Grand Theft Auto V: The Need For Structure

By Shamus Posted Thursday Sep 20, 2018

Filed under: Retrospectives 69 comments

So the story of Grand Theft Auto V is overlong, unfocused, and lacking in any sort of central conflict to drive the plot. At the end we get a choice between three endings, only one of which makes any sense in terms of story structure.

Hey Shamus, you do realize that stories don’t need to stick to a three-act structure, don’t you? There’s no law saying the writer is obligated to wrap everything up for you with a bow at the end?

Okay, fair enough. But that’s like saying dialog doesn’t always need to make sense or characters don’t always need to be consistent. It’s technically true, and if you want to argue that Grand Theft Auto V is deliberately an avant-garde subversion of classic story structure then I technically can’t prove you wrong. But given how much these games work to imitate movies, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine the writer is trying to make a story that works like a classic crime drama, and I think it’s worth examining the game to see how it worked.

The Need For Structure

This high speed car chase is exciting because it's fast, but it would be even MORE exciting if I cared about it beyond passing the mission.
This high speed car chase is exciting because it's fast, but it would be even MORE exciting if I cared about it beyond passing the mission.

Things like a clear central conflict, rising action, a three-act structure, character arcs, and thematic closure aren’t some nit-picky rules invented by literature nerds as a way to objectively measure story quality. They’re tools that the storyteller can use to communicate and entertain. They’re built into our expectations about how stories work and those expectations can be leveraged to create an emotional connection. You don’t HAVE to follow the rules, but the audience does sort of expect you to get them invested in the story. If you can engage the audience without using the standard tools, then good for you. But if you fail – if your story ends up feeling like a bloated disjointed confusing mess – then maybe you ought to follow the formula and leave the experimental stuff to the David Lynches and Terry Gilliams of the world.

Earlier in this series I compared Grand Theft Auto games to Michael Bay’s Transformers, and this is why. The Transformers movies break a lot of these rules, and as a result they end up having really boring stories. You’ll find yourself sitting through a scene with no idea what anyone is trying to accomplish or what you’re supposed to be anticipating / dreading. There’s no tension. You’ve got characters we’re not invested in, having a fight we can’t follow, over a MacGuffin that makes no sense, to overcome an obstacle that was never explained, in order to accomplish a goal we don’t care about. The only source of stimulation is the almost numbing deluge of sound & fury in the form of gasoline explosions and screaming, because the emotional core of the movie is vacant.

Grand Theft Auto V suffers from this same problem. Sure, it’s kind of exciting to race a supercar down the highway to steal it for Devon Weston, but there are no emotional stakes. Why am I working for this guy? Why do I care about him? What terrible fate are our heroes trying to avoid by doing this job? What are they hoping to get out of it?

This mission is exciting because lots of dudes are trying to kill me. But I can get that same thrill just dicking around in the open world. If you're going to have me sit through cutscnes, then they ought to accomplish MORE than just making me want to shoot some dudes before they shoot me.
This mission is exciting because lots of dudes are trying to kill me. But I can get that same thrill just dicking around in the open world. If you're going to have me sit through cutscnes, then they ought to accomplish MORE than just making me want to shoot some dudes before they shoot me.

In the story, Michael is obligated to work for the FIB, and in turn the FIB tells him to work for Devin Weston. But it’s obvious Michael’s team doesn’t want to. The player probably doesn’t want to either. We were doing cool gangster shit a few hours ago and now we’re working for a very non-cool guy. He doesn’t feel dangerous or menacing. He’s not witty or clever. He’s not mysterious or powerful. Imagine a story where you’re doing jobs for Tony Soprano and then suddenly you’re cleaning Jeff Bezos’ pool.

We never get a conversation between our lead characters where they discuss what they want. They don’t consider killing Devin Weston, or give a reason why they can’t just blow him off. They were working for the FIB to stop Michael’s “witness protection” stuff from being exposed, but Weston has nothing to do with that. Given how profoundly annoying Devin Weston and Agent Steve are, and given how extremely dangerous these missions areAt one point Michael’s team is obliged to assault some sort of CIA black site to steal a WMD that never figures into the plot., it’s really crazy that our three leads never get together for a conversation where they at least consider the possibility of just killing their enemies. I can believe that having the “witness protection” stuff exposed would be a problem for Michael, but is that threat really bigger than the danger of assaulting the FIB headquarters to destroy a bunch of data for Agent Steve? At some point don’t all of these suicide missions add up to more danger than whatever Agent Steve can threaten them with? Shouldn’t they at least discuss it so we in the audience can feel that same sense of dread that Michael is feelingNot that he’s ever depicted as feeling afraid of the FIB. We just have to ASSUME he is for the story to work.?

Trevor, Michael, and Franklin aren’t making decisions based on their characters, they’re just going along with whatever the writer says. The story just stumbles from one batch of missions to the next, without giving the audience a sense that this is a growing problem or that all of this is building towards something. We’re supposed to take the Grand Theft Auto mission structure for granted: It’s time for the next boss of the week, and this week we’re doing “satire” of monied douchebags.

If you don’t care about stakes or motivation then fine, go enjoy your rigidly scripted missions and lavishly produced cutscenes of no substance. But I maintain that even if the writer wasn’t trying to tell a proper story with stakes, tension, and payoff, the game would be better if they did.

For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that the designers wanted to design a Grand Theft Auto game with a more coherent structure. So what is Rockstar supposed to do? Cut out all the fluff? Then you have a new problem. If you take a 90 minute movie and stretch it out over a 12 hour game then the player feels sort of disconnected from the story for long periods of time. If you shorten the game to something you can beat in a couple of hours then it feels sort of cheap and unworthy of the sprawling world. If you pause the main drama and give the player several hours of unrelated side-stories, then the whole thing feels sort of aimless. So how are you supposed to tell a story in the context of a game this big?

I can think of a couple of ways to do this…

Making a Bigger Story

This is a cool moment. Too bad it has no bearing on the main story except to ruin the pacing of the Michael vs. Trevor conflict.
This is a cool moment. Too bad it has no bearing on the main story except to ruin the pacing of the Michael vs. Trevor conflict.

Personally I’d just write a longer main story. Keep the action focused on a big, clear, central goal. (Like pulling off the ultimate heist, which is currently one of many side-plots in this soup of a story.). Have everything else feed into that central idea. In the background would be the brewing trouble between Michael and Trevor. Most of the game would be spent working towards this one goal, having the characters pull off smaller heists to get the resources they need to tackle The Big One. But that main plot wouldn’t vanish for hours at a time while we messed around with B plots. The central plot would drive the action, and the side-stories would steal a minute here and there. You know. Just like the movies these games keep trying to imitate.

