My Five Favorite Games in 2021

My tradition continues: below are my five favorite games that I played in 2021.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2

I only started playing RDR2 in the latter half of December. I’d heard great things for a long time. I expected to find it enjoyable, probably better than the first Redemption. I’ve in fact been absolutely blown away by this game. It’s an incredible balance of Western simulator and heartfelt narrative vehicle, and I can’t get over how well that balance is maintained. Rockstar games typically favor the simulation side, creating big open worlds with tons of activities and locales, densely packed with AI inhabitants, awaiting you to create your own stories through the dynamic interactions with that world as you sow chaos or simply walk through it. Those games are often paired with stories about Big Ideas and memorable (and occasionally even complex) characters, but the story and gameplay often undermine each other. I’ve written about this before. But RDR2‘s open world and story don’t feel in contrast; they feed off each other. Your choices matter. Small choices create ripple effects, in and out of missions. How you act in the larger world determines to some degree how Arthur acts in missions and how the story plays out.

A lot of this is the richer Honor system pulled in from RDR, but not everything is simply tied to morality mechanics. The constant presence of characters who matter to the narrative helps, as well. You spend a lot of time at camp, and there are rewards and incentives for doing so. You get to know the camp members, who are well-written and well-acted; all but one or two of the most despicable have redeemable characteristics, and there are characters I found easy to relate to and care for. There’s a real sense of community, and that helps guide my actions as protagonist Arthur Morgan. But there’s always enough nuance in Arthur’s demeanor to justify a more honorable or more dastardly version of the character, and all versions feel within a reasonable range for this character as he is depicted.

There are also optional systems that provide additional depth to the stoic and gruff (though far-from-silent) protagonist; for instance, Arthur updates a journal to sketch places he’s visited, animals he’s studied and hunted, and interesting personalities he’s encountered, while providing his perspective on events in the game and his own (partially player-guided) actions. That journal feature is omnipresent, and when there’s an update, a notice briefly appears, but one never need spend time in the journal. I love to view it whenever it’s updated, though, as it adds much greater richness to the game’s story, providing a window into the inner life of a protagonist who isn’t always particularly inclined to tell people how he’s really feeling. Arthur’s defined personality traits but broad range of reactions has allowed me to find my own version of the character, one who tends to help those in need, who looks after women and children, who can be a bit too trusting, but who is also quick with a gun, willing to rob and loot, willing to turn a profit especially if it helps his outlaw community, and not out for blood but never afraid to get into a fight or even to kill if it serves his goals. He’s an interesting gray character–genuinely interesting, and not just the erratic set of disjointed choices that might normally define a “chaotic neutral” type of character.

The simulation side has engaged me far more than RDR, GTA IV, or GTA V, as well. I enjoy fishing and hunting. I enjoy seeking out a great buck, slowly stalking it, attempting to cleanly and mercifully kill it, and then collecting its carcass for a ride back through mountains, valleys, forests, plains, and rivers to share it with the outlaw camp’s quartermaster/cook for the benefit of the community. I enjoy simply riding my horse down wide roads and up narrow, winding paths. God, do I love the horses. There’s a button prompt to comfort/praise/reassure your horse, and I abuse the hell out of it. We’re closely bonded. And you can praise (or scold) cats and dogs, so I of course praise them when I can. You can pat dogs, so I do that often too. I suppose you could shoot them, but why would you? There are plenty of rewards in being a good person and treating the world like a real place, and I imagine there are rewards for those who want to play a far more violently aggressive personality as well, though I seldom see them.

There are also systems to punish wildly out-of-character behavior. There are harsh penalties to crime sprees. It’s inevitable–simply following the game’s story will get you involved in at least some criminal behavior, and my Arthur isn’t a saint. But the Wanted system combined with the lingering Bounty system and resultant posses of bounty hunters and lawmen that will follow you in territories where you’ve wreaked havoc provide for additional experiences to test your skills but also remind you that you shouldn’t push things too far, that the game’s “society” has clear rules and will demand you adhere to them or face dire consequences, locked out of most of civilization and on the run.

There are a lot of fascinating random events and strangers to run into. One time, I saw a fight to the death between territorial bucks. I’ve helped escaped prisoners and women captured by marauders. I’ve been ambushed by rival gangs. I’ve gotten swept up pursuing an impressive pronghorn buck or elk, or a legendary beast whose territory I innocently wandered into, ignoring for a while whatever my immediate goal had been. I’ve been invited to search for dinosaur fossils (an awesome acknowledgment of the rapid expansion of paleontological fieldwork and the wild characters involved from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). I’ve collected some treasure for a quest and stopped by a nearby abandoned cabin late at night, only to find skeletal remains everywhere and a message from a cult, with a sudden green glow and eerie thrumming to throw me off even further, my brain sounding alarm signals of fear before I realize I’m being buzzed by a UFO overhead just as it takes off. It’s a wild game.

