GTA4: Devolution and Story

Most of the time, we have not been reviewing too many mainstream games. There are two reasons why. The first one is because those games already receive a lot of coverage in other media. The second is that mainstream games often focus on a high ROI and tend to avid interesting but risky design choices which may result in the game not having a wide appeal.

GTA4: During the war
“You see, Dimitri, I’m not just all about big American tee tees. I have feelings too!”

However, there are surprising exceptions. I have recently played (and finished!) GTA4 and I’m compelled to mention a few things because – and it was also a surprise for me – it is a … GOOD GAME. It was able to transcend the notion of being yet another sequel in a popular series and caught me off-guard a couple of times. It is hard to put a big game like GTA4 in a nutshell. I will try nevertheless and will I focus the two most important things you might want to know about GTA4 if you haven’t played it yet:

Game Designers do their business differently from authors in other media. Maybe it is because of the technological-analytic background of the game designers and their audience or simply a function of the medium itself. You may have noticed that there are a lot of sequels and series among computer games. There are far less sequels among films and hardly any among books. As a consumer, you can see things pessimistically and complain how game designers are lazy, don’t have new ideas and milk old ones for all it’s worth. There is a flip side though. It also means that game designers they are not afraid of revising their work and are eager to re-do it until they get it right. So far, this is a quite unique approach.

The 4th (actually the 6th or 7th) installment of Grand Theft Auto shows that positive flip side. In many ways, it is is a sophisticated refinement built upon the experience from previous versions. It is also (surprisingly) a very bold one because Rockstar decided to actually undo some developments. This is something my colleague Yu-Chung Chen already touched upon. It seems like Rockstar was able to do with GTA what Ubisoft couldn’t do with Prince of Persia.

I guess you could call it “Devolution”. It isn’t a real word but it should be one. It would mean a step in a development where previously established features are abandoned to improve the result. If there is one important thing you should know about GTA4 if you haven’t played it yet is that:

1. GTA4 is actually SIMPLER than it’s predecessors.

Especially if you compare it to GTA: San Andreas, the differences are obvious. In San Andreas, you were able to order various menus at restaurants, get fat, go to the gym, dance, tune cars, fight gang wars, wear silly outfits, fly airplanes, ride bicycles, fly a jetpack and LOTS of other cool but somewhat arbitrary and useless things. GTA4 doesn’t have most of that stuff. The repertoire of features has been severely cut down to things, which only make sense in the particular scenario. Further, the available features were polished to be enjoyable and meaningful within the setting.

GTA: San Andreas - Parachute Jumping
San Andreas allowed many activities such as parachute jumping – Exactly the thing a black criminal from LA would do in-between dive-bys and pimping.

A good example is the dating system. In San Andreas, it was another cool but pointless gimmick. In GTA4, it hasn’t been cut it but it was polished with some intriguing details. While on a date, your characters will have conversations. Those conversations are sometimes very well-written and reveal a lot of interesting facts about the characters and their background. Rockstar went ahead and did recordings of a staggering amount of those conversations so the player will hardly ever hear the same conversation twice. I found myself actually looking forward to date with certain characters out of sheer curiosity what they will talk about next.

By the way, they not only recorded a lot dating conversations, they even recorded at least two versions of the conversations the characters have when driving in a car at the beginning of a real mission. So if you failed a mission and have to restart it, you won’t be bored by the same dialogue. Another example of surprising amount of polish.

Some of the activities you can do on the dates are interesting, too. I was especially fond of visiting shows. Rockstar motion-captured short gigs of at least two stand-up comedians. While not necessarily the funniest jokes ever, they are quite watchable from time to time. It is nice to have a non-interactive break after some difficult missions. There is also an amazing Russian cabaret with some wacky humor, I also enjoyed very much. Even just going drinking is fun because the characters will end up wasted. When drunk, there are some very cool camera and rag-doll effects which simulate the effect of being drunk with GREAT success. Also, when drunk, the characters will loose inhibitions and talk about things they would usually hold back. And in the end, hearing Niko (the protagonist) calling a cab with a slurred “Yo! Yeeeellow Car!!” made me chuckle every time.

GTA4: Watching the Russian cabaret
The Shows in GTA4 are quite entertaining and can be a welcome break between stressful missions.

Of course, by cutting features, Rockstar alienated a lot of GTA fanboys who seen to have expected a bigger, better San Andreas. This explains why the Metracritic Score is at 98% while the User Reviews average at 76%.

Making things simple and polishing what remains is not only refreshing. It also fits to the general trend started by Nintendo of making simpler, more accessible games (and alienating fanboys). In case of GTA4 it is also an opportunity to re-establish what is IMPORTANT to Rockstar about their game. An opportunity to re-establish what the GTA experience is about. And the main aspects of the game that received A LOT of attention is … the story, the characters and the setting. Here is the second thing you must know about GTA4.

