Rockstarting out slow

There's been a pattern to all of Rockstar's games ever since GTA IV that I'm only now beginning to see, and I'm not sure if it's a good one.

This is day six of the Ten Days of Blogging challenge I’m doing with my wife.

I’ve been replaying GTA IV recently – today, in fact, thanks to the Steam Sale, and I’m looking forward to branching out into Liberty City Stories which, thanks to a combination of circumstance and poverty, I never picked up at the time of release and haven’t played even slightly. I’ve not touched GTA IV since it was released on the Xbox 360, way back in the day, and it’s strange. There’s been a pattern to all of Rockstar’s games ever since it was released that I’m only now beginning to see, and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing.

The start of Grand Theft Auto IV is incredibly slow. You are an immigrant fresh off the boat, eager to make it big in America, and you slob around the city for an hour or two until you get the merest inkling of a plot aside from the obvious; that you are a badass ex-military goon looking to gain revenge on someone who betrayed your unit ten years ago, presumably through the medium of stealing cars and doing a variety of missions for a variety of criminals under a variety of levels of organisation.

(Compare that to the opening to Saint’s Row II, released around the same time, that has you break out of prison and shoot down helicopters with a machine gun before trying to claw back the city from rival gangsters who took it from you it in your absence. You already know people in the city; you already know the major players in the game. You are always acting towards your final goal.)

And it’s the same with Red Dead Redemption; five hours into the game, where most titles would have already outfitted you with over half of the tools you need to complete the game, you’re still plodding around learning how to drive and break horses with Bonnie. In LA Noire, you’re meandering through a too-fat plot which all hinges on a single fact that makes all your previous actions at best useless and at worst harmful. In Max Payne 3, you’re just about to shave your head and shift tone for the third time.

I’m loath to use the phrase “delusions of grandeur” because grandeur is something that Rockstar definitely fucking has; in a world of rushed-out sequels and rapidly-folding publishers and developers, they still take their own sweet time and money to produce massive works of staggering import. But are we getting ahead of ourselves, here? Are Rockstar becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?

If any other developer tried to pull the story pacing that Rockstar now apparently insists on – the multiple protagonists, the lumbering plot threads, the arduous process of building characters by interacting with them on a series of drawn-out story missions – they’d be laughed out of town. Their games would be too slow, too bloated, too top-heavy. Take the wobbling bulk that was Assassin’s Creed III’s overwrought and ultimately unsatisfying storyline, for example, as opposed to the drum-roll that was Brotherhood’s. But Rockstar have managed to generate their own inertia, their own story-propellant that means gamers will still throw themselves headlong into titles that would, if anyone else was at the helm, seem bloated and over-written.

By the time I reached seven hours of play in Red Dead Redemption, I was still waiting for the story to start. I’m hard-pressed to think of another medium where someone could get away with that sort of thing.

And, of course, it’s not unearned. Rockstar are producing incredible things, innovating and redefining things that we before took for granted with each release. But the scope of GTA V concerns me. If they take this long to establish stories about a single character – even if they then go ahead to swap them out in a move that almost seems like vanity, like their story is so good that they’ll supplant the protagonist with another once they become unsuitable – then I dread to thing how long it will take for all three of the protagonists in GTA V to get up to speed.

By the time we hit the tenth hour of play, will we know what makes our guys tick? Will we give a shit about their lives? Or will we still be slogging through tutorials, waiting for the beat to kick in, playing for the sake of playing because something has to happen soon, right? When you play it – and you will, we all will, it’s almost like there’s not a choice in this – try to remember that this must stand alone, on its own merits. That the merits of a company’s past achievements aren’t enough to replace proper pacing, scripting, and characterisation.