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A Meeting of the Minds: GTA V and Worldwide Storytelling

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Greetings and salutations. Welcome to the first outing of OnlySP’s Meeting of the Minds, a new endeavour in which we will gather together a group of editors, writers from both OnlySP and Velocity Gamer, and ask them to give their thoughts on a couple of possibilities for games, or topics related to gaming. The concept was born from a desire to grant each of us a greater sense of individuality for our faithful readers, so any thoughts on it, or suggestions for future questions are most welcome. For this debut entry, Kyle Bailey, Michael Urban and I have stepped up to the plate:

Grand Theft Auto IV marked many changes to the series formula, including the option of a morality choice at several points within the game. Do you think that it would be a good idea for Rockstar to flesh this out in GTA V, making the choices more impactful and leading to a branching narrative, or would you rather see it dropped altogether? Why?

KB: Rockstar has always made games that push the boundaries of what can be done with storytelling in video games, whether that’s through new technology or intense and deep story lines. L.A. Noire is a prime example of this: A unique story, aided by the use of revolutionary motion and facial-capture technology, allowed players to experience a game that was rich, compelling, and unlike any other ever made. I believe that L.A. Noire was aided by the fact that there were complex choices that had to be made in the game and, while they may not have exactly been “moral” choices, they did drastically alter the story line.

With this in mind, I think that Rockstar would do well to implement the same type of narrative structure into GTA V; creating a story that connects more with the player, and actually involves them within it, is the greatest achievement any developer can hope for. The GTA series is Rockstar’s crown jewel, a staple point not only for their company, but for the entire industry. For the next installment, anything less than the best and most creative work from Rockstar simply won’t do it justice

 

DL: The guys and gals at Rockstar North are simply phenomenal at what they do. That being said, the mock choices presented in GTA IV were absolutely banal and easily among the worst implemented aspects of that game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that the talented folks over there would be more than capable of elevating the moral choices to a integral part of the game that is memorable for its complexity and excellence. They could make them feel like a worthwhile inclusion on the same level as those found in the likes of Heavy Rain, wherein the entire game is built around giving the player both options and a changing narrative based on the mistakes that they will inevitably make.

That being said, it is not what I want from GTA. The series has consistently provided some of the most engaging stories and convincing characters to be found in gaming and allowing players to pick a plot through the game could only detract from the historically strong and cohesive writing. Some games work well for allowing players a degree of control over the story, but I don’t believe that GTA is one of them. Rockstar have proven themselves experts at linear storytelling and while they could provide an experience unlike any other in expanding their horizons, I’d rather not see them trial such a risky mechanic in their flagship franchise.

 

MU: Rockstar has always been an ambitious developer. Whether it be revolutionizing the open world setting, implementing a robust physics engine, blurring the line between single-player and multi-player, or implementing social features, they’ve never had too short a list of unique gameplay features they could call their own. Not only that, but time and time again they’ve engaged players with well realized stories and fleshed-out characters. When you consider all of that, it’s easy to see why a highly flexible narrative built on consequence and player choice is the next logical step for them. As far as I’m concerned, the GTA series has nearly perfected its gamelay by now, so I feel it’s time to start introducing dramatic changes to the series’ narratives.

Ideally, this type of narrative shouldn’t include any half-baked morality system that only features two moral extremes and interrupts decision-making to show you the future results of your actions (inFAMOUS, I’m glaring at you). Instead, the player should be able to make their own choices within the game’s mechanics and see the consequences or rewards of those actions later. If Rockstar does this correctly, the player should never feel like they’re playing through a segment specifically designed to give you choice. GTA has adopted a realistic atmosphere as of late, and in real life you’re forced to make choices often, many of them being morally grey and in which you’re never absolutely certain of the outcome. If Rockstar wants to keep the realism and elevate it further, then those are the kind of rules they should enforce.

Here at OnlySP, we consider narrative and storytelling as one of the core tenets of the modern gaming experience. Although individual developers approach this aspect in very different ways, which region, as a whole, do you think provides us with the best plots and storytelling methods: America, Japan or Europe?

KB: Growing up playing mostly Nintendo games, most people would expect me to be a fan of Japanese video games, which I am. I love my roots, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have problems with them. As I’ve grown more mature, my tastes have changed. Where once the allure and magic I felt while playing a Super Mario or Zelda game was enough to sate my appetite for adventure, I now feel more inclined to play games that offer up much more deep and engaging stories.

