Can Grand Theft Auto V Steal My Heart?

The gameplay of Rockstar's GTA games is often imitated, but the series' essence is never duplicated. Carolyn Petit explores what makes the games special to her, and what she hopes to find in GTAV.

by

My love of Grand Theft Auto runs deep. The moment I first fired up Grand Theft Auto III and was set free in a modern-day city is one of the most singular and unforgettable game experiences of my life. As the rain came down in Liberty City, I knew that I was experiencing something new and important, a revolution in games whose influence on the future of the medium would be tremendous.

What was so new and exhilarating about GTAIII was the opportunity to explore and discover a world that looked and felt like places I'd lived. Most games were relegated to realms of science fiction and fantasy. Here was not just a contemporary city, but a city that felt lived in; it was grungy and grimy. It had strip clubs and liquor stores. It wasn't trying to present an idealized, escapist portrait of urban life. It was holding up a mirror to the dirty, downtrodden realities of so many American cities. No, it didn't spend much time analyzing the multifaceted ills of our society. It wasn't trying to be The Wire, and though the biting satire on the radio smartly skewered our consumer culture, the game often devolved into broad, lowest-common-denominator comedy. Though social criticism was scant in the narrative, concerns about socioeconomic strife were inescapably woven into the texture of the world. I was inhabiting a dirty, troubled city in a video game, and it was exhilarating.

GTA is much more than the sum of its gameplay mechanics, more than its structured missions and the freedom to go on crime sprees.
Beginning almost immediately after GTAIII was released, gameplay elements of GTA began cropping up in many other games. I remember being shocked when Jak II, of all games, lifted much of its structure and gameplay from GTAIII, and of course, other franchises like True Crime and Saints Row have been inspired not just by GTA's gameplay, but by its urban environments and crime-oriented subject matter. I played and enjoyed some of these games, but none of them ever got inside me the way GTA games have. The experience always reinforced my belief that GTA is much more than the sum of its gameplay mechanics, more than its structured missions and the freedom to go on crime sprees or blast things to bits with a tank. With a significant amount of news about GTAV about to break, I'm hoping that these qualities I find essential to the texture and the experience of Grand Theft Auto carry over to the newest entry in the series.

An authentic sense of place is crucial to the experience. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas used Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas as the basis of its three cities, and as I traveled around, I was constantly struck by just how authentic so much of the game's virtual world felt. It wasn't just the big details--things like the Watts Towers, the Golden Gate Bridge, the hotels on the Las Vegas Strip--that made San Andreas a compelling stand-in for these cities I knew so well. This seemed like the easy stuff. No, it was so many other things--the murals on the sides of bars, the tiny houses in poor neighborhoods and the mansions in the hills, the distinctive buildings that only locals would recognize and appreciate--that made San Andreas feel like so much more than just a place designed for a video game. It was a place I could believe in, a place where just finding a good song on the radio and driving around felt like a little getaway, albeit a getaway to a typically complex, diverse, beautiful, and ugly part of America.

Though other games in the GTA mold have had urban settings, they've often felt a bit too shiny, a bit too artificial, to pull me in. Rockstar does its research. It understands cities, and knows how to design ones that feel organic. I had never visited New York City when GTAIV was released and drew me into its reconceived Liberty City, but it nonetheless felt to me like a real place, simply because the characteristics of its various neighborhoods, and the way they fit together, were believable. When I finally made my way to New York City, I found that I recognized far more of the real city from my experiences in the virtual one than I had anticipated.

The palm trees and smoggy skies were just two of the countless details that made me feel at home in the Los Santos of GTA: San Andreas.

GTA isn't just about the places, though. At its best, it's about its characters and the things that happen to them, about issues both personal and political. I think that, more than any other series, GTA has challenged conventional notions of who and what games can be about. While many games are about space marines or ninjas or heroes of destiny, the stuff of fantasy novels or action movies, GTA: San Andreas gave us Carl "CJ" Johnson, a young black man who comes back to the poor neighborhood where he grew up after his mother dies in a shooting that's seemingly gang-related. I felt that CJ wound up being irritatingly inconsistent, but in 2003, it was refreshing just to have a game about a minority character, and a story that dealt with real social problems.

During the climax of San Andreas, the streets of Los Santos erupt in riots when a corrupt cop is found not guilty. It was a deliberate echo of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but it didn't feel cheap or tacked on in the least. The game was largely about people in power (in this case, corrupt cops) abusing that power, and the way the seething rage of the populace erupted in the game's finale was fitting and memorable. San Andreas wasn't just a game about jacking cars and going on crime sprees. It was about bigger things.

