Wednesday, March 11, 2009

GTA: Growing Through Adolescence

Playing through The Lost And Damned recently, I randomly came to the conclusion that Grand Theft Auto as a series has grown up as I have. I can't remember them that well due to being about ten years old when I played, but the original isometric games were the ones that introduced the franchise; the players discovering what the franchise was about, the type of enjoyment that can be found within and experimenting with what's available in order to learn about them. For me this happens to coincide with the time where I was doing much of the same thing: discovering, experimenting, learning and enjoying. Of course at the time I wouldn't have noticed and would probably have been laughing at the fart sounds that you could make, but looking back upon it now I realise that the life of the Grand Theft Auto series started in a similar fashion to mine, that of immaturity that slowly changed as we tested the waters, learned and began to grow up.

Moving onto the next generation of consoles, we enter phase two: Adolescence. The release of Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and San Andreas expanded upon and evolved the series by introducing a new 3D perspective, new game play mechanics, and stories featuring characters that were actually memorable. Liberty City, Vice City and the state of San Andreas were all populated with believable people who performed various mundane tasks that while subtle, added to the immersion and injected life into the game. It was this character that gave the games a personality, one which allowed Rockstar to experiment with comedy by parodying things like the gaming industry, modern culture and even the GTA games themselves. This humour permeated throughout the three games though they also contained a serious side, depicting a life of crime through the narratives and pushing the boundaries of what could be done – something that of course led to a lot of controversy. Rockstar continued to do it anyway showing that the company was keen to push the medium forward while also not taking themselves too seriously. Conveniently, this occurred while I was in my teenage years where I was also starting to experiment and push the boundaries of what I could and couldn’t do in life. I formed my own character, my own personality, which continued to mature as I learned to take things seriously. Importantly though, I was able to have fun, finding the humour in life and approaching things in a relaxed, laid-back manner. Like GTA, I was evolving, introducing new elements to my life and creating my own story complete with its own set of memorable characters.

The release of Grand Theft Auto IV sees both of us finally reaching the early years of adulthood. Rockstar made a defining choice for the franchise by pursuing a more mature game, completely reinventing and redefining the game's mechanics such as driving and shooting to ensure that it aided something else that was a high priority, the story. Their decision to focus on maturity sees them crafting a compelling narrative designed to engage and to make the players care for the characters. Whether they succeeded is up to you but one can't deny the effort is admirable. This comes at a time when I am making decisions that will go on to define the rest of my life, reinventing or redefining myself if necessary in order to ensure that my own story continues to be told. The set of memorable characters may or may not have changed, but the effort to craft a compelling narrative continues.

The Lost And Damned has already shown that it can maintain our interest in Liberty City with its new perspective and I think it is safe to assume the second episode will continue to do so as well, so it will be interesting to see whether beyond those, the franchise continues to run parallel to my own life and the events that go with it.


Scott Juster said...

I've always been interested in the connection between the maturation of games and the maturation of players. That games might become more serious or complex makes sense to a certain extent, but I think a trend towards simplicity and camp is equally understandable as well. After all, how much can a kid really appreciate satire like House of the Dead?

I wonder what will happen as our generation of games and the series we think of as "ours" continue to age? Will the protagonist in GTA eventually move to the suburbs, worry about the cost of his prescription medication, and start looking into retirement homes?

Daniel Primed said...

Had this post lying in my tabs for over a week, waiting to comment ~phew.

I have a slightly different interpretation of your analogy based on my own experiences. I find that the silly, shit-faced humour of the top down games, have evolved into these mature narratives that source important, real life issues into the equation. This is personally how I see the evolution of the series. The series has seemed to have taken responsibility for what use to be adolenscent kicks. The modern GTA justified its use of adult content (ie. by highlighting the consequences and repercussions), and I think like growing up, taking responsibility is a significant part of the process.

Steven O'Dell said...

@Scott - I haven't played House of the Dead unfortunately but from what I have read, its humour relies on modern culture as well as the franchise's history so if that is true then I agree, how much can a kid appreciate it? I think the simple answer is they can't but then, like our generation they will grow up with their own franchises so I guess in a way it balances itself out. As for your other paragraph, maybe not to the extent of your hypothetical but I know I would be quite happy to see GTA (or any other game for that matter) portray a narrative perspective of someone from the suburbs. Perhaps elderly? I can't really imagine how it would be approached but I know I would certainly engage with and be enthralled by a story that offers more than the one perspective that we usually get central to a game's plot. Perhaps The Lost And Damned is the first step in this different perspective direction? Who knows.

@Daniel - Agreed wholeheartedly. I might not have mentioned it in the post (though come to think of it, I did want to) but I definitely feel that Rockstar used future installments in the franchise as a way of showing that they had taken responsibility for what had come before, which ties in nicely with my suggestion of the maturing of the franchise. That said, it wasn't just the company who demonstrated it, with various in-game elements also doing so. It is however a theme (if you will) that could be explored further and hopefully we see it happen now that GTA IV's success has shown that we are ready to experience a more mature, compelling narrative.

Thanks for the comments guys, it's appreciated.