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Why I'm not all that excited for Grand Theft Auto V
by Andrew Testerman

On the morning of November 2, Rockstar gobsmacked the gaming community with the announcement trailer for Grant Theft Auto V, a quick, teasing look at the publisher’s newest tale of guns, cars and criminal activity in the big city.

Twitter and the gaming press were absolutely alight with speculation about the title’s story, how the actual game will play out and what other possible elements might have been hinted in the minute or so of footage released. This sort of behaviour is far from unexpected; Grand Theft Auto is one of the industry’s most popular franchises, and it only makes sense that the announcement would be greeted with such enthusiasm from the gaming community.

So why don't I feel that excited about it?

I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised; the Grand Theft Auto titles aren’t my gaming sweet spot, and never really have been. Granted, I've had my fair share of mayhem-causing sessions in GTA III and Vice City back in the day, and I can definitely appreciate the expert craftsmanship the Rockstar applies to all of its titles, as well as why so many people love the franchise so dearly. That said, the GTA series just doesn't click with me in the way that it does with over 22 million gamers worldwide, and I'll do my best to try to explain why.

For one, Grand Theft Auto titles have always been too big for my taste. By this, I don't mean that the play areas are too big - one of my favourite parts of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was sailing around and exploring the humongous map - but, rather, that there's simply too much of it. The sheer amount of time and willpower I need to commit in order to experience more than a small portion of what a Grand Theft Auto game offers is staggering, and something that I can't quite get around. Certainly too much of a good thing can only be a good thing, but GTA for me has always been too much of a... thing.

This is because I never know whether it's good or not. Any given GTA experience (and I've played III, Vice City, San Andreas, and IV) always leaves me feeling like I've been spinning my wheels, peddling along until maybe, maybe, I'll get to the 'good part' of the game. A similar complaint can be lodged against JRPGs or the Zelda series, two of my very favourite things in gaming. What makes GTA different, though, and worthy of my ire, is how empty the experience feels between bouts of plot; I always feel like I'm performing disposable tasks in order to get through the game, none of which, taken by themselves, are very fun. Again, you can lodge complaints against nearly any JRPG, but while JRPGs are at least understood to be more deliberately-paced, measured affairs, GTA is ostensibly about action and explosive moments, which makes the mostly-passive missions feel even more like a dishonest sleight of hand.

Perhaps this is the difference between a guided experience (Zelda) and an open one (GTA, Elder Scrolls, etc.), and their place in my gaming lexicon. The Zelda series dictates what sort of gameplay experience I have: what choices my character makes, what dungeons I play through in which order, and what items I need to use in order to progress. This simplification of choice allows me to get caught up in the journey, and to invest myself in the story being told to me. In Elder Scrolls, I'm in charge of charting my own course and telling my own story. While many gamers may feel liberated by the breadth of choice they are given to decide their own fate, I get stressed out by the number of decisions I need to make in order to drive the experience, and fail to get caught up in anything.

Furthermore, I’ve never really been satisfied by GTA’s brand of story-telling, either. I've always felt that GTA's story and pacing have suffered, in favour of its open-endedness. Videogame storytelling at its best is often comparable to a novel, with character traits coming naturally over the course of the narrative; titles like Chrono Trigger and Uncharted have a coherent, measured plot full of well-realised characters. Storytelling in the GTA games, by contrast, always feels comparable to a comic strip, with characters broadly and instantly defined from the moment we first meet them, and handled in bite-sized chunks; only over the course of the games do their subtleties peek their heads out, and only if the player is willing to meet the game halfway and watch for the subtle shades. Because the stories are so stop-start, and the story-telling so shallow, the narratives often feel like they lack urgency and pacing, making them less than compelling, and creating a profound disconnect from plot.

For their newest entry, I hope Rockstar looks to the Assassin's Creed series, and to Batman: Arkham City - two titles I enjoy immensely despite my general aversion to open-world games - for inspiration on how to handle Los Santos in the upcoming game. Assassin’s Creed uses an open world similar to the GTA games, where missions are doled out from side characters found on the main map. However, while GTA missions can often feel tangential to advancing any sort of plot (watch a cutscene, drive somewhere, kill someone, drive back), Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood work much harder to give each gameplay segment a context within the narrative, even if the objective is as simple as 'follow this dude over there'. Arkham City, on the other hand, gives players entirely different areas for the game’s main missions, in addition to an enormous, dense world for gamers to explore, segmenting off the main play areas to help present more and different gameplay opportunities than if Batman were forced to chase down The Joker on the actual streets of Arkham City.

I get why people love the Grand Theft Auto games. Rockstar is perhaps the best in the business at crafting living, breathing worlds for players to lose themselves in; a friend of mine says he put literally hundreds of hours into faffing about in GTA IV, simply because he enjoyed the world so much. The game is going to be a smash, and I’m glad that so many gamers find enjoyment in GTA, with all of the freedom, chaos and goofiness that the series entails. I just hope that Rockstar can give the series more focus, for those of us who want more than simply the opportunity to wander around.

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- Andrew Testerman

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