There’s so much to do, and so many of the situations in the main narrative and the random encounters can be shaped by your personal input. While this could easily reward replay of the story, the game is just so damn big, the choices so many and varied, that I imagine I’ll see the completion of the game as the completion of the story for My Arthur; no replay would be needed. (Plus, if I still want more when I’m done, there’s Red Dead Online.) I’ve played for just over thirty hours and appear to be just under a third of the way through the story, so there’s more than enough game in the single-player mode alone.

There is so much to RDR2, but the nature of the game, its story about a struggling community and the efforts to find safety and purpose on a fading frontier, allow for such a wide-open story. Unlike the first game, I don’t get a feeling of bloat (which is really crazy when I complained about completing RDR in 46.5 hours, compared to my 31.4 hours for less than a third of the story in the sequel). There are certainly excessive systems, but the game wants you to live in it, and the story is about living in this community. There is no burning rush for revenge, as in the original. Instead, it feels like a story in which you’re simply trying to hold out as long as you can with the ones you love and the ones who rely on you, even as the noose slowly tightens around you and your found family. (Oh, also unlike the first game, RDR2 has so far provided a quite diverse cast of characters, from some of the central figures to the many background parts, and they’re provided much greater nuance and, at least for the main characters, individuality and complexity than in any other Rockstar game. I’m really impressed by this development.)

Finally, the customization options for accessibility and UI appearance are quite welcome. I like keeping a minimalist overlay presentation, inviting greater immersion into the game. The one feature I often keep up is some version of a navigation system in the lower left corner of the screen. If I’m moving through familiar territory or not particularly concerned about direction, I turn it off. If I’m heading toward a goal, I keep a simple compass on so I know that I’m at least not riding south when I need to be going west. If I’m in a territory where I’m wanted, or if I’m on a mission, I tend to turn on the normal or expanded versions of the minimap with its associated markers and route guides. All of this can be done without even pausing the game, pressing a couple of button prompts the same as you would to rotate between your weapon options. It’s impressive.

Then again, this whole game is impressive.

2. Jurassic World Evolution 2

This shouldn’t be a surprise. I loved what Jurassic World Evolution evolved into with its DLC. I was eagerly awaiting the sequel. It has not disappointed. I’m sure I’ll be returning to challenges and sandbox modes for quite a while yet. And I’m hoping for some further story developments post-Dominion!

3. Book of Travels

Another title that shouldn’t be a surprise on this list. This is a game that focuses on the things I like most about roleplaying. I haven’t given it the attention it deserves, but the time I’ve spent in it has been delightful.

4. Halo: The Master Chief Collection

I got into the co-op with a friend toward the end of this year. I also started playing solo playlists of missions. Maybe I’ll get into the multiplayer? Then again, I imagine most people have moved over to Halo Infinite. Either way, it’s been a fun and nostalgic time.

5. Star Wars: Squadrons

This was a go-to toward the start of the year, but my friends and I slowly burned out of this. We’ve idly talked about getting back into it. It really brought the sense of cinematic Star Wars space battles to life and personally invested you in it as a starfighter pilot caught up in the middle of it all. Multiplayer matches were chaotic and intense. We had one really strong player (not me–I was maybe the worst), but matchmaking unfortunately veered toward unbalanced rounds against incredibly skilled players or players who clearly didn’t know what they were doing at all, so we oscillated between fantastic victories and crushing defeats. I never got very far into the story, and the limited multiplayer maps could feel repetitive. But all that said, it was a way to socialize with friends during some of the worst of the pandemic while experiencing authentic Star Wars.

Red Dead Redeemed

While most people might now be moving on from Red Dead Redemption 2, or exploring Red Dead Online, I found myself fervently digging through the original game earlier this year.

There was, obviously, considerable critical praise at the release of the original Red Dead Redemption in 2010, and it performed well commercially. At some point toward the end of or just after law school, about 2014 or so, a friend whose gaming tastes I trust recommended this game. (He also recommended Shadow of Mordor, which I loved once I finally got around to it.) I got a used copy and gave it a try. It was engaging for quite a while. I loved the wide-open Western vistas, the mechanics of riding a horse and using a firearm, the cast of Western archetypes and subversions of the form. The story of a bounty hunter pursuing his old outlaw gang associates to clear a debt and get his family back was expected fare for the genre, but then again, Westerns have long lived on familiarity. And the game clearly had things it wanted to say about law, liberty, and justice. Not only did it provide commentary on our history of exploiting the peoples and natural resources of the American Southwest, but it also offered moments of philosophical reflection and debate between characters that were clearly meant to echo contemporary concerns about overreach by law enforcement and the federal government. I played through the assault on Fort Mercer, and the predictable escape of the game’s tertiary antagonist. I played as John Marston crossed over into Mexico, and I took delight in the poignant, melancholy lyrics of one of the rare songs with vocals that punctuated that arrival. But as the game continued to bloat, inserting winding and irrelevant quests for both sides of a revolution into the main narrative, and as the plot continued to beat the drum of its now over-performed and ultimately shallow themes, I lost interest. I stopped playing.