Lord of the Rings does this. Everyone is working together to save Middle-Earth and put an end to The One Ring, and the story remains focused on this goal. Sure, we spend a chapter helping King Théoden get his groove back, but we do that because we need Théoden’s help against Sauron. We might be a little distant to the central conflict, but the action is still visibly connected. We don’t spend the Two Towers hanging out in The Shire growing pipe-weed and chasing pigs. We don’t spend six chapters helping Barliman Butterbur save The Prancing Pony from foreclosure.

“But Shamus, what about Tom Bombadil? Isn’t that pretty irrelevant? Huh? Huh?”

Actually, I agree. I mean, I like that chapter of Lord of the Rings, but I’ll admit you can excise it while doing no damage to the plot. And note that a lot of people criticize the Bombadil section because it’s such a cul-de-sac that never leads to a payoff. Sure, he’s an interesting bit of flavor and worldbuilding, but he’s basically irrelevant to the proceedings. If GTA V only had one or two minor Bombadil moments then I’d be more inclined to forgive it.

Lord of the Rings was a story with a crystal clear central conflict that had occasional distractions. GTA V lacks the clarity of an overarching threat, and in the end it feels like an entire story made up of mostly Bombadil-level digressions.

Trevor is never more terrifying than when he's being polite.
Trevor is never more terrifying than when he's being polite.

The story of Niko Bellic in GTA IV was aimless, but at least our protagonist had a well-defined goal. (Even if he rarely pursued it.) When you’re at the two-thirds mark in the story of GTA V, there’s almost nothing to tell you what all of this is building towards. What’s our ultimate goal? Settle up with the FIB? Settle up with Devin Weston? Resolve the feud between Michael and Trevor? Sort things out with Michael’s family? Pull the ultimate heist? Where is the story going? What are we in the audience supposed to fear / anticipate?

We do actually pull the ultimate heist, but that moment is disconnected from the resolution to these other plots. They do a heist AND get revenge AND reconcile with each other AND Michael’s family life calms down, but these moments aren’t at all connected through causality. Ideally you’d want the game to build towards a finale where these three ideas are linked. For example: Michael’s need to protect his family FORCES him to get revenge on their enemies THOUGH pulling off the heist, which RESULTS in a bonding experience that creates reconciliation between our leads.

If you’re trying to imitate the movies, then why not resolve things Hollywood-style? Our characters could steal a bunch of cash and at the same time frame the FIB for it. During the heist there could be a bunch of moments that mirror / echo the events of the original “job gone wrong” at the start of the story, except this time the characters behave differently. In the end, their victory would show their growth as characters. As it stands, GTA V pays all of the costs of having a big epic story, but doesn’t give us any of the payoff. It’s a Lorem Ipsum story. It looks like a message, but it doesn’t actually say anything.

While I’d personally go for a larger story with more focus, I understand why Rockstar doesn’t go that way. The writer clearly likes messing around with a lot of different ideas and they like to play fast and loose with the tone. So instead of giving us one sprawling epic plot, I’d suggest the writers at Rockstar could try…

An Episodic Approach

The Life Invader job would make for a pretty good capstone to an episode, with the assassination of the strawman Jobs / Zuckerberg character acting as the big fireworks at the end.
The Life Invader job would make for a pretty good capstone to an episode, with the assassination of the strawman Jobs / Zuckerberg character acting as the big fireworks at the end.

I think they’d do better if they used a more episodic approach to storytelling. I don’t mean cutting a game up and selling it to us in pieces as episodes like Telltale Games. (Please no.) I mean they should just take their eight unrelated B-plots and break them apart into eight clearly-delineated chapters. They could even give us chapter titles like a Quentin Tarantino movie, and I’m pretty sure they like Tarantino.

This would turn a lot of the writer’s bad habits into assets. The scattershot tone works if each episode can stick to a particular tone. Maybe Chapter One is lighthearted mayhem, then things get serious in Chapter Two, then bleak in Chapter Three, then perhaps some levity and dark humor in Chapter Four, then back to brief normalcy in Chapter Five before everything goes to hell in Chapter Six, and so on. You wouldn’t have these abrupt tonal slam-cuts because the mission you selected belongs to a different plot thread than the one you were just working on.

To put it another way, Star Trek: The Next Generation does just fine with some episodes differing from the others in tone and subject matter, because the hour-long story arcs keep things contained. If you edited five or six tonally and thematically divergent episodes together, it would feel just as dissonant as GTA V.

The need for a strong overarching story would be alleviated in the minds of the audience if we could digest the game in self-contained episodes that introduce a short-term conflict, raise the stakes, pay off on their setup, and then wind down after the big fireworks ending.

Witcher 3 is a pretty good example of this approach. I’m not saying it’s a perfect story, but it does manage to have clear plot arcs where it feels like the story is going somewhereExcept for the “Find Dandelion” plot, because that’s six hours of “the princess is in another castle”. Screw that section.. There’s a clear overarching plot revolving around Ciri. As we work our way through the game, we pass through many self-contained chapters that begin a smaller story, carry us through it, and then wrap it up. Different stories have a different tone, but they’re not hacked to pieces and mixed together in a big confusing tangle. We can digest several self-contained episodes one at a time, and then every once in a while the overarching doomsday plot advances a notch.

If Witcher 3 was structured like Grand Theft Auto V, then halfway through the Bloody Baron story Geralt would abruptly leave to go flirt with Triss for a few hours, then in the middle of that he’d piss off to mess around on Skellige. The “Find Ciri and save the world” plot wouldn’t be introduced until a couple of hours before the end. Then once the “save the world” plot was finally rolling, we’d suddenly jump back to the Bloody Baron and the author would expect us to start caring about his bullshit again. Then we’d have a big finale mission to finish things off with the Baron, but without a thematic wrap-up conversation or interaction to put the whole thing into context and show how the relationship between the participants had changed.

Lamar feels like Ryder from San Andreas, except somehow even more annoying and self-destructive.
Lamar feels like Ryder from San Andreas, except somehow even more annoying and self-destructive.

