It's hard to overstate just how big Grand Theft Auto 3 was. It was a phenomenon. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing ads for it. Rockstar almost single-handedly established the PlayStation 2's dominance as a games console. I wasn't allowed to play it, much less play video games, but it was all my friends could talk about. One day, I asked my friends just why they thought it was so great. "Because you can do anything," came the answer.
In the years that followed, it seemed like everyone wanted a piece of that Grand Theft Auto pie. The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Mercenaries, Spider-Man 2, Just Cause, and others crowded into the open world market, but Grand Theft Auto surpassed them all with its follow-ups: San Andreas and Vice City.
Developers continued chasing after GTA in the HD generation, but none of them seemed capable of catching Rockstar's magic. Each game had tried its own twist on the genre, with the most successful being Assassin's Creed in 2007, but nobody was pulling in the GTA numbers. Was it the setting? Saints Row and Saints Row 2 made a valiant effort, but still, Rockstar remained undefeated.
Then Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto 4 in 2008. It released to near-universal acclaim, tied on Metacritic with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 for second place as the greatest video game of all time. Reviews claimed that its writing was Oscar-worthy. Rockstar's sales were through the roof. If you didn't know anything about video games, you might think that GTA 4 is one of the best video games ever made. You'd be mistaken.
Soon after its release, the complaints started rolling in. Roman kept bothering Niko to go play darts. The controls were kind of awkward; by 2008, the industry had figured out a good standard for third person controls, but GTA 4 felt like it was stuck in the previous generation, where designers were still coming to terms with how 3D games should control. Vehicle handling wasn’t great. Without mods, its visuals could be described as the greatest hits of the seventh generation. Brown and grey? Yup. Vaseline filter? Absolutely. The writing wasn't really that good. The game’s current Steam user score is at merely 63 percent favorable.
Personally I'd argue that anything Rockstar did, Volition did better in Saints Row 2. The story is better, with characters who actually seem to care about each other. Instead of being jerked around by people you hate in a bunch of annoying instant-failure missions with way too many chases, Saints Row 2 had better mission variety. The controls feel more modern, the character creator is awesome, and, heck, it's a much better looking game.
Grand Theft Auto might have been surpassed by its contemporaries, but it outsold them all. The community it fostered remained strong, producing videos and mods until Grand Theft Auto 5's release five years later. It’s easy to look at a game and claim that its success was only due to the branding or that the hype wasn’t genuine. With GTA 4, I believe that’s actually true, but we can’t just stop there. Something about Grand Theft Auto 4 worked for people. Something keeps this series selling millions and scoring impossibly high ratings where other series fail.
Why does Grand Theft Auto 4 blow away the competition, even when it seems so obviously inferior?
I think the first thing that GTA 4 gets right is that it's pretentious.
Gamers use that word a lot. "Pretentious." It's almost a throwaway insult at this point, losing so much of its power through overuse, but if there's a game more pretentious than a Rockstar game, I have yet to play it. The word refers to something that has the affectation of being more important than it is, and that's a very Rockstar thing—especially when it comes to Grand Theft Auto 4.
This is a story that thinks it's smarter than it is. It wants to talk about the failure of the American Dream, but it only does so by saying "American Dream" a lot and contrasting that with a world that sucks. Even bad movies like Killing Them Softly have a more nuanced take on the subject than Rockstar's cynical portrayal of the world.
It's not a particularly subtle game either. Consider Karen Daniels, Niko's first girlfriend in Liberty City. When you pick her up for a date at her apartment, Niko mentions that a lot of her stuff seems new, with the tags still on. Nearly all of the questions Karen—then known as Michelle—asks Niko during their dates is what he does for a living, if he's into organized crime, or if Roman's into organized crime, all while evading any questions about her identity. It's apparent within a few seconds that she's a cop. Rockstar's idea of foreshadowing is a brick through a window with a note explaining everything in obsessive detail.
The story always takes itself seriously, the performances are excellent despite the awful facial animations, and the moment-to-moment dialogue can actually be great at times. Rockstar might not write well, but it's so good at making its stories feel well-written that it almost doesn't matter. I don't know if Little Jacob speaks authentically, but Coolie Ranx plays the character with such conviction that it feels authentic.
Every Rockstar game is like this. Max Payne 3 coaxed a better performance out of James McCaffrey than Remedy ever did, and Red Dead Redemption has some of the best characterization in video games. Part of Rockstar's secret is that it avoids employing traditional video game voice actors for their lead roles. For many, it's their first time working on a video game; Michael Hollick, the voice of Niko Bellic, had never worked on a video game prior to Grand Theft Auto 4.
Rockstar's voice direction is wonderful. Plenty of studios have hired actors from Hollywood to work on their games, but very few manage to get the kind of performances out of those actors that Rockstar does. By avoiding familiar voice actors and emphasizing great performances, Rockstar gives their scenes a sense of weight and importance that you're not going to get from a game like Spider-Man 3, where Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons rants at Peter Parker about giant lizards.
Of course, it's unlikely that millions of people buy Grand Theft Auto games just because they recognize the brand and enjoy the performances. There's more going on here.
