Grand Theft Auto III was, like many others I’m sure, my first ever experience with Rockstar’s iconic franchise. It was a game that blew my mind away as a child. Something that shouldn’t have happened, not because of GTA III’s lack of ingenuity in game design, but rather because my parents probably shouldn’t have let me play a game of its nature while I was still having difficulty doing my times tables. Nevertheless, I had a blast running through the fictional Liberty City and causing chaos with every step. I’d never thought such an open world was possible in a video game. That, alongside the non-linear approach to mission design, to the point where you could essentially complete them in any you pleased (something that even modern video games, Rockstar ironically included, struggle to accomplish) resulted in an experience that made me realize the potential of video game worlds.
Though I’d never personally own either Vice City or San Andreas, I would go on to play them at length at a friend’s house, continuing my rampage of unbridled carnage and mayhem as Tommy Vercetti and CJ. Once the seventh generation of consoles came around, my antics continued in New York City as I played as Niko Bellic on my brand new Xbox 360. A console that allowed Rockstar to introduce a new physics engine, causing my explosions and Jackass-esque stunts to be accompanied with realistic flailing bodies aplenty—something that my equally juvenile friends and I had far too much fun watching. GTA IV was a remarkable feat in open-world innovation, and it was a joy to play.
Yet, for all this praise, I can’t say GTA as a franchise ever truly grasped me on an emotional level. From their lacklustre stories and unlikeable protagonists (save for one), to their narratively hollow (but incredibly realized) worlds that simply served as vessels for me to haphazardly unleash destruction, GTA was always my “turn my brain off and have some fun” game. Rockstar are capable of creating rich worlds that are not only incredibly immersive in design and scope, but with their stories and multi-faceted characters. Look no further than Red Dead Redemption 2 as an example. My hope is that they can take some of those elements from RDR2 and bring them over to GTA VI, whose first trailer we are about to receive in just a couple days as of writing. So, here are a few things I personally would like to see in Rockstar’s much anticipated sixth installment that, if done right, could attach me to the franchise in ways the previous entries failed to do so.
Well-Written, Nuanced Characters
For as much as GTA’s open worlds were playgrounds for myself and friends to use as our personal backyard of chaos, and for as much as I can appreciate their innovations in game design that continually propelled the medium forward in terms of scope and immersion, their characters and story never resonated with me. A good story, whether it’s presented by the artist deliberately or exists merely semiotically in the background, is what draws me to any piece of art.
The stories in Grand Theft Auto always felt hollow. I can understand the appeal of the series’ grit, the crass humor, and eccentric cast of over-the-top characters, but the plots always felt disjointed with a lack of character depth. Maybe it’s my fault for wanting such a thing from a series such as this, but I look at a franchise like Yakuza, which could arguably be considered even more outlandish with its mobster plots, yet manages to always find a way to salvage some heart amidst its chaos with genuine character arcs. Though I’ll admit that Niko’s character writing in GTA IV did come close to what I was looking for (likely why he remains as a fan favorite) it still fell short of fully exploring all the nuances of his being.
We know little of GTA VI outside of the fact that it will likely have two protagonists and take place in Vice City and parts of Latin America. None of that gives us a sense of characters and tone, though I’m sure the upcoming trailer will (hopefully) establish some of that. I’d like to see this game tackle the spectrum of what’s possible with its characters and settings. Keeping a tonal semblance to ensure its “GTA-ness” is obviously important, but like how RDR2 tackled a variety of narrative beats with thoughtful character introspection via a spectacularly written protagonist in Arthur Morgan, all the while keeping its “Wild West” ruggedness, GTA VI has an opportunity to bring a maturity to its narrative. This maturity can and should exist without a cost to the humor and freneticism the franchise is known for, but should serve to add a layer, an emotional core that connects us players to not only the characters within the story, but to the world in which they exist in. Speaking of which.
Narratively Immersive Open-World
It’s practically a given that Rockstar will once again knock it out of the park with the scope and detail of their newly realized Vice City. My hope is that alongside being a breathtakingly beautiful world to explore, that we actually get some rich narratives sprinkled across its various terrains. Stories and random events with NPCs and just an overall sense of interactivity with the environments and its peoples would go a long way in bringing a richness to the world. Red Dead Redemption 2 had a few of these moments, but never went as far as I would have liked as I wished my actions with those NPCs carried with them a tangible effect on the world around me, changing how I’m perceived or interacted with on a deeper level than just a karma meter.
Maybe I’ve been playing too much Balder’s Gate 3, but the point is Rockstar has had the budget and time (ridiculously so, on both accounts) to make a game world that, much like they did with GTA III, propels what we think is possible with open-worlds. Doing so with a narrative-first mindset, in my opinion, could create a world that feels immersive not only on an audiovisual and interactive level, but on an emotional one as well.
This one sounds a tad vague, but that’s frankly because I’m not sure if I even know what I’m looking for when using the word “innovation.” 2023 has been an outlier of a year when it comes to the AAA gaming space. For a few years I’ve felt as if “innovation” wasn’t really something that was happening for the big name studios. Rather, the most impressed I’d been in this past half-decade or so with a game’s design, mechanics, or ingenuity was from the indie space. This year, however, saw somewhat of a return from the AAA space with games like Balder’s Gate 3 and Alan Wake 2, two examples of titles that pushed the boundaries of storytelling and design; doing things we hadn’t seen before with a refinement that has been otherwise lost with modern, big-budget games. My hope is that GTA VI, much like its predecessors once did, can continue this positive trend and do something truly astounding. What that “something” is I have no clue, but a few ideas do come to mind.
For one, bringing back that non-linear approach to mission design that we saw from GTA III, which would later be replaced by an inferior linearity in latter games including RDR2, would be a welcomed return. Allow players to approach every mission however they see fit, both in terms of gameplay but also including mechanics like the ability to talk ourselves out of situations or purchase items that could give our protagonist sway with key characters, etc. Maybe this goes out of the traditional action/adventure genre and more into RPG territory, but finding new ways to give freedom to players to solve situations in a variety of ways, while having the world react to their actions would go far in creating player agency.
I keep bringing up a “reactive world,” and that’s because it’s an area I feel has yet to be mastered in open-world games. Every modern day open-world feels as if they don’t carry with them a genuine memory of the player’s actions. Or if they do they exist in a vacuum and within a specific context; like a town banishing you due to your choice during a pre-written narrative beat. What I want is something bigger than that, more intricate. I want my decisions to matter, beyond just the vacuum. I want them to trickle throughout Vice City, and NPCs to treat me a certain way based on who they’re affiliated with and how those affiliations affect me. Smart NPCs that know what I’ve done, and can use those decisions to gain my trust, or deceive me to gain the upper hand, to which I’ll have to find an appropriate counter for.
Unfortunately, for all the strides Rockstar has made in innovation, they’ve also continually reverted on mechanics with each passing release. Vice City and San Andreas started to lose that non-linear mission design we saw from III. GTA IV saw a multitude of mechanics being stripped, like losing the ability to have Niko gain weight and/or muscle like players could do with CJ in San Andreas. And numerous comparison videos on YouTube exist that show how much more advanced GTA IV’s physics engine is compared to GTA V. The fifth game also saw considerably fewer player-accessible buildings, something that was a far more frequent occurrence during the PS2 days.
Still, this is Rockstar. Though they’ve had their fair share of questionable business decisions in recent years, milking GTA V to no end, they know what the Grand Theft Auto franchise stands for. Here’s hoping GTA VI can deliver and rise up to meet those lofty expectations.