2. The single most striking and amazing thing about GTA4 is it’s cinematic story.

The first time in my personal history of gaming, I witnessed a story with a quality and depth comparable to what I am used to from TV Series and Movies. The game has very well-developed characters and extremely well-written dialog. The main character is lovable, has his own opinion and agenda and will not hold it back. From time to time, he delivers philosophical one-liners which caught me completely off-guard. Here is an example, from the intro: “War is where the young and stupid are tricked by the old and bitter into killing each other.”. Maybe it is not exactly Shakespeare but I don’t remember having that kind of insights in a game before. And it is not an isolated exception. To top it off, his background as a man damaged by war crimes resonates perfectly with whatever crazy stunts the player performs. Nothing ever feels out of place.

GTA4: Maybe that's no excuse
“War is where the young and stupid are tricked by the old and bitter into killing each other.”

This is a big change from the previous games where the protagonist was either a mute avatar or a cartoonish gangster cliché. Also, previous stories were saturated with parody and sarcasm and could hardly be taken seriously. In contrast to that, GTA4 appears intelligent, serious and mature. In many ways, it is a movie you can play.

Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously games with great ideas and insights out there, especially indie games like Braid. The difference is that they are mostly experimental in the way they present those insights while GTA4 works pretty much like you are used to receive that kind of information – like a movie.

Of course, one reason for why this is possible at all is also technological. It is difficult to take characters seriously when they look like crude painted puppets. GTA4 looks stunning. In the cutscenes, the characters are very convincing and detailed with impressive facial animations and solid motion capturing. In-game, the environment looks gorgeous. It is much smaller than the world of San Andreas but incredibly detailed. The different neighborhoods all have very different architecture. Each building looks unique and with time you will be able to tell where you are just by recognizing the buildings. The light direction and temperature changes gradually during the day. Streets are populated with lots of people doing various activities, interacting with each other and the environment.

GTA4: Under the Brooklin Bridge
Again and again, you stumble across breathtaking urban vistas.

For instance, try visiting the “central park” on a sunny day. The sun is being reflected in the water. The leafs in the trees will cast shadows on the paths and on the pedestrians. You will see a lot of joggers, people doing tai-chi, businessmen on their way to work, bums, hot-dog stands, etc… It just feels like a real city in many ways.

GTA4: In the park
The digital Central Park delivers a pretty convincing simulation.

Finally, the game also includes some interesting moral choices. Now, moral dilemmas have been already made in a couple of games but they are often clichéd and boring. You will have obvious things like “love or money” or simply “be evil or be good” (take that, Fable 2). Sometimes, the choice is even a fake one and one of the results is preferable anyway.

GTA4 has a few of the mediocre dilemmas but at the end you are presented with a quite intriguing one. I don’t want to spoil it so I just leave it at “Principles vs. Money” but also “Revenge vs. Letting go and living in peace”. It actually the fist one ever that left me struggling with myself. It may be also because the excellent story really made me care about the characters and how it all ends for them.


After all that praise, there are some nitpicks. While the game is simpler, it is by no means a casual game for the Wii crowd. The controls are awfully complicated and fumbly. Here is an example I’ve found after a quick girlfriend-test: The camera is controlled by the right stick while the steering of a car is controlled by the x-axis of the left stick. However, the camera is ALSO controlled by the y-axis of the left stick. A person less proficient with analogue sticks will inevitably mess the camera when trying to steer and end up staring at the sky why cops are arresting him.

The game is also VERY long. It took me 50 hours. After a strong start there are some redundant stretches by the mid-point of the game. That’s where many players simply gave up. The dating also stretches the game quite a bit and in many cases just leads nowhere. I believe it would have been better to make the main story much shorter and offer the rest as optional or downloadable content. I think some missions are optional already but as you can’t tell which mission will advance the story, they might just as well not be.

The moral dilemma at the end is great but it presents a situation so rich and multi-faceted that a simple binary choice seems inadequate. The designers seem to have a very simplistic model of the player in mind. So before you decide, two characters will give you advice on how to proceed. Later, you find out that depending on how you decide, the character who’s advice you’ve followed will die (by means of invisible causality). This was introduced obviously to enhance the emotional impact – kill the character the player values most. However, it doesn’t work that way. Even though I preferred one of the characters, I decided not to follow his advice. Just because you like somebody doesn’t mean you agree with everything he says. So luckily for me, the game ended up killing a character I didn’t like so much anyway. In the end, it just shows how there seems to be too much hinged on that simple decision. Complex problems ought to have more diversified solutions.


In spite of the nitpicks, I have to admit it that GTA4 is a great game. It is groundbreaking in many ways. It is an impressive and bold refinement. It deserves the praise and hype it received (metacritic game of the year at 98% among many others). It is great not only as a sequel but also on its own and you should at least give it a try if you have the opportunity, especially if you haven’t played a GTA game before.
(Be aware though that the PC version seems to suffer from a lot of technical problems. I have encountered none on the Xbox 360 version.)

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

10 responses to “GTA4: Devolution and Story”

  1. Yu-Chung Chen

    Now you’ve done it, I want to play GTA IV. Previously I tried GTA3 and San Andreas at my brother’s, but found things rather tedious. I was annoyed by the impression that the game was using the popular “being a cool gangster” premise to “trick” players into doing mindless minigames. Good to know that things are simpler now.