The sad thing is, Grand Theft Auto V is already halfway to having a proper episodic structure. The writer just needs to separate the various threads and give the major ones a proper moment of closure. The adventures of Franklin and Lamar in Strawberry would make a good episode if we put them in a linear chain and had some sort of wrap-up conversation that completed the Franklin / Lamar friendship arcThere IS closure to that arc in the game. The problem is that this moment is many hours later, after we’ve gone through many other unrelated events.. Trevor’s adventures in the desert are packed together like an episode, but it lacks an idea to tie it all together, it’s jammed into the middle of a different story, and it doesn’t get a proper denouement. The story of Michael becoming a Hollywood producer is perfect as an episode with a finale and all, but it’s blocked at a couple of points where you need to jump over to unrelated plot threads before you can unlock the conclusion.

All we have to do is pull the stories apart and give each one a proper introduction and finale so they stop getting in each other’s way. We just need to defragment the script.

“But Shamus, won’t forcing the player to do missions in a certain order take away some of the sandboxy feel?”

The game already does this. The plots of some story elements require you to complete the missions in totally unrelated content to proceed. The progression restrictions are already there. I’m just suggesting the writer give some kind of structure to the whole thing and make it deliberate rather than arbitrary. A chapter end screen can act as a palate cleanser and reset expectations, allowing the writer to move on to something new without it feeling random.

During the game, you can do a bunch of setup missions for the Merryweather HeistI’ll talk more about the heist system in a later entry.. Maybe you’re into that story thread so you’re focusing on those missions. But then once everything is ready to go, you find there’s no way to initiate the heist. What you have to do is switch over to Michael and deal with some completely unrelated bullshit with his family before the heist becomes available. In practical terms, this is because Trevor shows up during a scene of family drama, and Michael and Trevor need to be reunited before you can do the heist. The problem is that there’s no way for the player to know about his ahead of time and so the whole thing feels random. If this was a self-contained episode with a clear structure, then the player wouldn’t need to grope around looking for the unrelated mission to allow progress. You could tie the two plots together with some idea or theme because you’d know the player would be doing these missions in the intended order.

Basically, if we’re going to have gated access to story progress then it might as will serve the story rather than undermine / distract from it.

Wrapping Up

So that’s my suggestion. Either give the game a strong overall plot that pulls us forward, or segment it into self-contained episodes. Either one is better than the current structure of putting five different stories in a blender and mixing them together. Sure, the game works “well enough” as it is, particularly if you like scripted missions and skipping cutscenes. But given the ridiculous production values on display here, this structure-less story represents a massive missed opportunity. For what they paid to produce these disjointed vignettes, Rockstar could have given us a brilliant crime drama with a plot we’re invested in and characters we care about.

 

Footnotes:

[1] At one point Michael’s team is obliged to assault some sort of CIA black site to steal a WMD that never figures into the plot.

[2] Not that he’s ever depicted as feeling afraid of the FIB. We just have to ASSUME he is for the story to work.

[3] Except for the “Find Dandelion” plot, because that’s six hours of “the princess is in another castle”. Screw that section.

[4] There IS closure to that arc in the game. The problem is that this moment is many hours later, after we’ve gone through many other unrelated events.

[5] I’ll talk more about the heist system in a later entry.



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69 thoughts on “Grand Theft Auto V: The Need For Structure

  1. JDMM says:

    Wouldn’t a third way be a thematic approach? It does require you to have a strong thematic throughline which I don’t think the GTA writers had but you could do it

    Something like Franklin is the working class equivalent trying to score it big and make a payday, Trevor is his criminal equivalent and Michael with his millions of dollars (supposedly) is the Wall Street equivalent

    The Wire works something like that with ostensibly the police, crime, school, working class and politics plotlines all focusing on how it is to be in a major metropolitan US city, just through different lenses, all forced to dance to the jig of statistics regardless of how much sense that makes in each situation

  2. Bubble181 says:

    I agree that a more episodic structure would work better. The danger I can see there is people giving up half-way through because a particular part isn’t engaging enough or “not why they came here”. If you play GTAV for the marvelous mayhem, knowing “ugh, I’m in the stealth part of the game, three more missions before I can pull out the rocket launcher again” can make you go “eh, I’ll fire up Shootman III instead”. Or if you just want some fun and escapism, being boots-deep in the “bleak dangerous” part can make you similarly abandon the game…and get you “the game was nice, but midway it really falters and loses the fun of it for hours on end. 85/100, avoid at all costs” reviews.

    Obviously both can be more or less evaded by allowing enough free roaming in between missions, but then you have the player himself introducing tonal dissonance.

    Also, minor typo in footnote 4, I assume you mean “there is closure…”

  3. Peter Street says:

    We never get a conversation between our lead characters where they discuss what they want. They don’t consider killing Devin Weston, or give a reason why they can’t just blow him off. They were working for the FIB to stop Michael’s “witness protection” stuff from being exposed, but Weston has nothing to do with that. … I can believe that having the “witness protection” stuff exposed would be a problem for Michael, but is that threat really bigger than the danger of assaulting the FIB headquarters to destroy a bunch of data for Agent Steve? … Shouldn’t they at least discuss it so we in the audience can feel that same sense of dread that Michael is feeling[2]?

    If you consider that the reason Michael was in witness protection was to hide from Trevor… uhm… it’s all a bit pointless, really, isn’t it? I mean – I’m not sure if there’s another reason for it – his family knows roughly what he’s like (At least, they do by the end), and they clearly don’t give a damn about looking after the FIB (Who would suffer if the witness protection stuff came out)… so what other reason is there for it?

  4. camycamera says:

    Thankfully the movies cut out Bombadil for that very reason, it went nowhere and was irrelevant to the rest of the actual story. I’m reading the books for the first time, and that section nearly bored me to death.

    1. If you’re reading the novels as a regular GM or tabletop player, it basically felt like the “GM of the Rings” said “aww, crap, we’ve got Merry and Pippen in the party and they don’t have any gear. SIDE QUEST TIME!!!”

      Because that is literally what that section accomplishes. Merry and Pippen get some weapons and gear.

  5. Decius says:

    >Lord of the Rings does this. Everyone is working together to save Middle-Earth and put an end to The One Ring, and the story remains focused on this goal.

    Look at the Hobbit and LotR.
    Then look at a map.
    Both works are essentially journeys. The map predates the books, and *exactly one major scene* happens in each location along the journey. Even when there isn’t any good reason for there to be action there- Trolls who forget that they die if they aren’t in their cave by dawn, spiders with magic metabolisms, and so forth.

    The equivalent in GTA would be exactly one mission in every neighborhood on the map, which must be completed to traverse the neighborhood.

  6. Dev Null says:

    I do think Bombadil serves _some_ purpose in LotR; he’s there to give you an early inkling of the power of the ring by being this kind of obviously powerful guy that still can’t do anything about it. I’m not saying it entirely works, and it’s certainly too long of a section for just that one purpose, because Tolkien just can’t resist the opportunity to get his song on, but it’s not completely pointless.

