Grand Theft Auto V cover detail

Grand Theft Auto V is an amazing piece of technology. I could dedicate a whole column to talking about how Rockstar’s engine is so far ahead of the rest of the industry it’s embarrassing. Yes, Sleeping Dogs, Mafia 2, Saints Row, and the other open-city games all do kind of the same thing, but Rockstar’s tech has always felt like they were an entire graphics generation ahead of the others. Not only does GTA V have the most lavishly detailed world ever realized in a video game, but Rockstar manages to make it look easy to give the player free reign over that much data. On top of this, the Hollywood production values are amazing. There are probably three movies somewhere in here.

So what really drives me crazy about GTA V, and Rockstar in particular, is how they manage to reach these amazing heights in environment design and then completely whiff on the most fundamental aspects of game development.

Let’s start by comparing GTA V to the Batman: Arkham games. In the Arkham games, after the introduction is done, the game throws you into a very simple combat scenario against a small group of foes. The story dialog ends and you’re given a very short, easy-to-read box explaining how to attack. The box remains until you’ve successfully done a couple of attacks. Then you get another short, clear box telling you how to counter. The game makes it easy for you to learn and provides minimal distractions while you try to work out the basic controls. A few minutes later you get one more reminder of how this stuff works, just to make sure you’ve mastered the fundamentals. Once you have them down, the game begins layering new ideas on top and combining them in different ways.

(I’m comparing to Batman not because I think Batman is the Best Thing Ever, but because it’s broadly liked and less likely to attract some yah-hoo who wants to dismiss an entire 1,200 word column because he really hated one of the video games I praised. If you don’t like Arkham, there are lots of other games that properly teach you to play. Don’t be that guy.)

Teaching the player how to play the game is one of the most important jobs of a game designer. In a movie, if I don’t understand the introduction I can still watch the rest of the movie and try to figure it out as I go. But if I don’t learn how to play a game then I might find myself unable to proceed.

GTA V (and several of the previous versions of the game) bungle this basic tutorial business so hard it’s shocking.

One example of many: There’s a mission where you are chasing a truck that’s pulling a boat. You’re driving a sports car. You’re blasting through the streets at extreme speeds, weaving in and out of traffic. Then the game decides this is a great time to teach you how to drive and shoot at the same time. A tiny little box of text appears way up in the upper-left corner of the screen. It’s packed with directions, including the three different buttons you need to press to make this happen. That box vanishes after a couple of seconds and is replaced with another box with different information. So you’re trying to read timed popups way in the far corner of the screen. And you’re also trying to watch the road, because a crash at this speed can result in a mission failure.

Grand Theft Auto V screen

While all of that is going on, mission updates are appearing at the bottom of the screen telling you what your next task is. Also, other characters are shouting at you and you have to listen because sometimes their jabbering contains information that you need.

So you’re trying to drive, aim, listen, and read two different streams of text in two different areas of the screen, all while trying to perform a complex new action that requires you to press three buttons and aim with both thumbsticks simultaneously, all while you’re dealing with a timed threat that results in mission failure. This isn’t just a flawed tutorial, this is hilariously amateurish. This is stupid, lazy game design. This is the mistake of a new developer with little budget and no oversight. It’s unthinkable that this clumsy and incompetent approach to teaching the player basic mechanics is part of one of the most lavishly produced games in history. It’s like having one of the Hobbit movies where a scene is out of focus, the audio cuts out, and the boom operator ends up in the final shot. There is no excuse for not getting this right.

If you’re a huge GTA fan and play all the releases for an extended period of time, then you might not notice this stuff. You already know how to play the game and you don’t need these silly tutorials. But if you’re like me and you only play the game for a couple of weeks every few years (and play hundreds of other games in between) then the shortcomings are really glaring. This boat-chase is a bit of a callback to a similar mission in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. But in that game the chase was the final mission, not part of the tutorial. This is a level of complexity completely inappropriate for the opening of the game, even if the rest of the tutorial wasn’t such a mess.

Note that I’m not against the game being “hard” and I’m not saying they need to suck all the challenge out of the game. It’s one thing to fail at a game because you didn’t perform the gameplay properly. It’s another to fail because you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing and the game hasn’t yet explained the controls.

It’s not like people complain when opening tutorials are too easy. Given the extreme length of these games, there’s plenty of room to ramp up the challenge later once the player has the basics. And the story-heavy focus of these games is directly at odds with the needless “gotcha” repetition these sloppy tutorials cause. Repetition is the enemy of both comedy and drama. Hearing the same dialog repeated is a mood-killer no matter what the characters are saying.

No, this doesn’t ruin the game or anything. I had to retry this mission twice, which was a small annoyance. It was a brief moment of dumb in a very long game. I’m not bringing this up because it’s some unforgivable sin against players. I’m bringing it up because its strange. It’s strange to see a game with a budget this massive somehow stumble on the foundations of Game Design 101. It’s strange to see the GTA games make these same mistakes again and again. It’s strange that this sloppy approach to teaching mechanics seems to be getting worse. It’s strange to see the mistake repeated when the fix is so easy.

Shamus Young has been writing programs for over 30 years, from the early days of BASIC programming in the 80’s to writing graphics and tech prototypes today. Have a question about games programming for Shamus? Ask him! Email askshamus@gmail.com

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