There is something existentially dreadful about watching a parody of American Idol where the contestants have to not only out-sing but out-fight one another—when you’re supposed to be playing a video game.
I speak, of course, of Grand Theft Auto V. What other game would even have a bunch of joke TV channels? And that’s part of the problem. Like a faded beauty decking herself out in baubles, bangles, and beads, Grand Theft Auto has been on a decadelong spree of piling on “features,” hoping you won’t notice how much it’s aged. Looking back, it’s amazing how little evolution the series has experienced. Kidnap someone playing Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, bring him in a time machine to the present day to play GTA V, and the only actual gameplay differences he’ll notice are that now you can fly helicopters and ride motorcycles, and you won’t die when you touch a body of water. That’s pretty much it. And those changes were made in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the very next game after III.
The rest of the changes, and there are a lot of them, are all peripheral. In V, for instance, you can play fetch with your dog, get in shape by playing tennis, get mauled by a mountain lion, pilot a submarine, screw with apps on your phone (like you don’t have enough apps to keep track of in your real life), and even get an R-rated lap dance at the strip club, pressing buttons to get your hands off the girl when the bouncer’s looking. These are all good for a laugh with your buddies, but if Los Santos (the Grand Theft Auto series’ second stab at making a video game version of Greater Los Angeles) has so much to see and do, why does every play session devolve into seeing how many bystanders and cops you can kill before you’re arrested or killed, just like it did 10 years ago? If this is such an incredible sandbox, why do we build the same castle over and over again?
Like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books—the ones on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based—Grand Theft Auto is great at world-building, but not so great at making you care about what goes on in that world. Just as Martin makes sure we know the color and material of even the most minor characters’ doublets, as though we know what doublets are anyway, the folks who spent five years on GTA V want us to see how they’ve laid every brick, wardrobed every pedestrian, and rendered every fender-bender tenderly. Martin’s continent of Westeros, and the worlds the Grand Theft Auto developers assemble, are wonderful in the way snow globes are wonderful—as intricate, self-contained spectacles. But also like snow globes, they’re totally inconsequential and get boring fast. And the ironic culprit behind the lack of consequence has taken up residence in Westeros and Los Santos alike: too much consequence, too fast.
Amid his many narrative quirks, Martin is known for killing off major characters—that is, characters the reader thought were major—early in his books, because, hey, people die randomly in real life, don’t they? As he explains, “when my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page, [so] you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.” His belief that fiction should play by the same rules as reality is admirable, but as anyone who’s read the books or seen the show knows, he’s turned it into something of a fetish. The character turnover is so high that you hardly get to know anybody, and as the Teddy Bears sang, you can’t love, love, love people without knowing, knowing, knowing them.
But at least Martin has a philosophy behind his bloodbaths. GTA V ups the body count whenever it doesn’t know what else to do, which is all the time. Compare the game with last year’s first-person shooter Far Cry 3, which attempted to show how circumstances could turn a spoiled rich kid into a cold-blooded killer. Your character’s transformation wasn’t earned as completely as it should have been, but Far Cry 3 was a rare game that reminded you that killing people is no joke. GTA V, like a horror movie that shows the monster in the first scene, wastes no time in getting to the murder. The game has barely told you how to move your character when you’re killing your first cops and laughing when your nervous wheelman is shot in the head. It’s not all killing sprees, of course; it’s also mundane tasks like towing cars and using a crane to rearrange shipping containers. The banality of the missions that serve as the game’s narrative tent poles are the closest thing to undeniable proof that the folks behind GTA V spent 90 percent of the last five years laying out Los Santos, and 10 percent thinking about what the player would do there. As in past games, the missions are essentially radio plays, as you listen to your co-workers—I mean, fellow street thugs—deliver exposition as y’all do your chores. After which you’ll save your game, shoot some strangers, and kill as many cops as possible, because, as I said, that’s how every session of GTA ends anyway.
For a path to consequence, Grand Theft Auto should look at some of its copycats. GTA III, the groundbreaking game that switched the series from a top-down, Sim City-style view to full 3-D, singlehandedly invented the genre of open-world sandbox games, but two other franchises have taken what GTA III started in more interesting directions. The Saints Row series, which started out as a joyless act of grand theft game design, has blossomed into a cult favorite by taking Grand Theft Auto to its logical conclusion, with everything turned up to 11. In the latest installment, for instance, your street-thug character has been elected president of the United States and must use his superpowers to fight off an alien invasion by escaping from a Matrix-esque computer simulation of his old gangland stomping ground.
Taking the opposite tack, the Hong Kong-set Sleeping Dogs sings to those of us who think Grand Theft Auto is fundamentally broken by the fact that you can drive on the sidewalk and knock over a light pole in plain view of a cop, and the cop won’t react. Sleeping Dogs subscribes to broken windows theory: If the small things matter, the big things feel like they really matter. The game charges you for every fire hydrant you run over, every storefront you ram, every bumper you knock in, and presto, the whole enterprise is more engaging. As my mom always says, what’s given too freely is valued too lightly. Sadly, Sleeping Dogs was a commercial failure. That is, it’s safe to say it wasn’t the fastest entertainment property to ever hit $1 billion in sales, like a certain other game mentioned in this article.
While Grand Theft Auto occupies an unhappy medium between Saints Row and Sleeping Dogs, the game that threads the needle of consequence most cleverly is the Wii U’s Lego City: Undercover, an honest-to-God “Grand Theft Auto for kids” that’s fun enough for adults, too. In Lego City, it doesn’t matter if you plow through crowds and crash cars—everything and everyone are made of Legos and are magically put back together again.
It’s not like GTA V doesn’t make any improvements on its predecessors. The multiple characters you control throughout the game are more interesting than any single protagonist of a previous GTA. The dialogue feels less fake, possibly because they had gang members do the voice acting. Animation is much improved, even though people’s faces still look like they’re made out of moist clay. Most mercifully, they fixed the save system, so you don’t have to go on a journey every time you want to record your progress.
And, of course, things like skydiving from a plane you stole and commandeering a cop car to chase bad guys are as fun as you remember. The sound track is great. And it’s still a blast to get together with some homies and pass the controller around, seeing who can cause the most ridiculous mayhem.
But these are the same pleasures we took from Grand Theft Auto 10 years, and four main-series games, ago. That GTA V is essentially a high-definition remake of 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas means the folks behind the franchise have some thinking to do about exactly what kind of games they’re trying to make. Are they content to design a brilliantly realized city every few years, then sit back and count their money? In the words of one of GTA V’s characters, Michael, a jaded millionaire who sits out by his gorgeous pool every day, “Good palm trees are just a substitute for not knowing what the fuck you’re doing on this Earth.”
As for George R.R. Martin, well, there’s a new print run of his best work, Tuf Voyaging, so that’s something.