    I also think the barrow downs bit is important, to show our hobbits facing some danger themselves before Aragorn shows up to steal all the credit, and the weapons they find there are plot significant.

    1. Joshua says:

      Dev Null, what happened to your Wavatar?

      1. Dev Null says:

        I dunno. In the last 6 weeks I’ve swapped: computers, ISPs, countries, continents, and hemispheres. I expect that it got lost in there somewhere. I’m not actually sure what it was before, or I’d put it back; who looks at their own avatar?

    2. SiriKeet says:

      I’d argue it kinda does the opposite. It’s been a while since I’ve read the books, but as I remember it Tom just doesn’t give a shit. They show him the ring and ask for help and he’s like “Meh, whatever. Can’t be bothered.” He even puts it on and it has no effect on him.

      1. Joshua says:

        Yeah, him having the power to affect it or not isn’t discussed, rather the focus is on it not affecting him. So…big deal? You have the ring of ultimate evil that will corrupt anyone who wields it, except for this one guy, who doesn’t care and won’t deal with it. Total aversion of Chekov’s Gun.

    3. Richard says:

      It seems that Bombadil’s only narrative purpose is to save the hobbits from the barrow-wights.

      It almost feels like the author backed himself into a corner.

      He needs to get Merry and Pippin some powerful weapons, from a people who the party are not sufficiently skilled or equipped to survive encountering.
      So he needs a force powerful enough to save the hobbits from the wights, with a reason to take the risk of doing so.
      Yet one that cannot be involved in any later events.

      An immortal, nigh-invulnerable being who really just can’t be bothered by the world as they apparently wouldn’t really be affected if Sauron did take over, yet he can be arsed to (twice!) save the lives of some hobbits that he’d just met?

      Except of course Bombadil, Old Man Willow and the barrow-wights were written 20 years before LOTR, so one assumes it’s actually Tolkien trying to put everything into the book.

      1. Dev Null says:

        Well I always assumed that this was the real reason Bombadil is actually Bombadil; Tolkien had written theis bit and damned if he wasn’t going to get some use out of it _somewhere_. But the take I remember coming out with – at a remove of at least a decade since last I read it – was that the ring couldn’t affect Tom _and_ Tom couldn’t affect the ring. Which was the basis of my point; Tom’s the biggest badass that the hobbits have ever imagined, and he can’t help them with it.

        That may be entirely based on false memories at this point though. I was/am a mad Tolkien fan, but I’ve never been a memorizer of trivia…

        1. Shamus says:

          You’re spot-on. During the council of Elrond Gandalf explains that Bombadil can’t destroy the ring or break its hold over others. About the only thing he’d be good for is acting as an incorruptible caretaker. That would give them a place to PUT it where it wouldn’t immediately wind up on the hand of some deluded would-be king, but it wouldn’t solve the problem of the army that’s about to sweep across the world looking for it.

  7. Yerushalmi says:

    A “non-cool guy”? You will apologize and grovel for forgiveness from Lord Bezos, whose boots no mortal man is worthy to lick.

    1. SiriKeet says:

      I hear the boot-licking has been automated since 2016.

  8. Roofstone says:

    I feel like I should argue against the first part about Devin Weston. Franklin and Trevor doesn’t want to work for him, no. They find the work to be beneath them, but they stick with it cuz of the pay and because Michael wants to work for him, due to Devin tempting him with the chance at meeting one of his idols. They even talk about this during the mission and at other points.

    The highway race is a boring and dull job (if not kinda a fun race since you get pretty cool cars to bum around in), because that is exactly what it is. A dull job that two of the three characters got roped into doing despite not wanting too.

    Now we can talk a whole lot about that and what that implies and means for the story and gameplay itself.

    But like..

    “There are no emotional stakes.” No, not really. This is strictly being ‘on the job’.
    “Why am I working for this guy?” Because it’s a way for Michael to try and get together with a personal idol of his, and he got the others to help him by association.
    “Why do I care about [Devin]?” You don’t yet, you probably will when he has half of Merryweather threatening to chase down your characters and their families. (Why they don’t just shoot him when given the opportunity at that point is more than fair an arguement)
    “What terrible fate are our heroes trying to avoid by doing this job?” Nothing, it is just a job.
    “What are they hoping to get out of it?” Money, and -for Michael at least- meeting Solomon Richards.

    I also disagree that (in this example) the O’neil mission doesn’t progress the story. Because it establishes Trevor’s character more, it helps us understand how he works and what makes him tick. Not every mission has to be obvious ‘move the plot forward’ segments to actually progress the story, in my opinion.

    1. Gethsemani says:

      I agree with your assessment on Trevor’s early missions. They work to establish Trevor as a character (just as the first missions with Franklin and Michael did for both of them), and they also drive home just how dangerous Trevor is when he finds a purpose. Once he wants to tie up his business he is able to do so without much problem, exercising massive amounts of wanton violence in the process. As players we learn that Trevor is insane, but we also learn how dangerous and determined he can be and how he will stop at nothing to get what he wants. The entire section is probably a bit too long (recurring GTA V trend, eh?), but by the time the player guides him to Los Santos, the player is likely to feel a little bit of tension when thinking about what Trevor will do to Michael when they meet.

  9. Boobah says:

    We don’t spend the Two Towers hanging out in The Shire growing pipe-weed and chasing pigs.

    Of course not. That would be silly. You hang out in the Shire delivering mail and pies, saving people from the bad pies you delivered, and in between being a chicken.

    1. Peter Street says:

      LotR:O flashback alert! Honestly, I’d forgotten I’d played that game (Or Shamus had done a series about it), and then… whammo, like a hobbit-delivered pie to the face.

    2. Joshua says:

      And doing quests to appease the Ghost of the Old Took….errr, a random squirrel.

    3. Scampi says:

      And then there’s the episode where you threaten to blow up the auction hall. It’s very important to the general plot development.

  10. Joshua says:

    “And note that a lot of people criticize the Bombadil section because it’s such a cul-de-sac that never leads to a payoff.”

    I’ll join in the Tom Bombadil discussion like everyone else. The character predated LotR, and is basically there as a cameo, because Tolkien liked the character so much. Story-wise, it adds some action to break up the pacing and gives some weapons to the hobbits. That last part, by the way, is what really struck me as odd about that whole Bombadil section. He’s supposed to be unworldly, and yet he’s like “look at all the phat loot we found in this grave! Here, you guys have a share of the score.” It really does seem to be a callback to the Hobbit structure of random encounters on the way from Point A to Point B.

