Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Whining About Grand Theft Auto V, Part 2: Gunplay and Power Fantasy.

Grand Theft Auto V DLC just announced.
This is the second part of my big, scattershot critique of Grand Theft Auto V. (Part 1 is here.) Things it did well. Things done not so well. Ways it could have, with minimal effort, made the flat parts much more interesting.

My problem with Grand Theft Auto V is not what it tries to do. It's that it doesn't do a good job of doing what it tries to do. Grand Theft Auto V tries to sell this badass thug life fantasy, but it undercuts itself at every turn.

The main reason I'm howling into the void like this is because I want Grand Theft Auto VI (or the next game to sell the same thing, Saints Row-style) to be better.

This is who I want to play.
A Brief Note About Stories About Scumbags

Writing a story centered around criminals and killers is hard. Making these characters likable is really hard. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of success. The Sopranos. The Godfather. Quentin Tarantino movies (especially Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction). Wolf of Wall Street does a great job of it, and it's in theaters now.

How do you make a scumbag likable? It's all about fantasy. They don't have to be witty, but it helps. They don't have to have lots of fun, but it helps. What you need is a feeling of power and of getting to live outside of society's suffocating rules.

The most important thing: You have to believe that, for all of the danger and the fear, these characters LOVE the life they live. They wouldn't have it any other way.

But what if your criminal characters are constantly miserable and dour and gray and joyless and you would rather spend a lifetime as a Walmart greeter than five seconds in their shoes?

This brings us back to Grand Theft Auto V.

My favorite was the unhappy one.
Three Characters. Kind Of.

It was huge news when it was announced that Grand Theft Auto V would have three main characters. As if this is an exciting development in storytelling, which it isn't. The Seven Samurai came out decades ago, and it had SEVEN characters! (Not to mention Ocean's Eleven.)

It really only has one playable character: An unhappy, crabby criminal who wants to score big robberies to get rich. There's the young version, the old tired version, and the midlife crazy version, but they're basically the same character. (With the crazy version coming closest to being a fully realized, believable person.)

The sameness of the three characters is a sad missed opportunity. Here's my suggestion: Why do all three have to be on the same side? Why couldn't one of them be a corrupt cop trying to bring the other two down (like Vic Mackey in The Shield). When you play him, there are corrupt-cop minigames like shaking down drug dealers. Then, when you switch characters, the game would actually change in a meaningful way.

Or, want to keep the three criminals working together? You could make the whole thing twice as interesting in a second by making the young black striving criminal a woman. (Want to know what I'm picturing? Kindly Google Pam Grier. Or watch Jackie Brown. Yeah, I know. Tell me that wouldn't be awesome.)

Of course, then you run into the problem that some young male gamers are afraid of playing female characters, which is weird. Still, awesomeness is its own reward.

Do You Want To Be These People?

I can't remember any gaming story as dour and joyless as Grand Theft Auto V. It's these three miserable, clueless people, griping at each other and failing at everything they do for hour after hour. These people just aren't fun to watch.

This game needs a lot more Pulp Fiction. As it is, it's like watching some 60s French film about the Meaning of Sadness.

A Brief Side Note About Video Game Stories

By the way, a quick tip for the uninitiated. When people say a video game has "a good story," what they mean is that it has "a story." When they say it has "interesting characters," what they mean is that it has "characters."

These things get graded on a curve.

My Perfect Example Of the Problem

The game constantly rubs your nose into how powerless your power fantasy avatars are. Favorite example: The minigame in which you can fondle strippers during a lap dance, but only if the bouncer doesn't see you. If the bouncer sees you, you get thrown out.

Let us set aside for a moment that a game where you are groping women who doesn’t want to be groped is just super-ultra-gross.

But seriously? You're playing these awesome psycho badasses, yet they don't have more juice than a strip club bouncer?

You think Tony Soprano ever gets thrown out of a strip club? I'd like to see some dude try. They'd be pulling chunks of him out of the Hudson River for years.

OK. I put the box on the other box. When do I get to shoot all of these people?
About the Heists

One of the big features of GTAV was the heist system: You would choose a target for a huge robbery, and then you would laboriously go through all the steps of planning it out. Sounds cool.

But why were the steps of planning the heist so tedious? Drive across town to buy a mask. Drive back across town to steal a truck. Wander around a jewelry shop and take pictures. At one point, I swear to god, you pretend to be a dockworker and use a crane to move boxes around.

