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October 11, 2013

How do you play Grand Theft Auto?

And the “Silliest Post Title of the Year” Award goes to…

In all honesty, I can’t think of a more appropriate title for a post.  I consider myself a gamer of some degree of -- for lack of a better term -- “hardcore-itude”, but I’ll be the first to admit that there are gaps in my skill and knowledge.  That said, I do have Grand Theft Auto V in my possession (as I should, because I exist), and while I haven’t played it as much as I should have/be, my brother has.  And from what I’ve seen, it looks like a pretty cool game.  Playing as this fabled creature the Elders call “Trevor” looks like it will quite literally be a blast.

But that only puts me in a bit of a bind.

To date -- not counting the latest game -- I’ve played three other installments in the franchise: GTA3, San Andreas, and GTA4.  And to date, neither I nor my brother (the completionist between the two of us) ever managed to see the end credits.  He’s tried remarkably hard, though, to the point where he repeatedly deleted and reinstalled GTA4 while simultaneously swearing to finish it…though as fate would have it, he always got stuck on the same mission and lost interest shortly after.  Conversely, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten past the first hour’s worth of story in any of the games.  In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that across three games I’ve only seen an hour’s worth of narrative.  That’s not to say I’ve never played the games; on the contrary, I’ve played my fair share of them (with San Andreas probably holding me captive the longest).

You can probably guess what that means I did…to some extent, at least.

Here’s how pretty much every session with San Andreas started for me.  First, I’d find a motorcycle and steal it.  Next, I’d drive over to the downtown area and find a certain building -- one of a very few you could enter, but one that you could enter while riding atop a motorcycle.  Then, when I appeared on the rooftop of the building (or skyscraper, if you prefer), I drove off at top speed and did some sweet flips while the world blurred around me.  If I got lucky, I survived, and even landed safely wheels-first on the street below.  If I didn’t, then the only thing I lost were a few precious moments of easily-restored life.  (Side note: more often than not I found myself flinging Carl Johnson off that same building -- with or without parachute -- just to hear him shout lovable lines like “I hate gravity!”  Bonus points for CJ if he actually survived the fall.) 

And after that?  It was just an hour or two of me goofing off.  Career highlights: 1) finding a plane and taking off so I could skydive face-first into a pool…unsuccessfully.  2) Inexplicably driving into a river -- and the same river, no less -- while trying to go anywhere to do anything.  3) Punching out the Ballas, AKA the scum of the earth.  4) Punching out other people, because as you know punching = manliness.  5) Flying around on a jetpack.  6) Singing along with Faith No More’s “Midlife Crisis” while engaging in the occasional strut about town.  7) Trying to steal a tank.  8) Trying to raise my wanted level high enough to steal a tank.  9) Using the tank’s blasts to propel myself down a road several times faster than the average car.  10) Dying.

I’m not wholly convinced that I’ve been playing GTA right.

I’m not wholly convinced, but I’m not wholly dissatisfied.  I know I’ve taken shots at plenty of other games in the past, but strangely enough, GTA has never been one of them.  I’ve never gotten the full story in any of the games, but from what I’ve seen, there’s a reason why people like it beyond just being the prophesized prostitute slayer of our age.  It IS likely called a sandbox game for a reason, so maybe the fact that I can ditch the story and play for dozens of hours without getting my progress halted is entirely the point AND the draw of the franchise.  Or to put it another way, maybe the fact that I’d rather eat the sand than play with the Tonka bulldozer in the corner is one of the franchise’s strong suits.

That all said, I’m more than a little apprehensive about starting up GTA5…or at least starting it in earnest.  I’m more than ready to play it like I did Skyrim (or more appropriately, the other GTA games), forgoing everything and everyone for my own cockamamie adventures -- and indeed, even with my short time with the game I’m ready to make a post on what could very well be its true draw.  But then again, if I do that, I feel like I’ll be missing out on something truly special -- cool characters, a cool story, and more.  The alternate title for the game might as well be Terrible People Doing Terrible Things, but while lesser games have tried and failed to win me over, there’s an unmistakable sense of energy, spirit, and dare I say it charisma that makes me think GTA is a cut above the rest.  There’s much that remains to be seen and proven, obviously, but at a glance it seems more than a little intriguing.  It’d just require a level of effort that frankly, I’m not sure I have in me.  Poor Ni no Kuni is still waiting to be played for more than a few hours…

Besides, would it really be so bad if I set aside the story?  I can YouTube anything that I want to watch, but those moment-to-moment freak accidents are ones that only I can create (and indeed, my brother constantly egged me on to play GTA JUST to watch me find new ways to blow myself up).  So I guess I’m at an impasse.  Should I pursue the story and barrel-roll my way through whatever crazy missions the game will put me through?  Or should I go down the pure gameplay route, and create scenarios far more insane than anything the game could offer?  It feels like the ultimate battle between good and evil is raging in my soul.

So I guess the most I can do right now is refer back to the title of this post -- and its double meaning, in retrospect.  How do YOU play Grand Theft Auto?  And by extension, how DO you play Grand Theft Auto?  In theory, it should be all about unleashing your inner deviant, but in practice, could it mean something more?  Does it mean something more to you?  Is it the ultimate fantasy, or perhaps the ultimate stress reliever?  What is Grand Theft Auto, and why the hell is it so popular?