    I think Jackson’s version where there’s a Ranger cache on Weathertop makes a bit more sense, and he made the Ring-Wraith chase more action-packed instead. Less world-building, but more cohesive, which better fits the structure of a movie rather than a book.

    1. Hector says:

      Bombadil is the hill I will die upon. He actually serves an important plot function although it’s usually not recognized as such. His inclusion is far from a waste of time.

      First, Bombadil expands the world in a relatively comfortable way once the Hobbits step out of the Shire. He also reminds us that we have a lot of mystery left in the world and some things won’t be clear answered. But most importantly, he serves as a double Deus Ex Machina which helps keeps the danger in mind. The Hobbits actually blunder into fatal situations twice in rapid succession, only for Bombadil to help them out. This shows just how dangerous the world is. And once Bombadil is left behind them, the audience now realizes that the protagonists are now even more in danger. The Hobbits in particular are just barely managing to survive to get to the next gasp of safety throughout the first half of Fellowship.

      This makes the more active role that the Hobbits take up an ever greater development. At the beginning fo the story, the four Hobbits were basically being dragged out of danger at every step. While they don’t grow into orc-slavying super-adventurers, they do eventually become accomplished and capable in their own right, no longer easy prey for the dangers of the world. They find their own ways to stand up and fight back. Which of course brings us back to the very end of the books, the Scouring of the Shire. It’s understandable why this is likely to be left out of almost any film adaptation, and why some fans really dislike the last chapter, but it’s an important milestone and absolutely a fitting part of the story.

  11. BlueHorus says:

    So the Saints Row games* have this situation down well: you can do the missions out of order and create an incoherent mess – but you can also go though each gang story one after the other and get a coherent narrative out of each subplot. It’s almost episodi – hey, wait…

    ;)

    If you’re going to have cutscenes, then they ought to accomplish MORE than making me want to shoot some dudes before they shoot me.

    Ah, the eternal refrain. Why DO games have this problem? An overwrought, cliched story that’s usually crammed into over-long, nonsensical cutscenes.
    Sure, some games are really good at telling a story, or having a theme, or making a point. But for every Spec Ops: The Line or NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer there’s at least 2 games like XCOM 2 or Diablo III.
    The story is not the point of your game. That’s fine. Just why spend so much time on it?

    *Drink!

    1. Cubic says:

      So the Saints Row games* have this situation down well: you can do the missions out of order and create an incoherent mess – but you can also go though each gang story one after the other and get a coherent narrative out of each subplot.

      The same goes for many a GTA game even, though now and then you have to catch up to merge the story lines. Just drilling down on a particular boss means you get a mini story of 3-4 missions or so. Every now and then, you also unlock the adjacent island or the equivalent, which serves as a larger story bottleneck. And there are sometimes side quests that really lead nowhere, but what of it? You could totally come across some weird guys and get interested in what they’re doing.

      I think part of the ineffable charm of semi-sandboxes lies in not running down some overarching story all the time but just screwing around with something interesting from time to time or going on side quests of questionable significance (which GTAV also has). My first playthrough is usually doing all the missions in parallel, which makes the story pretty difficult to follow. It’s just that the exuberance of the open world demands it.

    2. jbc31187 says:

      Saints Row 2 used the same story arc for each gang. The first mission establishes the characters and their relationships to each other. The second and third missions feature the Saints striking at their enemies- it’s not debilitating, but it humiliates your rivals and probes their weak points. Exactly at the fourth mission, the enemy strikes back, attacking your second in command. At the fifth mission, you respond with bloody vengeance. From then on the game amps up the bloodshed as the two gangs attack and counter-attack. In one mission you’re expanding your empire, in the next you’re holding off an invasion. At the penultimate mission, the two gangs bring all of their strength to bear, and in the final mission everything’s resolved.

      It helps that half the cutscenes feature your enemies plotting, reacting to your assaults, and just chilling. It’s as much a story of their downfall as your ascension. Poor Maero :(

  12. Jack V says:

    Based on your description, I’m not sure you would even need to mandate the order. If you just have several different sections, each of which are tonally consistent, and ideally driven by a main plot, then the player CAN follow them through in order, or do all of the “section 3” missions in some other order and get the payoff when the last mission unlocks, or do 2/3 of it and then get bored and do something else.

    I don’t think you need to force the player to follow such a plot, just that the game would be improved if that plot was THERE.

    1. Mousazz says:

      Now that I think about it, wasn’t this the way GTA IV was structured? At least up until the end, when all the threads entangled themselves together into an incoherent mess. To recap:

      First you start by helping Roman with his gambling problems, then you go through the self-contained Jamaican arc, helping Little Jacob and Badman with their gangster dealings, Finally, the story wraps up Roman’s arc by killing Vlad and introducing us to the Russian Mafia.

      The game introduces the self-contained Brucie arc at around this point.

      Then comes the arc where you work exclusively for Faustin, until Dimitry ropes you into a plan to betray him. After that’s done, and Dimitry betrays you, Arc 1 is finished with Roman’s house burning down and the Bellics getting exiled to Elizabeta’s at Bohan.

      Elizabeta’s missions are somewhat muddled, as they don’t really have much of a self-contained story, but rather are used to open up the world and act as a hub that introduces Niko to the middle part’s players.

      The middle part then branches off into many different self-contained arcs, which only mainly intersect at the introduction of one of the arcs. Playboy X / Dwayne are two intertwined but otherwise separate arcs; The McReary arcs are almost separate, as Packey’s, Gerald’s, Francis’ and Derrick’s missions are mostly separate (besides the latter two’s ending being merging). Manny Escuela does his own independent thing; The United Liberty Paper is an almost independent force on Niko’s life. Florian/Bernie is a character practically separate from the rest of the plot; and Ray Boccino also starts off as a seemingly unique actor.

      It’s only in the final part that, through Ray, Niko gets roped into the whole Pegorino family business, at which point the writers decided to wrap up all the plot-points, and jumbled everything together.

      The main glue that kept all these parts together were the fact that practically none of the characters who were relevant in the previous parts of the story dissapears. Little Jacob helps Niko out up ’till the last mission; Dmitry acts as the antagonist up ’till the last mission; Roman keeps appearing at various points to remind us he’s still there; etc. But, mostly, they no longer matter in the way that stumps the player if they forget who the characters are after their arcs are resolved.

  13. Syal says:

    I can’t imagine a true episodic structure without hearing the Heaven Smile laugh.