Since then, I’ve attempted to play the games many times over the years. Each time, I gradually lost interest, typically before I’d left the first act in New Austin. I liked the storytelling and characters introduced in that first act, but it was grating to know that the game would derail itself with a soggy middle designed to draw out open-world play. What could have been a tightly executed story about the cycle of revenge and one man’s effort to break the chains of fate became too much, trying to throw every Western plot point into a single game. Alas, that is the fate of too many AAA games: wanting to be something for everyone, wanting to keep people playing, they throw in so much (story, gameplay, open-world exploration, etc.) that it becomes too much.

Well, cut to this year, and in the wake of a few months of reviews, critical essays, and hot takes surrounding the prequel, I felt the urge to mount up for one more rodeo. Shockingly, this became the time that I finished the game. I didn’t just finish the game–I reached 100% completion!  (A little disclaimer: that’s per the stats for the base game; it’s certainly not all the console achievements, and I have never played Undead Nightmare, and I don’t ever intend to do so. I’m rather fond of Westerns but don’t much care for the zombie genre.)

Partly, my completion of the game came down to having a clear goal in mind. I have amassed a vast back catalog of games over the years, especially by way of Steam, and I’ve been trying to be more mindful about trying games, and “completing” games, before purchasing more. Given that I’ve been considering the purchase of a current-gen console in addition to the Switch, or even holding out for the purchase of an early next-gen console, it dawned on me that I should get through some of the last-gen installments in franchises I’d be interested in playing before spending even more money on a machine and additional games. Red Dead Redemption was on that list, since I typically enjoy Rockstar games and would likely want to try the second title in the series at some point. Finishing The Witcher 2 (since I’d played through the original game and rather enjoyed The Last Wish, and since the third title has often been hailed as one of the Best Games Ever) and at least Dragon Age: Origins (since I’ve burned out by the third act in the past) are also on that list.

There were other changes in my mindset when I approached the game this time, though. Primarily, I decided to focus on the gameplay over the story. I knew that the story would disappoint me in the middle act, so as long as I focused on having fun, I’d get more out of the game. After all, a game should be fun or rewarding to play, if not both, and the interactivity and reactivity between game and player are a good part of what make games so unique as compared to other entertainment/art forms. This focus on gameplay improved my skills with the game considerably, and in two ways. First, I myself got better with the game as I spent more time playing it, especially performing side quests and unique challenges that tested my abilities and forced me to engage with the game world more. Second, completing those aforementioned challenges often netted me an in-game boost to abilities. I focused a lot of my time, starting early, on completing the ambient challenges, for instance, which improved my stats (and unlocked stat-boosting outfits) as I reached particular levels in the challenges. Once I tackled the main story, it was easier to advance as a result. In example, enough random quests to save some poor sap’s wife or brother from the noose and shooting challenges to outdraw my opponents on the main streets of cities improved my use and management of the time-slowing, target-marking Dead Eye ability considerably, such that its required use in main quests was often surprisingly easy.

Another change was a special challenge for myself: the decision to explore and to genuinely accept the consequences of my actions. (I’ve often fallen back on save points and wanted to do things exactly right, or exactly within the bounds of how I saw a character or story as developing, and the experimentation and embrace of failure, and learning from failure, in Breath of the Wild was a turning point for me.) Often, failing to achieve a side quest, or accidentally shooting an innocent, or dying, or missing out on a mission objective that would require beginning again from a checkpoint, or simply encountering a glitch that resulted in a bizarre cutscene without breaking the game would result in my quitting the game or reloading to a previous manual save point. It was partly simple frustration, sure, but it was mostly an effort on my part to force a cohesive narrative vision on the game world. I wanted my John Marston to act in a certain way, not to be someone who died from falling down a cliff or accidentally shot a woman in a gunfight with bandits. But forcing myself to play on often presented wild new deviations, and even continuing from death became something I was comfortable with. That was especially hard to adjust to, though, because unlike games with free saving, the use of world-state autosaves that didn’t accurately capture a particular moment often dumped me into unusual situations that did not reflect my previous predicament. It was tempting to want to reload to a clean, manual save slot, but it would have come at a loss of time, accomplishments, and experience. Overcoming that urge for a clean reset, and accepting sporadic skips and jumps in time, enabled me to better enjoy the moment-to-moment experiences of the game (plus, losing hours of progress to hop back to the last save you made is an easy way to grow frustration even further).

