There is a feeling I can't shake. The feeling that Grand Theft Auto V is a step back. That it is not the game I personally hoped it would be. That it disappoints in the wake of previous, more sophisticated Rockstar games. That Los Santos — when compared to GTA IV's Liberty City or the wild west of Red Dead Redemption — is not a place I want to visit.
What does that mean precisely? And why do these video game spaces feel more engaging than the technological masterpiece that is Los Santos? I’m not really sure.
I loved Grand Theft Auto IV. I loved it specifically because it pushed back against everything I found problematic in Grand Theft Auto III and its sequels. Instead of clumsily shoehorning a lengthy list of activities that sounded fun on paper, Rockstar honed its focus on making the game worthwhile from the bootsoles up.
Out went the parachutes, the jetpacks — the wacky antics that always felt far more interesting to talk about than engage with — in came a Liberty City that felt far more like a space in which you could simply exist.
Out went clumsy animations that forever seemed behind the curve. In came Euphoria: a dynamic motion engine that made every movement significant; that made the act of walking down any street in Liberty City engaging; that gave your actions purpose and momentum, created an endless matrix of possibility. It felt good. Grand Theft Auto IV would never be the water cooler game its predecessors were, but it made the small things work, and that made the game as a whole work.
In came the sombre tone and, in my own personal opinion, better writing. At its best Grand Theft Auto IV's writing evolved past the parody and pastiche of earlier Rockstar games, at its worst it simply found more obscure movies to imitate. GTA IV was Eastern Promises to San Andreas' Boyz in the Hood. Colder, smaller, more intimate, far more brutal and (strangely) responsible in its portrayal of violence.
Yet, according to most fans of the series, less 'fun'.
No series has a more tempestuous relationship with the word 'fun'. When we talk about 'fun' in GTA we're most likely referring to ‘outlandish', 'zany' content featured in games like San Andreas: parachuting, stealing jumbo jets, heading into area 69 to steal a jetpack. So when it was ordained that Grand Theft Auto IV was less fun, what we really meant was the list of random things we could do within that world was short a few bullet points.
The truth is, Grand Theft Auto was a more cohesive, rewarding experience. It refused to dilute itself and did its best to remove content that had the potential to subvert the darker, subversive tone of Niko's story in Liberty City. Grand Theft Auto IV was far from perfect — it still struggled with the dissonance of a protagonist sliding seamlessly from cold blooded murder on a mass scale to struggling with moral issues in a Liberty City minute — but it was more consistent in its presentation of violent behaviour than any Grand Theft Auto game previously and that made for a better video game.
Red Dead Redemption: as seamless an experience as any open world video game could ever hope to create. It’s easily my favourite of Rockstar’s games. Creases in the fabric still exist. John Marston is still a cold blooded killer one second and a sympathetic man searching for redemption in the next. In his best moments he is a man attempting to serve his family by doing terrible, terrible things. At worst he is an empty vessel, a dupe for vagabonds, snake oil salesmen and phony revolutionaries.
Undoubtedly the strength of Red Dead Redemption is its environment. A sprawling sunblast of dust and desolation. Much like Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City, it presents a space you are content to simply exist in. You take a stroll in the desert. You hike off the beaten track and wait for the sun to set. Then, when the sun rises again, you pause. There is always a reason to pause. Red Dead Redemption is that kind of video game.
Red Dead Redemption is the only video game past or present where I have been content to leave the beaten track and spend hours searching for herbs. Or hunting rabbits. Or wading through marshes searching for hogs to skin. I can’t think of a video game that ever made the most banal quests feel pleasurable. In a medium where making invented obstacles seem meaningful is the end-goal, Red Dead Redemption may be a genuine masterpiece.
Why was I so content to aimlessly wander in games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV? I’ve thought a lot about that question. I am not sure I have the answer.
In Liberty City it was a combination of technology and artistry. The visual step up was significant. Liberty City was dense with detail. Niko’s stooped posture, the trash littering the streets, the massive leap in technology combined with the intricacy of the art made GTA IV special. I wanted to be there. Being in Liberty City felt like an experience in itself. Grand Theft Auto IV revelled in its own drudgery; it allowed us to indulge in that, to become a tourist.
Best of all it was confined. Smaller than previous games. Liberty City was a space where every square inch felt designed, felt like it mattered. We weren’t used to that sensation in Grand Theft Auto. It was the shock of technology pushing in a new, smaller, dense direction. It was a distinctly invented place that represented the American city in all it’s muck and glory. It was the shock of something new.
Red Dead Redemption’s wild west was the precise opposite of that — it was engaging because it was so precisely under designed. When you stumbled across something beautiful in Red Dead Redemption it felt less like an experience you were supposed to have and more like something you stumbled across in your wanderings.
Red Dead Redemption is a sparse, dead wasteland but, unlike Los Santos, there isn’t a single acre of space that feels unaccounted for — no dead flat textures informing you that you are going the wrong way. The game gently asks you if you’d like to look for herbs, hunt bears in the mountains, and no matter where that quest takes you there is never the sense that you are lost. Red Dead Redemption plays with that tension brilliantly. It’s under designed but, at the same time, every inch of the game has a reason for existing.
Grand Theft Auto V may feature the same level of detail as its predecessors, but I wonder if it does as good a job of making you notice those details.
Yesterday a friend told me a Grand Theft Auto V story.
He is on the run from the cops and, for some reason or another, has to leave his vehicle and escape on foot. He runs up the alleyway in an attempt to break the line of sight and, at the back of a building, sees three men dressed in black smoking cigarettes. ‘Ah, they must be waiters,’ he tells himself. He runs to the front of the building and, of course, a restaurant. Amazing that Rockstar would go to so much trouble. Waiters smoking precisely where they should be smoking. Had my friend remained in his car he would have never noticed. He’d have driven past this tiny detail, this small story within a story. He would never have been given the chance to appreciate the incredible effort that goes into making Los Santos such a believable, functional universe.
In Grand Theft Auto IV I walked. I walked because it felt as though the game often encouraged me to walk. In a city like Liberty City you could walk. There were taxis everywhere. I rarely drove in Grand Theft Auto IV and that provided me with the time and space to appreciate and fall in love with the universe.
In Red Dead Redemption you have your horse. You can ride that horse at high speed across the plains but there is always the sense that you should slow down. That you should slow your horse to a clip clop and just explore the universe at your own pace and exist in that world. That is by design. In Red Dead Redemption you are encouraged to explore. You can leave on foot. Your horse is only ever a whistle away. You will never be left stranded in a desolate area with nothing to do and no direction to head towards.
In Grand Theft Auto V you drive. You always drive. You can choose to walk but there is never a sense that you should. It never feels encouraged. Your mission points are dotted throughout a massive sprawling city and moving on foot requires a massive commitment.
Details get lost in the blur of a constant high speed chase. The streets blend into one another and there is little incentive to explore. Grand Theft Auto V is always about the ‘thing’ you should be doing right now: the mission, the skydiving, the ‘zany’ stuff. The red dots on the screen you should be shooting, the blue dots you should be driving towards. The world is there, Los Santos is there. It is a vast, incredible thing but I often forget it exists. I forget that I am there.
The game provides you with that one single moment. Trevor learns his old buddy Michael is still alive. He drives from his rickety shack all the way to Los Santos to find him. After driving through the hills and the wilderness he stands at the vista and slows to a crawl. Trevor notices the view. You notice the view. The city is lit up in the dark. The cars move in the distance, a blimp flies overhead. For a second you remember that Los Santos is a place. That it was built by human hands, that it is a place you should visit. You remember all these things in a video game that so often forces you to forget.
And then you get back in your car and you drive.