Nearly all of my favorite games now come from American developers–games like Portal, Red Dead Redemption, and Mass Effect. Stories now take precedence over graphics and gameplay for me. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy games that Nintendo or other Asian or even European developers produces–I do! Many of my favorite games come from overseas, but the large majority of them are still made by developers in America.

 

DL: No matter what I say here, I’m doing a grave disservice to the very talented individuals and teams across two-thirds of the world. Japanese games often come with a sense of adventure, a spirit of whimsy and unique gameplay to make the entirety of the productions memorable. American developers seem to excel at emulating Hollywood; exhilarating adrenaline rushes fuelled by explosions and violence, driven forward by forgettable plots and generally featuring characters that leave a player with a distinct feeling of simply not giving a damn. There are, of course, exceptions to this, like Mass Effect, Uncharted, Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed and Dead Space, but even these fall short of the excellence of execution found in European games.

They may not have the same number of stellar examples of storytelling, but there are enough for them to take the lead in my eyes: the Hitman series, the Batman: Arkham series, Legacy of Kain, L.A. Noire, The Darkness and The Witcher all spring to mind as being among the best of the best due to their shared ability to really draw the players into their worlds. Some go even further and manage to make you care and to think about the characters and events that transpires. However, even if these couldn’t be mentioned, there is a quartet of developers that are, as far as I’m concerned, untouchable in the narrative stakes: Remedy Entertainment, Rockstar North, Quantic Dream and Ninja Theory. ‘Nuff said!

 

MU: This one is especially tough for me, though it’s ultimately going to come down to either Japan or North America. I find that when asking a hardened gamer about quality narratives in the medium, you’ll most often hear about titles from North American developers. Developers such as Valve (Half-life 2, Portal), Bioware (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), Irrational (Bioshock, System Shock 2), Rockstar (Red Dead Redemption, GTA), Obsidian (Star Wars: KotR, Neverwinter Nights 2), Ubisoft Montreal (Beyond Good & Evil, Assassin’s Creed), and the various developers formerly under Eidos (Thief, Deus
Ex), as well as many others, are all well-known for routinely providing top notch narratives in games. They often explore complex themes, use very original ideas, and attempt to create an interactive narrative that capitalizes on the medium’s strengths.

Japan, on the other hand, doesn’t have quite as many hits on their hands. The Silent Hill series stands (or stood) as a pillar of excellence, as do the likes of Persona and occasional gems like Catherine and Kingdom Hearts. Beyond that, however, it’s a bit of a tough sell. Even heavyweights like the Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy franchises have garnered a lot of criticisms in regards to their narratives. It’s also easy to criticize melodrama, an overuse of cutscenes, and a bad habit of exposition dumps and convoluted plots as consistent issues that crop up. That being said, it feels like they put in a lot of effort and take genuine risks. Whereas North American games that attempt innovative gameplay or graphics such as Dark Void, Burnout 3, Killzone 2, and Prototype usually contain afterthought narratives or even ignore that aspect altogether, many of Japan’s gameplay-focused games such as Devil May Cry, Dead Rising, Ninja Gaiden, and Resident Evil all earnestly attempt to tell sophisticated and engaging stories. Sure, a good majority of them don’t quite succeed, but you can often see that during development, some writer clearly had a vision and a passion for the story at hand. Even games such as Street Fighter IV and the Legend of Zelda titles, which focus primarily on their gameplay, try hard to create unique, memorable characters. There’s a good chance that you remember Mega Man, Chris Redfield, Chun Li, and Ganon, even if you don’t remember that particular game’s story.

So, who wins? To be honest, I’ll have to give this one to North America. To me, quality wins over quantity, and in my eyes American developers have created well-written and well-realized stories more frequently than Japan. That’s not to say Japan is doing anything wrong; their philosophy in trying to create a story for almost every game is proof that they really are confident in the potential for the gaming medium, and many times their efforts do pay off. As long as they continue doing that, they may actually encourage everyone to make better narratives.

That’s it from us, but feel free to join in the discussion by posting up your own thoughts below. As OnlySP is as much the fans’ site as it is ours, we’re open to any suggestions for the format or future questions, so leave any thoughts below as well and we’ll take them into consideration for the next outing, which I can’t guarantee will even happen, but we’ll see.

Damien Lawardorn
Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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