    Also you’re very right about the reduced believability of lowpoly character, in spite of the motion capture and excellent voice-over.

    By the way, devolution is a word. I didn’t know that either and just wondered where you get to know all those stuff.

    I do think we can find a better word because implying a reverse evolution does sound a bit pejorative.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Seems like Saint’s Row 2 picked up the “being a cool gangster” trick. Yahtzee revised his GTA4 review after playing Saint’s Row 2. I don’t know if I’ll even try.

    About Devolution – you mean THIS Wikipedia article. The other one is about a different kind of devolution. I have no clue either, I just looked it up once and I think it was this disambiguation and the actual text of the biological devolution article which made me weary about using the word.

  3. Krystian Majewski

    Oops, I meant he revised his GTA4 review HERE.

  4. Oceans Dream

    I was actually going to get GTA IV for the PC, glad I noticed the last sentence. That and I wasn’t even sure if it’d run well on my PC. It’s so much less worrying to just play these on a console and not have to worry if your computer would crash or whatever.

    I tried out GTA IV on my brothers XBox360 when I went over his house. I liked it. I think some of the minigames were dull, but I didn’t get too far in the game. Nonetheless, just simply exploring the city was pretty enjoyable in itself. That and the occassional police chases that I accidently caused, then trying to escape and being run over by a police vehicle.

    I’ve not played the previous GTAs, so I’m unable to compare them. Personally, I wasn’t all that interested because the whole “Being a gangster” part wasn’t something that interested me.

    Well anyway, I’m glad this blog is being updated, I’ve been following it for a while (The posts that brought me here were the Sword of Mana ones).

  5. Krystian Majewski

    Thanks for reading!

    Yeah, too bad they messed up the PC port. It comes with one intriguing feature: you can record and cut videos of your gameplay and even upload them directly to the internet. This turns GTA4 into one of the coolest machinima tools out there:

  6. Paschalis

    “It seems like Rockstar was able to do with GTA what Ubisoft couldn’t do with Prince of Persia.”

    Ubisoft didn’t aim to do the same thing with “The Two Thrones” that Rockstar did with GTA4. “The Two Thrones” is the “San Andreas” of the Prince of Persia series. The new Prince of Persia is the one that throws things out of the window but that is not the one Yu-Chung talked about.

    “I guess you could call it “Devolution”. It isn’t a real word but it should be one. It would mean a step in a development where previously established features are abandoned to improve the result.”

    What you describe is part of the evolution. Natural selection is one of evolution’s mechanisms and “selection” implies that traits that are not needed become more rare or disappear altogether. You don’t need a new word.

    I like the word “streamlining” when it comes to games.

  7. Krystian Majewski


    > Ubisoft didn't aim to do the same
    > thing with "The Two Thrones" that
    > Rockstar did with GTA4.

    Exactly! But they should have.

    > What you describe is part of the
    > evolution.

    Smart-ass! Theoretically you are right. However, Evolution is one of the words that have different meaning outside a scientific context. A different scientific word with even more severe casual misunderstandings is "Quantum-leap".

    Evolution in a casual context implies progress – to build up upon previous achievements. In progress means taking away things you are admitting that you've made a mistake and you are going back to a status before you've made that mistake. So basically, you haven't progressed since two iterations, you just end up having a better appreciation for what you've done. That's a very different situation and I think it's worth a separate term.

    I'm not a Biologist but I imagine undoing developments in biology would be pretty rare. In order to have offspring, a certain mutation needs to be successful in the first place. If the offspring survive with a certain feature of their parents missing, why did that feature give advantage to the first generation anyway? I imagine this would only happen when the environment somehow changed suddenly. Again, not the kind of scenario we are discussing here.

    "Steamlining" is nice but somehow misleading. Sounds a bit like "polishing".

  8. Antonio

    I’ve played the pc version of GTAIV. It’s beautiful and engaging. But there is one little, tiny detail that, in my humble opinion, destroyed this game (compared to previous versions) taking out almost entirely the fun factor: the driving. All cars are just terrible to drive. In the previous GTAs, driving was fun. You had the lame cars (Stallion, Bobcat – GTA San Andreas), the not-so-lame cars (Washington, Sabre – GTASA), the good cars (Rancher – GTASA) the excellent cars (Sultan – GTASA) and the wonderful cars (Cheetah – GTA Vice City).

    In GTA IV all cars suck. Driving around is not funny at all. I don’t know if their intent was to add some realism to the game. Whatever it was, they screwed up really good.

    Nice article.

  9. bob

    “I guess you could call it ‘Devolution.’”

    I’m surprised you never heard of Devo!

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    [...] 영(Shamus Young)이 이것을 지적했다. 크리스티안 마예브스키(Krystian Majewski)는 니코의 비극적 배경이 모든 행위를 그럴듯하게 만든다고 느낀 반면, 다른 사람들은 그다지 동의하지 않았다. 스펜서 [...]


Game Design Reviews is a Blog used by a group of game designers from Germany to publish and discuss their thoughts on various games. The blog consists entirely of reviews of games. Each review focuses on the important game design ideas and concepts of that particular game. We also run a second, more informal Blog called Game Design Scrapbook.


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