This is a word you’ll use generously throughout your first journey into Grand Theft Auto 5, Rockstar’s latest and staggeringly expansive new virtual playground. Wow at the graphics; there has clearly been some voodoo magic employed in making hardware that’s moments away from being superceded maintain a world like this without loading screens. Wow at the acting; Rockstar’s Hollywood aspirations have never been clearer with a gritty crime saga split across three interwoven protagonists. Wow at the construction; the opening tutorial alone is probably the most perfect way to combine instruction with action. Wow at the design; the attention to detail is so granular that every street corner, every block, has real character and architecture and story. Wow at the animations; just run for cover into a car and watch in awe as the Police bullets shatter the vehicle piece by piece. I could go on; if your gaming preferences revolve around pure spectacle, this could be the best thing that’s ever happened.
The most prevalent Wows, for me anyway, were the Wows concerning the game’s content and narrative structure. These two Wows rise out of Los Santos like glimmering skyscrapers: Wow, this is a mature game. And,Wow, why is he doing that?
The first point is worrying purely because of the countless examples of adults buying the game for their children. The term ‘video games’ has never been able to fully shake its early popular images: a yellow mouth chomping dots and chasing ghosts; a block firing lines at juddering invaders; a bat knocking away floating blocks. This simplicity has only been solidified with mobile devices; bird-throwing used as toddler distraction.
How easy it must be, then, for anyone not familiar with the medium to further equate modern console blockbusters with this old view. After all, there is constant discussion as to when gaming will have its ‘Citizen Kane’ moment – when its public perception passes from lightweight distraction to serious expression. However, there’s a problem with this logic and it lies at the two elements essential to being a good parent-
1) DO NOT BE IGNORANT
2) KNOW HOW TO READ
(Number 3, by the way, is BUY “THE VERY CRANKY BEAR” BY NICK BLAND AND LEARN IT BY HEART)
Grand Theft Auto 5 is clearly marked as a Mature game only suitable for ages 19 and up. Playing GTA5 for the first hour, I couldn’t believe how mature the game actually is . Wow indeed. From abundant racial colloquial slurring to swearing to extreme violence and brutality, it’s truly filled with the kind of content that demands an adult perspective. And yet, from customers to store workers, those that have tried to intervene with purchases obviously meant for underage players have been met with dismissal and arrogance.
The second Wow, that which concerns the actions and motivations of the main characters, is more troubling as it constantly undermines the relationship you build with the game. Maybe it’s a sign of age; perhaps the days of allowing myself to be pure physical motivation to a mere cipher are gone; whatever the reason, I find it impossible to sit back and passively watch a character work their way through a story without connecting their decisions to their reasoning. A perfect example of this happens relatively early on – a newly-released gang member butts heads with Franklin, a low-income repo guy who battles fate and friendships to work his way legitimately out of the crime-heavy streets. It’s clear these two men hate each other. A blazing cutscene, full of tonal violence and barely concealed threats, makes that exceptionally clear. Here Franklin is faced with not only his past but also his very real future; one slip and the slope never stops going down. He knows this, we know this, everyone know this.
However, this being a video game, a cutscene must lead to action, so before we know it, a huffing Franklin is driving this idiot around, buying weapons and killing anyone who dares get in the way of the “business”. Franklin is no pushover. He has no problem acting with assertion and standing up for himself. So why the sudden turnaround? Why did he do that? He’s just threatened a paparazzi and told him he’s the scum of the earth, so why is he now helping him chase an aging star so the pap can get a shot of her underwear? It just doesn’t make sense, so the only logical explanation left suddenly rings incredible true: it needs to be a video game. Above all of Rockstar’s aspirations to be the new Hollywood is the need to let the player have something to do. This sudden detachment makes a loud clunking sound. These important characters who want to tell meaningful stories are actually pointless and meaningless. With that acceptance, the story follows suit, especially as you’re asked to carry out increasingly mundane tasks in its pursuit.
So, when a “serious” game leaves fun on the backburner in order to preserve what it perceives as its vital tone, what happens then? Enter the clone.
