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October 15, 2013

Grand Theft Auto V: Making Gouken Proud

Okay.  So not too long ago I asked the question of “How do you play Grand Theft Auto”, mostly because prior to trying out the latest game for myself I was genuinely curious.  That question came from a guy notorious for GTA shenanigans, most of which entailed and/or ended with a grisly death.  Barring that, I’d just fire a rocket under my feet in a desperate attempt to train for a stint as a Soldier in TF2

But I gave the game a fair shake, even if it was days -- weeks, even -- after others had long since enjoyed and even finished the game.  So in a way, being “topical” is not much of a possibility.  This is more of a bit of self-discovery.  A relaying of an epiphany.

I have a theory.  The best way to play Grand Theft Auto V is to do nothing. 

And that’s precisely what makes it great.  Much like a certain martial arts master.

It’s worth noting that you (probably) can’t abandon the plot from the word go.  The game starts with a robbery that quickly goes awry, as you’d expect.  Who are these people and what are their aims, and where am I and what am I supposed to do?  No clue.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind, and given that a few names were dropped it’s safe to say that this little event will bring with it a couple of ramifications for the main game.  Whatever the case, it really is indicative of what you’re in for -- which is to say, exactly what you’d expect -- when the first thing the game does is force you to commit heinous acts of larceny and homicide.

You might think that I’d raise an objection to being forced to play as at least one (and most likely three) awful human beings whose mere presence would make Captain America break into fits of projectile vomiting.  But I don’t. I really don’t.  Two reasons for this: first, it’s obvious from the get-go that these are not supposed to be heroes, and arguably not even sympathetic anti-heroes; the first we see of protagonist #1 Michael is him complaining to his psychiatrist about how broken society is, how much his life and family suck, and just generally venting about anything else that’d put a wrinkle or two on his face.  Side note: I swear this guy looks WAY too much like Frank West for comfort.

The second reason is that I get the sense that this game isn’t meant to be taken seriously.  It feels more like a comedy than anything else; it’s not something to be taken seriously, no matter what the media might think about it.  This is a game that in a later mission demands its characters to jump onto a boat as it’s being carted away by a nasty bunch…while in the middle of a high-speed chase.  A mission a little later demands that you steal a submarine to stage a successful heist, because clearly nothing says “heist” like undersea shenanigans.  A mission even later has protagonist #2 Franklin having a conversation with a dog that must be heard to be believed.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d say GTA5 is trying its hardest to match -- or even surpass -- the recent Saints Row games’ wackiness.

How successful the game is at satisfying me -- and I stress me, given that this is obviously my opinion -- depends on whether or not it can use its humor and OTT-elements well.  By the looks of things, it has more than enough potential…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I can also see where things might go a bit awry.  It’s very obvious that GTA has a more cynical view of the world (or its world, at least) with Michael outright slamming the notion of the American Dream in his intro.  Again, I’m fine with that -- for the most part -- because it’s A) consistent with the nature of the world and tone of the story, and B) usually entertaining instead of trying to make a super-duper-serious statement about our society.  It’s a world of caricatures and exaggerations, not a one-to-one commentary about life.  The problem is that you can only rely on caricatures and exaggerations so many times before it becomes stale, especially if they’re all orbiting the same general subject.  And already I get the sense that GTA5 is starting to wear on me in that regard, both with its style and its content.   

I happened to stumble upon a movie theater during my first run of the game, and there was some kind of art house film playing in it…well, as much of an art house film you can get in a GTA game.  Which is to say, not very.  It was pretty impressive of them to squeeze in a movie that went on for at least ten minutes into a game likely overstuffed with content, but even with an art house film in the mix it doesn’t feel like the jokes on display were any different from what I’d already seen in previous GTA games -- just in a different language.  Vaguely witty observation here; exaggeration of a particular trait there; cue parodic statement that sounds bizarre at first, but could actually be understood as the thought process of a brainless few.  Given that the target audience probably doesn’t have much exposure to films of a higher class, was it really necessary to add anything more than the bare essentials?  Besides, I’m pretty sure that Oancitizen’s Brows Held High has proven that in some cases, those films don’t need any help making jokes out of themselves.