Let me know what you think in the comments.  Hopefully it’ll give me a fresh perspective on what these games mean to others, and how I can use that for my own purposes.  Like I said, I have my own theory in mind -- one born from a recent epiphany -- but I’ll hold off for a later post.  In the meantime, I’ll start laying plans for my own GTA adventures…starting with finding a way to ride a motorcycle atop a speeding train.

I saw it in a movie once.  And by movie I mean I might have made it up right just now.


  1. How DO you play GTA. Well said.

    And you know what? I have the same problem. Niko was my favorite hooligan ever and still I couldn't be damned to do the story missions. Eventually I stopped playing because the story made me like Niko so much, I didn't want to rampage across the city out of concerns I would ruin things with his digital girlfriend. But on the other hand running amok is fun.

    So in that light, GTA fell out of my graces by being TOO GOOD. This is where Saints Row (Namely 3) converted me. The best part about GTA is running amok, and lets face it, Saints Row is so much better about running amok because your character is an asshole. SR 3 and 4 have a create a character that like Mass Effect feels like it's yours. They voiced the game 7 times (8 if you include zombie voice set) to respond to the quirks of of each 'Boss'.

    The best part about all this, you don't feel bad about running amok. In fact it's suggested. The 'story' goes right along with the ridiculousness of activities. Four words friend: Super Ethical Reality Climax.

  2. Hmmm. Interesting that you're a fan of Niko; from what my brother once said, Niko comes off as a nice guy but ends up taking on ridiculous crimes anyway. I guess in a GTA game, if you're not doing crime or indulging in vices, you might as well not even exist. Unless you're a pedestrian itching to get run over. (I'd like to think that the driving physics are crafted to ensure that even if you try and follow the rules of the road, you'll either crash up or smear a half-dozen townsfolk against your car.)

    Well, whatever. GTA's good, but SR3 -- and likely 4 -- is ALSO good. There's nothing quite like knowing you can make a cockney-voiced Dracula and have him run about smacking innocents with the occasional wrestling move. Clearly the devs know the hearts of gamers well...although it's a shame I couldn't give my Boss a triple fireball move.

  3. How do I play GTA? I don't not anymore. Ever since San An I've found them too overwhelming. I only got through about a half to two thirds of what that one had to offer and I literally just couldn't do it anymore. I know that Rockstar is the king of these gigantic world set piece games, and that most people love them, but after a certain level I almost became revolted by the concept.

  4. Fair enough. These games do tend to be monstrous in scope, so I don't blame you for dropping them entirely. That sense of "freedom" is a blessing, but it's also a curse; it's cool that you can go anywhere and do...well, not anything, but lots of things, but at the same time there's this impassable wall between the player and the endgame. There's structure, but also a lack of it. That's probably (partly) why it took me so long to muster up the drive to even play it. "Where do I go and what do I do? Where do I go and what do I do? OH GOD THIS WORLD IS TOO BIG!"

    At a glance, though, it looks like GTA5 at least tries to lure players in. I've heard that the games have a bad habit of sticking players with the "drive here, kill this guy, drive back" format to the point of excess, but the latest game throws in a bit of variety. And also a dog. That's a bonus if you ask me.

    ...Insert obligatory CoD: Ghosts joke about the dog here.

  5. Never played GTA, but heard a lot about it from friends, mainly the titanic open world and the surprisingly ignored "plot". Whenever anyone talked about these games, it's all about the stealing, blowing up, cheats, hacks, explosions, and other criminal, otherworldly shenanigans. I was quite surprised when you listed a GTA character on an interesting character list you made a while back. This series has very misleading advertising and promotion in my experience. But maybe I just live in a bubble.

    Been debating lately what open world game to try out. Saint's Row caught my eye since (at least 2 and beyond) the main character is very customizable, but I often here it's a poor man's GTA. These games seem to be the cream of the crop, especially with the new stuff shoved into GTAV, but - as you said - it seems like the extreme emphasis of "do whatever you want!" screams a yellow flag that the "story" might just be too bare-bones to even bother with.

    I dunno. Since Christmas is near I'll ask for both.
    Or maybe Skyrim can replace one.
    Darn it, I dunno.

  6. Normally I would say that you should go with Saints Row for its over the top humor, but GTA5 seems just as eager -- if not more -- to ALSO have OTT humor. Well, it's not quite the same, but it's contextualized by the essence of the GTA series. Everyone and everything in it is practically a parody of itself, and it's hard for me to take anything too seriously when Rockstar's latest seems antsy to make fun of itself. On the other hand, SR is wacky by default, and likely goes to weirder places than GTA ever could.

    Tough call. But I guess if you can't decide, go with SR. Given that GTA5 has already made more than a billion dollars -- seriously, it made like a billion dollars in three days -- I don't think it needs any more support. And while I suspect the story has some quality, I really don't think it's something absolutely worth experiencing. Plus SR4 has Keith David, so that's like a trillion points in its favor.

    If anything, GTA5 is more like Skyrim than anything -- and not in the "ignore the plot, kill ALL THE PEOPLE" sense. But I'll get to that in another post.