Volition’s Saint’s Row series started in 2006 as a shameless copy of GTA‘s wildly successful formula. Playing as a gang newbie, you were tasked with taking over land from the other gangs while fully immersing your character in the assumed hip-hop culture of the time. Entirely straight-faced, almost patronising in its message and technically questionable, it ticked the boxes and nothing else. Sales were good enough to warrant a sequel, and it was just assumed that it would be more of the same. However, buried in the missions of Saint’s Row 2 was one that could arguably be the point in which the developers decided that the series could be so much more than just another GTA clone. Amid the requirements for wall-tagging, car stealing and gang killing, this fateful mission required your player to steal a sewage van and spray down your enemies with pure stinking faeces. At that moment, the bandana came off, the veil lifted, and Saint’s Row became funny. Not just the polite smiling you give to a speech at a wedding, but loudly, genuinely funny. Volition picked up on this straight away and made it a core tenant of Saint’s Row: The Third, released in 2011 to gleeful acclaim. It seemed to finally find its feet as the winking mirror to GTA‘s histrionics, the player constantly included in the fun. The opening of the third game begins with a skyscraper-topped bank heist, the player’s newly-designed avatar abseiling down from a helicopter set to Kanye West’s “Power“. Not background music for absent-minded foot-tapping but instead played loud and centre, instantly conveying the game’s underlying message of where the path to absolute power leads. It’s an amazing start that even the rest of the game can’t quite match.
Saint’s Row 4 was released just a month before Grand Theft Auto 5, a telling decision in itself. Knowing that it would be impossible to beat Rockstar at its own 137-million-dollar game, Volition’s strategy seems to have been simple: get in early, and do something crazy. Go places that even GTA wouldn’t dare. Most importantly – be fun, fun, fun. So, were they successful? Well, I’ll tell you what I told my wife when she saw me laughing and asked what was going on: “I’m a 50’s-housewife-styled ex-gang member who’s also the President of the United States of America fighting inside a simulation created by the leader of an invading alien race – oh, I’ve got incredible Matrix-style superpowers in here – and I’ve just rescued one of my friends by fighting through his subconscious simulation that is an 80’s 2D fighter called Saints Of Rage. And I earlier escaped the alien spaceship to the sounds of Haddaway’s What Is Love.” Another example was when, on the way to a mission, my player spontaneously started singing with a gang member to Opposites Attract (complete with terrible 80’s radio rap) and I laughed so hard I chocked on my tea. It’s little moments like that, where the characters are clearly having as much as we are, that makes the game transcend GTA‘s dreary crime drama.
And it’s not just the incidental jokes, either. The game itself has been so fearlessly stripped own and reinvented that it’s difficult to imagine where Volition could go from here. Much like the excellent Xbox 360 exclusive Crackdown, the player’s powers are drip-fed collectable upgrades until you’re jumping higher than buildings, swooping over the landscape and freezing giant enemies as they destroy everything around you. GTA is happy to sit back and let you get explore, the temptations of the beautiful virtual scenery offering countless opportunities to get lost. Saint’s Row 4, however, never lets it pace drop below 11, and if you take too long then you’re sure to have enemy lasers scorching your heels. At a time where the freedom to sit for hours and play games is a distant memory, to have such a fun title that gets straight down to the action is positively exhilarating.
There is never any question about the motivations of a character in Saint’s Row 4. It knows that it’s a video game, and its knowing nods to gaming conventions almost totally shatter the fourth wall.
As it happens, Grand Theft Auto 5 is actually an extremely positive frame for Saint’s Row 4. Appreciation for the insanity of the latter only increases with every hour spent with the former. In fact, my GTA5 session has now transformed – instead on chasing missions and questioning actions, I’m now happy to appreciate the world and just go sightseeing. The last two nights have been me, watched by my wife, ascending Mount Chiliad in a variety of vehicles and it feels like I’ve just discovered the element that lifts GTA above its peers, Saint’s Row included. Its world is so delicious in detail, so technically perfect in realisation, that it’s more pleasurable to create your own stories than follow one that’s been prescribed for you. No other game I’ve played has the depth of space that Rockstar has somehow crafted with GTA5, and they’ve given you so many ways in which to explore it.
However, after the tenth time of parachuting down the slopes in an attempt to land on the freight train, I always get the nagging feeling to go cause some chaos. And that’s when the games get changed and I dive headfirst into the unhinged craziness that is Saint’s Row 4. Perfection of design may be one thing, but sometimes you’ve just got to have fun.