Grand Theft Auto And A Different Kind Of Fun

I distinctly remember the first time I saw Grand Theft Auto III in the flesh. It's completely burned into my memory in the strangest way.

My brother brings home a brand new PlayStation 2, alongside with an entourage of friends. He places the disc in the tray, he sits cross-legged amongst hordes of our friends, hypnotised. I stand in the periphery but I may as well be miles away. I watch for about 10 minutes then get on with my business. I don’t get it.

Meh. Not interested.

This was before the juggernaut. Before the hype, before gamers and the press got wind of the revolution, before Grand Theft Auto III became the default game of its generation the way Ocarina of Time was years before. But still, that was my reaction — I watched for a bit, shrugged my shoulders, and walked away.

Talking about that experience now, with distance, it seems like a mild form of long-term insanity. I remember being a little bewildered and confused by my own malaise. My brother's friends were losing their minds, and this wasn't hype — no-one in this room was being told what to react to — they hadn't read reviews, they hadn't spent months researching trailers online. This game had simply found its way into this room, into my brother's brand new PlayStation 2 and changed their lives.

I felt confused, like a kid who doesn't get the joke. I had misunderstood the punchline.

And, like a little smart-arse, of course I voiced my opinion.

"I don't get this, what am I doing here?"

"Steal the car and start running over everyone. See how many stars you can get before you die!"

I tolerated it, I wanted to be part of the fun, but I didn't really get it. It never clicked.

I found it impossible to overcome the feeling that describing what was happening in GTAIII was far more exciting than the act of doing it. Stealing a car, running over pedestrians and taking on the cops in a fully functioning open world sounded like the most entertaining thing in the world, but when it came to actually performing that task it always felt flat.

And this feeling persisted. While my friends were getting geared up for the release of both Vice City and San Andreas, I was bracing myself for disappointment. I bought and played both games — Vice City did the best job of almost converting me with its focused theme and incredible soundtrack, but neither did much to change my opinion. I felt like a stranger at a family reunion — someone on the outside looking in.

San Andreas, in particular, felt like a game completely without focus — as though someone had thrown a massive list of features at a velcro dartboard hoping something would stick. At the time I was in love with Metal Gear Solid 3, a smaller game, dense with detail. In comparison San Andreas felt like a sheet of cling film stretched tight over the Sahara. Rockstar provided one of the biggest playgrounds I had ever seen, but it felt like a desolate wasteland.

But despite this, years later, as the result of confusion and an Editorial switch around, I was given the task of writing Australia's first local review of Grand Theft Auto IV. A game that, at the time, I literally couldn't care less about.

It seemed like a recipe for disaster.

But then I started playing and, slowly but surely, I began to fall in love with the franchise I had grown up ignoring.

Grand Theft Auto IV took everything I had grown up hating about the series, and replaced it with something that was either more rewarding or simply more tolerable. The controls I had grown to loath were now infinitely more manageable, the sprawling, flat map of San Andreas was replaced with the focused, gorgeously rendered Liberty City — a location that pulsed with the force of its own energy, a location with verticality, and believable characters seamlessly weaved into a redemption story that I wasn't embarrassed by. GTAIV's Niko may have been a brooding psychopath, guilty of murdering hundreds upon hundreds of innocent civilians throughout my 30 hour playthrough, but it was one of the few times where my onscreen avatar felt like something more than a derivative Hollywood knock off, and that was significant.

In hindsight this reaction was another strange one — once again I found myself on the periphery. Most fans of the series now look back upon GTAIV as this strange blip — a moment where Rockstar drained the fun of Grand Theft Auto and replaced it with a dreary sense of its own self importance. 'There aren't any planes?' 'Where are the parachutes?' 'Why won't they just let me have fun?' But with Grand Theft Auto IV I was having more fun I'd had in all the other games combined.