The biggest change was the simplest: I opted to turn off the minimap at the beginning of the game. That proved to be incredibly freeing, helped with immersion, and made me focus more on what was happening in the game world as visually represented instead of relying on raw metadata to determine inputs. There were moments where the lack of a minimap was frustrating or disorienting, but its presence was certainly never required. And again, it made me stay focused on Marston’s physical presence in the game world.

So, those changes in mindset and interaction with the game gave me the push to finish the story. I was surprised to realize how close I had been to making it through Mexico way back in my first, long-lost attempt to beat the game. I was unsurprised to find that the Mexican-set second act was largely a long, ambling diversion from the main game. When you finally track down Bill Williamson for the second time, that confrontation feels unremarkable, rushed, and insignificant. You’ve already caught another gang member (in one of the few moments of choice in the story, however irrelevant to the plot outcome, you can choose to capture or kill Javier Escuella). You already know, through gradually emerging references in dialogue, that you’ll have to go after your long-missing gang leader as well. By the time I got to Williamson and put down the local Mexican tyrant as well (would it have been a choice to spare him? I didn’t give the monster a chance), I was already long past caring about that section of the game. And I was more than a little frustrated by Marston’s staunch, defiantly ignorant refusal to pick a side in the fight. Given that you could play most of the missions in any order you chose, and it was easier to play the quests for each faction, geographically centered around one of two hub areas across the map, in a batch, the story ultimately felt dissonant and lacking clear cause-and-effect to me. Plus, even outside of my efforts to play Marston as mostly honorable, defining character traits in the story were Marston’s disdain for tyrannical government and respect for women, meaning that the crude, violent, corrupt governor/serial-rapist didn’t seem like a reasonable figure for Marston to associate with–especially since the governor’s actions were always so clearly on display, so Marston couldn’t turn a blind eye to it, the governor himself was so obviously untrustworthy, Marston never got any useful information or resources from that work, and the rebels actually made more of a clear effort to help Marston. Even before the “big” twist that “revealed” the governor’s deceptions at the end of the act, Marston should have jumped ship and never looked back when the governor’s right-hand man set an ambush for him.

The third act was interesting but rushed. The game really starts to barrel you toward your final confrontation once you’re out of Mexico. The introduction of Native American rebels resisting the government as part of Marston’s old leader’s new gang could have been an interesting development and a bigger chunk of narrative if handled carefully and with consideration, but it was not.

On the subject of Native Americans in the game…it must be said that as usual, Rockstar was less than sensitive in its portrayals of women and minorities, often relying on stereotyped depictions and lacking in meaningful counter-examples to justify the presence of those tired race and gender tropes. Race issues often came down to the adoption of stereotypes rather than actual engagement with those issues or even coherent character development. There’s a lot of ironic commentary in the in-game newspapers that suggests that the developers have a contemporary, conscientious sensibility about the plight of minority communities, but it’s rarely on display in the plot, leaving the impression that they just wanted to have the opportunity to laugh about it all. The one Chinese character in a side mission becomes an opium addict. The one prominent Native American character who is not a gang member is portrayed as slow-speaking and of noble temperament; he talks about how white people are destroying the Earth and gets killed pretty early on, after serving as a guide and sidekick to Marston and an over-the-top racist anthropologist character. Said anthropologist is in the game way too much, having no impact on the plot and present mostly just to say racist things in a way Rockstar apparently felt they could get away with–haha, we’re not saying the racist things, that obviously offensive guy is, and it’s clear that we think you think it’s offensive, so it’s funny now! There are a lot of Mexican characters, and it seemed like the background characters spoke naturally in accurate Spanish (though I’m nowhere close to fluent, so I just picked out what I could understand), but the main Mexican characters were thugs or fools or scoundrels all, save one heroic yet naive rebel girl who is ultimately killed for the narrative purpose of mildly pissing off John Marston. There are black background characters, and that’s about it. The few prominent female characters are mostly in need of saving at least at one point, and early Marston ally Bonnie MacFarlane has a role largely defined by her growing fondness for Marston and his ability to help her, even as they talk about how tough and independent she is. That role is later replicated by Marston’s wife. Rockstar seems to want to have things to say about race and gender roles, but it too often decides to settle on cynical, shallow sarcasm and apparently ironic depictions that fail to really challenge the stereotypes they channel. As per usual, the studio produced a showcase game for exactly why greater representation is needed not just by way of depiction but in the creative stages of development.

But to focus back on the conclusion of the game: the third act is a section where the main plot is picked up with earnest again, but it takes several missteps. It was at its best when it provided slower moments that let John examine the cycles of violence he was caught up in, and in the quiet before the storm at the end when he is attempting to return to a “normal” life with his family (even though those “normal” scenes were often too long to the point of being boring, with cattle-herding and stallion-roping segments I hoped I’d escaped after the MacFarlane quests in the first act). The disdain of the modern law enforcement agents from out East, the suicide by Dutch in an attempt to escape the narrowly defined fate laid out for him, the bonding between John and his son Jack and the heavy foreshadowing of John’s fate on his trips with his boy, and the lyrical songs that punctuate some of the most powerful bridges in the story are what I’ll especially remember the end of the game for. John’s death, which I’d spoiled for myself years ago, was not very powerful to me; after so many impossible fights that we’d overcome, getting taken out after an especially weak Dead Eye moment felt cheap, and John’s grotesquely bullet-riddled body was disturbing but not especially moving. Still, while I know a lot of people were annoyed with Jack, I found the epilogue of the game to be very rewarding.

