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.


Comments

    I still think GTA VC is the best of the franchise(ignoring the top down fun). Wasn't really focused on anything an had an uninteresting world.

    But I haven't been able to get into arockstar game in a while RDR bored me to tears and while I forced myself to finish it in the hopes it would improve I just found it getting worse

    GTA IV didn't har the magic in my opinion it went more serious which I can understand some may like that to me GTA was always a bit more on the absurd side. Thankfully though Saint's row can still satisfy that need.

    It's all well and good to have a tight directed experience but in an open world game if after the story is done I don't have fun messing around in the world I think it's a bad sign.

    Especially considering the ridiculous amount of hours ive sunk into VC,3, and other open world games he'll I even 100% JC2

    I haven't enjoyed *any* GTA game and haven't played any of them for more than a couple of hours. I just can't tolerate them at all, and just find them boring.

    Am I weird?

      I feel the same way. I just cant get into them. I still don't get the joke! That mobile phone gave me the shits... like my real life phone! It's not the sandbox either, I've played Assassins, Wastelanders and Batmen. I'm just not into the Rockstar recipe (I tried Red Dead) and will never buy another of their games.

    "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."

    This perfectly describes my experience with Minecraft. At least, before I started playing multiplayer with others.

    Anyway, as for GTA. I've placed 3, VC and SA at a friend's place (so you know, just grabbing the controller and stuffing around) and had a friend show me IV. But I can't say I in any way cared for any of them at all. Hated the way everything felt, hated the way it controlled, hated the way I couldn't understand a single thing being said in SA though that could just be me being racially intolerant. Nothing compelled me to want to get these games myself.

    Now GTA2 on the other hand. There's a game you can set your watch to. Also Chinatown Wars, although I didn't like how that took a few steps back from GTA2 in terms of exploring the environment and stuff. Man I loved those games though.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again, Volition did a better job at making a Grand Theft Auto game than Rockstar. Simple as that. If you enjoy GTAIV that's fine but for me it feels like a gritty reboot with a massive budget.
    They took a simplistic mayhem driven series and tried to legitimise it by bringing it down to Earth. Jack Thompson may have got disbarred but Rockstar gutted their franchise in a attempt to prove they were more than what people like he said they were, so who really won?

      I disagree, I think Rockstar has always known what they wanted GTA to be, and what you think it is is quite different. With IV, they close a big step closer to what they are really striving for. I think Mark's post is spot on, its not about being whacky fun or gritty realism, its about creating a living, complex subtle world to simply exist in.

        its not about being whacky fun or gritty realism, its about creating a living, complex subtle world to simply exist in.

        To say Rockstar wants the GTA series to be more like GTAIV is fine. I'm certain that's the direction they wanted to take. To say they were always striving to get there, that's just crazy. The games were about crazy, stupid fun.
        The stories may have been deeper than they were given credit for and the characters more interesting than the 2D thugs they come off as at a glance, but at it's core the game was about going crazy in a big city.

        I think Mark’s post is spot on, its not about being whacky fun or gritty realism, its about creating a living, complex subtle world to simply exist in.

        I don't completely agree with his take on it but yeah, that's essentially GTAIV's deal. If you enjoy that then that's a-ok with me. I just don't think anybody could say that about any of the previous games.
        If the previous games were trying to be like this the article would probably be titled 'five near misses and a bullseye'.

    I too enjoyed the more gritty version of GTA in IV. Just get rid of "friends" calling me every 20 minutes to hang out.

    I think it's Rockstar.

    I think they're trying to be more mature as a developer... the 'fun' isn't what important to them, unless it can be encapsulated in the story.

    Look at the direction their games have taken...
    LA Noire, GTA 4, Max Payne 3, RDR... serious titles all.

      I agree, yet when they do dial down the seriousness the silliness is so much more satisfying by the contrast. Look at Undead Nightmare. Just glorious.

    Games like GTA IV, it's expansions and RDR are finally getting it right by actually putting things at stake. Without stakes narrative just doesn't work; why should you care? It's far more interesting have a character go through an arc which is justifiably earned then running around with a jetpack in a moral vaccum.

    "Grand Theft Auto IV was the joy of simply existing"

    +1

    I feel somewhat similiarly, but for me none of the games have really hit the spot that I had imagined when I first played GTA2 at my friends house one afternoon.

    I'll admit that I probably prefer the GTA IV 'feel' more than I do the over the top '5th grade sense of humor' vibe the previous games had developed... even though GTA IV still feels like it's barely into high school :-P

    For me the big let downs have been in the gameplay. GTA III was passable for the time, but Vice City and San Andreas didn't really improve much when it came to the dodgy melee/shooting and the glitchy AI and hit detection. The driving was alright for the most part, but every so often you'd find yourself dead from some kind of glitch there as well.