Some of the verbs were missing, but those that remained were bound by a new sense of gravity. I couldn’t fly in Grand Theft Auto IV, I could use a parachute, I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t form a gang — but all these mechanics, that seemed to me so extraneous and self indulgent, weren’t missed in a game where the glorious detail, animation and sense of place rendered even the smallest action more significant and fun.

People seem to forget that the fun of Grand Theft Auto IV was the joy of simply existing, playing in a world that you could prod with a stick, and the world would prod back. Liberty City was an incredible achievement because it was a universe that you could bend to your will, but in a strange dichotomy it was often oblivious to your existence — that was the power of its scale, and the depth of its commitment to detail.

To me GTAIV represents a different kind of fun.

This morning I spent two hours playing through the opening missions of Saints Row: The Third. In those two hours I robbed a bank, smashed 20 folks in the balls with a briefcase, launched a policeman into the air with a bizarre Japanese human catapult. I set a man on fire — I launched massive airstrikes remotely, I shot down seven helicopters. In its own way this was fun, but I found searching the Tall Trees for Hummingbird Sage in Red Dead Redemption far more engaging. That’s the kind of fun Grand Theft Auto IV represented, and I hope Rockstar continue in that vein with Grand Theft Auto V.

Once again I find myself on the periphery. Most people want that return to San Andreas, a return to the insanity. But we already have Saints Row for that — a game that has found its niche and expanded upon it. I know I’m in the vast minority here, but I hope that Rockstar continues to invest in a different kind of fun — the kind that comes from interacting with a believable world that reacts to your existence in meaningful ways.

That’s the kind of Grand Theft Auto I want to play.


    AH! Mark you might want to put a break in you have managed to fill the entire home page screen with the entire article instead of a small extract of it lol =)

      This happening just before I leave the office for a long length of time is the kind of thing I have nightmares about. Literally.

      That's because the front screen is supposed to show you the must-read important bits. See what I did there?

      And Mark, if you're not going to write reviews but are going to write articles like these then I will be one happy Kotaku reader.

        Kind of interesting word choice there: "vast minority". I'm with you. I did love GTA III when it came out, but GTA IV and RDR just had so much more soul and have stayed with me.

    I'm with you on this one brother.

    I completely agree with this sentiment.

      I'm on the fence. Just like I didn't HATE GTA IV but didn't love it as much as previous titles.

      I most certainly disagree with the "we already have Saints Row for that" argument. Why? Well GTA started out being a massive playground long before Saints Row came around - this is no disrespect to Saints Row which is a fun game that I'm glad is to some extent, a replacement to old GTA titles for this gen.

      I don't care if developers take their series in different directions - but Saints Row IMO isn't a valid point to make considering it was released after San Andreas. GTA was always known for its insanity. Whether it is ones cup of tea is up to each individual.

      I would prefer for Rockstar to explore its original roots of insanity and somehow offer their in-depth storylines seen with Niko and in Red Dead - if they don't, well they're still gonna sell millions and I will still probably buy the game cause it will likely still be fun, much like GTA IV was.

      However - Rockstar have proved with Red Dead and publishing LA Noire, that they can still be successful (and FUN) whist taking that mature, realism approach compared to their Vice City and San Andreas approaches. SO why not please original fans with GTA V and still showcase their extreme talent in new and exciting adventures of other titles?

    I completely disagree with this sentiment. GTA:VC was by far the best game in the series, followed by GTASA.

      this is how I feel too.

      maybe I should check out saints row?
      I remember playing the first years ago and didn't really like it, and haven't bothered since. But if its like what GTA used to be, probably worth a check.

    I'm fine with V being similar to IV...

    ... As long as I get to fly some damn planes!

    I personally find it hard to go back to older GTA games because of the lack of Euphoria Physics.

    Damn you, technology! DAMN YOU!

      This! & the controls on PC aren't as smooth as they are in IV. Means I can't finish Vice City :(

    Man, I cannot agree enough with this article. Great piece.

