giving contacts, offering candid insight into personalities who were otherwise reserved for five-minute cut scenes. Their histories, motivations and regrets were for the player to consciously unearth. Moreover, GTA IV even marked the debut of the Natural Motion Euphoria physics engine – a turning point for the industry regarding procedural animation and lifelike AI characters, as well as transforming the physics of the game in such a way that felt truly ‘next generation’ at a time when other franchises making the transition from PlayStation 2, Xbox and Game Cube had failed to reinvent themselves.

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 Simply put, during the fifty-plus hours in which players lost themselves in the detailed world of 2008’s Liberty City, the dominant impression the game gave players was Rockstar’s determination to outdo the genre it defined when Grand Theft Auto III was set loose upon the gaming landscape over fifteen years ago. Whether it be the dynamic mission structuring, stellar sound design, introduction of Pac-Man-style police evasions, or even player-dictated changes to dialogue depending on what Niko does and where he goes (as opposed to relying on inputs via the controller), this raw assault on Western hypocrisy stands tall as an unrivalled synthesis of story and player invention. It is for all these reasons, and more, that GTA IV made games better. Rather than go bigger, GTA IV went deeper and invested in overhauling every fundamental mechanic which had become synonymous with the series. Such gains formed the root of the spellbinding Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V.

At a time where developers are now championed within the industry for their in-game cinematics and nuanced narratives, imitating – if not improving – the strengths of story-based entertainment outside of the medium, the challenge Rockstar set themselves with IV was – and very much remains – far more metaphysical, tying into the very philosophy behind game design itself. In this way, they have sought to move the industry forward as something entirely unique from all other mediums – something their imitators have either misunderstood or been unable to mimic over the last ten years due to the sheer ambition, skill, money and time needed to pull off such an enormous feat. They are trying to capture a form of life itself; a believability and nuance to the player’s experience which plays with the idea of what characters do when not being action anti-heroes.

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The reason why IV remains so influential in making games as a medium better is its blurring of the line between cinematic ‘on-mission’ content with the freeform chaos or complacency of side activities, providing the illusion of an experience which the player can not only direct but partly author. Through the introduction of the mobile phone, Niko had a wealth of activities at his fingertips – the most important of which was having mission-givers such as Packie and Dwayne exist outside the structure of missions and the game’s mainline narrative. Aside from having to develop the characters’ personalities so that the player could adjust to their likes and dislikes (going so far as to give them a preferential radio station), Dan Houser and his incredible team of writers had to ensure these were characters the player wanted to spend time with – not just as means to acquire discounted gear or specialised car bombs. Although it is debatable how much players were invested in this mechanic, it was an important first step which was entirely optional to engage with. Roman wanting to go bowling is not as recurring or intrusive as popular memory suggests!

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Importantly, Rockstar had already tried to humanise its characters in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, reducing the scale of its early missions by having you do odd jobs with your childhood friends and lieutenants of the Grove Street Families, even going so far as to head for a drive-through restaurant and order fried chicken. Although this might sound quite pedestrian as a mission for an action game, it gave time for the characters to be themselves and make you feel part of a world which existed outside of combat. In turn, 2005’s The Warriors saw the nine playable characters occupy the same hideout, with whom the player could speak with before missions, and it was these AI allies who would fight alongside the player. They would even show their support in combat through contextual grabs and finishers, as well as commenting on the player and their opponents.  

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Even 2006’s Bully humanised its characters by having them roam the open world in their own time and ask for favours if they saw you – sometimes even chastising you if your relationship with their clique was sour. One could even go so far as to strike up a conversation with Algernon (a.k.a. ‘Pee Stain’), show the young lad a smile or slap a ‘Kick Me!’ sign on his back, before watching the nearby AI react in suitably dynamic ways. On the surface, this is all rather formulaic and false, but it connected the player far more intimately with the world and its inhabitants in ways that a nuanced cut scene after a five-minute gunfight simply could not achieve. And it was these changes to storytelling in games which Grand Theft Auto IV capitalised on in abundance by altering the game’s inherent structure to compensate for this degree of player choice, interaction and relationship building.

