GTA: Cars and Carnality

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Mar 8, 2006

Filed under: Game Design 19 comments

I enjoy the Grand Theft Auto games. I love open-ended game play, but I’m often frustrated by how much better the game could be.

In the latest installment of the series the main character is Carl Johnson, a ripped-from-today’s stereotypes “gangster” from the hood. He’s an odd character. As in all GTA games, he’s a criminal, but he’s also a warped kind of hero. He’s a bad guy fighting against guys who are a lot worse. His foes are drug pushers, crime bosses, pimps, and bent cops.

The game itself has a strange morality as well. It is presented as an amoral freeform game where you (the player) can choose how your character will act. The gameplay itself is pretty open-ended, which is great.

I love games where the moral decisions are placed in the hands of the player, and not the designer. For a long time we’ve been subjected to videogames where the player spends hours fighting the forces of evil, working to corner the mastermind behind it all, only to have the hero let him go when he repents. (Or pretends to.) Sometimes the game offers up some lame hippy logic: “if I kill him, I’ll become just as bad as he is!” No matter how this goes, the player is robbed of satisfaction of the outcome. If the bad guy goes free, they player doesn’t feel merciful, because they were never given the option of being vengeful. If the bad guy dies, the player doesn’t get the satisfaction of justice or revenge because they were never given the power to show mercy. In games where I’m given a choice, I nearly always choose the path of mercy and redemption, but games where I’m forced to do so are infuriating to me.

In Grand Theft Auto, when you aren’t doing things to advance the main story (called missions) then you’re free to do pretty much whatever you like. If you’re the decent sort you can work as a taxi driver, get a job as a parking valet, save lives as an ambulance driver, go dancing, search the city for special scenic locations to capture for your photo collection, go swimming for oysters, get in shape at the gym, participate in car races, or try to win a decathalon. For those with a mean streak, you can collect (steal) rare sports cars (from a list, as in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds). You can also rob houses, hunt down criminals as a vigilante, or simply rampage across the city, spreading death and destruction.

(The detractors of GTA often cite the slaughter of innocent civilians as one of the game’s sins. Defenders of the game are quick to point out that killing civilians is not strictly part of the game: Because the player has weapons and the freedom to act of their own volition, it is POSSIBLE to kill civilians, but the law comes down on you swiftly if you engage in this sort of behavior, and it doesn’t lead to the completion of the game. The upshot is that the player can do it, but there is little or no reward and the consequences can be pretty harsh. Sort of like real life.)

This freedom is very satisfying, but sadly it doesn’t extend to the plot of the game, where certain choices are forced upon you by the script. There are a few lines the game won’t cross, and at the same time there are some nasty things the game makes you do. (Assuming you want to complete the game and see the end of the story arc.) For example:

During several missions it is inevitable that you have to kill some cops. However, the cops in San Andreas are almost universally corrupt, racist thugs. Their comments during combat reveal that they are far more interested in killing than law enforcement. So, the killing of police within the context of this game isn’t too bad, and can even be seen as vigilante justice.

But in one mission early in the game, the protagonists realize they are outgunned by the surrounding gangs. If they want to get the drugs off the streets and break the power of the various gangs, they need some better guns.

Ryder comes up with a plan to raid the local National Guard depot. Carl and Ryder then head to the base to swipe a bunch of guns. During the heist, you are obliged to kill a number of guardsmen. This really bothers me. Unlike the police, there is no reason to suspect these guys are corrupt. They seem like ordinary soldiers who end up getting killed in the line of duty, which happens to be stopping you from stealing from them.


Carl Johnson is a man who never fully embraces good or evil. He’s a vigilante, but often delivers vengence to criminals a lot less prolific than himself. He is so unfocused and distracted he makes Hamlet look organized by comparison. As the player you are sometimes required to do really awful stuff in order to progress in the game, and sometimes you are forced to help people you don’t want to help.

A Better Idea

I’d like to see the plot of the game be as open-ended as the gameplay itself. Allow the player to affect the world as they see fit. Make it so they can eliminate police corruption and destroy the drug gangs, or let them simply supplant both and set themselves up as the new crime boss of the city. I think either path would be more interesting than the compromise the game is now.

It would be most interseting if the city started as somewhat neutral: some poverty, some drugs, some hookers. Then, you could choose between the two paths I outline above. If you waver a lot between good and evil, sometimes being selfless and sometime being selfish, then the city won’t change much.

But, if you dedicate yourself to crime and evil, the city will deteriorate. The buildings will become shabby and dirty. The streets will have more litter. The cars will be be proprtionally more junkers. More hookers. More dealers. More gangsters. More civilains will fight each other. Some buildings will look abandoned. Once-clean houses will take on a more ghetto look. The lawns of the city will take on a brownish look.

However, if you take the path of virtue and elect to eliminate corruption and drugs, the city will become cleaner. More “regular” people in the streets instead of pushers and prostitutes. Less random fighting and theft. Houses that looked shabby will look cleaner and better cared for. Fewer junkers and more nice cars in traffic. The liquor stores, XXX shops and peep shows could be replaced (just the signage needs to change, since you can’t ever enter these places) by tanning salons, book stores, and bakeries. Less litter in the streets. Greener grass.

