Since the early beginnings the (in)famous Grand Theft Auto games have been modelled around a concept of a somewhat a-linear mission structure. Rockstar’s flagship can pride themselves in popularising the essence of open world games in a media format that was previously known for things as levels, boss fights and high scores. One can argue if GTA was the first one, but they’re definitely the most well known. Its urban setting, mini-map and wanted level have became staple elements for the now immensely popular open world action genre. So have the familiar mission markers: icons often in the form of initials of the ‘mission-giver’ displayed on the map of the game world.
However, as time progresses and games keep innovating, the ambitious car theft series is beginning to show its age. The core elements have been copied, expanded on and improved by other game makers and its once quirky and satirical sense of humour is slowly losing connection with reality. Grand Theft Auto is a bit like Eminem, South Park or your thirty something friend that loves to party: undoubtedly good, but once very edgy and relevant and now slowly getting behind on times and relying on shtick. Do they fade away and become artefacts of a bygone time and part of a nostalgia ensemble? Or can their makers reinvent them and push them forward in such way to make it culturally relevant and that old thorn in the side of establishment?
A New Way
Imagine walking around in a massive game world and having absolutely no leads regarding what to do? No prompts, no hints, no indication of what’s there for your character to undertake. I thought about this concept for an earlier article on this website: games without a driving license. Modern cities (or better, cities in modern games) are the richest types of environments you can imagine and potentially filled to the brims with leads, opportunities and unique starting points for stories. You just have to know where to look. Just like in real life, a thread of events can start from the smallest of beginnings. And that’s how I imagine a modern Grand Theft Auto game should be set up.
Imagine being dropped in an urban game setting with absolutely nothing. Let’s say you have a the clothes you are wearing, and perhaps a hotel room or a friend’s place to sleep and a handful of cash. What would be the first thing you need? A phone. Perhaps as a little tutorial this can be prompted on the screen after a few minutes to help you going. Go get a phone. With a phone you can access the map, go on the internet, contact people. You can buy a phone, steal one from the shop, pickpocket a phone from a pedestrian or rob someone and buy a phone from that money. When you have a phone you can apply for a small job: cab driver for example. Or Uber driver, but then you need a car. A car you can steal, or buy one for money. To get that kind of money you need to do some jobs first. I imagine you can do simple jobs that are fun to do in a videogame setting: bouncer, delivery man, busker, prostitute. You can snap photos with your phone an put them online. After five pretty photos you might get an e-mail to get sponsored on Instagram. With money you can buy a gun, pull robberies and get that car. Or go to the casino and double your money, or lose it all. Legal ways can be slow, but illegal ways might get you arrested and stripped of everything.
Doing these jobs will provide you with contacts. After a few cab rides a cut-scene will trigger where you meet someone. Did you pick another job than you will meet another character. Maybe someone when you rob a store, visit a club, play your guitar in the subway station. These contacts will trigger missions. They will be added in your contact list and they will call you, or you can call them. Their jobs will pull you into the familiar world of organised crime that makes GTA what it is. But it won’t go smooth from there. I picture a game that continues to put you in charge: chose who you want to work for, plan you own heists, make your own decisions. Buy a house for your money, or spend it on clothing, weapons or cars. Doing something illegal will put you at risk of being arrested. Not being able to pay your bills will result in a visit from the repo-man. Will you flee? Kill the repo-man? Pay up? Maybe you can rent out the house you bought. Put all your cars in a depot and start a taxi business.
Grand Theft Auto Online is already exploring this kind of gameplay structure. With the latest updates the player can be the CEO of their own company: hire security, buy a warehouse or a yacht. You can start of being someone else’s thug and work your way up from there. I think it’s not impossible to import such elements into single player. Only where GTA Online aims straight for high-roller lifestyle, I think a new game in the series should start at the bottom like I described in the previous paragraph. Show us the struggle of dealing with the basics first: finding a place to sleep, getting that first gun. Previous games have often skipped that part or thrust the protagonist straight into the hands op established gangsters and get that gun, car and starting capital quite swiftly.
Don’t give me the option straight away to carjack people. Stopping a car and pulling the driver out really isn’t that easy. Let me wander the streets and depend on public transport at first. Make me worried about getting place to stay, instead of having to sleep on a park bench. Make me work for that first cash. But most importantly, don’t handhold too much in the beginning. Generally games have the tendency to put you in a corridor first and as the game progresses grand you more freedom. For a true a-linear experience, you should be able to build your own narrative from the get-go. Let me grind for that XP and up my skills like old school RPGs or Maxis’ classic The Sims. Driving, shooting, stamina, creativity, social skills. In GTA IV, Niko Belic could play bowling with his cousin. if he did often enough he would get a discount on cab rides. Expand that scope a tenfold. Let me instead go for drinks, bowling or whatnot with a contact and let my relationship with them influence the flow of the mission and story in such meaningful way we can end up having sex or murdering each other and everything in between. It’s possible, make that shit.