Grand Theft Avatar: GTA As Immersive Sim

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.

43 Comments

  1. melnificent says:

    Interesting that you made a GTA 3 clone before GTA 3. Did you keep the code?

    I did the same with making sim-city on the Vic-20 about 3 years before it was released. I have the hard copy somewhere in the loft.

    • Wowbagger says:

      I think he’s alluding to GTA rather than GTA 3 actually.

  2. asadlittlepotato says:

    Now it just needs Oculus support!

  3. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    Hopefully it won’t take someone too long to create a mod that unlocks ever enterable building, fenced-off area and interactive object from the getgo rather than having to slog through the billions of missions to unlock them.

    • phelix says:

      Fenced off areas? Are you referring to the military bases or mission-specific interiors? Because if I’m not mistaken, the exterior world is accessible from the getgo, or after the prologue anyway.

      • SooSiaal says:

        Yes it is

      • Premium User Badge

        Oakreef says:

        Fair enough, three through four had the other islands locked off until you completed stuff so I figured five would be the same.

  4. Brave Dave says:

    I know it’s not “cool” to say it, but I am so excited about GTAV probably even more so than when it was released on PS3 the first time. I can’t wait to just walk/drive/swim around the whole place.
    I went through it pretty quickly on PS3 so i’m looking forward to just jumping in now and then and exploring this amazing world.

    • Pieclone says:

      I finished the 360 version and can’t wait to just wander through the world on PC. I am strongly considering a gfx and 4k monitor upgrade but I think that might wait until things like ENBs become available (go Boris, go!)

      I’m very interested in seeing what the mod community can bring to the game. There is already so much in the original that I never really explored (mostly due to lacklustre graphics on the 360 through a non-HD TV screen).

      I hope the MP will allow me to meet normal, boring middle aged folk to go mountain biking or midnight car cruises along the beach (without paying for XBL…)

      Fingers crossed that the PC version is decent and doesn’t run like a pig. I look forward to RPS’s verdict once the game becomes available.

      • Brave Dave says:

        I’m not too sure about the normal bit, but I am boring and middle aged. I’ve sent you a steam thingy (Ourumov) if you want someone to walk around the beach doing nothing at all for a couple of hours ( I must warn you though I am prone to a bit of weightlifter slapping (in GTA of course))

        • Jittery.Ewok says:

          Fancy adding me too? Been playing GTA online on Xbox 360 on and off since it came out and I just wanna have fun in GTA V on the PC with some random people. Let me know. Can’t wait for some crazy first person BMX riding.

        • Sir Motorsheep the Marbled says:

          This slightly medium old geezer would like to join your enterprise of doing nothing exciting at all. Currently you will find me on Steam under “Sir Lemoncake the Marblesheep”, though my copy of GTA is R*Social Club only.

    • fish99 says:

      I’m super hyped for it too. GTA is just the most fun sandbox around, and V has so much stuff to do. I played half way through on PS3 and stopped when they announced the PC version. I wanna play it with good framerates and mouse aiming, maybe even in stereo 3D too if my 970 can handle it.

      Yeah it’s a bit sexist and should have had at least one female protagonist, but it’s gonna be a boring world we live in when absolutely nothing is even slightly offensive to anyone. GTA has always reflected society rather than having the influence on it some people imagine.

    • hungrycookpot says:

      You used to be cool man. You changed.

    • Noam Beefheart says:

      Cool, fresh victims….er, I mean fellow gamers. Seriously though, I too am old and play GTA so I sent all of you steam invites. We can make fun of all the other GTA players killing each other.

  5. Pich says:

    Immersion is one of the big things that made me like GTA V much more that Saint’s Row IV, i loved taking a car, tune it to the max and just joyride around San Andreas.

  6. Sin Vega says:

    I hope, but doubt, it’ll be super moddable. That’s the only thing that’d get me at all bothered. The last one was pretty hostile to mods, with any interesting ones being crashy and buggy as hell, not hoped by the terrible save system.

    With a few of them though (including first person mode, and an awkward but functional non-niko avatar mod), I had a much better time simply walking and legally driving around the city than I did doing the same old gta stuff we’ve had for 15+ years.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      GTA V lets you save anywhere. You have smart phones now after all.

  7. Zanchito says:

    First person Gta sounds like an ace idea. I hope they support driving wheels for car controls, I was really disappointed after installing Gta 4 and seeing my wheel was useless.

  8. Robert Post's Child says:

    It seems like a silly thing to get excited about – first person isn’t exactly a new or rare concept – but it does seem like the shot in the arm GTA could use, especially if it means dropping the trudgy, awkward movement that normal 3rd person has.

    As for pretending you’re not one of the 3 protagonists: even for just toodling around, I tend to play almost exclusively in the multiplayer portion of the game. Having my own avatar to control just feels a lot more comfortable, for some reason.