    …that’s it for contributions. Onward, to grammar!
    The Lamarr caption: “annoying a self-destructive”. Should be “annoying to a self-destructive.”

    …that’s it for grammar.
    Onward, to breakfast!

  14. Cubic says:

    Man, Ryder was cool. Even if he hated CJ.

  15. Cubic says:

    “act as a palette cleanser”

    Palate cleanser, just to be pedantic.

    1. Shamus says:

      Shit. I am never going to stop making that mistake. I never catch it because the wrong way looks correct to me.

      1. Erik says:

        The wrong way *is* correct. It’s just a different word.

        Palate = flavor or concerning the mouth, esp. the roof; palette = array of colors, as for painting.

        Cleansing your palate is clearing your mouth of flavor, so it’s spelled the first way.

        (/end pedantry)

        1. Peter Street says:

          I always thought it referred to cleaning your paint set so you could start afresh… never realised it was a food related term.

          So – to me (British origin, if that makes any difference), the ‘wrong’ way seems right as well :D

      2. MelfinatheBlue says:

        Well, both the wrong and right ways at least make sense, even if the cleaning a taste out of the mouth isn’t implied with palette.

        1. Karma The Alligator says:

          Unless someone likes to eat paint, I guess.

          1. Philadelphus says:

            Well, Prussian Blue (a famous pigment used to make a brilliant blue paint) is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines (the most important medications needed in a basic health system), so…

  16. ElementalAlchemist says:

    It’s a shame they wasted so many resources on a bunch of inane shit instead of focusing on the heists. It’s actually a really good mechanic, giving the player some choice and freedom in planning the way a particular mission goes down, and a sort of Pokemon/RPG-lite element to collecting and levelling up crew members. I’m sure there are plenty more heist scenarios from other movies that they could have blatantly stolen rather than just the meagre handful they did.

  17. Viktor says:

    I wonder if something closer to a fanfic structure would actually work for a sandbox game. (Please put those torches down). The core of fanfic is usually strong characters interacting in a variety of situations designed to bring that characterization forward, with the overall plot often being weaker and often not following standard story structure. “Great writing, but where’s the story” is a common remark when fanfic writers take college writing classes. Let’s take a similar approach here.
    The gameplay is the important thing, lean into that. The missions already exist purely so you have some focus and goals to your mayhem, so why put effort into an overall arc? We’re here to drive fast and blow things up, so make a bunch of missions where that happens, put the minimum of effort in to ensure they don’t conflict, and use the cutscenes to tell us more about the characters and the enemy, rather than the specific situation.

    1. It could be done this way, but frankly most video game writers are *completely incompetent* at characterization. (Hence the overwhelming presence of cliche’d stock characters and interchangeable nonentities). (Supposedly JRPG’s are generally better at this, but this isn’t a genre of game that I’ve ever enjoyed, so I couldn’t say.) Most games at least manage to have a plot in the sense of events causing other events. Even Good Robot has a perfectly “plot” of this type in the sense of a progression from one level to another.

      The *story* in most games is usually incoherent or just unsatisfying because the *characterization* is all over the place. Motivations aren’t properly established, or they’re so stupid that you can’t bear to hear about them, or they change wildly from one scene to another, or they go nowhere with no explanation. In a proper story the characterization DRIVES the plot. Different characters want things, which leads them to do things, which causes other things, on down through until the resolution.

      Part of this *may* be driven by the game design conventions that Thou Shalt Not Characterize The PC and Thou Shalt Give The Player Many Options Which Do Not Matter. Even in games where the PC (or PC’s) are an honest-to-god character (like, say, GTA V), the writers still tend to shy away from actually CHARACTERIZING the PC. They will slap any number of “motivation trimmings” onto the character. Here’s your kidnapped sister. Here’s your best friend who has joined a gang and gotten into trouble. Here’s your arch-nemesis. But they won’t go the final step of actually having the PC say what they THINK about the situation and what aspects of it PERSONALLY AFFECT them and drive them to ACT, and then, you know, ACT on those motivations and have some sort of wrap-up.

      The writers often throw down this stuff that to any real live human would be INTENSELY personal and important and then deliberately leave out the IMPACT of it. So the motivational slap-on falls right back off again, like trying to put a band-aid on underwater. It’s even worse and more dissonant when the writer tries to FABRICATE impact with a bunch of canned emoting. “NOOOOOO THEY TOOK MY PLASTIC BABY DOLL THAT YOU GAVE ME THIRTY SECONDS AGO!!!!!!” Cue the heartrending wails, hair-pulling, and scenery chewing, like your character is a the hired mourner at a funeral of a total stranger.

      The fundamental difference between a game with a story (in the sense of being functional for the type of game that it is, not necessarily in the sense of rivaling The Great American Novel) and a game with a non-story or incoherent story is that, in a game with a GOOD story, you can answer the questions “what’s my motivation” and “how does what I’m doing serve that?”. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. “Defeat the end boss” is a perfectly fine and functional motivation.

      It’s a VERY STRONG convention in games, however, to avoid EVER discussing or establishing any kind of real motivation apart from “do the mission”, and in many ways I think this has poisoned the Game Writing well. Some VERY few games buck the trend (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was one) or come up with ways to sync up character and player motivation (Planescape: Torment). But the vast majority of games do virtually nothing to address this aspect of putting a story together and thus turn out something cliche’d, incoherent, cookie-cutter, or stupid.

  18. DavidJCobb says:

    L.A. Noire was a Rockstar game, yeah? I think it did basically everything you recommend here. It’s an episodic plot with a clear thematic throughline. Interesting.

    1. ElementalAlchemist says:

      No. L.A. Noire was published by Rockstar (presumably to give it a GTA-related sales boost rather than using the 2K/Take Two label), but was developed by an Australian studio – Team Bondi.

  19. “halfway through the Bloody Baron story Geralt would abruptly leave to go flirt with Triss for a few hours, then in the middle of that he’d piss off to mess around on Skellige”

    I think a lot of people played it like that (it’s the nature of open world RPGs).
    I certainly like to do that, take a pause from the main story arch and “catch up” on sides stories, especially if I’m concerned that advancing the main plot might lock out or prevent certain things regarding the side stories.

    1. Joshua says:

      Look at the story to Baldur’s Gate 2, and how much stuff you do between the Jon Irenicus sections which are basically bookends to the game, despite how supposedly important the events are.

      1. Asdasd says:

        I mean, I’m one of the few people who actually likes Imoen, and even I’m happy to leave her stranded while I mess about in the Athkaltan sewers with a talking sword.