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Players first notice the true potential of this inversion of on- and off-mission content in IV when driving to pick up Michelle in the early hours of the game. Roman, the protagonist’s cousin, calls in a panic and pleads for Niko to help him fend off the loan sharks that had been attacked earlier in the game. I knew Roman was in danger and I knew of the people who were attacking him, having previously broken one of the loan shark’s arms. What was so revolutionary about the moment was that, as a player, I had already decided which mission I wanted to complete in that moment, given that I was seconds away from Michelle’s house – but the game forced me to choose between picking up a date, and leaving my cousin to be injured, or putting my personal wants and desires on hold to protect the only person in this city who had my back. Progress and financial reward weren’t driving me in that moment; it was guilt and the potential consequence of my inaction. Choosing to help Roman instantly triggered a mission in which Niko intimidates the loan sharks before chasing one down and deciding whether to put an end to his life. Similar moments occur throughout the game, blurring the line between off-mission freedom and on-mission excitement, including deciding the fate of two characters – each of whom want you to put the other six-feet under – as you roam around the open world, minding your own business. The game even allowed you to coordinate your own missions, such as arranging a date through the in-game internet to isolate your target in a Broker diner, as well as gaining access to a target by arranging your own one-on-one interview with him. It was rudimentary, but such planning meant that, at the very least, it gave the impression that the player was in charge – something Grand Theft Auto V would experiment with more forcibly through its underused heist-planning mechanic.

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When approaching a mission, by rooting Liberty City in today’s reality where surveillance culture is so extreme that ‘everyone’s a rat’ and criminals are forcibly outmatched by the United States’ ‘zero-tolerance’ police culture, players were forced to invest in their equipment and approach missions with caution. By improvising with the environment and darting from parked car to parked car, even using your own vehicle as makeshift cover, players engaged in serious firefights in multiple ways. The car itself could similarly be used as its own weapon, should the player feel confident enough that the enemies wouldn’t target the driver’s window and eliminate Niko before he could execute his plan.

In turn, adding choices which weighed on the player’s emotions and rationality was a radical shift for gameplay-driven choices for the medium, as best evidenced by the ‘Deal’ or ‘Revenge’ end-game scenario which directly affected the last three missions of the game, radically shaking up Niko’s motivations and prospects respectively. Adding into the mix the opportunity to request AI backup from one of Niko’s contacts, the base gameplay of IV encouraged players to approach a goal how they saw fit. To date, the only game which has built on this formula, to excellent effect, is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, where players survey an environment and choose their method of infiltration. No matter how players approach an objective, such as saving Miller, every player will complete the mission by extracting Miller and therefore allowing the story to progress. Such creativity means missions can be accomplished by accident, or failed experiments can be reworked on the fly into spectacular scenarios which make the ability to record gameplay on the current generation of consoles a necessary feature.

What Rockstar are trying to accomplish as they continue to innovate the blending of activities and distractions with mainline missions is to create an interconnected world in which the player lives out a character’s life. The developer understands that open-world games embody time and space, and therefore characterisation and narrative, in such a way that only this medium can capture. All mediums have their strengths, as do game genres, but the structure of open-world games is one which is often mimicked but never truly understood by other developers. Countless games this generation have finally caught up with Rockstar Games and their technology to introduce open-world settings into their franchises, filling their barren worlds which a checklist of activities and collectables which are washed over the mini map. However, what distinguishes the world of Liberty City, and later Los Santos, from these other studios’ ‘sandboxes’ is where the game’s second biggest innovation came into play: multiple protagonists occupying and contending the same space.