You could really run with this idea, and have the player re-shape the city and the people in it, including things that should be beyond anyone’s control. For example, the weather and the attitude of the people themselves might change. This might not be “realistic”, but I think it would add a great deal to the game.

In the Evil city there would be more fog, less sunshine, more dark clouds, etc. People would wear drab colors and walk with their heads down. They would be more likely to cuss and fight if you bump into them, and they would be more likely to be armed. Eventually it would look like Gotham or Sin City.

By contrast, in the Good city things would be brighter and more sunny. People would dress in bright colors and walk with their heads high. They would say humorous stuff when they get into a fenderbender, intead of cursing. (A sort of Ned Flanders “Fiddlesticks!” when you bump into them.)

Both the good and evil missions would involve killing the pushers and destroying the hold of organized crime on the city, but the “evil” missions would include stuff like establishing your own crime organization. Good missions would include stuff to drive out or expose corruption.

Let’s look at an example:

Capture a load of drugs coming into the city. After that, the player player could either use the drugs to start their own business (Evil) or use the drugs to lure a rival gang into the open, and then destroy the gangsters and the drugs all at once. (Good. Er, sort of.)

Each time the player chooses between the good or evil mission, the city shifts slightly in appearance as I outlined above. If they stick to one path or the other, by the end of the game they will have changed the face of the city itself.

Now THAT is a game I’d love to play. Twice.


From The Archives:

19 thoughts on “GTA: Cars and Carnality

  1. Zenja says:

    Thanks actually a great idea. I’d love to play it to. Kind of reminds me of Black & White, and in this game you also get a creature (which eats and poops).

  2. foobario says:

    The comment about “Black and White” is right on… and not just in reference to that game, but also in reference to a way of looking at the world. The ‘better idea’ game you describe still seems one-dimensional to me: there’s a line from ‘good’ to ‘evil’ and you decide which way you are moving on that line.

    Sounds awfully reminiscent of ‘Pong’ :)

    When the Rodney King riots went down, who went in there to restore order and fix up the city? The gangs, the leaders of which called a truce. The ‘law’ was on permanent Blue-Flu for the duration, and the forces of ‘good’ (in your ‘good guys wear white and say fiddlesticks’ sense) were all hanging back doing nothing. The shades of grey in between the extremes of black and white are not featureless – they are fractally complex, non-linear in the extreme, and you’re just as likely to find corrupt ‘good guys’ living in slums as you are to find honorable ‘bad guys’ living in suburbia.

    Think ‘Vegas’ back in the days of organized crime (err… back in the days of the *old fashioned* organized crime, the kind that created the city). It had clean streets and little ‘crime’, since there were acceptable outlets for most of the impulses that lead to crime in a ‘good’ city. The mob realized that a smart parasite doesn’t kill the host, and it kept everything running smoothly, because it made good business sense.

    It seems to me that the point of view that ‘bad guys’ inevitably self-implode doesn’t make for a more open-ended game, it just makes for a morality tale. Your ‘better idea’ sounds, to me, like a world of surfaces where you *can* judge a book by its cover, and in such a world what incentive would there be to delve deeper? What would motivate a player to forge their own path, if the system was set up to only reward those who chose a specific path?

    Your words:

    “In games where I'm given a choice, I nearly always choose the path of mercy and redemption, but games where I'm *forced* to do so are infuriating to me.”

    … so you propose a game where you can choose whatever path you want… so long as you don’t mind the world falling apart if you make the choice.

    And to that, I say “fiddlesticks”.

    (It could be that I am just not the target audience.)

  3. foobario says:

    … make that “if you make the ‘wrong’ choice”. Rickin-frickin-gol-darn computers.

  4. Shamus says:

    Okay, there is a lot to think about here. I was going to answer in the comments, but I think this deserves a full. Post. I’m going to give this some more thought for now.

  5. foobario says:

    Aye, sorry about that, I went through a couple of revs but it seemed like I couldn’t make my point in a smaller comment without sounding too flippant. So I leave comments that approach the size of the original post :/ It’s a complex issue, many variables to juggle and balance, and that’s probably why so many games take the easy way out.

    Hopefully I’m not adding insult to injury, but here’s something I thought of after I wrote the earlier comment:

    I recently played KOTOR through twice, once light-side, once dark-side… and aside from the final five minutes and a general tendency for NPCs to comment unfavorably on my actions, the dark-side run was nearly identical to the light-side. Advancement of the character and the plot was inextricably tied to the Jedi Council. Now if they’d given you the option to advance the plot in a different direction via joining the Sith, it would have been great… but as it stands most actions really have no consequence, because there is an implicit bias in favor of the light-side. Yet most reviews of the game mention how open-ended it is.

    (KOTOR2 tried to address this issue and actually got off to a good start doing so, but the game was released in a badly hacked-up state (for reasons discussed ad nauseum on the Obsidian forums) and the promise shown in the first part of the game was never fulfilled.)