If you're designing an open world game, chances are you're going to litter your game world with hundreds of gamified objectives and collectibles. Players wander over to the objective marker, press a button, and play some kind of simplistic, repeatable minigame, like throwing objects through glowing circles or causing a certain amount of destruction in the area within a specific time span. This makes up the bulk of most open world game content.
In Grand Theft Auto 4, the story takes center stage. While there are a few minigames, like delivering drugs for Little Jacob, these missions are grounded in the world and are more involved than a traditional open world minigame. For example, the assassination missions provided by the Fixer avoid feeling repetitious because each one is a unique hit; you might find that one job requires you to take out a man as he's leaving a police station, while another sees you taking out a target on his boat.
Rather than acting like a game, Grand Theft Auto 4 treats its systems in a naturalistic fashion, but it's not just that. Most open world games feature collectible systems, like Saints Row: The Third's blow-up dolls or Just Cause 3's collectible audio logs. In GTA 4, you shoot pigeons. It doesn't seem realistic to find blow-up dolls and audio logs everywhere, but shooting pigeons feels like it makes sense.
This naturalistic approach can be seen in every facet of GTA 4. When someone enters your car to ride with you, you'll see it shake slightly as the suspension takes their weight. If you shoot someone in the leg, he'll start limping as if the leg you shot really is wounded. NPCs have conversations on their phones or with friends without any regard for your presence, unless you interact with them. Games like Skyrim repeat lines about arrows and knees hundreds of times, and their characters only ever seem to acknowledge you. If you walk around GTA 4 and simply listen in on people's private conversations, the experience feels like living in a real city, where every NPC feels like a person, rather than a randomly generated asset.
When my friends told me "you can do anything," the promise sounded incredible, but hundreds of games let you do anything. Fighting dragons in Skyrim is exciting. Grappling onto a passenger jet in Just Cause 2 is thrilling. Dominating orcs, slaughtering zombies, scavenging for supplies, heck, even participating in an incredible story is all well and good, but Grand Theft Auto 4 is one of the only games that tries to bring its world to life.
I love the wasteland of Mad Max, but when the systems rear their ugly heads, I'm reminded of the game I'm playing. Liberty City is an uglier place with awkward controls and a much less impressive story, but its world feels so much more vibrant and alive. In GTA 4, people feel like people and places feel like places, regardless of whether or not you're around. Nothing repeats as if it's just a chunk of a game pasted around the world, it repeats because The Fixer has more targets to kill or Little Jacob needs drugs delivered.
There's a word for this, believe it or not. It's called "immersion." A lot of people don’t like the word "immersion" because it's one of those words you see on the back of a game's box. The marketing copy will say something like "the game’s graphics are so realistic and immersive!" and it just seems like meaningless fluff that's easy to ignore, but immersion is a technical word with a precise purpose.
An immersive game is one that tries to be real independently of the player. A lot of developers think they're creating immersion by offering the player a lot of systems, but this can lead to an un-immersive game, like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which waits for the player to arrive and set events into motion. Mankind Divided is a jungle gym of systems, catering to any play style the designers can imagine. Want to sneak in? Here's a vent. Want to shoot your way in? Here's a gun. If you want, you can also enter by talking to people, hacking computers, breaking through walls, or using a gas mask to walk through some poisonous sewers.
In an immersive game, the world is treated like a real space. Are there always going to be hackable doors? Is it logical to have a vent here? Instead of picking a play style and equipping yourself with the tools to get it done, an immersive game allows you to apply natural solutions to its problems.
Grand Theft Auto 4 doesn't push the simulation elements nearly as far as some games do, but it still spends a lot of time treating its space in a real way. It won't ask you to find 126 stone shards the way Dragon Age: Inquisition does. If you listen to its crowds, you'll hear hundreds of unique little conversations happening around you. Niko runs up and down stairs convincingly. Characters react to being hurt realistically.
Every Rockstar game has this attention to detail. The weapon handling in Max Payne 3 is unmatched, and the character performances are out of this world. As you walk over broken glass, the sound of your footprints changes to match. Red Dead Redemption has the best performances in Rockstar history, with special attention paid to things like accurately rendering the muscles of your horse's buttocks. Grand Theft Auto 5 simulates a stock market that changes if you take certain assassination contracts.
While some of their games do feature minigames, like Liar's Dice or Poker in Red Dead Redemption, these are always given a believable, realistic context. They never seem like simple game systems. Marketers are fond of saying that game developers bring their worlds to life, but very few developers actually manage to pull it off. Rockstar is one of the best at it, especially when it comes to huge open worlds. Bethesda is the only other developer putting this kind of attention to detail into their games, and I think that's why it's one of the only developers that are as popular and commercially successful as Rockstar.
Even then, Rockstar's games still outperform Bethesda’s, and I think that comes back to presentation. The guard's stilted "Who. Are you?" at the beginning of Skyrim is cringe-inducing, where Niko arguing with a character like Mihail Faustin feels more dramatic and engaging because Rockstar's pulling better performances out of its actors.
There's no magic bullet to making a better game, but Liberty City feels like a believable place the way that no other game can really match. It does this through some of the best narrative presentation out there and with an immaculate attention to creating a sense of presence. Grand Theft Auto 4 didn't deserve the astoundingly high accolades, and as both a game and a story it doesn't hold up, but even then, nobody makes a world that feels more believable than Rockstar.