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II

Through the two sixteen-hour-and-more Episodes of Liberty City expansions released in 2009, players were introduced to the lives of midlife biker Johnny Klebbitz and his motorcycle club, ‘The Lost’; and Luis Lopez, business partner to nightclub aficionado ‘Gay’ Tony Prince. By occupying the shoes of two radically different criminals, the experiment allowed players to experience competing motivations when exploring an identical urban landscape which was shared by the misadventures of Niko and his various associates. Through Johnny and his low-level endeavours, which were all in the interest of brotherhood, players were given access to mechanics which allowed persistent allies to have their stats and weaponry increase the more they accompanied you on missions. Due to there being a smaller number of missions, on account of The Lost and Damned being DLC, players even had their objectives affected if certain gang members were summoned by the cell phone to arrange alternative strategies to complete missions (including the staging of an ambush, luring Johnny’s pursuers to a choke point and fighting alongside you to even the playing field). Conversely, Luis Lopez’s high-life antics saw him use a wide range of vehicles and machinery to help his partner get out of debt to the Italian and Russian mobs, all whilst adding a plethora of side activities which made nightclubs feel like genuine and unique settings to experiment with new types of gameplay which expanded upon the GTA formula.

Under Niko, Johnny and Luis, Liberty City was seen through radically different lenses. The world was more glamourous, lonely or hostile depending on which protagonist you controlled. Different gameplay options and mechanics were available depending on who you controlled, and you even managed to unearth a broader narrative arc surrounding stolen diamonds when seeing the story unfold from each of the three protagonists’ perspectives. The game’s city, its mechanics and its stories became so much richer by representing partial elements of a much larger whole. This structure meant that open-world games did not represent a linear, movie-like drama but rather an interactive mosaic – very much like how we as individuals experience real life, focusing on our strengths and ignoring areas of disinterest or aspects which are beyond our current skill set. This is the point of open-world settings: to have the player be part of a living, breathing world and balance ‘work’ and ‘play’ much like adults do in real life. By having activities which reflect the protagonist – be it gang-orientated takeovers or escorting VIPs – the game’s features evolved and the experience became richer and better defined from previous incarnations in the franchise.

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Of course, Grand Theft Auto V would radically evolve this mechanic by having three protagonists exist at the same time. Ostensibly, this solved the so-called ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ of GTA games by having the player control certain characters to behave in certain ways (such as having Trevor Phillips undergo murderous rampages, whilst Franklin divulges in street races). I don’t feel this experiment entirely worked because players still behaved murderously as any of the anti-heroes – and the game didn’t differentiate the three protagonists. Johnny had a gang, Luis had a business, whereas the trio in V simply had one or two activities to distinguish their personalities. Above all, the story took a hit when exploring the three-protagonist concept in because the gameplay was more focused on fleshing out Michael, Trevor and Franklin’s separate lives than it was disrupting that sense of normality through the context of missions and their consequences (bar one example with Michael living out of town with Trevor, which was more of a hindrance than anything). More than anything, the trio had no real need to unite and were not really in need of the money they were chasing. Ultimately, I felt three distinguished protagonists who occasionally crossed paths but largely worked alone was a better accommodation for player freedom and the telling of a more nuanced narrative.

I’m glad Rockstar challenged themsleves with V , as it likely made them realise that if they are going to unite three protagonists together then they must all have the same goal – something Red Dead Redemption 2 will likely focus on by having its characters wanting to work together as part of a gang, as well as ingraining the world, characters and gameplay in a perpetual state of violence. Rather than the misadventures of Michael, Franklin and Trevor being almost otherworldly in the satirical reimagining of Southern California, RDR2 will have its outlaws (and perhaps lawmen and Native Americans) be products of the chaos around them. This way, the story and gameplay will be more cohesive.

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Still, the potential for RDR2 to build on the blueprint drawn by IV and applying it to the three protagonists of V is undeniable. Blurring on-mission story through off-mission content could be achieved whenever the seven-person crew teased in the debut trailer stroll into a town. If you’re notorious outlaws, saloons and other services might be more alert to your presence; some residents might cower away and watch from afar, whilst others might square up to you and adamantly demand you leave and don’t come back.