I totally see what they were going for here. They want to show how these big crimes come together and give the player the feeling of putting something big together. It just doesn't play well.

A Final Thing. The Gunplay.

Grand Theft Auto gameplay has two dominant components: The driving and the shooting. The driving, as I discussed in the previous post, is awesome. Sadly, the shooting is kind of a mess.

I'm far from the first person to observe this ... here's how the combat works. You press the left trigger, and you will be auto-aimed at the center of the torso of the nearest enemy. Press the right trigger to kill him. That's it. Left trigger - right trigger - left trigger - right trigger, until you win. It's not that fun.

GTA apologists are already storming to the comments to angrily point out that you can turn on free aiming in the settings. Well, yeah, you can. But so what? 95% of players never dig into the Settings. The default version of the game IS the game.

But even if lots of players knew about and used this option, isn't this weird? I mean, why is such a fundamental part of how the game plays left to a check box buried in Settings? I mean, isn't that kind of peculiar? Why is that?

I think the real reason for the simplistic combat becomes very clear whenever you're in a fight where autotargeting doesn't work. In other words, in one of the many fights where it's nighttime and you have a sniper rifle and you NEED TO SHOOT THAT ONE GUY RIGHT NOW OMIGOD NOWNOWNOW!!!!!

And I'm desperately looking through the scope into the darkness, trying to figure out which gray patch on a gray patch I need to shoot to not instafail the mission. Honestly, so many of my mission failures happened because I was squinting at the screen trying to find my target.

This is the problem: Because of the art style and the huge variety of targets, settings, and times of day, you will often be in fights where you just can't see your enemies clearly. It works, though, because the magic left trigger always finds them for you. Left trigger - right trigger - left trigger - right trigger.

I don't know how to solve the problem (which existed in GTA4 too), but having an aiming-free shooter isn't a great solution.

You see how badass and non-depressed these people look? I'll come back when I can play them.
In Closing

For all its supposed edginess, Grand Theft Auto V is the most conservatively-designed, risk-averse computer game I've ever played. Is the content edgy? Maybe? I suppose? Kind of? In 2013, selling a game to teen boys where you fondle strippers and torture swarthy foreigners is not a big risk.

Of course, there's no way they will care about my criticism. Nor should they. It's not my risk, not my hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into the game. And because this game is massively successful, the next Grand Theft Auto will be the same thing. Same lavish setting, same nihilism. Honestly, the best thing Rockstar could do for the next game in the series is a three-word design document: "Same thing again."

However, this leaves an opening for a canny competitor. The Saints Row games have thrived by keeping the sense of fun and silliness the Grand Theft Auto games abandoned years ago.

My main problem with Grant Theft Auto V is that it was just a huge downer. It was sad and dour and all too frequently tedious. It never did what the Grand Theft Auto games were always so good at: making me smile.


  1. Weirdly, the multiplayer component is a better game. Same exact range of activities, but without the consistent theme of "I did all this work... for no reward." (Unless you're skydiving and miss the target, or are more than about 30s behind the lead car in a race.) It's a power fantasy where you actually get to be a non-miserable SOB who gets paid.

    1. I haven't yet tried the multiplayer, but I totally should. It's all the best stuff (driving and mayhem) without the storyline, as I understand it.

      - Jeff Vogel

  2. "Let us set aside for a moment that a game where you are groping women who doesn’t want to be groped is just super-ultra-gross."

    And killing, robbing people, running them over with a car isn't gross? I don't get this asymmetry.

    Well, I probably don't get "power fantasy" as such. At least when it's about power achieved at the expense of others. Never could be an evil character in Fallout. Can't even watch a youtube video of Postal. GTA is just not for me, it's gross AS SUCH. Probably if it was a totally over-the-top cartoony game I could swallow it. Or a serious crazy story that molests your psyche making you uncomfortable all the time Von Trier / David Lynch style. But this creepy mixture of realism and fantasy? Nah.

    Maybe them making sad stories is their conscience speaking. :P They can't take making bad people badass anymore.

    1. Don't be silly. Nobody gets violently murdered in real life. But women getting groped, that's a serious issue we must address!