More than any other series, GTA has challenged conventional notions of who and what games can be about.
Though the writing was inconsistent, there were a few great moments that suggested a promise unfulfilled. For me, that promise was delivered on in GTAIV. Here was a game with cutscenes that took their time observing their characters, a game that understood that not every moment needs to move the plot forward, that time spent just listening to characters speak to each other can deepen our sense of connection to them. In Niko Bellic, it gave us another character who is unique in the annals of video game protagonists, a man from Eastern Europe who came to the US to escape his troubled past and live the American dream. Like so many people who come to America, he finds that the reality is quite different from the image he has bought into.

New to the series in GTAIV was something I hope to see return in GTAV: moral choices that occupy a gray area in which neither choice is right. Moral choices in games have gotten more thorny and complicated in recent years, but still, none have troubled me as much as those in GTAIV. Some people feel that the GTA games represent some of the most immoral experiences games have to offer; I couldn't disagree more. There can be no real examination of morality without confrontations of things like free will and acts of evil. GTAIV gives you freedom and forces you to make some excruciating decisions with terrible consequences. If that's not moral storytelling, I don't know what is.

Taking lives no longer felt inconsequential to me in GTA IV, and I was grateful for that.

Earlier GTA games had less detailed visuals and more exaggerated displays of blood and violence that made wanton acts of violence cartoonish. The greater realism of GTAIV made me feel like taking a life was a drastic act that had real finality to it. I'm glad that GTA gives you the freedom to wreak havoc as you see fit--I understand that it can be a lot of fun to just go on rampages--but I saw Niko as a man with demons who was trying to be a good person but couldn't escape his past, and so I kept innocent casualties to an absolute minimum. Carelessly taking innocent lives in GTAIV just didn't sit right with me. Given that Saints Row has now established itself as a playground of the absurd, I hope that GTAV continues to feature moral, thematically rich storytelling with strong human elements, like Johnny Klebitz's complex concerns for his drug addict ex-girlfriend, and Luis Lopez's strained relationship with his mother.

There can be no real examination of morality without confrontations of things like free will and acts of evil.
And then, of course, there's the music, lingering in the background and providing essential support to the game's themes and world. I think Rockstar had it easy with Vice City and San Andreas; looking back on a place and time, the definitive music stands out. With GTAIV, Rockstar faced a greater challenge, but also had more freedom to create a musical texture that it felt worked within the world, rather than being able to rely on a historical one. I think Rockstar succeeded with flying colors. Tunes like Hello's "New York Groove" worked as celebrations of the game's take on the Big Apple; Marvin Gaye's timeless song about life in a poor neighborhood, "Inner City Blues," reflected the game's concerns about the hollowness of the American dream; and the catchy pop tune "O Tebe" by Russian group Ranetki Girls is a perfect fit in a game that recognizes that the United States is a nation of immigrants. I'm eager to start finding out what sorts of songs might make their way onto the soundtrack for GTAV. I'll be surprised if Red Hot Chili Peppers' bittersweet ode to Los Angeles, "Under the Bridge," isn't on the list.

But all of this speculation can get me only so far. What the best GTA games have always done, and what I hope GTAV does as well, is surprise me by doing things I don't anticipate. Will I rise to power in a massive corporation and make decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of American workers? Will the knotty issues of immigration and border patrol politics come up in the narrative? Whatever the plot entails, I expect that we'll get a culturally diverse, socioeconomically complex, vibrant world to inhabit, and the opportunity to see it from the perspectives of both the privileged and the unfortunate. In any case, I can't wait to visit Los Santos again and discover what it has to offer for the first time.

Discussion

318 comments
coolkid93
coolkid93

It already jacked my heart. Can't wait til V. 

DougEStyle
DougEStyle

I am looking forward to playing Gta5, I play 4 alot and still hear and see new things that the comp ppl do and say in the game. Funny funny stuff!

Atheosis
Atheosis

GTA IV sucked, so I'm not all that optimistic about GTA V.

DeanoFantasy
DeanoFantasy

GTA = A successful business woman, Saints Row = A successful hooker.

oflow
oflow

the last saints row game out gta'd gta.  Hope they do better on this one.

wizardboyus
wizardboyus

people still listen to red hot chili peppers? XD

Mr__Maniacal
Mr__Maniacal

", it was refreshing just to have a game about a minority character, and a story that dealt with real social problems."