More directly, such mechanics would allow RDR2 to be the antithesis of its predecessor. If Redemption was about a former outlaw tearing his traitorous crew apart, with the lonely exploration and hunter-gathering reflecting Marston’s solitude, wouldn’t it be exciting to be responsible in the sequel for assembling a crew and having the gameplay reflect being outlaws to the end? Returning to the example of entering a town, Rockstar San Diego could design it so that six of the seven members each split off to a different area. While this would primarily give the player opportunities to venture on their own, it would also allow each member of your crew to signpost side content. Timmy Two-Shoes might be itching for a fight just out of town, so you go over and read the situation before engaging in a duel and making a name for your outfit. Another few members could be gambling, either playing poker or liar’s dice, posing an ethical dilemma in which the player could throw a game in order to not take money from their men. Your right-hand man Cory Carcer may have spotted a bounty which he’s saddling up for, asking if you want to come along. Here, the game isn’t just showing the player side content, it’s deliberately moulding it to better inform your bond with the gang. The bounty could see the player learn more about Carcer, witnessing his strengths through in-game mechanics (tracking and luring animals, for instance) but also hearing his grievances with other members of the group. Alternatively, members of the group might produce one-of-a-kind comedic moments such as drinking at a bar only to wake up a mile away with you and your partner tied to one another by a lasso – introducing a novel mission where you must get back to town. Suddenly, the major story moments harness the open-world off-mission activities and produce a greater bond than anything a cut scene could stir in the player’s mind. The side content adds to the experience, rather than just being something to do because it’s there or because you’re tired of the core gameplay of riding your horse and gunning down bad guys. Then, when heading out to either claim Native American land of your own or oppose the oil barons looking to steal it for themselves as part of the main story, the side activities which preceded it all feel part of the same experience. The game would feel less divided.

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Such an approach could even bleed into the main game, through hideout construction and defence, or having to flee from enemies (a novelty no open-world game has truly harnessed as of yet) and live with your posse on the open road. One could even pick their serious squad of seven outlaws by visiting outposts or following bounties to recruit volatile members, reminiscent of Mass Effect 2, adding more personality to the experience without sacrificing Rockstar’s cinematic flair for character creation and gameplay set pieces. Having a dangerous loner who doesn’t get along with your crew join the party, only for him to bicker as you ride through the land, would be a natural evolution of the entire biker crew riding to a mission in The Lost and Damned. The only difference is that they’d be your crew – a crew you’d oversee disciplining, perhaps akin to Mafia 3 by having crew members mutiny when they feel neglected.

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Although RDR2 will likely capitalise upon its open world to experiment with the idea of living out a life as a criminal more fully by toying with having to flee from enemies and defend a fixed point in the world, such gains can only be discussed once the game is released and it is contextualised through an exploration of what made the original game so exceptional. In the meantime, the remainder of this essay will focus on how IV is the template to allow the GTA series to continue evolving – especially following the unprecedented success of V, which has currently sold 75-million copies worldwide.

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III

I walked away from Grand Theft Auto V viewing the game as a culmination of everything Rockstar Games had innovated on when creating games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It had the gunplay of Max Payne 3 (a sorely underrated game and the best third-person shooter of its generation), the rural setting and distractions of Red Dead Redemption, whilst also improving on the driving and mechanics of GTA IV. It was the funniest game I’ve ever played (above South Park: The Stick of Truth) and worked excellently as a comedy. Unfortunately, its drama fell flat when trying to balance the strength of open-world storytelling (creating actual lives for the player to be lost in) and produce a narrative arc superior to the rich standard established by IV. It was a great first step in this kind of three-character storytelling, one which Rockstar must be brave enough to continue, but it missed out on what made Episodes from Liberty so strong by actively trying to make Michael, Franklin and Trevor indistinguishable so you’d want to play as all three at any time. Regardless, the game is a true representation of games as a medium and has been rewarded in kind – both critically and commercially.

The biggest question Rockstar Games now have is this: how can the series significantly move forward? Anything less than the varied locales and environs, the amount of vehicle and weapon customisation, and sheer mission variety of V will seem like a back step. Rockstar have written themselves into a corner, it would seem. The franchise can seemingly only go bigger and broader to improve. San Andreas similarly posed this challenge to Rockstar North back in 2004. With RDR2 looking to rectify the story complications which emerged from essentially allowing the player to live out the lives of Michael, Franklin and Trevor – but there being no story or overarching goal to motivate their unity – GTA VI doesn’t even have that card at its disposal to help improve the franchise. Even if the series builds on the heist mechanics of V by having players prepare for every job, or encouraging open-ended approaches like those found in MGSV, surely such necessary changes to mission structure will come across as small, and maybe even insignificant, revisions.

