You know a game is well into "hype frenzy" mode when you start receiving press releases about its website updating.
It should be no surprise to you if I tell you that I received one such press release at the end of last week, and that the subject was Rockstar's upcoming Grand Theft Auto V, which surely needs no introduction. This particular press release grabbed my interest somewhat, however, because it wasn't just about the GTA V website updating; it was specifically about the game's world. And it got me thinking about the Grand Theft Auto games I've played over the years, and how convincing Rockstar have managed to make the worlds depicted therein.
The Grand Theft Auto series as a whole has evolved significantly over time, and has rebooted itself several times. The first two games and their expansions were 2D and unfolded from a top-down perspective; the PS2 era marked the first reboot into the 3D worlds that have defined the series ever since; and Grand Theft Auto IV was yet another reboot that launched the series into the HD era. With each reboot, the canonical storyline for the previous installments was ditched, the cities involved redesigned and everything, essentially, rebuilt from the ground up.
One thing that has remained constant in GTA is how much care and attention the teams have put into the games' worlds.
One thing has remained consistent since the series' inception, however, and that's how much care and attention the teams behind these games have put into their game worlds. Not all of the detail is in the games themselves, either -- over the years, each game's physical versions have tended to come with "in-character" maps and tourist leaflets depicting the notable sights and interesting places to visit in the various games' diverse locales. Certain things have remained constant, too -- radio hosts; fictional businesses such as Ammu-Nation and Cluckin' Bell; the fact that the series has always rendered a semi-realistic but clearly skewed, satirical view on reality -- and this has given the series a feeling of coherence throughout, even where it seemingly contradicts itself from installment to installment.
Grand Theft Auto V is certainly no exception to the rule when it comes to the amount of care, attention, love and detail that Rockstar has poured into the game world. You just have to look at the amount of largely game-irrelevant detail packed into the official website to see that Rockstar is serious about making GTA V's setting as well-realized as possible, even well before the game is in players' hands.
It makes a big difference, too. For as good as the Saints Row series is, I don't feel any real sense of attachment to the worlds depicted therein. There may be people wandering around them and cars driving on the streets, but they don't feel especially alive to me because I don't really know anything about them -- they instead feel like backdrops to the mayhem that's going on. And that works absolutely fine for Saints Row, given how much of each city you tend to blow up repeatedly over the course of a typical installment, but it also marks one of the series' biggest distinguishing factors between it and Grand Theft Auto -- not necessarily a positive distinction, either.
GTA IV's depiction of Liberty City was close enough to New York for me to be able to walk from a hotel I stayed at to Central Park without consulting the in-game map.
While I will admit that Grand Theft Auto IV's story didn't hook me enough to keep me playing through to the end, one thing I did really like about it was the world -- particularly as I started playing it shortly after visiting New York for the first time in about 20 years or so. I was surprised to discover that GTA IV's depiction of Liberty City was actually very close to New York's real layout -- albeit on a considerably condensed scale, obviously, but it was close enough for me to be able to navigate from the rough location of my hotel to Central Park without having to consult the in-game map at all.
The fact that you could just wander around, check your email and browse in-game websites was something I found immensely enjoyable -- in fact, far more enjoyable than the actual missions and story of GTA IV, and I'd often indulge in the game more as a "life sim" than anything else. On more than one occasion, I fired up the game and didn't even start a single mission -- I'd just walk (not drive) from one place to another, taking in the sights along the way. I'd admire the fact that many of the pedestrians on the street acted in different ways according to location, time of day and weather conditions, and that, if I behaved as a "normal person" in the game world, the game reflected what life in a normal city is like. People went about their business, cars trundled through the streets, life went on. I was just one person in the middle of it all, but it would only take me doing one thing out of the ordinary to break that calm and send everything into chaos. I rarely did, though; a far cry from the urge to get to six stars as quickly as possible that I often had in GTA III.
It was all the seemingly irrelevant detail that made GTA IV's world feel "real" to me, and the odds are pretty good that GTA V will be the same. Other games have tried doing similar things, to mixed degrees of success. The Elder Scrolls series, for example, certainly packs its games with lore and detail, but often feels like you're wandering through a static diorama or theme park rather than a truly living world. Compare and contrast this with the amount of life inherent in an MMO like Final Fantasy XIV -- though in that case the "life" literally comes from real, living people populating that world, so it's perhaps not an altogether fair comparison. Alternatively, look at something like Shenmue, for example, which makes use of a much smaller but more detailed setting; there's a comforting sense of familiarity from jogging down into town, checking in with Nozomi and then wasting the rest of the afternoon playing Space Harrier; the feeling that life would continue to go on regardless of whether or not you're actually there.
Assembling a convincing fictional world is a lot like creating a convincing character: you have to think not only about what they are explicitly showing, but also about what is not seen.
Other games handle worldbuilding in different ways; a convincing game world doesn't have to be something that you can wander around freely and poke your nose into every darkened corner, after all. One of my favorite examples is the visual novel/strategy RPG Aselia the Eternal, whose immensely convincing, immersive worldbuilding comes about entirely through strong writing and a sense that the developers had thought just as much about what was happening off-screen as on. In this case, you're very much along for the ride with the protagonist rather than exploring the world freely for yourself, but it doesn't make it any less convincing; again, it feels as if there's life outside that which you're seeing as part of the game.
In a lot of senses, assembling a convincing fictional world is a lot like creating a convincing character: you have to think not only about what they are explicitly showing to the player/reader/viewer, but also about what is not seen: their history, their background, the things that people might not ever see but which nonetheless play an important role in defining the way they are today. It's a tricky thing to get right, but when it is done right, it makes for some truly memorable experiences -- and not necessarily for quite the reasons the writers might have originally intended.
Will GTA V get it right? We'll have to wait and see for a definitive answer, but going on past experience with the series, it's a pretty safe bet that it will.