 

Yeah so long as i get to pretend i'm a poor black guy in the ghetto doing crime to make it to the top and satisfy my greedy nature. Then i can shut it off and be white again. you dumb Phuck how dare you make a statement like that. keep your fat ass on the couch and just shut the hell up.

bottaboomstick
bottaboomstick

I loved every GTA game on the console. I often wish someone else would make a game like Rockstar does....but alas only they can create a world that sucks me in. RDR was great as well.

yohansetiawan
yohansetiawan

I love San Andreas :) very memorable, especially when riding in side country and listening to K-Rose radio =D

spideyj08
spideyj08

wow that was a great read. a nice recap, piecing up all the good-old gta memories. at the end of the article , i felt like i relived the gta days, only to build up on the excitement of the things gta V will offer. 

Doom_J
Doom_J

Jesus christ, enough with the bitching and moaning about gta4 (thats right, I gave it american numbers instead of romman numerals.. Because im not the one of the creators of this game, or a pretentious douchebag) "oh, why cant I still work out and add hydraulics to my car. I have to fulfil my life fantasy of being black and not a fatass" You guys are such fucking weenies. Not only did rockstar create a MUCH better, more intelligent story with a nice, lengthy campaign,(I hear half you assholes complaining all the time about how games dont have any respect for single player anymore, and it was in fact, a cheif complaint for max payne 3, for reasons I cant possibly concieve, since in my opinon, the sp was great, while the mp was nothing to write home about) And, once again, did something no other games at the time did(outside of an mmo, anyway)... It allowed you to go online and explore the world along with others. You could pretty much do anything you could do offline( obviously except for missions, things that only niko would be doing, or entering most buildings/doing boring stuff you weren't already doing, but honestly, if you were complainimg about that during a time when for other games of this ilk, didn't even give you that option anyway, you dont deserve to give an opinion) gta 4 was just another game in the series that just moved the whole gaming world as a whole, forward. I dont think it be a stretch to say that the gta series is one of, if not the most, important and influencial games of our time. So of course with the weight of iys own greatness stacked against it, there will be difficult to keep itself at a balance of innovating and giving players what they think they want. But I for one, have nothing but the upmost faith in these guys, as they have never disappointed me with a gta game. If you can look past the nitpicks and the "aww why isnt it the same thing again" bandwagon (because so many of yousay you were dissapointed, but either give the same reason for your view as you saw someone else give, or cant be bothered to give a real opinion because your only trying to be contrarian to us "sheep" ) this could be the greatest game of this console generation. But hey, if not, at the end of the day its your problem, and your the one who will be enjoying life just a bit less. No need to rain on our parade just so you can feel like a cool asshole.

Sprock26
Sprock26

Iam really looking forward to this game, although i was very disappointed with GTAIV. It was a big letdown compared to San Andreas! 

ZodofWar
ZodofWar

I loved this article. With the GTAV news about to hit at some point, and the speculation that GTA:SA is about to be released on the PS3, Everything is coming up Zod, it seems. I can't wait to get back into Grove Street and mix things up again. I wonder if I still remember my workout regimen?

KD35RW0JH13
KD35RW0JH13

Got some rare things on sale stranger!

cccp3000
cccp3000

Is Niko gonna make an appearance in GTAV

CaptainKrunch10
CaptainKrunch10

I hope they don't do something like Saint row 3. That game was so awful.

Subhajit333
Subhajit333

GTA IV is one of my most favourite game that i ever played in my life and i thinked that GTA V will steal my heart and it will be better than GTA IV (<__<)  (#__#)  (@__@) 

JohnnyWeird
JohnnyWeird

I was a huge fan of Vice City and San Andreas, so seeing how huge a step backwards GTA IV was made it the most disappointing game I'd played in years. That being said, I'm still willing to give GTA V a chance, but I'm going to have to wait for the reviews.

aniemouse
aniemouse

its rock star it will be good just buy it when it comes out im not even going to wait on a review.  the only game with rockstar on the label i did not like was LA NOIR i hated that game but it wasnt a true rockstar game anyway so i dont mind not counting it.  the best thing about a GTA game to me is that its really only as violent as the person playing makes it.  you can just go on a murder crazy killing spree but you dont have to

daBrokenFace
daBrokenFace

I hope you can use a jet pack like in San Andreas

iloveyourface
iloveyourface

all i want is to have more save points. i hate doing a mission that takes 15 minutes and having to restart the whole thing.

eliebaz
eliebaz

I want planes in GTA V only let down of IV!!

liketires
liketires

All I want for GTA V is the ability to buy or inherit a mansion like in Vice City. I love having my own 4 car garage and my own pool and heli pad.

alien33
alien33

Great article! I agree completely. I love all GTAs and GTA4 is probably my fav.

tonyrobbins
tonyrobbins

I LOVE GTAV & I TRUST ROCKSTAR ..................THAT S ENOUGH FOR ME .IT WILL BE THE BIGEST GAME OF MY GAMER   LIFE AND HOPE IT WILL COME FOR PC WITH THE CONSOL RELEASE DATA.I BET THAT IS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

DystopianDon
DystopianDon

A more appropriate title for this article would have been, "A Love Letter, Dear GTA". I'm more interested in any speculations you have involving GTAV (covered briefly in the last paragraph); not so much dwelling on the past installments of the franchise. Although, context is everything, so thank you for the GTA history lesson, 101.

