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Grand Theft Avatar: GTA As Immersive Sim

A new perspective

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Grand Theft Auto is many things to many people but I’ve usually found a way to enjoy each new entry as a sedate urban exploration game. I like stopping at red lights and honking my horn at dangerous drivers. I like listening to people talking on their mobile phones and I love that accidents occasionally happen while I’m trundling by. With its brand new first-person perspective option, GTA V may be one of the great immersive sims, packed with emergent moments both mundane and magnificent.

I wanted to play Grand Theft Auto so much that I tried to make it in 1995, two years before DMA Design would release the first stage of their hot coffee quaffing, kill frenzy, controversy-generating cultural phenemonon. From that earliest incarnation, it wasn’t the violence, drugs and sex (was there any top-down sex in the original? I have no memory of even a drive-by allusion but I’m almost certainly wrong) that drew me in – it was the titular act. I wanted to steal cars.

Stealing cars is, of course, a crime and potentially a violent one so it might seem inaccurate to say that I wasn’t drawn in by the illicit theme. To be more precise, I didn’t care about stealing cars as much as getting in and out of cars. As I saw it, GTA’s most radical quality wasn’t linked to the content or the theme – it was found in the game’s treatment of the player avatar.

My attempt to create something similar wasn’t entirely a success. I’d been using Klik & Play, a game creation tool that let me drop a few car sprites onto a map, imbue them with basic behavioural qualities, and watch as they raced around and round in circles. That wasn’t enough.

I made a small town, with a crossroads in the middle of the screen, and had various vehicles following preset routes around the streets. There was a post office van that stopped at every other house as it made its circuit (I think, at the time, I’d confused the delivery and collection of mail), a lorry that steamed through the centre of town once a minute or so, and various cars tootling about on paths that may or may not have been random. I don’t remember if they were random, or even if my knowledge of Klik & Play’s simple systems would have allowed me to randomise them even if I’d wanted to.

That little game was my pride and joy. The goal was to drive around the town avoiding collisions. I tried to make it into a pizza delivery game, with proper objectives, but that was beyond my capabilities, so it was just about Not Crashing Forever. I’d been playing and tweaking for a couple of days when I realised that if I could make the player get out of the car and into a new one, I’d probably have made the best game ever.

I never did make that game but DMA did make a much better version of the same idea two years later. The genius of Grand Theft Auto, for me, has always been in the ability to transition from one state to another – from walking game to driving game. Before GTA, I expected my avatar to be a car, a floating gun or a collection of stats that collided with other collections of stats. The gun I held was no longer my presence in the world and, unlike in a racing game, I was not my car. GTA is a game about controlling a person who can interact with and control elements of the world – a game in which cars are not entities in and of themselves, but machines that require an operator.

For a long time, I assumed that the next step would be for GTA to take place in a city in which buildings were as much a credible part of the environment as the vehicles and people. The shift from top-down to 3d may be partly responsible for dropping speedbumps on the road that leads to fully interactive cities, although the series certainly benefits from the change of angle.

While some buildings can be entered, the city of GTA V is still a series of painted blocks that outwardly resemble residences and commercial properties. They’re convincing facades but they mostly lack an interior life, perhaps comparable to a movie set, which is somewhat appropriate given the later games’ tendency toward crime film copycatting.

I spent a couple of days with the least-gen console version of GTA V when it came out but I didn’t have time to immerse myself in the city and didn’t have the patience for short bursts of play. The first few missions were familiar enough that I figured there was little to differentiate the game from its predecessors. That’s not say I dismissed it entirely, but I was happy to wait for the PC release, when I’d have more online chums to play with.

The first-person mode is something I hadn’t anticipated at all. It’s made me more excited about the game than I thought could be possible and seems like a direct continuation of the trend that began with my first experiences with the series seventeen years ago.

While I may not be able to enter every building (though perhaps I can climb every mountain), being able to play from a first-person perspective will help to frame each story as my own creation rather than a weird interlude in the life of a sweary man of violence. If I decide to drive to become a street photographer or a private detective, staking out buildings and trailing specific cars and NPCs, I’ll be doing it as whatever character I imagine is on the other side of the camera rather than one of Rockstar’s trio.

There have been other first-person games that offer the freedom to slide behind the wheel – although convincing integration of vehicles in shooters is still rare – but GTA V may be the most convincing urban exploration game thanks to a combination of its continuing development of what can be achieved with a convincing player avatar, the detail of its streets and those who walk them, and that new perspective on proceedings.

I can’t wait.

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