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the issue. Thanks for not just deleting mine :)

  6. Capt_Poco says:

    I think D&D is applicable here. Specifically the notion of Alignment. Chaotic Good, True Neutral, Lawful Evil. An alignment has an Ethics (Law, Chaos, or Neutral) and Morals (Good, Evil, or Neutral). In Planescape, a old D&D campaign setting, some areas themselves had an alignment, based on the alignments of the people who lived there.

    Going back to GTA, crime/wealth of a city could be determined by Ethics, and whose in control (police or gangs) could be determined by Morals. Thus Chaotic Evil would be a drug-infested warren, while Lawful Neutral would be a city controlled mainly by big business, with few cops or robbers. You could have two slider bars representing the shift from Law to Chaos and the shift from Good to Evil.

  7. jodi says:

    you guys want 2 change this game. its fine the way it is cj kicks ass i see him as a hero. some of the things you suggested r just stupid. tryin to make it good. if you want good go play mario.

  8. Shamus says:

    Jodi: Thank you, random internet stranger for your quasi-message asserting that my subjective opinions are somehow wrong.

    Go back to MySpace. You’re just making a fool of yourself here.

  9. Achi says:

    That is a good idea, but i like the script done for u, because it gives a surprise of who you meet, who is a traitor, who u end up killing, what is gained/lost, etc. And it wouldn’t be the classic GTA series i u picked ur own storyline, where the plot and setting r SUPPOSED to be jacked up and kept that way=guilty pleasure

  10. Achi says:

    but i like the script done for u, because it gives a surprise of who you meet, who is a traitor, who u end up killing, what is gained/lost, etc. And it wouldn’t be the classic GTA series i u picked ur own storyline, where the plot and setting r SUPPOSED to be jacked up and kept that way=guilty pleasure

  11. Bob Saget says:

    i like your idea it would be neat to see this take affect in an upcoming GTA game. in Grand Theft Auto 4 you can chose to kill or not to kill certian people, it doesnt realy effect the plot or anything but its always good to have more player choice. as for the city looking diffrent, i think they could do it on the systems that we have now and ur idea would be a nice thing to see in the next game!

  12. marten says:

    heh. it’s like GTA meets the sims.

  13. Jonathan says:

    Interesting article. Perhaps you were looking for more of the type of games like X3 Reunion (with some of the pseudo-AI scripts done by their community).

  14. Chris says:

    one problem jumps to mind, if you clean up the city by being a good character, the city would fill up with good characters, people you wouldn’t want to fight. And vice verse with vice.

    Perhaps if the city became beautiful, it would get richer and attract a higher, badder level of criminal. And a truly scummy city could attract a national Elliot Ness.

  15. Knaight says:

    The primary issue with this is that its oversimplified, and for a game to be made where things were not oversimplified, the programming, writing, etc. would all be extremely complex, and because of that, hard to make. As is it is too black and white, too simplified, and erroneous. A one axis measure of morality doesn’t work. If criminals ran things, they would try to make things good for themselves. The city might be cleaned up overall, simply because removing incentive for other people to be criminals doesn’t work. Similarly if there was no crime, the city could still deteriorate. Its unlikely, but plausible. This oversimplification would detract from the sense of a living world, and cripple the game. What would work is a very complex, branching plot, where there were general trends, but also reasonable exceptions.

    That would create the illusion of a living world well, leave in meaningful choices, and not be entirely black and white. The ideal, with near infinite choices, realistic computer characters, etc. isn’t feasibly possible with current computer technology, and unless computers become sentient, is unlikely to be feasibly possible in the future. Right now that is restricted to other games, and tabletop gaming is what does it best while retaining a similarity to gaming.

  16. Andrew says:

    Sim City, where you indirectly control what’s going on through a single major character? Interesting. Sort of like how DotA is basically an RTS where building and mook management is handled for you, letting you focus on controlling one of the superpowered heroes. You still indirectly influence what happens through your actions, but there’s much less micromanagement. I’m not sure you want to work on a scale of morality, though. I find it’s often better to stick to simple cause and effect, and let things like ethics naturally emerge as the system takes shape.

  17. xXDarkWolfXx says:

    I could play a game like you suggested a whole lot and id actually have to TRY to get the good city. Im a natural at being evil.

  18. Sam Urbinto says:

    Sort of reminds one of the black and white to color of The Saboteur as Paris is liberated.

  19. Fears says:

    Combining ideas from Chris and Andrew, why not just control a single Sim in SimCity? The logic is already there to not only handle your “dingy vs posh” but to do so on a district level, so one part of the city is wallowing in filth while another is feeding their cats from silver trays. Building from Chris’s question/suggestion, the richer areas would be less susceptible to drug-dealing and random street shootings, but the houses would be much more appealing for burglars (albeit with increased security which would require some Thief-style mechanics).
    If you still wanted some scripted stuff, have a crime boss at the top of some tower. As you perform drug busts or steal his operations, he loses the henchmen who would normally guard him in the final mission (as in Crackdown).

    I’d rather see Maxis turn this out under the name Sim Crime than put out yet another Sim City. (And now I’m dreaming of a collaboration between Maxis and Rockstar.)

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