  20. Content Consumer says:

    Hey Shamus, …
    But Shamus, …

    I want to know who this guy is who keeps breaking into your articles and trying to break down the argument. His questions may be pertinent, but it’s gotta be a little irritating, having to armor your analysis against this dude.

  21. Natomic says:

    Hey Shamus, have you ever played any of the games from the Yakuza series? They seem a bit out of your wheelhouse, but I love the hell out of them and would be fascinated to hear what you think about them. They all have one big epic nutzoid story that runs through the middle (in the games with multiple playable characters, they start out separately and converge towards the beginning of the third act), and then have about a hundred unrelated sidequests that humanize the main characters. The thing is, despite my stopping dead in progressing the story after every chapter to do every sidequest I can find, I always found myself pulled back into the main story. I was engaged by each Yakuza game’s story more than most games I play (which is a lot) despite the majority of my time being spent doing unrelated sidequests. I am really curious what you’re thoughts are/would be on how the Yakuza Games manage their pacing, tone, structure, etc. I first picked up Yakuza Kiwami (a remake of the first game) about a year ago and loved it so much that I immediately bought the rest of them and have loved all of them. And hey, Yakuza Kiwami and Yakuza 0 are now both available on steam and also happen to be the two best entry points into the series. If you haven’t yet, maybe you could pick up one of them and then tell us what you think?

    1. Syal says:

      I’ve only played Yakuza 0, and looking back, a lot of the main plot is kind of nonsensical, the seemingly contradictory character of Sagawa especially. But yeah, considering how many gameplay mechanics it’s introducing through the main story it’s still pretty spot on in pacing, and even if you notice the plot nonsense the general tone is silly enough to let it slide.

      (The work pizza is the most wonderfully stupid sidequest I’ve ever played.)

  22. Gautsu says:

    I really liked the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and Barrow Downs portion of Fellowship of the Ring for a couple of reasons. One it showcases the hobbits better and gives some ideas of their strengths and weaknesses beyond being the almost one note characterizations we get in Jackson’s movies. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the Lord of Rings trilogy, and my wife laughs every time I go on vacation since I am probably going to spend 12 hours or so watching the extended blue-rays. But a lot of facets of the hobbits’ character are left unexplored in them: Merry’s connection with nature due to living in Buckland for one. I don’t think there is one mention in the movies that Frodo, Merry, and Pippen are related either.

    Anyways, since the books didn’t have the night time last minute chase/escape through the woods to the Buckleberry Ferry, the Old Forest was one of the first places to show the dangers of Middle Earth to the hobbits, as well as foreshadow what they’d meet in Fanghorn later and why Merry would know more about the Ents than the Rohirrim living within the general area.

    I can understand Tom Bombadil not fitting within the overall darker tone of the movies versus the books, so no argument there. But it’s less of a diversion than a temptation to Frodo. The ring is too powerful for Gandalf to take, it began to corrupt Bilbo, he can already feel it working on himself. Now along comes a good natured jolly singing wacko to whom the ring doesn’t affect. Frodo can give it to him and allow the rest of the world outside of Bombadil’s home to eventually fall to Sauron. Or he can make the difficult decision to continue on.

    The Barrow Downs succeeds for me as both being one of the creepiest segments of the book, and also for showing the dichotomy of Frodo. He is able to shake tje paralytic sleep of the barrow wights off (whether due to the ring or not I cannot remember). But even with the ring he is powerless to save his friends without outside help, in this case Bombadil’s. Again another parallel/foreshadowing to the very ending of the story when he is unable to complete his mission without outside help.

    Lastly, as much as I like Elijah Wood, his Frodo was kind of a pussy. Frodo might not have been running around merc’ing the shit out of orcs, but he didn’t get his ass kicked every time someone so much as looked at him

    1. Hector says:

      Sorry, I missed your post before commenting above. You make some good points.

      1. Gautsu says:

        You do as well. I would have loved to see the actual Scourging of the Shire, not least because it would have shown the final culmination of the hobbit’s growth, but we also would have gotten more Christopher Lee. If anyone remember’s the old Interplay Lord of the Rings crpg, they did a great job building up the tension in the Shire, to lay the foundation for Saruman’s invasion. Such a great, but buggy game

        1. Joshua says:

          Unfortunately, the Scouring of the Shire would probably not have worked in Jackson’s version of the story IMHO. In both the LotR and Hobbit movies, the Hobbit characters are diminished in importance. I think only 1/6 of the LotR books takes place from a non-Hobbit perspective (Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas in Rohan)? I always got the impression when reading the books that for the most part, the non-Hobbit characters were supposed to be somewhat larger than life whereas the Hobbit characters were the regular Joes audience-surrogates.

          The closest thing we got in the films to the Scouring is when the farmer sees the four Hobbits return all dressed up to indicate that they’re not the same regular guys that left.

          Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m wondering how the Scouring could have been done well in a film. I think you’d have to make the destruction of the ring deliberately anti-climactic, so the shift to the Scouring at the end and the realization that this was all about a personal journey for the four Hobbits would be a plot-twist climax. Otherwise, the ending fatigue already in the film would become much worse. Be interesting to see if someone could pull it off.

          1. Hector says:

            It would be dificult – maybe not impossible, but very difficult- in a film context, due to the limited runtime. LotR was seriously pushing people’s endurance as it was. In a mini-series format, when it can be made into essentially its own stand-alone episode, then we’re looking at something a lot more workable. Under those circumstances, the Scouring acts as a kind of bookend, letting people rela after the main events, but cleaning up the loose ends of the story and taking the audience (as well as the characters) back to the beginning. Of course, it ges subverted slightly because then Frodo eventually makes his away from Middle Earth, but it’s part of the tragic element.

          2. Syal says:

            I don’t think they would have needed to downplay the Ring; the movies already put a lot more emphasis on Saruman than the books, so you’d just need some more scenes establishing the Shire folk, and a scene about Saruman and Grima escaping the tower, and now you’re set for the post-climax comeuppance of the “main” villain.

  23. The Rocketeer says:

    Every time an article is posted, I like to guess, “What minor, tangential supporting point will the comments frenziedly seize upon, reducing the actual thesis to a footnote?” This time, I correctly guessed that it was the passing mention of Tom Bombadil. This wasn’t a hard call, but then, they rarely are.

    This post is like manna from Heaven. Not necessarily because it’s telling me anything non-obvious, or even because it verbalizes something I couldn’t put my finger on before in that manner that good criticism often does; rather, it’s a welcome treat that this post exists. It’s an indictment of the gaming commentariat that analysis from the standpoint of the most familiar bedrock elements of storytelling— structure, tone, theme, pacing, plot, character— is vanishingly rare and not getting easier to find.

