So why don’t I feel that excited about it?
I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised; the Grand Theft Auto titles have never truly been my gaming sweet spot. 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. That said, the GTA series just doesn’t click with me the way it does with over 22 million gamers worldwide, and I’ll do my best to try to explain why.
Grand Theft Auto titles have been too big for my tastes. By this, I don’t mean that the play areas are too big (a big, well-designed open world is a welcome one, and one of my favorite parts of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was sailing around and exploring the humongous map), but that there’s simply too much game. The breadth of experiences and sheer amount of time I need to commit in order to experience more than a small portion of what this game to offer 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 favorite things in gaming. What makes GTA different, though, and worthy of my ire, is how empty the experience feels in between bouts of plot; I always feel like I’m performing disposable tasks in order to get through the title, none of which are very fun. Again, complaints you can lodge 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 where I place them 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 telling my own story, and pour moi, I get too stressed out thinking about planning what I am going to do to get caught up in anything.
The guided experience is much more conducive to story-telling as well. I’ve always felt that GTA‘s story-telling has suffered at the expense of its open-endedness. Video game storytelling at its best is comparable to a novel, with character traits coming naturally over the course of the narrative; titles like Chrono Trigger and Uncharted have an excellent, measured plot full of well-realized characters. Storytelling in GTA, 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 game do their subtleties peek their heads out, and only if the player is willing to watch for the subtle shades. Because the story is so stop-start, the game feels like it lacks urgency and pacing, making it less compelling and creating a profound disconnect from plot.
For their newest entry, I hope Rockstar looks to the Assassin’s Creed series and Batman: Arkham City, two titles I enjoy immensely despite my general aversion to open world games, for inspiration on how to handle their game environment. 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, but while GTA missions can often feel tangential to advancing any sort of plot, Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood work much harder to give each mission 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 its main missions, presenting more and different opportunities than if Batman had to chase down The Joker on the actual Arkham City streets.
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. I just hope that Rockstar can focus the experience for those of us who want more than simply the opportunity to wander around.