A conservative gamer’s sentimental perspective not without merit: beating the game used to mean something. It was a sign of compliance with the game’s demands. You had to have the willingness and the follow-through to complete the series of expected tasks in the order in which they were prescribed. There was little wiggle-room for diversions unrelated to the primary objectives. It was simpler time in gaming. That’s all gone now.
In this brave new open-world of post-Grand Theft Auto III gaming, designers are sick and tired of punk gamers beating their ultra-violent action-adventure games. With the October 2001 release of GTA III, the teams at Rockstar Games accomplished a grand theft of the entire interactive gaming industry and, particularly, a takeover and makeover of the action-adventure genre’s rules and aesthetics. In modern gaming, progress is scored by completeness, success in percentages of total quests checked off, cold math where the old high score board once glowed in glory. Heroes once. Now, look at us – blood-spattered errand boys.
An imperfect illustration of gaming’s evolution from linear design to nonlinear design: imagine a dark closet – three walls and one door covered in posters of Amiga and Atari games. Barring the occasional moment of Rogueness, one can walk untransformed in a linear progression from one end of the closet to the other. Now, situate this closet at the mid-point of a cubic labyrinth of hallways and doors beyond which are more hallways, more doors.
With GTA III, gaming came out of the closet of linearity, erected some new hallways, put in a few more doors, and promised us the blueprint of a dream home. Today, that glorious dream home is a reality. Game design has expanded exponentially in self-similar sharp angles, more hallways, even more doors. (The first of many hallways where everything looks the same and all you want to do is go back in the closet, that’s GTA IV.) Modern gamers have inherited anonymous McMansions of organized complexity and have grown accustomed to echoed footsteps and the creak-creak groans of a foundation three sizes too small.
Mainstream conservative perspective without merit: the popularity of Grand Theft Auto, and therefore the popularity of its imitators, has crippled the gaming public’s sense of empathy, has increased aggressiveness and bullying, and (depending on the severity of your source’s conservative indoctrination) may be responsible for anti-Americanism (whatever that might be), terrorism (read: violence stigmatized and deemed illegitimate by the State), and better or worse driving. Many gamers cry witch-hunt at any association of simulated violence with acts of actual violence. Our games will not be your scapegoat, they cry. Count the writer of this article among the flock of gamers which believes that only the foolhardy would make pariahs of pop culture sensations and thought-criminals of innocent fun-loving video game enthusiasts.
One has no intention of participating in chicken-or-egg arguments regarding violence in the real world and works of the violent imagination. Rather, for our purposes, one wishes to cast the legacy of the GTA franchise in a softer light and view it through an industry-wide lens. Focusing on trends in game design, we see the legacy of the GTA franchise as two-fold: innovation and imitation. GTA III bestowed upon the gaming community the right to free-roam through an open world of varying eventualities and random encounters. With its patterns of purchase and play, the gaming community has responded in recent years by retroactively declaring inalienable the newly recognized digital liberty of free-roaming open-world exploration. Out with old-school linearity and in with – well, lots and lots of walking around and looking for random dudes to slay.
Rockstar Games followed the unprecedented success of GTA III with two similar titles. Just as Rockstar Games hit its stride, its loyal fans were made to grapple with the outstanding accomplishment and unforgivable filler-as-action hubris of GTA IV. Its unwelcome earnestness and dark tone stirred a new sort of controversy: some critics wondered aloud whether Rockstar Games was washed-up.
Sharing in the contemporary sea change from linearity to free-roaming, other popular franchises would have action-adventure gamers become modern digital bean-counting companion to the hit-point-obsessed table-top role-players drooling on their Dungeon Master’s Guides in the days of yore.
We can see the feverish explosion of open-world gaming as innovation’s legacy or imitation’s fallout, a welcome changing of the guard or an unjust coup d’etat, but we cannot ignore it. We feel Rockstar Games’ influence, for instance, in Deep Silver Volition’s Saints Row series, another free-roaming, car-jacking, cop-killing, crime epic with all the requisite open-ended gameplay elements. First released in 2003, the original Saints Row has produced three sequels and has made a cult icon of its lovable bad boy Johnny Gat. The madness of 2008’s Saints Row 2 secured the franchise credibility among respected voices, whereas Saints Row: The Third (2011) served as a marketing experiment in brand-awareness.
If Rockstar Games wrote the floor-plan and laid the foundation; if, in essence, all open-world action-adventure gaming makes its home in the house that GTA built; then it is the same house that Gat rented out for a decade-long weekend and which he has, with 2013’s Saints Row IV, at last burned to the ground. Saints Row IV breaks franchise form and elects the player’s crime-doing avatar to the Oval Office. Aliens invade, interrupt the Presidency, abduct the Cabinet, enslave humanity in a digital Matrix-like prison yard full of rogue code which can be collected and redeemed for death-becoming worlds-destroying straight up bonkers super-powers. It is a lunatic plot most accommodating to open-world exploration and its love-it-or-hate-it trademarks, such as non-linearity, side missions, random encounters, hidden collectibles, expansive customization options and level-based character-building – and over-powered mayhem.
Pop cultural score-keepers would be right to appraise Saints Row IV’s anything-goes silliness as an affront to GTA IV’s tone-related missteps; the same score-keepers would be right to tie Saints Row IV’s deviation from franchise form to GTA V’s 2013 return to the cold-blooded zaniness of its roots. Insofar as Saints Row IV’s legacy is concerned, it would be best, for the moment, to remain conservative.