    I’m grateful to see the candle kept burning.

  24. Megalorex says:

    I assume spelling FBI as FIB is deliberate

    1. Mephane says:

      That’s how it is spelled in the game.

      1. Megalorex says:

        Ah, I guess my mind saw FIB and read it as FBI. Not sure why I only noticed now

  25. Redrock says:

    I think Rockstar has actually always intended for their stories to be something of an almanac. But going full-on episodic would require a bit too much commitment, since to truly work each episode would need to have a central idea and a point the writer should be willing to stand by. Instead, we get GTA V, which is actually not as much about the three protagonists as it is about the world they inhabit. Unfortunately, that world is this bizarro non-commital “satire” of America, so it still doesn’t say all that much, even though, I think, it works as intended – a thinly spread set of stories on various topics from police corruption to drug trade to spy agencies overreach, the awfulness of Hollywood and reality shows, etc., etc. In retrospect, RDR was pretty much the same, but it seemd to hold together better because there was an broadly defined overall goal (get the gang members, free your family) and a single (great) protagonist. Even still, most of the stuff you did in pursuit of that goal was various extraneous bullshit: cow herding, escorting snake oil peddlers, something-something Indians and Mexicans, etc. That’s just the Rockstar way, I guess. I don’t think it could’ve ever worked out better with three protagonists. If it has been just Michael, for example, and we drop the Trevor drug trade segment that has little to do with anything, then you could stretch it a bit and say that the whole plot is kinda sorta following the single goal of getting Michael out of the mess he’s in. All the work for the FIB, the heists and everything else sort of fits then, in the loosest way possible.

  26. Asdasd says:

    It’s weird, I could swear I found Hulk’s the myth of the three act structure from this site. I really hate the idea of that structure as it’s hopelessly restrictive even in the medium in which it’s most prevalent; videogames are a different kettle of fish entirely.

    As an aside if anyone can find me an add on that makes all film crit hulk articles lower case I’d be incredibly grateful.

      1. Asdasd says:

        Bruce bless you. I knew I could rely on the internet.

  27. Paul Spooner says:

    For what they paid to produce these disjointed vignettes, Rockstar could have given us a brilliant crime drama with a plot we’re invested in and characters we care about.

    I get the impression that most people think about a good story like they do a good painting or a good video game. That is to say, it’s “art” and therefore there’s some roll of the dice involved as to whether it turns out well or not. The idea of investing money and getting a better product might not seem like a viable strategy.
    Moreso if the people investing the money don’t have the wherewithal to distinguish between skilled artists and fast-talking quacks. It’s a lot easier to learn how to talk with the tone of an expert than it is to actually become an expert. And especially if the HR guy is trying to fake expertise as well (which most are, in my experience).

  28. Redrock says:

    It should be noted that no one is saying that one should always use the three act structure. Just that if you choose to forgo said structure, you’d better come up with something that works, like Lynch or, indeed, good ole Will Shakespeare. The Housers … are not on Shakespeare’s level as of yet. But, to be honest, I’m not all that swayed by the Hulk’s article. He seems to put up a number of strawmen that he then procceds to, for lack of a better word, smash. The “inciting incident” of his article is weird to begin with. It appears that his criticism of the three act structure is brought on by his irritation with the fact that a number of critics use a stock phrase about the second act being bad in their reviews? It’s a good reason to talk about the problems of modern film criticism, to be sure, but it’s not exactly evidence that there’s a problem with the idea of the three act structure. Then Hulk proceeds to muddle up everything by mixing together different understandings of what an act is supposed to be and what the second act in the three act structure is supposed to be. Because the three act structure in film is all about the broad parts of set up, confrontation and resolution and not individual character “acts” as a “A POINT IN THE STORY WHERE A CHARACTER(S) MAKES A CHOICE AND CAN NO LONGER “GO BACK.””. What Hulk does is force his own definition upon the three act structure and then complain that three is too few.
    Then he bizarrely blaims the idea of the three act structure for the fact that The Green Lantern lacked motivation. Which is extremely odd. The argument basically goes “Bad screenwriters can’t do the three act structure well, hence the three act structure sucks”. And then he proceeds to praise Iron Man for actually using a Shakespeareesque five act structure even though Iron Man actually fits the three act structure perfectly, which, again, just goes to show Hulk’s misrepresentation and, possibly, lack of understanding of what the three act structure is supposed to be.

    All in all, weird article. Again, no one’s saying that the three act structure is the only acceptable structure in fiction, far from it. It’s a framework, an, as any framework, it is both extremely helpful and by definition limiting. The fact that a lot of people can mess up using a framework doesn’t make it the framework’s problem.

    1. Redrock says:

      Goddammit, I only now saw that this comment went to the bottom of the page. It’s supposed to be a reply to Asdasd. Sorry about that.

  29. Xander77 says:

    Haven’t played GTA5 yet, but isn’t that exactly how previous GTA games did plot progression?

  30. MechaCrash says:

    There is an open world game that does what you’re suggesting with the chapter structure: Xenoblade Chronicles X for Wii U, of all things. The main plot missions are broken into twelve distinct chapters, and each one has requirements for having done enough exploring, or having already done specific side missions. A little bit of it is “is your character strong enough for this” or “do you understand fundamental systems,” but there’s also plenty of “hey look, it’s the character from the thing you had to do as a prerequisite, so we know that you know their deal and hopefully give a crap about them.”

  31. Dokidan says:

    For all it’s problems Grand Theft Auto V had one of the most interesting character dynamic I’ve seen in a game. You have Michael and Trevor as player characters who have already beaten their own Grand Theft Auto games and are wrestling with the aftermath. With no more missions Michael finally has the fancy house but he’s trapped in a world full of shitty GTA characters and nothing but the dissatisfaction of there being no more worlds to conquer. Trevor went off the deep end, without the mission structure he had nothing to do but exercise his psychotic impulses on a world that offered him no worthy challenges.

    Then you have Franklin, standard GTA player starting a new game. He is aware that everything he’s doing is stupid, he’s hip to the fact that his bosses are dicks and what he calls a “pyarmid scheme” meaning he’ll never find actual satisfaction or wealth working for these people. He points out the moments when the plot requires him to do something stupid but then he does it anyway because if he doesn’t complete the mission he doesn’t finish the game.

    I think there’s a lot more they could have done with Franklin choosing what kind of player he was.

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