  9. Kollega says:

    Recently, I’ve been ruminating on an implausible, but intriguing idea: a GTA-style game where the default camera is first-person, guns are either irrelevant to the experience or are a last resort, travel is usually done on a bicycle rather than with a car or motorcycle or plane, and the game itself encourages you to spend as much time as possible lazying around and observing the setting – a vaguely-defined Central-European province of small towns, forests, and meadows right in the middle of that great “lazy summer” time of year. Such a game would reward the player for doing things like lazying around in the shade of a tree or fishing in a river or gazing at passing trains from atop a water tower rather than trying to insult everyone and everything while ripping off ALL THE CRIME THRILLERS. Obviously, it won’t ever get made, but it’s nice to dream.

    • Cross says:

      It sounds like every walking simulator crossed with GTA, i dig the idea.

    • Premium User Badge

      Dukey says:

      Yes, I’ll have one of those, please.

      And also give me a camera and a vague list of locations/things to photograph if/when I feel like it. I mentioned this in another comment section a little while ago but I’d really like a game that gives you a camera and actually models all the fine adjustments you can make when taking photos to try and get the perfect image. That plus the big, varied environment of GTAV would be lovely.

      You never know, the sort of game you describe could probably be created with a few mods to GTAV. Look at some of the stuff people did for GTAIV.

    • simontifik says:

      I’m down with a bicycle focused GTA! My favourite GTA moment is riding my BMX aorund the hood in San Andreas spraying over rival gangs graffiti. Gave me the chance to live out the badass adolescence I wasn’t badass enough to live while an adolescent.

  10. Cross says:

    I hate to be such a demanding and terribly spoilt spod, but i feel this article could be taken much further than it already is; delve further into what is and differentiates an immersive sim, why GTA feels more lived in than its many equals, and more great future predictions. Again, i’m terrible for saying that the worst part of a great future is that it stops too early, but let me terrible, damn it!

  11. SlimShanks says:

    Is it weird that when I play GTA / clones and accidentally hurt an npc, I throw money at them and call an ambulance?

    • Sir Motorsheep the Marbled says:

      Not at all. GTA IV made me feel bad about every single case of hurt civilians.

      Apart from those cases, obviously, that rammed into my freshly resprayed luxury car as I was cruising around the city. Those were, without exception or mercy, pulled out of their cars and introduced to my baseball bat.

  12. Retrofrank says:

    The first person perspective is nice to take a look around but not very usable for playing.
    The camera is swaying around like a drunk, when you move your charakter.

  13. johnny5 says:

    The game is too white middle-class middle-aged male for me. I don’t see how anyone could be excited about this game. The author is probably a racist misogynist who hates the poor.

    • Razumen says:

      You do realize the GTA series is meant as a satire on America right?

      • Risingson says:

        It isn’t. That is its excuse, but it isn’t: there is no criticism of these “values”: not only the narrative is everything but critic with it (mostly nostalgic), but the mechanics of the game are based on those values.

  14. racccoon says:

    I would like to spit in RockStar face fro leaving the PC player in the dark.
    but they also win my admiration because their games when released on PC are epic.
    If only RockStar would wake up to that!

  15. Soapeh says:

    I’ve seen the header image a few times now and I’ve only just noticed the mysterious mystery of the “Master Chief” soldier’s pose on the phone’s screen.

  16. alms says:

    Wait, you mean this post has been lost, wandering in limbo, between January and today? or maybe those gents at the top are time travelers, visiting the future?

  17. Geebs says:

    I’m confused: I thought that, in game design, “immersive sim” means “at some point, the player will hide in a ventilation shaft”

    • KenTWOu says:

      You got it all wrong. “If you can pick up a box, it’s an immersive sim.”

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  19. ALPHATT says:

    I enjoy, the themes and story of each entry, but the reason I hold up GTA as one of the if not best series of games ever made, is because it’s the pinnacle of urban fantasy simulation. Thats why no other open world game compares, because their attention to detail and care for the environment is eons behind R* North. There’s something truly tranquil cruising around in Grand theft Auto game. It is what captured me when I first played these games at age 8.

  20. JimThePea says:

    I always feel that however great the game within, once you’re done with the story and multiplayer you’ve got this massive, immersive world with no more stories left except the ones you can conjure up in your mind, it would be interesting to see places like Los Santos become a sandbox for developers as well as gamers.

    How about a game world that’s tailored to open development, with professionally made stories being turned out by many different studios, a game world that acts like a film location, a place where games are set. For an indie dev, you could use a world that you’d never be able to create, to develop a story that a AAA studio would never create.

    • alms says:

      That’s an interesting thought.

    • Sir Motorsheep the Marbled says:

      I like that. In the way that Terry Pratchett had various stories of different flavours all happen in the Disc World, you’d get various games of more or less different focus happening in the same game world.

      Kind of goes into the same direction as my idea of an “everything engine” that would give devs easy access to any type of game they would like to make, from racing to flying to diving to tactical shooters…or all of them at the same time.

    • klmx says:

      After a while the GTA world gets boring, so as a kid playing GTA I would always imagine the “everything” game, a GTA game with a huge world where all sorts of videogames were confined in. There’d be FIFA in there, a racing sim, an FPS, etc. There’s really something to this idea I think.