            As far as GTAV is concerned; a vivid depiction of our current economic whose, bipartisan bikering, class warfare and mass information stimulation, I suppose, will be the underlying themes. You bring to light an interesting concept in asking,"Will I rise to power in a massive corporation and make decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of American workers?" I'd think that be an unprecedented approach to the standard shoot and ask questions later mentality that is GTA. Given the obvious evolution of the GTA mission; my most memorable examples would be riding a bike to evade gang members as CJ in GTA: San Anderas & the grand scale of robbing a bank with a ski mask on as Niko in GTAIV; allowing the player to step into the greedy shoes of a corporate CEO doesn't seem too distant.

            Personally, with each epoch of gaming tech., from the PS2 to our current gen., GTA has flexed its muscle considerably. But the area in which I believe GTA, and most games for that matter have neglected, has been the improvement of AI. I cannot stress this enough. There is nothing else I'd enjoy more in the next installment than more, for lack of a better word, intelligent AI. Earlier this year at E3, a title called "Watch Dogs," impressed me in this area. I'd like to see Rockstar Games actually:

-scale down :0 in the environment department & have more detailed/excess-able interiors

-incorporate a higher number of "high production value" action orientated missions 

-bring the same amount of scale to non-violent missions

-improve character animations... parkour anyone?

-take a page from L.A. Noire's book and incorporate "RPG" type elements towards story telling and that everyone one doesn't have the same experience.

-revert back to game like GTAIII and GTA: San Andreas that IMHO has the most diverse radio stations to listen to

 

THANK YOU FOR READING THIS! PLEASE ADD TO THE CONVERSATION!

 

Rattlesnake_8
Rattlesnake_8

Heres hoping they do away with friends, having to take them out constantly to do side activities which are meant to be optional side activities. Bring back the fun of SA. I really liked all the GTA games, but the last one was severly lacking in extra things to do. We should be able to do armed hold ups, we should be able to buy properties for extra income, I shouldn't have to take a friend out every hour to make sure they still like me when I just want to do the story or have some fun racing around the streets.

Duckynevada
Duckynevada

 @Doom_J

 I completley agree gta4 took the series to a place it needed to go with next gen. I hope gta5 brings more of gritty real feel. niko was the best character for any gta by far

DougEStyle
DougEStyle

 @Doom_J

 I agree, of course they didn't add flying in 4, because it will be offered in 5. As in all game series if ppl would just pay attention, every game has something new in the next game. That is how they make you come back for more. Think McFly THINK!! I am still playing GTA4 to this day and love it. Great job Rockstar. Too many man babies thinking they need everything handed to them. Get up, get out, and get a job ppl!

Clarkovic
Clarkovic

 @Subhajit333

 Glad to see not everyone is jumping on this strange bandwagon of dissing gta4 - personally I loved gta4 as well - my fave mission ever was the bank job in that, albeit & mainly because it was a rip off of the film heat, Rockstar actually captured that feel it was mint.  Plus you could go watch Ricky Gervais doing stand-up what more could you want?

Mr__Maniacal
Mr__Maniacal

 @Duckynevada  @Doom_J  Uhmm no it didn't. they took freedom and crushed it with more and more rules and regulations. no flying, falling off a bike or flying out of a car wayy too easily, oh yeah the code thing on the cell phone. totally not fun at all and was a complete and utter failure. and im sorry to say 5 probably will be even worse. 

 VIDEO GAMES ARE DEAD. ITS ALL NOTHING BUT SNITTY PC GAMES ON EVERY SYSTEM

v1c3er
v1c3er

 @Clarkovic  @Subhajit333 err.. I think u meant katt williams right? And BTW. Yes GTA4 is the best game of all times period.

CaptainKrunch10
CaptainKrunch10

 @RubMyDucky

that's alright, you are entitled to your opinion, but that game was nothing but rubbish to me

Doom_J
Doom_J

@RubMyDucky @ZodofWar @CaptainKrunch10 get over it. SR was always a bit of a hand me down game compared to gta's department store brand. SR3 sucks because the shooting mechanic is garbage. Enemies barley register getting shot, and its 2012! The game is a classic argument for style over substance. Its pretty much and hd gta:sa, but a lot less engaging and alot more retarted