I’d already spent so much time on achieving side quests and challenges that by the time Jack arrived on the scene, I’d decided that I’d seek out 100% completion. But I found that just spending time with Jack added powerfully to the narrative of the story. You can play Jack as you could John, honorable or dastardly, so the true conclusion of the story is in many ways in your hands. I chose to play him honorably, with the suggestion that he’d taken in some of the values that John tried to instill. The game itself suggests this, as well, through Jack’s possession and use of John’s property, suggesting a replication of personality: Jack wears John’s clothes, has John’s guns and cash, and has access to John’s safe houses. Additionally, Jack makes offhanded remarks in fights and other situations that reflect the lessons he’s learned from John–and a lingering desire to make his papa proud.

In a great touch, to truly close out the game, to cap off the story, Jack must hunt down the agent responsible for his father’s death. It’s not a mission that pops up on your map automatically. It’s a Stranger mission, a side quest that appears to you as you wander through the “big” city of Blackwater. There’s nothing to compel you to keep following the thread, other than a gamer’s completionist impulse. You could elect to have Jack walk away from revenge entirely, to finally course-correct and be anything he wanted, something other than the outlaw and bounty hunter than John was. To do that would be to fulfill everything John hoped for. To do that is to stop playing, though. To keep playing, to keep Jack operating in the game world, you’ll continue the cycle of violence that John hoped he could end with just one more government job, one more bounty, one more death.

This final main story mission plays out slowly and quietly. Jack tracks the agent to a cottage off a lake in New Austin. Jack deceives the agent’s wife into revealing his current location, on a hunting trip just inside of Mexico. Jack finds the agent’s brother at their campsite, who directs him to the game’s primary antagonist, now a washed-up, retired old man. There’s a quick duel–at this point in the game, an incredibly easy draw. In the aftermath, the great villain of Jack’s life dead before him, Jack thoughtfully considers his firearm, holsters it, and turns away from the riverbed scene of this final fight. As he walks away, the screen flashes red, there’s a recognizable note from the score, and the words “RED DEAD REDEMPTION” appear. This is the game’s true ending. Redemption appears more ironic than ever. Jack has found revenge, but he has not redeemed his father or himself. His father never truly found a way out of the life of violence that he led; other forces wouldn’t let him. Jack, too, has fallen into the same cycle, and this one defining moment could mean that he’s stuck in it until the end. Whether the player ever reaches this milestone, and whether the player plays on after this, as I did, is left to a matter of choice.

The early drumbeat of themes was long lost in the white noise of the game’s Too Much of Everything design philosophy. They were the least interesting themes, too, the ideas that Rockstar loves to keep bringing up without saying anything new: there will always be bad people, bad people are often on the side of the alleged good guys, we should not trust ourselves to large-scale governance so long as those things are true, and so on. But the deeply personal, intimate, yet universal themes of revenge, redemption, fate, and choice swirling around the Marston men that the game manages to tease out in the third act and the epilogue are powerfully and refreshingly done. No matter how familiar the themes may be to fans of the Western genre, Red Dead Redemption still found something fresh to say. But there’s so much baggage, and so much mediocre, dragged-out storytelling on the way, that most people probably never experienced it all. And sadly, so much of what made Red Dead Redemption‘s story powerful and rewarding was actually playing through those moments in the resolution of the third act and in the epilogue, and especially the choice to continue or to abandon the quest for revenge, such that no stream or recording of cutscenes and gameplay could fully capture that unique recognition of powerlessness in power, fatalistic futility, and tragic despair disguised as victory.

Ironically, by focusing myself on gameplay over story, I was able to reach the point where I better appreciated exactly why so many people do love that story. (Still, that story would have been better, more powerful, and appreciated by more people in full if it had been a twenty-hour experience instead of the forty-six-and-a-half hours I spent on it.) And now I feel rather prepared to play Red Dead Redemption 2, especially since I know what to expect. The reviews I’ve read suggest a bigger, longer game, with even more great development in the first act, and with even more meandering loss of focus by the end. One question remains for me above all others: will this newer game provide an ending that makes the slog through the middle seem worthwhile after all, or will it fail to reach the powerful conclusion of Jack Marston’s silent walk away?

