May 21, 2008 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[In this editorial, Gamasutra Editor At Large Chris Remo takes a look at some of the alternatively laidback and frenetic design angles within Grand Theft Auto IV, making a case that it's the slow periods of gameplay that really make the title's longevity as much as the big action sequences.]
Having just played through Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto IV, whose story I completed a few minutes ago, I wanted to comment on the design decisions that the makers of the game successfully balanced in order to make it so surprisingly compelling, even to series veterans.
Everyone has said great things about GTA4 so I’m not going to list them all myself. Rockstar North indeed managed to create a bafflingly well-realized world with an impressive level of fidelity and life. It’s been said, and I agree.
For my part, the thing that impressed me most–and led to me completing the game at all–was how brilliantly Rockstar balanced on the midpoint between overexaggerated absurdity, believable mundanity, and genuine gravitas.
The first of those was established in the original Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto 2, laying the seeds for the crucial third entry; the second trait was most significantly introduced (perhaps moreso than necessary) in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; and the third has been generally on an upward curve from III to Vice City to San Andreas; but it has not been until GTA4 that all three were so expertly set against one another.
Most appealing to me, perhaps unexpectedly, has been the mundanity.
Things like art design and lighting, graphical fidelity, sound design, character design, and so on, are of course a big part of creating a believable world, but what really sells Liberty City for me are the things that ground it in true reality, not just Hollywood reality–slowing down and paying the toll at the turnpike, chasing after a cab while whistling and flagging it down, calling a buddy to go bowl a few frames, sitting in the apartment watching TV (of which there is some two hours).
Thelma Schoonmaker, longtime editor for the great film director Martin Scorsese, has spoken on Scorsese’s desire to avoid “TV writing” in his films–that is, that kind of condensed, overly-snappy dialogue that tends to strip out the often mundane nuances that comprise real life.
Though it may not be an ironclad analogy, I would draw parallels between the relationship of TV and films to that of films and games, at least with respect to density and volume of narrative. Just as a film gives more time for exposition, nuance, and character-building than does a single television episode, so could a game have more time to create genuinely convincing characters and worlds (not ones that are simply immersive from a sensory perspective).
Most character- and world-driven games, however, essentially seem to try and deliver interactive analogues to the high-octane Hollywood action sequences, but for hours and hours on end. Even roleplaying games or other titles high on exploration and dialogue generally put the player in situations where they are constantly questing or working towards a quest, while largely bypassing most of the simple convincing mundanities somebody in that situation would encounter along the way.
GTA4 succeeds in this arena by making these things available all the time, just about anywhere, but not pressing the issue (like San Andreas arguably did). I recently watched a friend play the game, and all he did was stomp around Liberty City with a rocket launcher, and crash through police barriers while racking up heat. All that GTA mayhem is there, better than ever.
But the game also offers the sensation of really being a part of Liberty City, albeit a relentlessly lawbreaking one. If you want, you can go to restaurants, pay the road tolls, take public transportation (several different kinds, including cabs, cable cars, and the metro), hang out in your pad, surf the internet in a cafe–you can invest yourself into the character and the world.
It’s not all simply a matter of overwhelming development budget either (although that helps); a number of freedoms and options from SA have been removed, such as the extreme character customization and stat-building, and various character needs.
Paradoxically, this increases the realism of the player’s involvement in the world, and the believability of protagonist Niko Bellic, because it strips away both the player’s ability to create an ultimately too-ludicrous character, as well as the need to engage in video gamey tropes such as grinding, which may have real-world parallels to strength training but is more of an immersion breaker than an enhancement.
It is widely known within the industry that most players do not complete most games. Though I can only definitively speak for myself, I would posit that, at least within character-, story-, or world-driven “core” games (do we have a name for those yet?), part of this can be pegged on “action fatigue”–that is, exhaustion or lack of interest that comes with playing hour after hour of fairly similar action-oriented gameplay, or other complex or demanding gameplay regardless of genre.
Very few films actually consist of high physical intensity from the first reel to the last, and for good reason, but games, which take much longer to complete and which demand much more involvement, do so without flinching. One potential ameliorating angle here could be wider variety of accessible gameplay within a given game to break up the core gameplay, and of course there are plenty of successful examples of this.
Another angle is Rockstar North’s–to provide for interactions that may not explicitly work towards the completion of the game, but allow the player downtime on his own terms while remaining invested in the game and its world–if done well, becoming more invested. Obviously, this seems most suited to open-world games, but it also applies to hub-based games or, really, many games that allow players to move freely between areas, even if there are larger linear barriers over the course of the experience.
(A third angle–simply making much shorter, cheaper, highly-tuned experiences–has been demonstrated as well, most obviously and recently with Portal.)
It’s a bit of a design risk, to be sure. The line between convincingly and enjoyably mundane, and gratingly mundane, is a perilous one, and I would argue Rockstar has made efforts ending on both sides of the line over the years.
Though I have been known to bemoan the franchise-driven nature of the industry, I freely admit that such game-by-game tuning is one of the greatest beneficiaries of what is largely a business reality.
As an individual, I didn’t really need three main GTA entries in one generation as well as two portable efforts (by halfway through San Andreas, I was basically overwhelmed), but seeing the culmination in GTA4 and being able to so easily trace the iterative design process through those four main entries, during which the very mechanics I am praising were perfected, makes it more than worth it.