Grand Theft Auto games always hit the same beats. Big, loud characters, expensively choreographed set-pieces, and killer music. Sometimes clever, sometimes dumb, always entertaining. A funhouse mirror held up to the very worst of contemporary culture. America viewed through a cracked prism of on-the-nose satire and toilet humour.
There's nothing else like it, and nobody makes a blockbuster videogame quite like Rockstar. I've long been a fan, and I'm eagerly anticipating the next one. But after playing through sad cowboy epic Red Dead Redemption 2 for the third time, I find myself dreaming about a future Grand Theft Auto where the series breaks away from this established formula and, well, grows up.
I have no problem with GTA's sense of humour. I actually enjoy it, so don't think I'm taking a moral stand when I say GTA should grow up. It's just that after seven games of sticking closely to its guns, I'd love to see an entry in the series—even if it's just a rogue one-off—that yanks convention out of its car, tosses it to the asphalt, and does a victory donut over its face.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is Rockstar's masterpiece as far as I'm concerned, and my dream Grand Theft Auto sequel is one that is just as mature, understated, languidly paced, and tinged with melancholy. An urban crime story set in a realistic city, with flawed characters who feel like real people, a dark psychological undercurrent, and an oppressive neo-noir atmosphere.
I want a GTA that looks like Michael Mann's Collateral, with the casual existential violence of a Takeshi Kitano yakuza film, and the pitch black humour of Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler. A GTA where the satire is still there, but it's more subtle, more nihilistic. A city that's as corrupt and twisted as Vice City or Los Santos, but presented in a more grounded, believable way.
Red Dead Redemption 2's story trots along at a pace that put many players off, but that I absolutely loved. It created a refreshing amount of space—for the story to unfold and the characters to develop. Grand Theft Auto is the opposite, ripping along at speed, throwing new distractions at you every other minute. A reimagined GTA could take its foot off the gas and tell a smaller story with a smaller cast you get to know deeply over the course of the game—perhaps a close-knit crew of small-time criminals.
Part of RDR2's magic is the evocative emptiness of its setting. There's a lingering feeling of isolation, literally and figuratively, as Arthur explores a wilderness that is slowly being eaten away by the creep of civilisation. But just because a GTA game has to be set in a city doesn't mean it can't evoke the same feelings. If you've ever moved to a city you don't know, loneliness inevitably creeps in. This is something Rockstar could tap into in GTA, with a lead character who's a stranger in a new city, with no connections to help them.
You can have chases, shootouts, heists, and all the other stuff that makes GTA such a compelling crime sim, so it's not like this would be a total departure for the series. I'm not saying make GTA more boring—just that I'd like to see a classier, more refined take on it, with a similar vibe to TV shows like True Detective or The Wire. And with a laconic, morally troubled protagonist like Red Dead's Arthur Morgan at the centre of it all.
The last couple of GTAs have gone for a contemporary setting, but stepping back a few decades would help Rockstar create a city-based game with a similar flow and atmosphere to RDR2. Set it in the '70s or '80s, or anytime before mobile phones and the internet, and you'll immediately have a quieter, slower game. No people barking in your ear constantly, or sending endless text messages and emails. Just payphones and your car radio to keep you company.
It's unlikely Rockstar would take this kind of risk with a billion dollar franchise like Grand Theft Auto. But I think, deep down, the developer would love to make a GTA like this. Look at Manhunt, Max Payne 3, L.A. Noire, The Warriors, and pretty much anything from its back catalogue—this is a studio (well, many studios) obsessed with cult cinema. And I'm certain it would jump at the chance to make something like this with the scale and budget of a GTA.
It's unlikely, but not impossible. Red Dead Redemption 2 is proof that Rockstar does what it likes. It's one of the weirdest blockbuster videogames ever made. Downbeat and introspective, slow and thoughtful, and thoroughly depressing. It's a game about mortality, regret, and a dying way of life, disguised as an open world cowboy shooter. So Rockstar definitely has this edgier, more mature GTA in it somewhere—and the boldness to make it.
Grand Theft Auto IV's grim story and muted colour palette created the illusion that it was a more grounded take on the series, but deep down it was business as usual. If Rockstar ever does make this hypothetical GTA that currently exists only in my fevered imagination, I'd want them to go all-out and really commit to taking the series in a fresh new direction.