For what it’s worth, though, I think GTA5 is pretty airtight.  Is it the greatest game ever?  Is it the greatest game released this generation?  No, not really.  It’s good, no question, but I don’t think it’s reached a point where it demands a place in the hall of fame…well, outside of its INSANE sales figures.  Maybe I’ll change my tune if I spend more time with it, but for now the game sits in the green with me.  All things considered, that’s a triumph in its own right; it’s more than a little worrisome how many games this generation shot themselves in the foot before the end of my first session with them.

That all said, I don’t think you’re missing very much by skipping the story.  That’s not to say that it isn’t good.  Nor am I saying that you should just try to take up the sanctified venture of harassing ladies of the evening.  It’s true that it’d be easy for me to just do what I usually do and find the most OTT applications of the game’s assets and mechanics -- playing with the toys in the sandbox, so to speak.  But recently, very recently, I had a thought.

GTA5 is a game where you do things.  Lots of things.  It’s safe to say that there are more things you can do in this game than in any other game prior to it.  You can do yoga.  You can run a triathlon.  You can walk a dog.  You can tow vehicles.  You can pilot a submarine.  You can plan and stage heists.  I can only wonder how many other movies are in the game.  But here’s the thing: you don’t have to indulge in any of those things.  You don’t have to be the terrible person the story wants you to be, or the terrible person your inlaid gamer instincts want you to be.  You don’t have to do anything.

You can just go.

In my experience, it’s a personal best for me to have cleared a whopping four missions in GTA5 before deciding to saunter off and do whatever I wanted.  Would I try to take a last stand in the hospital in an effort to summon a fabled tank?  Maybe cruse around the city to find an accessible rooftop?  Find the airport so I could execute Operation Steal a Helicopter to Land on a Blimp and do Manly Things (Note: Tentative Name)?  No, I didn’t.  Not yet, at least.  As it turns out, there are incidental missions sprinkled throughout the game, and by passing by certain NPCs or just being in the right place at the right time, you’ll trigger them and start an event.

I happened to catch a glimpse of a guy on the map running away -- a purse snatcher, no doubt.  And as a would-be agent of justice, I decided to lend a hand, and gave chase.  The problem was that my start-of-the-game Franklin wasn’t nearly fast enough to catch up to the guy, at least not on foot.  I snagged a car to try and keep up the chase, but as I crashed my way through the outskirts of town it was obvious that I’d failed the mission.  (It certainly helped that Franklin outright said he lost the guy.)  But my failed attempt at justice had led me to some mountains -- and with my only-slightly-busted car in tow, I decided it’d be a good opportunity for a little off-road action. 

It wasn’t long before I ended up crashing up and very nearly dying, as these things tend to go.  That left my Franklin, bruised and bloody, alone in the sun-soaked wilderness of Los Santos all alone.  No people.  No animals.  No music.  No safety, as I took several tumbles down the rocky inclines.  But my adventures eventually led me to a dam -- an empty one, save for an inexplicable present of body armor.  I climbed around a bit as if I’d stepped onto a playground, all too wary of the waters just yards away, and more than a little disappointed that Franklin freaked out and took fall damage from a ten-foot drop.  So when my “business” was done, I saddled up and left.  I made it down to the dammed-up canyon, with a river trickling by my side.  I followed it down its path, deciding to jump in at my leisure and letting the waters splash across my avatar’s body. 

Eventually I made it out of the canyon and out of the river, and stumbled into something resembling civilization.  “Where am I?” I asked myself.  And I’d never wondered more than at that moment, given that I had no frame of reference for anything in GTA5’s world.  But I walked on regardless.  Had I found a stadium?  I couldn’t be sure from its exterior, so I kept on walking.  As it turns out, it might have been a casino -- but with the sun still bearing down I figured the doors wouldn’t be opening anytime soon.  So I just kept walking.  Walking, and walking, and walking until I made it back to the city and watched that art house film.

