I knew something ineffable had departed from the Grand Theft Auto series when I was playing San Andreas. This is a pattern that happens frequently with me. All the world gets excited over some new TV series, film, game, gadget, whatever, and I often find myself as the voice on the other side of the fence, stroking my chin, looking uncertain and feeling a sense of reality not quite matching up with collective fantasy. Sooner or later the world usually comes around to my view.
How's that for hubris?
I got that uncertain feeling with San Andreas. Whereas I had loved GTA3 to bits and liked Vice City well enough despite it's broken narrative structure, San Andreas felt wrong. It had taken its free-form logic a step and a half too far, including nonsense like beefcaking your character, over-blowing the dress-up game and producing a truly huge world that was just a pain to drive around. It's narrative was initially interesting in the first city, but quickly became a highly rambly mess. It had hip-hop stylings, but it seriously missed a beat with the radio selection. It was, as many franchises become, the extension of the wrong bits while forgetting the right bits.
Liberty City Stories brought some of that back, almost by necessity because of the reduced format of the PSP (and the PS2 port, which is the version I played). There was a sense of fine nostalgia about LCS, driving around the streets of Liberty again, checking out my old haunts, but it was also pretty pedestrian in places and omitted the inclusion of crouching (or if it did I never found out the control to do it) making many of the gun fights really plain rather than tactical.
I saw a trailer for GTA4 a few days back (here), and to be honest I found it pretty underwhelming. It's very lovely physically, a definite step up from before, but it's basically a re-creation of New York with a dash of Koyaanisqatsi. However, I get no sense of imagination. Then today I saw this, and it feels like my suspicions are justified. Removal of features (GTA has always been about features), talking about graphics and animation physics instead (GTA has never been about high polish), and key phrases like "That means there will be no rollerblades, no unicycles, probably no jetpacks and indeed no planes. Rockstar are giving choice and variety which feels right for the character." are all very grand sounding, but they also sound more like "We spent too much time and money on the graphico-techno wizardry, so something's gotta give."
I suspect that with instalment 4, GTA has jumped the shark.
Soul is something highly absent from games today. It seems that as we climb the costs tree and convince ourselves that we must compete even further, we lose something of the joy of why we make games. Like musicians who become addled by the stadium-concert lifestyle games have become parodies of themselves. They include lots of in-built expectation from fans and are built by conservative thinking that views the project as a series of nuts and bolts, innovations and interaction opportunities, and various other crowd-pleasing functions wrapped up in bloom and complex shaders.
It's a mindset that robs a game of reason to be, and so of its ability to entertain the soul rather than just the eyes. Once a game has lost its soul, all the effort put into it is not worth a damn because the game is fundamentally not worth playing. All it's doing is helping you pass the time. Filling in a series of entertainment checkboxes. Unchallenging, uninteresting and ultimately unremembered.
With GTA, I really hope I'm mistaken. Judging a game entirely on the basis on a 20-second video clip and a mag preview is hardly scientific, and it goes without saying that a lot of very hard work has no doubt gone into the project over the last 3-5 years. Looking at it though, I can't help getting the feeling that something is just wrong.
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