Keeping the peace in an open-world game

I’ve been reading about open-world games recently, and it’s got me thinking about the failings of a certain type of open-world game. Too often, it feels like a game becomes open-world because it’s a feature to try to sell people on the title, regardless of whether it actually adds any value to the experience. Just for one example, this appears to be what happened with Mafia III. (“At first, it was envisioned as a straightforward revenge tale, but 2K boss Christoph Hartmann wanted Mafia III to compete with Rockstar . . . . He wanted districts, empire-building, and a massive open world.”)

One game type that seems particularly unsuited for the open-world concept, despite being routinely drafted in this way, is the law-enforcement game.

There are many types of stories that can be told about the police: some can portray peace officers in a positive or heroic way, some can present crooked or abusive or outright corrupt and villainous cops, and many are mixed and complicated. And there have been some pretty good crime drama stories to come to video games. Two prominent examples are L.A. Noire and Sleeping Dogs. But both games suffer from an open world that seems to exist mainly to just give the players the option of doing something else, even if there’s not much to do with the feature.

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L.A. Noire in particular tells a complicated and gritty noir story, with each chapter diced between increasingly gruesome and unexplainable murders. The player’s investigation of crime scenes and attempts to tease out the truth in tense interviews with witnesses and suspects make up the bulk of the main form of gameplay. Over the course of the game, I suspect that just about any player questions whether they’re making the right call–and, without giving up too much for those who haven’t played, the end of the game reveals that the whole truth was more complicated than we could imagine for many of these cases.

But in between these tense and disturbing criminal investigation scenes, and the occasional obligatory shootout mission, we have long stretches of just driving around. There’s not all that much to do, apart from hunting down useless collectibles, seeking out 1940’s Los Angeles landmarks, and participating in a series of twitchy and repetitive street enforcement missions. The little side missions in particular feel like an effort to give a greater range of ways to interact with the game, but they all boil down to distracting radio calls to drive halfway across the city just to participate in the same repetitive mixture of shoot-outs, chases, and twitchy hostage-rescue shots.

The map is big, but there’s very little to organically draw the player in. This is probably at least in part a product of shifting design decisions, but when one is on the straight-and-narrow as an upstanding law enforcement officer, the crazy high jinks that typically make open-world games so entertaining have to be reined in. In place of rampaging through the city, the distractions that are inserted feel very gamey indeed and quickly grow tedious. And the player can even choose to skip from destination to destination, having their partner drive instead. The game very much so feels like a fairly linear, structured game arbitrarily mounted onto an open-world framework.

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Similarly, Sleeping Dogs is a cool story about an undercover cop trying to bust gangs in Hong Kong. Where L.A. Noire obviously draws on the film noir genre, Sleeping Dogs pulls from martial arts films and contemporary cop dramas. While one could commit criminal acts, there was a certain incentive to continue to operate largely within the scope of the law within the overworld map. Even if one were to go on a rampage, it would detract from the story being told.

And that story is pretty well-told! But it’s a story that relies heavily on cinematic scenes and fast-paced martial arts action sequences. By adding another fairly restrained open world, with fairly limited interactivity (another round of landmarks and collectibles), the world feels less organic and more a maze of lengthy car rides between missions.

Open-world games excel when story is more in the background. The focus should be on exploring the world, and it should be packed with fun things to do. The ability to cause chaos and see how effects radiate out from that chaos is often a big source of fun. Unpredictable playing experiences in true sandbox games allow for dynamic, organic stories that can do away with scripted storytelling altogether. The highlights of an Elder Scrolls game or a Grand Theft Auto game very rarely have to deal with the main plot, after all (or at least have more to do with cleverly designed missions in that main plot that take advantage of the open-world systems in the game).

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Either the open world is bland and gets in the way of the main story, or the main story feels like a railroaded obligation amid all the other fun to be had. I think that the Grand Theft Auto series demonstrates this rather well. Grand Theft Auto IV might have had the most original story in the franchise and seemed to have a lot to say in its dark and decaying world where the American dream is an illusion always just out of reach. But that story was somewhat defeated by the wanton chaos players could get up to between missions and by the easy ability to earn more and more money, and so much of that story was wasted on driving from point to point on the map. Other games have felt a lot more derivative, but they’ve focused more on the open world and benefited from it (especially Vice City with its introduction of investment properties, San Andreas with its huge world packed full of things to discover and weird people and beautiful environments and an exponential multiplication of activities and jobs, or Grand Theft Auto V with its three characters to rotate through to keep the fun going and a bank-heist-centered plot that focused on channeling the chaotic entertainment of the main game rather than burning out in an over-long drag).

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Being able to truly do anything, story (and morals) be damned, seems key to a really fun open-world game that will keep pulling the player back. While Red Dead Redemption has a story that is arguably about law enforcement (since you’re playing an against-his-will bounty hunter), the protagonist’s antagonism toward the federal government and the setting in the Wild West allow for a lot of less-than-virtuous gunplay and no-good deeds that don’t feel too far out of character or inappropriate. Plus, there are a lot of random encounters and side jobs and weird things to get up to while moseying across the plans or into towns. And despite the above, I think that the game suffers by having an overly long and dreary linear story, much like Grand Theft Auto IV.