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Much like IV did in ’08, VI will need to reinvent its very structure for current-generation consoles. It must take the ideas and gameplay benefits of multiple protagonists and imbue it into the very DNA of what it means to be a Grand Theft Auto experience, turning the next locale (which, let’s face it, is likely to be Vice City if not Florida more broadly) into an interactive mosaic which highlights strengths in open-world design and storytelling.

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Imagine the next entry in the series starting with the absolute basic for every player; the raw embodiment of every GTA protagonist: a thief who can drive and shoot. Filling the shoes of a newcomer drawn to the city, with nothing but a car and five-hundred bucks to their name, the player is given but one goal (reminiscent of Marston’s initial task in Red Dead Redemption). Whatever the ‘goal’ is, the ‘hit’ or ‘deal’ goes south and the player must recuperate in a strange land. With just one contact, the player now has a single overarching goal which drives the narrative: get revenge on Person X, rescue Person Y, or earn the money lost in Deal Z. By exploring the city’s various corners, perhaps by having ‘leads’ making themselves available on the map via coloured circles (ala RDR’s stranger missions), contacts make themselves available and the tasks they offer reflect a certain style of gameplay.

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Rather than being given a series of missions which serve as stepping stones for narrative, like in every other GTA, the game would dynamically blur on- and off-mission content. If you cross paths with a Little Jacob-type drug dealer, suddenly he is giving you missions and introducing you to a new game mechanic. The missions here aren’t for the sake of money, or simply the experience of having missions. They actively help you gather evidence which leads you closer to your overarching goal. What this means is that some players might pursue leads which result in a playstyle geared towards the rich-and-famous lifestyle of Luis Lopez’s associates, through club management and high-life antics involving helicopters, planes and trains. The player isn’t told to experience the high life by playing as a character; they unearth these qualities in the protagonist by working alongside contacts who allow you to be involved in such exploits. Conversely, building on the fantastic core mechanic introduced in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, players might decide to pursue a more economically-focused mechanic of buying and selling through which they develop contacts within the city’s criminal underbelly through illegal trading. Having to concoct your own formulas and plant them on rival gangs, or produce an empire off the back of illegal products much like Tommy Vercetti in the original Vice City, could be a game in its own right – and is something I certainly hope Rockstar North take advantage of in their next effort. You could even spend your money modding up your car, only for certain street racers to contact you and hit you up for a drag race, seamlessly introducing on-mission content as you simply experiment with the various mechanics available to all players.

 What you end up getting with this approach to the open world is a mosaic of experiences, all of which are shades of grey. No character in the world is a fixed ‘ally’ or ‘enemy’ anymore (unlike Mr Bulgarin or Dimitri Rascalov). Depending on who you call a friend, the game will consequently produce enemies which turn the open-world playground into a prison with danger potentially lurking around every corner. At any moment a cinematic mission could crop up, forcing the player to improvise on the fly and test their abilities as they would in a more linear cinematic title. More broadly, the result is an experience in which certain players might never see certain characters. Those they call ‘the enemy’ could be another player’s strongest ally, really demonstrating the medium’s assets in both a gameplay and story sense.

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Even if this is a little too far out there, the base gameplay for future instalments of GTA will nevertheless follow the model outlined by IV and toyed with in V. Picture a game where the player is a ‘thief’, and the entire gameplay is steered around this single concept. Across the open world are a vast array of targets, from low-level scores such as cars on the street to more high-profile sites such as museums and banks. If every one of these scores has a monetary value that the player can use when selling their wares on the black market, the meticulously detailed worlds of GTA now have a gameplay value too. A stroll through the game world would always keep the gamer’s mind active. Gone are the smaller missions from previous entries, like destroying evidence in Vice City’s mall. Instead, you’re left with landmark missions like the Three-Leaf Clover heist from IV or the Paleto Bay bank job in V.

