Does Grand Theft Auto need a story when it’s the best sandbox in the world?

It’s been 45 minutes since we started our attempt to access the new co-op missions in Grand Theft Auto V and my friend is hiding behind a car while he furiously Googles a solution. He is about to figure out the next step required when he is incinerated by a rocket launcher.

Every few months we jump into GTA Online with the intention of checking out some hot new content. Last time, we ended up crashing with go-karts while the party leader tried to set up a mandatory LLC and file a tax return with Rockstar. We never reached the High Octane Bank Heist.

We’re luckier this time around, finally forcing our way through GTA Online’s maze of unintuitive menus and interfaces to reach a disappointing turret section. Enemy vehicles line up neatly behind us and wait to be destroyed as we drive from point A to point B, both points being warehouses surrounded by goons. We give up after running out of lives – the kind of state of failure I no longer thought existed in modern video games – and spend the rest of the night driving along the west coast, looking for a ATM. We finally find one in a sleepy little coastal town that the game’s single-player campaign never touches. I deposit my precious winnings while my friend descends from a cliff. We disconnect after riding a jet ski in a storm and discussing social anxiety.

There seems to be an incredibly wide gap between the complexity and nuance of the virtual worlds big-budget studios are building right now and the stories and missions that populate them. GTAV’s Los Santos is a staggering environmental achievement, an unfathomable mix of systems and algorithms that seamlessly generates city and countryside with a level of detail and aesthetic purpose that makes games only 20 years ago years look like cave paintings. It displays a stunning marriage of technology and artistry, a perfectly realized space where the talent and personality of those who cobbled it together in a gargantuan act of collaboration and coordination are evident in every square meter. These are people who can be said to have hobbies. Real interests. These people take pictures. They probably go to museums – to have fun. I bet they have a favorite cheese.

The player character in GTA Online drives a jet ski, the sun and mountains framed behind them

The script for GTAV is an embarrassingly inane New Hollywood pastiche, one of Scorsese’s greatest hits written by someone who doesn’t read. This person’s only hobby is regularly checking the street date for Heat’s 4K release (May 9). The missions they managed to conjure up involve driving between cutscene triggers and shooting 1000 men from cover. This is what video games have been doing for so, very long. It all seems like a staggering waste of such a huge space, such a beautiful playground filled with opportunities for play and interaction. For the most part, video game stories are inspired by the rigidity and linearity of film. It feels increasingly restrictive as these spaces evolve – archaic convenience nailed to a specifically 21st-century medium.

As Grand Theft Auto VI inevitably approaches, it’s tempting to imagine its possibility as a big leap forward in story and mission design, just as previous entries have done in depth and depth. extent of their cities. At this point, posting a larger map scaled down to a delivery system for another low-rent Goodfellas retread tire would seem like a colossal waste. The unsustainability of this level of development has been evident for some time; the next big meltdown is on the way. There’s no reason to play it safe anymore, not when the wheels are already coming off.

Player character downloads money from an ATM in GTA Online

“Does X still need a story mode?” may be a reductive argument, but with a series like Grand Theft Auto, it seems fair to argue. GTA Online somehow earns Rockstar $1,730 for every minute that passes. It’s nearly a decade old, and it’s still being re-released on what seems like a yearly basis (including even today, for next-gen consoles). None of these players come for depressed mob stories or to drive the drug van to the big gunfight. They come to hang out with distant friends, discuss their IBS as they crash in a helicopter. GTA Online at its best is an avant-garde masterpiece, a mess of explosions and physics as dozens of people explore the myriad ways to interact with the simulation.

If Grand Theft Auto is about the joy of chaos, what better way to realize the vision than to abandon the pretense of prestige drama altogether?

How do you translate that into a conventional script? Maybe not. Maybe it’s time for the authors to step aside, to let the simulation speak for itself. You can’t impose a conventional story on such a disparate setting. Leave the deep stories about the inner lives of criminals to prestige dramas; video games offer so many more opportunities.

If Grand Theft Auto is fundamentally about the joy of chaos, then what better way to realize the vision than to completely abandon the pretense of prestige drama and embrace the nature of the game as a wish-fulfillment sim? Rockstar has already done the hard part. They have nailed down the difficult part. They’ve built the world’s most detailed sandbox, a meticulously designed and crafted environment that allows for some of the most surreal interpersonal interactions available to our species. The game doesn’t need a story about depressed middle-aged men who get sucked into a life of crime because we’re depressed middle-aged men, and the life of crime involves wanting to drive a freight train in your friend’s virtual ragdoll as he tells you about his day. The greatest writer in the world could not reach such absurd heights.

I really hope post-Houser Rockstar has figured out what’s next, what they’re capable of – unfettered by cinematic trappings. They have a golden opportunity to create something transcendent and self-aware, a project where their storytelling is just as groundbreaking as their worldview. It can’t just be a bigger map.