At E3 Rockstar Games announced a next-generation edition of Grand Theft Auto 5.
Hardly unexpected, but as you can see in Digital Foundry’s trailer comparison, it’s an endeavour that looks worth the effort.
Los Santos is one of the great video game constructs, a masterful combination of atmosphere and representation. It terms of scope, detail and raw ambition, it remains beyond the reach any other open-world space. The trailer features a number of immediately apparent graphical upgrades. Noticeable improvements to textures, lighting and an increase in traffic and pedestrians that will likely make Los Santos feel more inhabited and alive. But, visuals aside, it remains to be seen if the improvements will have a fundamental impact on GTAV’s gameplay. Probably not, although one does hope for a few moderate improvements in this respect.
The prospect of a tweaked Grand Theft Auto has led me to consider how Rockstar might approach building a game from the ground-up for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. If we look at their roster of franchises we can see some early contenders. As a toe in the water, a new Max Payne title could be a useful proving ground for their next-gen development chops. Or perhaps, a new adventure set in the slightly more contained Bulworth universe. Either would certainly be welcome. But the game everyone wants, surely, is a sequel to Red Dead Redemption.
A new Red Dead game excites me, not just because of my ferocious appetite for open-world games, but because I’m excited by the prospect of Rockstar using their artistic, technical and storytelling capabilities to make the landscape of the American Old West as much of a character as the player. I want to see them create a connection with the game world that works on an emotional and physical level.
Unlike GTA, the lifeblood of Red Dead’s frontier is not the ebb and flow of freeways and bustling metropolises, it’s the fight between the natural world and the endeavour of man. An expanse of emptiness with a underbelly of danger that hides out of sight but is ready to take the life of those who are unprepared, or just plain unlucky. It’s a place that balances desolation and wilderness with opportunism and pioneering adventure. It was also a place that constantly evolved as the march of ‘progress’ moved westward. It’s this feeling that I want Rockstar to capture and articulate.
A changing landscape
I’m a huge fan of HBO’s Deadwood. One element I particularly like is how it shows a camp growing, finding its feet, and eventually becoming a town. It would be wonderful to see this process happen within a game, and the trigger being the actions of the player
If you have played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time you will recall the moment where Link is transported seven years into the future. In that time the land of Hyrule has changed (mainly for the worse, it has to be said). The once bustling market square is stalked by the living dead. Hyrule Castle now hangs over a pool of lava, shrouded in darkness. It’s startling (and bleak) twist within a great game. However, the changes that affected me the most were the small ones. In Karkariko Village, for example, buildings that were being constructed seven years prior are now completed. It’s a tiny detail, but one that emphasises the passing of time, making the land of Hyrule feel alive and real.
I would love to see Rockstar take this concept to the limit in a new Red Dead game. To take the pioneering urge and bring it to life on screen. This could be demonstrated in a number of ways. Imagine a rail-road that is built, in real-time, as the game progresses. Or a town that is assembled from dust, as a gold rush begins. These elements could gradually become an increasingly important part of the story, evolving in tandem with the narrative. Red Dead Redemption often cast a suspicious eye on the advance of technology and this thematic thread could now be explored through the world itself. For a long time game spaces have been fixed toy-boxes, and it’s about time that changed.
Of course, the power of next-gen would still provide a much-appreciated bump in graphical fidelity. Townships could be little larger, a little more inhabited, a little more detailed. And there would be adequate opportunity for a wealth of dusty particle effects. But this could be more than graphical spectacle; there is an opportunity for the increase in processing power to make a material difference on how the game is played.
Take rain. No one does rain like Rockstar; it’s a visual motif that Rockstar uses to create beautifully melancholic postcards in many games. In a new Red Dead changes in weather could affect terrain and therefore way the players interact with it. Sun-baked soil could become a squelch of mud underfoot, slowing down the player or creating environmental puzzles to solve. This would not be a world you could commit to memory, like Los Santos, because it would change and evolve and surprise.
Action and consequence
The same could be applied to another staple of open-world games, wildlife. Many titles in recent years have used the animal kingdom to add colour and texture to their environments. From Red Dead Redemption, to Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 3, hunting (and being hunted by) local wildlife is common-place. Usually, it’s a mild threat, but more often than not, our furry friends represent little more than a resource upgrade with four legs or a pair of wings.
Improvements in animal AI, not only in their reactions to the player, but to NPCs and other animals, could play a large part in bringing the frontier to life. For example, as you create carnage, vultures could pick upon the remains of your defeated opponents. Habitats could change, forcing the migration of animals. Coyotes could hunt in packs, terrorising camps and making the world a hostile place. Each species could be part of an eco-system that interacts with others around it.
And finally, something I have always wanted to see in games could become a reality. The West is the perfect location for narratives of revenge. So why not emphasise the connection between action and consequence? NPCs could be tied together through a complex web of relationships, meaning that actions against one character could influence the motivations of another. Remember when you killed the third rustler from left? His brother may hear about that, and the next time he sees you, he’s after blood. Let your actions have permanence on the world and the people within it. And let them react accordingly.
In short, I would love to see the Red Dead IP return, but rather using the Ubisoft template of creating an even-prettier map and liberally scattering it with missions; I would like to see a genuine eco-system of cause and effect. I want to see the player, the environment, NPCs and wildlife interact and influence with each other. I want there to be weight and importance in my actions. I want a game that plays to the advantages of its medium, rather than one that apes the tropes of another.
The American West is the perfect location for such a concept to be explored. It’s complex and ambitious, but it’s also the jump we need if we are to get a true next-generation open-world experience.