(This is another edition of , a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Rockstar Games has grown up. Grand Theft Auto IV was the first clue that the studio once known for shock humor and excessive violence had done some maturing and was interested in exploring more serious themes as opposed to providing gratification for our animal instincts. To some, this was heralded as a bold new direction, while others felt it betrayed the roots of the series. Now, with Rockstar revealing Grand Theft Auto V, the same worries that GTA is too “tame” have surfaced.
Grand Theft Auto IV was a startling change in direction for the series. While there was still an element of ribald humor, a lot of the satire grew less outrageous and sometimes bordered on biting commentary more than attempts at lighthearted amusement. The main story was a lot darker than we’d been used to — grinning psychopaths and fun-loving bangers were traded out for noble immigrants trying to stay clean in a sleazy underworld of corruption. Funny incidents involving Scottish glam rock stars were replaced with rescue missions involving family members. Even the sandbox violence had been toned down, as protagonist Niko Bellic rarely delivered fatal blows to characters — animations would show them wounded rather than dead. The game went out of its way to make a less sociopathic hero in a less funny world.
Grand Theft Auto V’s trailer seems to tell a story about a former criminal getting sucked back into a world of crime. Like Grand Theft Auto IV before it, early indications would appear to show that Rockstar’s latest will focus on social commentary and a gritty plot with a more serious edge than last generation’s collection of games. The question is — is this a bad thing? Has Rockstar undone the greatness of the “GTA III” trilogy by making less infantile games? Is a darker tone indication that the series has gone soft? Is it, as one of my friends called it, tame in comparison to what it once was?
Rockstar hasn’t really been the Rockstar of old in a long time. Its most recent published titles are Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire, both of which focused more on narrative and the crafting of interesting characters. The protagonists of both these games were compelled by strong moral beliefs and tried to do the right thing, as did GTA IV’s Niko Bellic. Rockstar’s games haven’t had an affable monster like Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti in years. Personally, I’m okay with that. In fact, I applaud Rockstar for using its huge influence on the industry to create more exploratory game narratives. It would have been very easy for the studio to just keep churning out vapid crime sims in which sociopaths without personalities caused havoc for the fun of it, but the company has a huge audience and a lot of power, and seems intent on using that privilege to do something a little more unique while driving the industry forward as an art form. Of course, it does this while still making sure that an entertaining product remains as the end result. Few companies would be so bold. Few developers would have the stones to change what works in order to create something with a deeper narrative aspect.
That said, I get that not everybody wants that artsy-fartsy nonsense in their games. Sometimes, all we want to do is blow shit up, deal drugs, beat up grannies in the street and act like insane, lethal children. But we don’t need Grand Theft Auto for that, because we have Saints Row.
THQ and Volition seemed to see the gap that Grand Theft Auto left in the market when it went serious, and filled that gap to the brim with utter silliness. Saints Row 2 was a morally lacking exercise in unbridled wrongness. Its protagonist was legitimately evil and yet so lovable that we couldn’t help rooting for his or her diabolical arse. With Saints Row: The Third, things are going to get practically stupid with dildo bats, magic octopuses, jet planes and fart bombs. Every demented, depraved, immature fantasy going through the minds of the developers has gone into The Third, and it’s created a game so outrageously silly that it should more than satisfy anybody who has felt Grand Theft Auto is getting tame.
Ultimately, nobody should be feeling left out of the equation here. Grand Theft Auto III laid the groundwork for what would become two very different games appealing to a wide range of gamers. Rockstar took the gritty sleaze of GTA III and led the Grand Theft Auto series down a dark, experimental path. Volition took the silliness and sin of GTA III to its logical, ludicrous conclusion with Saints Row. Once, these two franchises could have been seen as competitors. Now, they superbly compliment each other as two sides of a single coin. Nobody should be upset that Grand Theft Auto V might be too tame, because they have Saints Row: The Third to look forward to. Likewise, anybody who thought that GTA was once too immature can delve into something more thoughtful when Grand Theft Auto V arrives.
It’s the very best of both worlds and I think that’s an incredibly positive thing. No matter what type of open world crime game you enjoy, you will be provided for. Rockstar is wise to keep GTA on its current path, because otherwise we’ll just have two tongue-in-cheek, uber-violent open-world games. We’ll have a needless competition, and no game attempting narrative depth. Similarly, Volition is being very clever in retaining fans of old-school GTA by appealing to their baser urges and need for over-the-top thrills. Everybody wins in the current state of affairs.
Especially me. Because I love narrative exploration and I love punching old ladies with boxing gloves that cause human bodies to explode. That’s the beauty of variety, folks!
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