Imagine you’re informed by a contact via e-mail that there’s a three-day art gallery showcase happening in the centre of town a week from now. The gallery is being hosted by a son of a local crime syndicate in the city. You go to the whiteboard in your apartment and begin strategizing with the associates you’ve recruited about how best to go about capitalising on the event. If you get caught, the event is shut down and the syndicate now sees you as a rival – complicating your activities in the open world and incentivising the player not to get caught, much like they would in real life.

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Another event might be that a pop star or band is performing, and their one-of-a-kind vehicles are in town. If you steal and sell them, that’s how you make your money. Who you sell it to, and who you approach to help you steal it, is where the broader narrative moments are injected into gameplay. By running your own empire of sorts, you determine the experience whilst also being thrown curveballs from the game as your rivals complicate your scores and force you to choose between maintaining your crew or performing the next heist (risking the deaths of several long-time associates).

In turn, the prep for any job could become its own mission – not just busy work, like it was in V. If you steal a van for a job against Merryweather security, Rockstar could design a mission of sorts which has a unique mechanic tied to it – such as being able to leap to it, like CJ and Cesar in San Andreas. With this amount of choice, the goal is to become the criminal you want to be by using in-game mechanics and contacts. This would similarly flesh out the backstory of your own protagonist, as well as the city, much like Marston’s past was revealed after the player spent more time with Bonnie MacFarlane. Such a proposal is not a game that gives you everything – it’s a game which has a number of factions, and enough variety through its mechanics and objectives, to allow you to see the city through various tinted spectacles and have a story naturally emerge in response to your preferences and activities.

Story beats, as exemplified in IV, could even emerge from failure. If you allow a certain character to live, or another dies, you can meet them or go to their funeral. The game’s job would then be to provide narrative nuggets which give you new goals, new allies and new enemies. You can’t get this from novels, films or television – and the individual components of this type of experience can already be found in previous entries in the Grand Theft Auto series!

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Even reinventing the moment-to-moment gameplay would be a breakthrough in redefining what it means to be GTA. Introducing pedal-to-the-metal police chases which actively force you to barge pursuing vehicles off the road and pull off tricky manoeuvres; hand-to-hand combat when disarming a goon with a shotgun, before turning it on another enemy, making each combatant feel intimidating and lethal; or having allies genuinely interested in having your back on a mission and affecting the dialogue and gameplay opportunities… VI could be the game changer Rockstar wants and arguably needs it to be. Ridding themselves of mission markers and relishing the more freeform nature of the genre they rule is the next step, and IV saw it coming almost a decade ago. Whilst this might sound all pie-in-the-sky right now, I firmly believe this is the future Rockstar Games is set to deliver on having continually sought to blur the line between structured and free-form content, to the point where activities in the game world and the mainline narrative are indistinguishable. In fact, whilst the technology might not be there with AI, I’m sure GTA Online‘s Heist missions have proved that people like working together to achieve their goals.

Interestingly enough, something like this is potentially being developed by the ever-silent Ken Levine, whose third Irrational-led entry in the Bioshock franchise (because there’s a reason why Take 2 haven’t given another studio the Bioshock rights since 2013) will experiment with AI ‘stars’ or ‘leaders’ that develop bonds with the player depending on whether you are a force for good or evil with regard to their own interests and motivations. Be sure to watch his GDC talk on YouTube, entitled ‘Narrative Legos’, for a thorough insight into what Levine thinks one of many potential futures for video-game storytelling could explore. As a side note, it’s interesting to see him become disinterested with the more linear, storied approach currently being championed by games media and award shows.

There’s so much I want to say about Rockstar Games – including pitches concerning how the confined, character-driven environment of Bullworth Academy could be adapted to a prison-based environment; and how the more linear, character-driven approach of The Last of Us could be applied to an open-world formula by encouraging players to constantly be on the move as the world changes around them – but they will come in later entries to this blog. For now, the salient point is this: IV made games better. It made games more ambitious in their scope, more mature with their storytelling, more sophisticated in characterisation and world building, and more confident to take risks and subvert genre expectations. Whether it holds up is hard to say, but its impact on the industry has been immortalised – and the foundation it has laid for games in the future is still being figured out to this day.

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