    2. The asymmetry is that generally everyone believes that you shouldn't murder someone, but not everyone believes that it's not okay to grope women. Instead, we tend to take the view the game provides: Groping women is fun if you can get away with it. (And note that it's not the WOMAN whose disapproval you have to watch out for in the game, but the bouncers. It doesn't matter what she thinks, just what the man currently in charge of her thinks.)

      Which is wrong. It is wrong to grope a woman with her express consent. Being a stripper does not remove her of her body rights.

      ... but in real life, we vilify the murderer, and defend the rapist. (reference: )

      That's why it's a problem, and that's why an asymmetric claim is allowed. The game, I presume, treats you as a thief and murderer -- does it treat you as a sexual offender?

  3. Differentiating the characters sounds like a great idea. I have my share of problems with Sleeping Dogs, but one thing I enjoy about it is that they chose to make the main character an undercover cop, which has added some much-needed freshness to the same, tired premise GTA has been working with since always. And I definitely agree about the importance of likeability, regardless of whether the character is a good or bad person.

  4. Is there any chance the creators intended to make a sad and dour game? Maybe they achieved their artistic goals and made a boatload of money at the same time.

    I think lengthy video games are a hard platform for creating downer narratives. No matter how many collectable couplets are included, I think very few people would enjoy the experience of King Lear: The RPG for 30 hours.

    1. Speaking of King Lear the RPG... I have this pet theory regarding the game Dragon Age 2 that it was the tale that David Gaider intended to tell from the start: that is, the story of a man raising from rags to riches yet failing to stop History's inertia and helplessly watching the world around him going down the drain because of accumulated hatred and corruption.

      So what did he do to sell us this story? He used George R.R Martin's trick:
      To sell his story about petty, vindictive, inbred aristocrats fucking up their own country, Martin introduced a few characters like this badass Witch-Princess with her menagerie of dragons, and once every four or six chapters, she does one cool High Fantasy thing, like burning slavers to a crisp, which keeps readers who may have stopped reading long before the Red Wedding hooked to the story.
      Gaider did a similar thing: he started to tell this story about Kai Lords/Jedi expies whose main character (the player controller Warden Commander) is this abnormally powerful High Fantasy protagonist thrown in a much more cynical, unromantic world, only to do a switcheroo with the following episode where the second protagonist, another abnormally powerful High Fantasy protagonist, proves incapable of affecting History in any significant way.

    2. That is a really interesting and cool theory.

  5. It's funny that one of the main complain you made about the last GTA is the lack of efficient power fantasy, as I, for one, am all for more games like that to reach large audiences:

    Two of my favorite RPGs of what is now last gen where Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3, precisely because they shattered their expected power fantasies: both Hawke and Shepard were freakishly powerful main characters, but in the end of their respective quests, all their might and martial excellence were not enough: one failed to stop centuries of festering hatred and social stigma from reaching the boiling point, the other faced an enemy so enormously bigger than herself that all she could do was going for one pyrrhic victory to the next until said enemy eventually proved gracious enough to be willing to negotiate a end to the slaughter.

    I suspect that part of the reason I loved these two games so much was because I did not expect a company which made its bread and butter by selling power-fantasies to its audience to have the collective balls to break its own usual pattern twice in a row, with two established franchises which up to this point had followed Bioware's traditional formula*, but also because I was close to overdosing on the straight, unironic power fantasies that dominate the AAA market, so I won't complain if more games like that are played by millions upon millions of people: their success might incite more game developers to forsake traditional formula* and write more diverse stories.


    * Said formula can be summarized as follows: Once upon a time, an abnormally powerful main character kung-fu-jesued the carefully crafted backstory and brought peace and order to the world.

  6. Nice article, thanks !

  7. I'm below a spambot, and the original post is not about a game I care about one iota, but I'll ask anyway:
    are there plans to eventually port Avernum 4 and 5 to ipad? I'm willing to wait years for the promised 2 and 3, but after binging on 1 and 6 (second time for each "app") my series-completionist id had to ask, after not finding any search results at all. Keyboard+mouse just doesn't do it for me (except for Nethergate:R for some reason), even though I've bought several other games for PC including Geneforge 1.
    (I don't regret these purchases at all. With Avadon 2 I got pretty far on PC but lost a few hours of save and decided to wait to rebuy the ipad version on the 28th.)

  8. thank you It's funny that one of the main complain you made about the last GTA is the lack of efficient power fantasy, as I, for one, am all for more games like that to reach large audiences:


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