Monday, April 27, 2015

What I've Learned from GTA V

Michael Salsbury
I've spent way too many hours playing Rockstar Games' PC release GTA V (Grand Theft Auto 5).  The Steam client says I've spent over 207 hours in the past two weeks playing the game.  That's an overestimate, because I've left the game running (sometimes paused, sometimes not) for hours at a time.  Even if it's a third that figure, that's a lot of time.

My writing productivity shows it.  I started playing the weekend of April 18-19.  My daily word counts for the five days leading up to that were 88 (I had surgery that day), 6,224, 2,454, 103 (spent almost the entire day in bed), and 1303.  The day I started playing the game, my word count was 0.  The next several days:  0, 902, 1320, 0, 1033, 0, 1085, and 417.

While I'm disappointed with myself on the one hand, I've also realized that I've actually been learning from GTA V.  I know, you're probably laughing about now.  You probably think I'm talking about improving hand-to-eye coordination, or maybe skills associated with stealing cars, shooting people, and all the other things that go on in the game that would be totally reprehensible to do in real life.  I'm actually talking about writing... believe it or not.

The Franklin Clinton character in the game starts out as a young man associated with a gang, living with his aunt in a tiny house in a bad part of town.  He's trying to earn an honest living as a repo man, a guy who recover cars for a dealership when the purchaser isn't paying.  He doesn't like the job, but he'd prefer to do something he's good at and stay on the right side of the law.  On the other hand, he'd be willing to bend or break the law if the profit justified the risk.  (If he didn't have that attitude, he wouldn't be a good central character for the GTA universe, since it's all about the worst human behaviors.)

Franklin's friend Lamar wants to get money any way he can.  He's perfectly willing to risk his life, and Franklin's, if it will make him a few bucks.  After a particularly disastrous attempt to score some cash with Lamar, Franklin wisely observes that he doesn't see the point in taking these big risks for so little reward.  As the game's story progresses, Lamar seems to continue to bring to Franklin one suicidal low-profit plan after another. Franklin sees them for what they are.

Here's an area where the writing in the game falls down for me.  Franklin will hear Lamar's plan, and tell him something like "That's a stupid idea.  You'd get shot to pieces doing something like that, and for what?  A few hundred bucks?  No way, I'm not doing it."  Great!  It shows Franklin standing up for himself, learning from his mistakes, and refusing to do something stupid and profitless.  Then, with very little more than Lamar insulting him or questioning his manhood, Franklin goes along with the plan.

I realize that this is all a game, and that the developers need Franklin to go on these missions.  It's just that the way this is handled destroy's Franklin's credibility.  I don't think it would have taken much to fix the story issues.  The first of these missions, maybe we don't see Franklin question Lamar.  He just goes along.  When things go south, he tells Lamar after the mission "So we risked our lives back there and we're not getting much.  I'm not doing this again."  Lamar brings him a new mission.  This time, Lamar promises lots more money, and less risk.  Franklin hears the pitch, and decides it sounds right to him.  They go on the mission, and again things go badly.  This time, Franklin says, "Hey, I don't think you know how to size these situations up properly.  Next time, we're gonna scope things out first. If I don't like how it looks, you're on your own."  That mission starts with a prologue where Franklin and Lamar scope out the situation and decide to go in, but find out the reward is crap.  This time Franklin says, "No more, Lamar.  Don't bring me anything else.  If I'm gonna risk my life, I need it to be worthwhile. You can get someone else to go with you.  I'm done."

That's all it would have taken.  We'd see Franklin dive in at first without hesitation, because Lamar is is friend and he trusts him.  We'd see that trust begin to evaporate as Lamar makes poor choices or takes action based on faulty intelligence about the possible "score".  Franklin's character would have a reason to go on all those missions, without just buckling under when Lamar insults him.  In other words, it would have developed the Franklin character better and helped players sympathize with him more.

Maybe I'm starting to finally understand character development and escalating conflict...

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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