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As a final example, the original Crackdown, despite ostensibly being about a law enforcement super-agent meant to take down out-of-control gangs, is really about causing as much devastation as possible across the map. The absurd power fantasy is front and center, and while your interactivity with the world is mainly limited to fighting bad guys and scaling the environment for collectibles, the game succeeds (to the extent that it does) by keeping the focus on chaos and player experience rather than a soggy story. (Not a law enforcement-focused game, but Mercenaries had a pretty similar model.)

In summary, games about law enforcement typically have dramatic stories that they want to tell. To the extent that an open world is involved, it often gets in the way of that story, either by being thematically dissonant or by simply disrupting the story with a lot of padding. And even where the open world might otherwise work, the hindrance of presenting an open world that requires a more constrained hand by the player (or more invisible walls on conduct) defeats the purpose of having that open world in the first place.

GTA: A Mirrored View

I’ve been watching several nineties crime dramas on Netflix and Amazon Prime recently, movies like CasinoGoodfellasHeat, and Boyz n the Hood, viewing some for the first time.

It’s interesting to realize how much these films have shaped the Grand Theft Auto games–and, sadly, how much those games have borrowed heavily for style and visuals but often dumped theme and intent in the process.

The film allusions are often rather obvious. The Mafiosos in III and IV take obvious inspiration from the faded, past-their-prime, and sometimes desperate characters in Goodfellas or The Sopranos (perhaps most noticeable, besides in-universe promotions for a “Badfellas” movie, is the echoing of the toxic relationship between Tony and Livia Soprano in III‘s Toni Cipriani and his mother). Vice City is far from subtle in its heavy homages to the visuals, characters, themes, and sets of Scarface and Miami Vice. And all the games are heavy with nods and winks to films both in and out of the crime genre.

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A copy of Tony Montana’s mansion appears in Vice City.

In this line, Boyz n the Hood is often cited as an inspiration for San Andreas, while Heat is credited with influencing the heists in IV and V. I had just accepted this as common knowledge, but I was shocked to see just how much these games had pulled from the two films, at a level that is probably at least equal to the debt owed to Scarface.

I was actually left disappointed with San Andreas with my newfound hindsight. Characters and scenarios are borrowed from Boyz n the Hood, in addition to the general setting of an LA-look-alike in the city of Los Santos. But Boyz n the Hood is rich in thoughtful sociopolitical messaging, in avoiding simple dichotomies and obvious solutions. And rather than a presentation of thrilling casual violence, the gunplay in the movie is often brief and brutal, with horrible repercussions. There is in fact very little actual violence presented, though there is the steady percussion of gunshots and helicopters in flight and emergency sirens in the background. Boyz n the Hood refused to glamorize or villainize. It portrayed a toxic environment, poisoned by a racist and indifferent nation, killing its young people in a cycle of events that feels almost outside of the ability of any young person to resist and that preys on impulses of passion and loyalty that I think we all can understand; we as viewers can only hope that Tre Styles will take the lessons to heart learned from his father Furious to avoid the cycle of vendetta-fueled violence. (I don’t know where else to say this, but it was weird to me how much the third acts of A Bronx Tale and Boyz n the Hood are paralleled.)

In contrast, San Andreas largely glorifies gang life. The gang life leads protagonist CJ to wealth, opportunity, and a restoration of his surviving family. Yes, the gang life also sees family and friends killed, but most of the core cast of allies survive to see the end. In fact, the primary villains are those who betray their gang members, in addition to the corrupt cops those traitors work with/for. The enemy is obvious and external, not a creeping existential threat empowered by often-abstract institutionalized racism. One of CJ’s major dramatic hurdles is recognizing that in his efforts to go “legit,” building a sprawling and sometimes-legal business empire, he has abandoned his hood by failing to keep in the gang fight.

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Gangsters with hip-hop style in a low-rider carrying out a hit on foot after a drive-by. This could describe a good portion of San Andreas as well.

I’d like to think that I’m not being naive. In a game where the main verbs are “shoot” and “drive,” I understand that having a concrete antagonist that can be defeated is necessary. It’s power fantasy, lightly toying with myths of impoverished urban life on the streets. It’s about machismo, the same (toxic-) masculine values that fuel a more-than-small portion of the crime genre as a whole. And I also recognize that San Andreas draws on a plethora of crime films and “hood genre” films. I can only comment on those films that I have seen, and I recognize that something might be lost in translation; I might be reading references to Boyz n the Hood where the reference was unintentional or in fact drawn from another film in the genre.