One could argue that I’d wasted 1/3 to 1/2 of my session time with the game.  But I’d argue otherwise.  I feel more than satisfied with the game, even if I didn’t really get to do anything.  In some ways, maybe the ability to do nothing is more important than the ability to do anything…or even something.  Nothingness shouldn’t be underestimated -- because when used properly, it carries immense power.

A lot of people -- myself included -- have lamented a lot of current-gen gaming trends.  Plenty of titles these days (if you’ll let me pretend to speak on behalf of the “old guard” for a minute) put players in the seat of a rollercoaster, and promise them a “non-stop action thrill ride”.  The problem is that A) that thrill ride tends to be anything but, B) the thrills end up bleeding into one another when there’s nothing to offset them, and C) having a spiffy new rollercoaster isn’t quite so cool when it’s flanked by two dozen other rollercoasters.  In theory, the sandbox game is supposed to avoid the firefight-firefight-banter-firefight-cutscene tango so well-worn in Gears of War and its buddies, and by nature it succeeds.  The problem is that in exchange, the whole experience can feel shallow.  Is there enough to do?  What can the player do?  Is it compelling?  Sandbox games have their problems too, and they’re issues that are either going to be resolved in the coming console generation, or magnified -- at least if the impending onslaught of them is any indication. 

Are sandbox games in general compelling?  Well, I’m not in a position to make any blanket statements about an entire subgenre of games -- BUT I can say that even without a story to fall back on, or an online suite because of course there’s an online suite, GTA5 is enough to compel me.  Like Skyrim before it, even with its modern-day trappings GTA feels like it welcomes and rewards exploration.  Maybe not with direct trophies/achievements, but with a sense of player satisfaction.  If the developers’ intent was to create a living, breathing world, then it’s safe to say that they succeeded.  The world moves on whether or not you stage a heist or punch a gangsta in the face.  And you can see the world moving if you’re willing to strike out on your own.  There’s no impetus for you to do anything.  There’s only an impetus to see anything.  That might be an element vital to any video game, regardless of its genre.

It’s gotten me thinking, though.  Part of the reason I give GTA (and Rockstar, by extension) a pass is probably because for all the guff they’ve earned for the violence and nastiness of the series, I suspect that the game and its makers are smarter than people give them credit for.  It’s like South Park; yes, those naughty bits are in there, but they’re balanced with some cleverness, charisma, and more often than not good comedy.  I get the feeling that everything in this game was intentionally added; the mere fact that they added Trevor, AKA the embodiment of the reckless crime sprees players have indulged in over the years in the franchise, shows a level of self-awareness that (if nothing else) sets it apart from the “I’m a good guy but I’ll kill anyone if you ask me to” trappings of other gaming “heroes”.  Given the level of coordination that making a game must take, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an unspoken understanding between the toilers on every step of the Rockstar ladder.

So maybe the power of nothingness is something understood and even supported by the game -- maybe even the story.  If what I’ve read is right, Zen Buddhism seems to support the idea of emptying one’s mind -- and indeed, Michael looks like exactly the sort of guy who could stand to empty his mind for the sake of relieving his stress.  (He does try yoga at one point, but I suspect that he doesn’t get much out of it.)  He needs to cure what ails him, but he seems WAY too eager to remain set in his ways, chaining himself to a vicious cycle of his own creation.  Nothing will ever get better for him if he doesn’t better himself, but he’s too busy mouthing off about how America is broken and everyone sucks…and I won’t spoil anything here, but it ends up costing him well before the endgame.

But it doesn’t matter.  If Michael chooses to let his life and his mind get weighed down by vices, the player has every opportunity to indulge on his behalf.  And maybe that’s what Rockstar intended.  Maybe they wanted to establish Michael as someone not to follow by creating a divorce between the player’s thoughts and the character’s thoughts.  There’s no denying that GTA5 has a HUGE world, but it also has a good-looking one, too.  I wouldn’t say it’s a game saturated with color a la the average Nintendo game, but it’s still got a palate beyond the norm (how sad is it when “the norm” can be understood to mean grays and browns?).  More importantly, it’s got variance to it -- urban sprawls, coasts, mountains, rivers, deserts, suburbs, high elevation, low elevation, all that and more.  There’s a beauty to this world -- and our world, by extension -- that Michael would gladly overlook, but the player can and will enjoy.  And they don’t have to do a thing besides get in there and enjoy the sights.  Go on a little hike, without the fear of sunburn or bug bites.  Or mountain lions.  Because those are in the game as well, apparently. 