    I played and liked every GTA before it, but IV just felt so right, so tightly focussed. Same with The Lost and Damned.

      Absolutely - GTAIV was adult - as good as the rest were they were somewhat juvenile... Maybe my age now fits more with Rockstar's philosophy?

      Either way if Rockstar keep releasing games in the vein of GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption I will be a gamer for life...
      Great article Mark as always \o/

    I sort of agree but than again what were the alternatives back than? go play Baldurs Gate?I don't think so! but I hold your hopes that GTA 5 will be 4s spiritual successor

      The alternatives back then were great. No one ever needed GTA to have fun games to play.

    Love this, dude. I totally dig GTA IV for the same reasons. Also, nobody on the planet does satire with the same deft marksmanship of R*.

    Thank you for this article. I enjoyed the others but I loved RDR and GTA IV for there mature storyline. It was dark and broody and I got so much more out of it. I would take my time to decide what I was going to do when push came to shove....a block of a scaffold. I actually wondered if I would regret not giving him a chance to live and get out of town. This GTA was built for me and people like me. For the first time someone has defended their direction and said exactly what I thought about IV, it was awesome.


    For me, it was screwing around with the AI:

    A lot of the comment agree that IV was tightly focused. I strongly disagree. I hated GTAIV because it forced you off the main game constantly with the stupid mobile phone calls. I know about 10 people who own it, and literally none have finished it. They all said the same thing - why do I keep having to hang out with my cousin. This has nothing to do with anything! don't have to - it's a choice.
      Cultivate relationships and have some help or don't and continue on your merry way.

        My problem: he keeps calling. In real life, he'd have taken the hint after a while, but not this guy!

          Turn the phone off.

      That's funny, all the people I know who have it (friends and general others I happen upon at my residence) have finished it. Each to their own, I guess, but honestly, it is still my favourite game of all the ones I have played.

    I think you have nothing to worry about Mark.
    With GTAIV, RDR and LANoire, Rockstar are fashioning themselves into a publisher that provides mature, substantial stories and experiences for adults.

    Can we not like both?

    I enjoyed the shit out of GTA4's story, its world and just the way it felt. I remember my first time shooting someone and man, it blew me (And subsequently them) away.

    But at the same time I loved CJ's odyssey across California.

    My biggest beef with IV was that it dropped you in this massive city and... just did nothing with it. The amount of times I've dropped into multiplayer matches to find myself fighting across a section of the city I'd never seen before staggered me.

    My biggest beef with SA was that it just gave you lots of pointless shit to do. Buying houses, gang wars (Christ that turf war bit on your return to Los Santo's just went on forever)

    I think they found a better balance in RDR and I hope they continue on with it.

      +1 for Both...

      Although ultimately I didn't really care for the way they chose to end GTAIV with the Who Do You Chose mission, but I did like the more mature story.

      It's still had it's fair share of crazy characters, so there was nothing really missing.

      As you mentioned, you get dropped into the city and there really it's anything to do. There are the hidden packages, jumps, police missions, car theft and that was about it. Would love to have the Fire, Ambo, Taxi, Pizza missions all added back in.

      For all the sparse areas in RDR, there was still alot more to do than GTAIV, so I do have plenty of hope they will feature alot of activities.

      I'm hoping that they deliver both, perhaps GTAV will be the main game and then like GTAIV and RDR have a large DLC expansion that focuses on all the crazy stuff.

        Yup, this is why I bought myself a second hand copy of Just Cause 2. When I want insane and senseless destruction and violence, I slap that puppy in. When I want to enjoy an experience... well at the moment it is Shadow of the Colossus.

    The vastly improved gameplay (especially with the addition of the cover system) was the reason why I could play through IV and the two expansions. I was 2/3 of the way through III before giving up due to frustrating missions.

    I could have written this article word-for-word (minus the brother story) because it is pretty much exactly how I feel. I still have this strong desire to go back and visit Liberty City, which is a surreal feeling.

