Budgeted at well over $100 million and grossing as much as $800 million in sales a day after it hit stores last week, Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto V” has been so insanely profitable in such a brief period of time that it puts all 2013 blockbusters to shame. Yet the commercial success of the latest open world crime saga from the New York game company has obscured the critical acclaim it has received at the same time. Building on the hype of 2008’s “Grand Theft Auto IV,” the latest game involves an ambitious story set in the fictional California town of Los Santos and allows the player to shift between three distinct characters: bank robbers Michael and Trevor and their new ally Franklin, a former repo man. When the trio is forced to engage in a series of antics by the FBI, “Grand Theft Auto V” provides ample explosive fodder for countless Michael Bay movies, but also presents a massive open world that allows players to wander beyond the main narrative and simply explore the city.
During last weekend’s NYFF Convergence, the multimedia conference taking place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center timed to this year’s New York Film Festival, several key members of the Rockstar development team took the stage for a conversation moderated by Revision3 Games producer and TV host Adam Sessler about the challenges of creating the “GTAV” world. The panel discussion started with a live play-through of one breathtaking sequence in which the player rescues a man held captive in a skyscraper; the action included piloting a helicopter and engaging in close quarters firefight, sniping at villains from across the way and taking down other choppers during the daring escape.
It was an ideal demonstration of the game’s breakneck speed, but also provided a peek at the sheer scale of the world as the chopper sped through the landscape. Appropriately, the panelists focused less on the narrative than environment surrounding it. Participants included Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser, Vice President of Publishing and Operations Jennifer Kolbe, art director Rob Nelson and co-writer Lazlow Jones, who also plays a memorable version of himself in the game. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion, which largely involved the contrast between game development and the filmmaking process.
There is no easy shortcut to designing these games. Rockstar has excelled at the creation of “the sandbox,” ginormous open worlds that allow players to roam freely in addition to play through the stories of their games. Los Santos, the city in “Grand Theft Auto V,” is the largest one yet, twice as big as Liberty City in the previous installment. And each street corner must be created from scratch. That’s why it takes years and years to produce these games, much longer than any traditional film production. “With a movie, you can go film in any set,” Kolbe said. “In a game, you have to build it.”
The biggest challenge for the game’s designers? Creating three main characters instead of just one. Houser said the prospects of switching between the characters without disrupting the real time flow of the game was a problem for developers up until a few months ago. “It was something we wanted to do first purely from a storytelling perspective,” he explained, “then it was only during the mission, but we really leapt on it when we got something from the non-narrative side of it.”
Because the games are so big, it’s not like you’re playing through a movie. A player who mainly engages with the story and doesn’t explore the world will still take up to 40 hours to complete all the missions in “Grand Theft Auto V.” That’s a huge distinction from the experience of a 90 minute movie. “We’re not taking narrative structure from films,” Houser said. Instead, he cited long-form television viewing and novels as precedents for their approach. That also creates a challenge: “We don’t know when you’re going to take a break. There’s a fear people will forget what’s going on.”
There are real performances in the game, and they’re quite good. The last “Grand Theft Auto” game also used motion capture technology, but the technique has grown incredibly advanced, to the point where art director Rob Nelson said that even an actor’s distinctive gait can be recognizable from the way they appear in the game. Facial expressions are similarly detailed, because the technology finds actors wearing helmets equipped with lights that illuminate their faces and capture each individual nuance. Nelson called the process “a mixture of theater and the ultimate closeup.”
The media satire is part of the game design. Anyone who has played a “Grand Theft Auto” game is familiar with the way the world parodies news coverage of violence and shows how the media informs its gritty setting. “It’s fun to parody America’s obsession with consumerism,” said co-writer Jones. But the satire actually exists outside the narrative: Designers have created thousands of fake advertising campaigns that appear in the game as well as audio tracks for various radio stations. The writers say they have heard from players who have pulled over in the game and listened to the radio; now, you can watch your character watch television at home. “What we’re trying to do is bring a world together that’s cohesive,” Houser said. “It’s about Americana more than America — as if the media came to life and walked the streets. That’s what we’re trying to investigate.”