What We'd Like to See in the Next Grand Theft Auto

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The last time Grand Theft Auto made the leap from one generation to the next, Rockstar took that opportunity to shift the franchise's focus, moving away from some of the zanier aspects present in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It wasn't to everyone's liking, but I appreciated the change. I felt like the Saints Row series had the wacky open-world crime game covered, and was glad that GTA was moving into somewhat different territory. I think that the writers at Rockstar have perhaps the best ear for dialogue of anyone writing games today, and I was glad that cutscenes in Grand Theft Auto IV often took their time, focusing on developing character as much as on setting up whatever absurd excuse would carry you through the next mission. Now that Grand Theft Auto will inevitably be transitioning once again from one console generation to another, I expect that Rockstar will once again take the opportunity to reevaluate the series' direction to ensure that the GTA games of the future don't feel like they're covering the same territory as the GTA games of the past.

I have no idea where Rockstar might take the series, but I hope that it goes against the conventional wisdom in game design right now that bigger worlds are better worlds. There's a lot of attention being paid to the size of games like The Witcher 3 and The Crew, and given that Grand Theft Auto V was so much bigger than GTAIV geographically, Rockstar might feel a certain pressure to continue making its games bigger in scope. But rather than going broader, I'd much rather that the next GTA go deeper. Instead of a bigger world and more main characters than GTAV's trio of miscreants, I'd prefer a more focused game that lets me get to know a pair of characters better.

After GTA V's vast scope and glamorous view of criminal life, maybe it's time for a smaller, bleaker GTA.
After GTA V's vast scope and glamorous view of criminal life, maybe it's time for a smaller, bleaker GTA.

And, yes, I'd like at least one of those characters to be a woman. When Grand Theft Auto III debuted, the series felt daring and subversive. Now, it has started to feel safe and predictable. We know what the tone of its satire will be. We know what the gameplay will be like. I want Grand Theft Auto to find ways to feel daring again, and I think that the best way to do that is not to double down on crude humor and excessive violence but to move in a more intimate direction and really try to tell a story about people we care about in some way. And it's sad but true that, given the relative scarcity of female protagonists in AAA games, pinning a GTA game on a female character would seem like a bold move.

What would make it even bolder would be if the game really wanted us to see that character as a complex, three-dimensional person. Of course, it's Grand Theft Auto. You have to be able to engage in criminal acts. You have to be someone who does bad things. But that doesn't mean that the characters have to be detestable. Currently, I'm pretty hooked on the FX television show The Americans, about a pair of Russian spies in deep cover in the United States, posing as a normal suburban American married couple, complete with two kids. They're sometimes forced into situations where they have to kill people, but they don't relish it, and the relationship dynamic between Philip and Elizabeth, the husband and wife, is fraught with complications because they love each other but often have very different ideas about what they're doing. I don't want the next Grand Theft Auto to model itself on The Americans or anything, but I think the show demonstrates that you can place complex characters in morally compromised situations without either celebrating the violence they engage in or making us hate the characters who are engaging in it, and I'd like the next GTA game to pull this off, too.

GTA can give us characters we care about or it can give us a world filled with crude humor. It shouldn't keep trying to do both.
GTA can give us characters we care about or it can give us a world filled with crude humor. It shouldn't keep trying to do both.

Shifting up the series' approach to character would also mean shifting up its approach to world building. If GTA does try to tell a story that's more grounded in character, it needs to give those characters a grounded world to inhabit, not one in which every billboard and every radio ad sacrifices believability for crude humor. The humor of the series, which is part of what once made it feel daring and subversive, is an aspect of it that's on the verge of feeling tired and predictable. Grand Theft Auto V's attempts to lampoon contemporary American culture and social media weren't so much insightful and biting as they were just plain bitter and misanthropic. I think it's time for the series to retire this trend and let the meaning of its story emerge naturally from its characters and the society in which they exist.

It's also been quite a while since the series took us to a different time period, and after both GTAIV and GTAV presented visions of early-21st-century America, I'd like the series to once again set its sights on another era. We've already had GTA filtered through the lens of sleek, neon-lit 1980s excess in Vice City, but a bleaker 1980s GTA set in a more working-class city like Chicago or Detroit could be great, and given the vast chasm between the image of early 80s American life sold by the Reagan administration and the reality of it as experienced by so many Americans, this setting could afford the series the opportunity to continue exploring the theme of the American dream in a way that feels organic and relevant.

At the end of the day, it's not the when or the where of the next GTA that I really care about. It's the spirit of it. I want it to surprise us with its subject matter. I want it to actually say something meaningful about life in America. I want it to truly be the bold, daring, subversive game that Grand Theft Auto games now only pretend to be.

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