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Linear Narrative in an Open World

by Tom Battey on 11/07/13 02:49:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Time to bring out the fireworks, folks, and it's nothing to do with Guy Fawkes. No, there's something far more important to celebrate; I just finished the story in a Grand Theft Auto game for the first time ever.

There are many reasons why while I enjoyed many of the previous GTA games I never actually finished one of them. They were too long, too hard, or just not interesting enough. Perhaps I'm too picky. Perhaps it takes a budget of $25 million to make me stick something  through to the end. Never let it be said that my attention can be bought cheap.

Regardless, due to a heady mix of smart gameplay and design improvements and a whole truckload of development dollars, Rockstar have succeeded in creating a game I was willing to see through to its 50-hour conclusion. And I am left with a split opinion about a game that is in some respects incredible, and in others kind of lacking.

I'm going to discuss story, because it's about the only thing I feel even remotely qualified to discuss in a multi-billion dollar videogame franchise, and it's also the thing in GTA V that most obviously doesn't work. From this point on there will be  spoilers for the entire story of GTA V, so if you haven't finished the game, don't read on.

The trouble I have with the story in GTA V isn't the writing, which is often great. Dan Houser is a great script writer, clearly backed up by a talented team, and there are individual moments where the game's script really shines. The problem is that these individual moments can't support the kind of game GTA V is; the game's story is compromised by the fact that it's a GTA game.

In a game where you can go to ALL the places and do ALL the thing any time you like, delivering a linear narrative is impossible. It's even more impossible (yes, oxymoron, but bear with me) to do tell the linear stories of three different protagonists all played by the same player.

We're left with excellent outlines of characters that can't go anywhere; their potential for meaningful arcs of progression is hampered by the need to allow the player to take them deer hunting or scuba diving whenever they please.

We have Franklin, whose very first contribution to the game is his apparently sincere wish to escape the gang scene - except he's not allowed to escape the gang scene, because if he did, there'd be nothing for him to do in the game. So instead we have Franklin rolling his eyes and going "aw, man, seriously?" at the start of every mission, before passively taking part in whatever definitely-part-of-the-gang-scene activity the player requires him to do.

By the end of the game, Franklin is cooly assassinating people he's never met for financial gain and engaging in brutal shootouts with gangs and law enforcement alike. He's never entirely happy with this state of affairs, but nor does he make any attempt to stop, because he can't; we need him to be an assassin so we can do assassination missions. Poor well-meaning Franklin is just along for the ride.

And we have Michael, whose aim in life is to earn enough money to retire with his family into a life of unblemished luxury - which is exactly the situation he starts the game in. He spends the whole game complaining about the grim situations he's been forced into, conveniently forgetting that he entered into these grim situations entirely of his own volition - or the player's volition, at least.

One of the very last lines of the game is Michael expressing something along the lines of "now I can finally retire" -  which made me wonder what inspired him to leave his house 50 hours of game ago.

And we have Trevor, who is a completely evil bastard - except when he isn't. Trevor is a man who will gleefully commit genocide on entire stereotypes one minute, and the next will be helping a crazy old couple collect celebrity knick-knacks, because...well because that's what the mission says he has to do.

This hamstringing of the narrative by the inconvenience of also being a videogame renders the relationship between Trevor and Michael - the crux around which the narrative turns - completely irrelevant. There comes a point in the game where the two supposedly hate each other - Trevor has uncovered the fact that Michael has been lying to him about the death of a friend, and subsequently leaves Michael to be brutally murdered by Chinese gangsters.

Not exactly something either party should lightly shrug off, right? Well no, except for the fact that both characters have to playable and they both have to take part in the game's three-man heist missions. So after leaving Michael to die horribly in a meat-packing factory, Trevor turns up to save his ass from a crapload of federal agents in the very next mission, because...videogame.

The relationship between Trevor and Michael never gets closure - the two have a sort-of stand-off in a cutscene late in the game, where they seem to decide to not shoot each other, for the time being, and that's the last we hear of it. We're probably supposed to take that as closure...but it's not.

Lack of closure is the standout issue with the game's ending. After so much buildup, the establishment of so many interweaving plot lines, the end can't come as anything other than an anticlimax. The three protagonists decide that it's past time to murder everyone who has even remotely inconvenienced them over the course of the game, and after culminating this murder-spree they just...walk off. Back into the exact same lives they had previously, except now they've got more money.

It could be argued (and as this is the internet, I'm sure it probably has) that this ending is a satire on the self-serving futility of modern capitalism, but that doesn't excuse it from lacking any sense of closure. Something isn't less bad if you make it bad on purpose.

But really the game lacks closure because it's impossible for a game like GTA to have closure. We know we're going to end up back on the huge game map with our now-very-wealthy protagonists intact because anything else would be cheating us of gameplay. The story is always going to have to serve the gameplay, which is why trying to shove a linear narrative into a game like GTA just doesn't work.

It's more than just the dissonance between what the characters say and do in cutscenes and what the player actually does in the game - the structure of the game itself makes it impossible for any of its characters to have any sort of story arc, or really do anything meaningful at all.

So what does this tells us about games and story? Well I suppose it tells us that all the money and talent in the world can't bend an effective narrative into a form it was never meant to take. The stories I'll remember from GTA V are entirely self-generated - Trevor belting down the freeway on his cherry-pink motorbike with Thundercat blasting on the radio, Franklin swimming all the way out to a small island and accidentally setting a woman on fire, Michael escaping the police by stealing a passenger jet and then hiding it under a bridge.

These are stories that emerged organically from the game, rather than those shoehorned in by a writing team. And this is what Rockstar is best at, perhaps better than any other developer; giving us a world and letting us tell our own stories within it. But in doing so, they effectively neuter their own ambition to tell the kind of Hollywood story they clearly want to.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.

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