I can’t speak for anyone else and recommend exactly how they should play GTA5.  But personally, I felt like I was at peace.  I just found a river, and that was enough to make my day.  It felt as if I’d experienced something special, something beyond what plenty of games this generation have tried and failed to do.  And I didn’t really do anything besides crash up and get lost; in most games that’d practically be a failure state, or if not that then at least an impossibility.  The nothingness -- the mere presence of a sandbox, and the sand within it -- makes an argument for itself merely by existing.  You can get closer to it and examine its grains, its shape, or its texture.  And you can do so at your own pace, deriving as much or as little from it as possible.

There’s nothing there.  And that nothingness, with the right mindset, can mean everything to a player.

…Maybe not in-game Gouken, though.  He may be one of the strongest in the canon, but I hear that he’s one of the worst in the game.  How can anyone be D-tier with that beard?


  1. I fired up GTA: San Andreas last week. I did one mission, but after that, all I really did was nothing. To me, the best parts of GTA games is when the they allow the player to go off and do their own thing outside of the missions.

    Reading this post reminded me of one of my favorite pastimes in GTA: SA, driving along in the country. The world in SA is so unfathomably huge that it can be overwhelming at times but whenever I was driving in the country, I felt so at peach. As much as I enjoy skyscrapers, the addition of a wilderness setting was a refreshing change of pace and very welcoming. Sometimes you don't realize you're missing something until it's laid out in front of you.

  2. Ah, I know the feeling -- I may have stylishly/accidentally killed myself more times than I can count in SA, but the adventures into parts unknown made for an entertaining game in its own right. Although I can only wonder how annoyed the devs are over the fact that people are willingly ignoring massive chunks of the game, and how much they're smacking themselves over dumping so much time and so many resources into it. IIRC, Samuel L. Jackson is in SA, and I'd imagine he doesn't come cheap.

    And GTA5's supposed to have cost about $300 million. Yikesy mikesy.

    Well, I guess the important thing is that Rockstar's provided the tools to enjoy the game, no matter how one decides to go about it. So for that reason alone, it's safe to say that the devs have done something right. Something commendable, even.

    "Sometimes you don't realize you're missing something until it's laid out in front of you."

    Quoted for truth.

  3. it was a good game and I enjoy pissing about as much as doing the missions. One problem, however, is with checkpoints the game is far too easy. However, it is fun, it looks stunning and it is full with stuff to do.

    There is nothing more frustrating than people stating that violent films and games are the reasons for violent crime - it really doesn't the statistics prove that.

  4. Yeah, my brother goaded me into playing it the other day, and I had more fun screwing around and getting into misadventures than with plenty of other games this generation, let alone this year. Highlights: tackling a hot dog vendor, trying to re-enact Speed and killing the bus driver in my quest to snag a bus, flying out windshields (multiple times), ATV shenanigans, and finding some weird-ass gateway to the underground moleman city. (I know that's not accurate, but that's what I'm calling it and nobody can change my mind.)

    You know, a part of me would like to see the reaction on naysayers' faces when they see these "violent games" for themselves. It's true that there's a lot of cannon fodder for them to use in their arguments -- Metal Gear Rising was BUILT around chopping people into pieces -- but they need to see the full picture. Mass Effect is a story about interstellar diplomacy. Grand Theft Auto gives you the freedom to climb a mountain. MGR actually has something to say about violence and warfare, and does so in a way that's actually pretty thoughtful.

    I'm pretty sure there's a saying about assumptions about there. Something about "making an ass out of you and me". But it escapes me at the moment, so I'll just have to leave it at that.