    GTA IV improved on a lot of that, but it still wasn't where I feel it should be. I've always felt that Rockstar is good at throwing lots of things into the blender at once, but in doing so they tend to not care about each of those ingredients as much as they really should. The shooting and melee gameplay in GTA IV, while vastly improved, was simply not up to snuff in my opinion. I love the idea of using the Euphoria tech, but it didn't feel very polished in its implementation. I've watched Niko stumble uncontrollably for more than 2 city blocks on at least 4 occasions and that seems like a bit much. :-P

    Honestly, I wouldn't mind if they made the environment even smaller than LC was in GTA IV if they took the time and resources to really master all the little systems and gameplay mechanics and control issues in the game. That would be utterly perfect in my eyes.

    Wow, I actually came to this series without any hype via San Andreas - I was for the longest time a full on Nintendo fanboy who virtually lost interest in gaming due to the slow death of the game cube - back in 2008 my wife wanted to buy a PS2 for singstar - I thought 'why not' and then for a few months there we had a PS2 and a collection of Singstar games and Tekken 5 (I was a PS1 Tekken fan)

    In December of that year we were walking thru Big W and she offered to buy me a game, whatever I wanted - I had no idea what was good on the PS2, I was completely out of the loop on gaming and technically this was 2 years after anything good had been relesed for the machine.

    I looked at all the games there and one of them stood out to me, maybe it was heavily advertised on TV or something but I kind of half recognised the brand... "Maybe this one might be god, I think its popular?" I rold my wife as I picked up a copy of GTA San Andreas.

    I didn't play the game till early the next morning, I think I missed most of the opening cut scene and found myself on a bike with little to no idea how to control it trying to ride it towards a destination marker on the map but here's the thing - during that first bike ride I was marvelling at the details, I was heavily into learning about other cities and google earth and whatnot at the time and here was a simulated Los Angeles right on my TV that I could get around, by 2008 graphics had moved on from this in leaps and bounds but here I was oblivious to all that - marvelling at the fact that they put in powerlines and had the "LA river" and vending machines, you could walk through backyards and go into shops.

    My first play session (only tiny cuz I had to play before the kids got up) left me amazed, my second one that night had me hooked here I was playing a completely different type of 3D game, not a platformer with different worlds, not an FPS with bad guys jumping out at you, not some sort of Zelda clone with a vast overworld and dungeons - instead this was a full on world you could roam through and play a variety of missions all of which were varied and did different things with the world.

    As days turned into weeks I discovered little secrets - the fully working games of basketball and pool, the hidden arcade machines, the demolition derbys, the motorbikes - at first the motorbikes were impossible to ride and they gave you the hardest mission to cut your teeth on too - where you had to chase some OTT guy through hilly and winding streets - it took me forever to beat that mission but I loved it because even everytime I failed I still had a motorbike at the end and the more you rode the motorbikes the better you got at them!

    San Andreas was like that with everything - shoot enough people and then you could dual-wield weapons, ride a bicycle enough and you won't fall off, eat too much and you'll get fat, excercise at the gym and you'll bulk up.

    "All we had to do was follow the damn train CJ" I must've heard that line 50 times, there were some missions that we 'gnaw your own arm off hard' that one, the Zero missions, 'Learning to Fly', the last mission at the driving school.

    The characters were interesting, reflecting a setting that I hadn't paid much attention to in popular culture - I started to get interested in watching the crime channel more, I suddenly was able to tell an SMG from an AK-47.

    The voice overs were (and still are) amazing one time I shot a guy in the street and another guy walked past the dead body and told him to "walk it off!" CJ himself was incredible dealing out smart-ass quips as he kicked and punched his way through the hospital courtyard (how many times did respawn at that hospital only to kick a bunch of peds, kill a cop, steal his baton, kill the next cop, steal his pistol, steal the cop car and drive through the barrier onto the freeway below hot tailing it to the hole in the freeway which lines right up with Grove street to get to my safe house!

    Then about 3 months in (I work so I don't much spare time to play these things) I was dumped out in the country suddenly it was almost a completely different game and a different vibe getting to know where all the towns, doing bush races and burning plantations, taking out good cops to help the corrupt cops - incredible, then you get to San Fierro and you start to appreciate how incredibly big this game actually is.

    How many times did I do that mission where you have to chase the drug courier (one taking the drugs, the other taking the money) between SF and LS - that was almost as addictive as the turf wars - I loved watching as the map filled up with green as I took out those hapless purple bastards.

    All in all San Andreas is how I spent a great deal of 2009 and it rekindled that lost interest in gaming, spurring me to get an Xbox at the end of that year for (what else) GTAIV (which I still haven't finished mind you - but it's still great fun.)

    All the hype of these games passed me by when they actually came out - I discovered them years later by accident and you know what - they're really great games - they're also the reason (probably the sole reason) why the Gamecube failed to compete with the PS2 and Nintendo would want to hope that WiiU is on Rockstar's list of platforms for this thing - because these games are system sellers.

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