    I remember reading the GTA IV walkthrough guide you wrote Mark. Is there a chance you were forced to play through it and your love for the game grew from there? Like, some sort of... reverse-cabin fever.

      Stockholm syndrome :D

    I got hooked on GTA with GTA. The first one. It was 1997 and I was in Studio Arts class and one of my mates had it on his laptop. There went my [Studio Arts] grades for the rest of the year.

    GTA2 was also amazing, but I found the gang respect feature really changed the gameplay. It was also GTA2 when I started playing GTA online. At the time, it was the most intense online gameplay I'd ever experienced.

    My memories of GTAIII include hanging at a mates house from friday night to sunday night, playing it on his PS2 (trying to drive the stretch limosine away from police, up a grassy hill, during a storm, with classical music playing, was a moment both memorable and hilarious). And getting my hands on a leaked copy of the PC version in January 2002.

    Honestly, none of them have ever really clicked with me. I probably spent the most amount of time with the first game (as in, Grand Theft Auto, not GTA3) but it always felt unfocused and mindless.

    If there's one thing I hope they fix in the next one, it's the driving. For a game where you spend so much time behind the wheel, the cars sure feel awful to control...

      Well, they actually aren't that inaccurate. In real life, you brake before you corner. If you don't, you end up skidding or flipping over. It's just that in the world of GTA you don't seem to be driving very fast, and so you end up trying to corner at speeds that you wouldn't try if you were behind the wheel. If you still have trouble, or want more speed around the corners, either:
      1. Use a motorcycle and use the parking brake and leaning forward around corners
      2. Get a feel for what angle your car needs to be to drift (remember to turn your wheel in the direction of the drift, not the corner, it tends to work better like that in GTA)

        Thankyou! I have no idea why everyone whinges so much about GTA's vehicle physics, I think they feel fantastic. People seem to completely under-estimate just how fast they are driving, and they have no familiarity with how the momentum feels of an average car going 200kph (especially one swerving through traffics and normal street-widths, not huge well designed race tracks). . Neither do I in real life, but I find GTA IV's driving physics endlessly fun. :)

    I write something just this morning on my thoughts re: GTA vs Saint's row, so I'll copy paste it here since it's kind of relevant:

    When you think about it, it really is amazing that a person can have more fun walking into traffic than visiting a strip club. On paper, there is no reason why Saint's Row 2 should have been more enjoyable than GTA IV.

    It's not really the opportunity for mayhem that made SR2 appeal to me more than GTA IV did, though that is part of it. The missions were generally just more fun, the entire setting was goofy and while I enjoy a nice, serious dramatic game I think that GTA IV was too grounded in grittiness and frustrating diversions. It provided us with a great open world but it felt like our options were limited. I did enjoy playing GTA IV when it was shiny and new, but I enjoyed SR2 a lot more and going back to GTA IV was difficult.

    The fact that SR2 required you to perform sidequests and diversions to progress the main story should have been a dealbreaker for a lot of people but they were so much fun that it was hard to care.

    SR3 isn't just about Man Cannons, Apocofists, weaponised dildos and hoverjets equipped with microwave beams - I think that the story missions are going to be wild and crazy and stupid as well, and the arsenal just gives us mountains of options.

    GTA V doesn't need to be wild and crazy, but to earn back it's reputation as a first-class sandbox game it needs to be littered with stuff that's enjoyable to do. Sure, give us the option of taknig friends bowling, or drinking, or to strip clubs. I loved those things about GTA IV. I didn't even mind that we had to maintain relationships to maintain the beneficial favours those relationships offered. I just didn't like having to do it all the freaking time.

    This town IS big enough for Saint's Row AND Grand Theft Auto. GTA just needs to remind us why it was once on top.


    For the record Mark, I think to date my favourite GTA was Vice City, and I personally never really liked San Andreas much. GTAIII mainly clicked with me because it was the game I imagined when my friends explained their experiences with GTA 1 and 2. When I actually played them, great though they were, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. when GTAIII came along it was like all my prayers were answered at once. Vice City gave us more interesting characters, a slightly crazier setting and an awesome soundtrack to go wild with.

