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Some different thoughts on GTA5 and Breaking Bad

So details about GTA 5 are being eked out piece by piece. Last week saw Rockstar release a new trailer (as nihilistically predictable as ever) and reveal the major protagonists of the game as well as various new gameplay devices (switching between characters in real time, huge huge map to explore, general mockery of LA life, etc)

What surprised me was how unsurprising all of it was. I really hoped that Rockstar would pull something different out the bag, something that would turn the mechanics of the sandbox genre – which it has largely made into its own – on its head.

I mean, seriously, it wouldn’t be hard: Rockstar’s misogyny is legendary – wouldn’t it hurt to have a playable women in there? Making a GTA every 4 – 5 years is a license to print money for Rockstar, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take risks. Three playable characters is intriguing, but why couldn’t one have been a women? Couldn’t some ludic complexity have sprung forth from putting a stripper/mob girlfriend’s view forward? But social complexity clearly isn’t at the forefront of Rockstar’s business plan – it probably wouldn’t fit into the narrative: both theirs and GTA’s.

Why should one even care about this? Well despite the fact that other sandbox games like Sleeping Dogs, Godfather, etc have come very close to replicating the technical achievements of GTA (forget about Saints Row) as well as Rockstar’s other catalog (Red Dead Redemption, L A Noire, Bully etc) the sheer amount of money and talent that goes into the GTA games elevates it past every single imitator in terms of the simulation they can create.

The sheer amount of detail in GTA 4 for instance, was such that it often made players (including me) refrain from causing violent mass carnage. (For example – the little nuance narratives of strolling into Liberty City’s times square, enjoying a taxi ride, noticing the ambient booming of a Jeep with its windows smashing or reflecting on a businessman ranting at a colleague down his cell-phone) All of these were procedurally possible due to the level of content – which a developer as huge as Rockstar can do – could be shoved in there. GTA 4 alone had 80,000 lines of dialogue, in addition to 4500 SFX sounds, combined into 19000 different combinations. My basic point (more of a hope really) is the following: what happened if this procedural complexity were finely attuned to the ambiguities of social problems – social complexities? This isn’t a new complaint of course, Ian Bogost wrote a while ago (the article is lost unfortunately) about his lament of Rockstar’s Bully, which had the capacity to engage on social commentary about high school bullying and instead chose to ignore most of these themes.

There was some discussion and delectable rumour, suggesting that GTA 5′s narrative could be influenced by the hit US show Breaking Bad – the story of a 50 year old High School Chemistry Teacher, who after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer decides to cook high quality crystal meth, to financially secure his family after he has gone. As one knows, rumours start by taking the past history of something and fusing it together with some other past history to generate a speculation; it wasn’t hard to see that the first GTA 5 trailer had an older protagonist and the released screenshot (above) shows some parallel iconic imagery of the series. Rockstar also have a history of aligning GTA stories with favourite films (GTA Vice City = Scarface and GTA San Andreas = Boyz N Da Hood), and despite the fact that GTA 4 purposely didn’t have any cinematic influence, fans clearly seemed unimpressed with the storyline.

Having just got into Breaking Bad myself (Season 3) – I can only talk about what I’ve seen of the series so far. I thought this could be a win win for Rockstar. The series has steadily grown since the pilot in 2008 (when GTA 4 was released) – and has everything in it to create a deep, complex story about decision, and the pursuit of security. GTA could, if it wanted to, grow up a bit. It need not simply gloss over the social reasons behind drug-use and crime and glorify the violence as simple pleasure, it could simulate those social reasons in a Sandbox genre and explain how these complexities arise to the protagonist in question and the consequences of their actions. It could explain why the violence occurs, not just present it as a means to have fun. What would it be like to simulate cancer treatment in GTA? What would it be like to simulate the forced choices that one must navigate amongst drug gangs and warlords? What would it be like to simulate keeping up the pretence and the lies to protect the ones you love?

But now it can’t happen. Cheers Rockstar.

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