Still, it’s disappointing to find San Andreas borrow so much from a rich and thoughtful story and then distill its visuals into a string of shoot-’em-up scenarios. Furthermore, IV and Red Dead Redemption showed that Rockstar could do more than simply ape classic action dramas; the studio could tell stories about the moral emptiness and ultimate personal loss that accompanies a life of crime, and about the sorts of forces that can lead a person to believe that that life of crime is the only option. Stories about personal choice and accountability, honor and loyalty, the desolation of debt, the cyclical nature of violence, and the overreaching authority of a callous and corrupt government filled these games.

Then for V, we see a simple reversal back to “whee, crime is fun” power fantasy. This is fitting, especially given how deeply indebted the game is to Heat.

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This GTA V mission plays out almost exactly like the first heist in Heat–though the guys in Heat get away clean, while this mission leads into a sprawling shoot-out.

Heat lives and dies on its heists. As for theme…it does not offer simple morals. We are all trapped in cycles we can’t escape, at a personal and institutional level (yes, Rockstar certainly continues to acknowledge that theme in Michael and Trevor’s story). There may be a message about time, or how you spend your life, or attachment, or even family, but it’s difficult to make the argument convincingly, and it largely feels nihilist.

For a film that spends so much time attempting to establish its characters (the entire movie is nearly three hours long!), I had difficulty caring about any of them. The criminals were bad guys–professionals, yes, but willing to drop anything if needed and willing to kill anyone who got in their way. One of them is even worse, a sexually violent killer and a hot-head who the rest of the team attempts to eliminate for being too reckless and violent. And Pacino’s cop character carries the baggage of the obsessed-cop trope, with serial failed marriages and an explosive temper (boy, Pacino over-acted in this one).  Besides De Niro’s crew leader and Pacino’s detective, most of the characters are simply defined, and characters of color especially fall into racist (or racist-adjacent) tropes. But I get that this is a movie that is fondly remembered for the intensely choreographed heists and anxiety-inducing, creeping dread of the cat-and-mouse game between cops and robbers. And I sure as hell enjoyed those elements.

GTA V similarly spent a lot of time attempting to set up its characters, who mostly rested on tropes or were lifted largely from Heat. Michael De Santa looks and acts rather like Neil McCauley (De Niro’s character), serving as a leader of the heist. Fry chef Breedan and young, reckless Chris are combined into Franklin (and Breedan’s quick and ignoble death driving the getaway car echoes the opening bank escape scene in the game). And the sociopathic serial killer Waingro’s appearance and voice and mannerisms and temper, and his willingness to go on killing sprees seemingly for fun, are all channeled into Trevor. There’s even a parallel disabled informant/hacker character who helps line up scores for the crews. One could even say that Chris’s marital problems are lifted onto De Santa’s character to give him added purpose.

The biggest influence of Heat seems to be in the heists used in Grand Theft AutoIV had Heat‘s crazy bank escape, gunmen attempting to flee from law enforcement on foot through the streets, firing assault rifles with big duffel bags of cash slung over their shoulders (“Three Leaf Clover“). But V went further with the replications of heists, placing the opening truck heist into the middle-game (“Blitz Play“), including a marginally similar climactic bank heist (“The Big Score,” though this probably draws more from movies like Die Hard with a Vengeance), and antagonizing the protagonist crew with almost-as-bad government agents much like in the film (this understates the point a little bit–government actors are always worse than the individual criminal in the Grand Theft Auto universe).

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Start of a bank heist in Grand Theft Auto IV.

It’s fascinating to me that after all this time, and all the effort to tell original stories, Rockstar still seems to be regurgitating the plots and visuals of classic films, spliced with its irreverent but increasingly predictable and shallow sardonic humor. Its most effective trick–in both IV and V–has been giving the player enough agency to make one major decision at the end. Will the player attempt to break the cycle repeated through the game, or be consumed by it? And does the player’s choice truly matter when larger forces are at play? Oddly, these third-act choices, which often feel rather railroaded after largely linear stories, are maybe the franchise’s most innovative contributions to the crime drama genre.


 

The GTA fan Wikia helpfully lays out many of the film allusions and influences in the games. By this list, prominent crime films that I would still need to see to more fully contextualize the games include:

  • Menace II SocietyColorsNew Jack CityEasy RiderTo Live and Die In L.A., and Training Day (for San Andreas); and
  • Carlito’s Way (for Vice City).

Maybe when/if I see these other films, I’ll revisit the subject. The above discussion is not an exhaustive list of film references (or even crime genre film references), and there are movies–like, for instance, much of Tarantino’s early oeuvre–that are of course referenced at least in small ways, which I have seen and which I did not discuss above.

But are there any movies that you can think of that seem like obvious influences on the Grand Theft Auto games? Or perhaps other books or games? (For instance, I can’t help but draw some connections to Mario Puzo’s books, especially Fools Die). Feel free to let me know in the comments!