    When San Andreas came along I was turned off in the early game by the bicyles, the need to eat food and go to the gym. I found them issions frustrating and the diversions dull. The map was huge but that just made it feel more devoid of content. I never finished it. I don't think I ever even progressed far enough to get out of the starting house in Grove street (I'm assuming you move to a better place as you progress through the story).

    When GTAIV came along I was treated to great graphics, interesting characters with interconnecting story threads, and Niko's level of involvement with the world was such that you kind of felt like the stuff you were doing mattered.
    Then after spending 30-40 hours with it, I was done. I had played the story, explored the city, and it no longer interested me.

    I never got into Saint's Row 1 - I played it for a handful of hours and got bored.

    Saint's Row 2 on the other hand... I don't know if it was a tweak to the control scheme, the updated graphics, or what, but I took a chance on it and it was great.

    Is Saint's Row better than GTA? No, not really. The story isn't particularly deep or clever, everything is cartoonishly over the top... but it has a certain something that kept me interested.

    I recently picked up Red Dead Redemption and while I enjoyed playing it, I haven't been able to spend a lot of time with it. I can see why people like it, and I like it too. Very early on in the game, effectively after the opening scene, I was riding from the farm to the main town. I think that journey took me the better part of two hours because I couldn't help but track down and skin every animal I saw. I started picking off birds and gathering their feathers. My wife looked over at the TV, momentarily distracted from Minecraft.

    "Are you picking flowers?"
    "It would seem so."
    "I... I don't know."
    "This game has a story, right?"

    My wife returned to her game of Minecraft, I went on skinning coyotes.

    I think if the next GTA is more like Red Dead and less like GTA IV, it will be really great. I don't want to compare Saint's Row with GTA anymore because they're two entirely different things now. As long as Saint's Row the Third and Grand Theft Auto 5 both offer me the same amount of entertainment (even if they provide it in different ways) I will be happy to love them equally.

    Completely agree with you Mark, coincidentally, GTAIV was the only one I bought instead of pirated :P

    I totally agree. I find that the madness of GTA IV and RDR was still there, but it was more located in the multiplayer parts. It was in the multiplayer that I had the most 'fun'. It was in the single player that I had the most enjoyment. I was able to immerse myself in the same way that I immerse myself in a book. Funnily enough the same friends that have not cared for GTA IV and RDR's singleplayer are the same friends who don't like reading.

    I feel like Rockstar have learnt a lot from working on GTA IV and RDR (in regards to the new culture of console gaming that has developed with the current generation of consoles), and that they'll produce something amazing for GTA V.

    Very interesting article. I have to simultaneously agree and disagree about some of these things.

    I enjoyed GTA IV's gameplay immensely, but its story didn't fit the gameplay. Why blazenly and remorselessly gun down hundreds of thugs (and maybe hundreds of innocents and cops in sandbox mode) and then lament on and on about the evils of killing?

    Massive disconnect there.

    At least in San Andreas and Vice City, you were playing as sociopaths. It made sense to stuff around and shoot things for the hell of it.

    I couldn't bring myself to deviate from the GTA IV missions because it divorced me from the themes and point of the story.

      Incidentally, this gameplay/story disconnect was at least as severe an issue in RDR.

      Fully agree - that's what I was kinda trying to get at with 'my Niko was a murdering psychopath' thing. There is that disconnect. It's worse in RDR in a way...

    GTA IV I struggled with. I'm not through it yet, but I don't find it as captivating as I did with III and SA. III I loved because it was 'new' and SA just blew me away. I played through SA a few times. I'll eventually finish IV then just set it down.

    The big gripe I have with every GTA, I completely understand why it's done though, you drive along, look back then look forward, then there is a cop in front of you. Mission failed.

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