In which the author as music critic descends far into the often exhilarating, often mellifluous worlds of Rockstar’s carefully curated soundtracks. He may never return. But he’s happy about that.
By Robert Gordon
Rockstar has dominated this console generation in terms of open-world gameplay — not merely with two well-received entries into the Grand Theft Auto series, but also with the much-acclaimed Red Dead Redemption. We could attribute this to strong writing, good advertising and marketing. However veterans of either series know that when we talk about Rockstar, we must talk about music. In a genre that too often leaves its players adrift and lonely in an opaque universe, Rockstar has succeeded in making us feel welcome, inviting us to explore. Though many elements are to thank for this, music has been their signature – and not without reason.
Note that the “open world” is a curiously existential form. It leaves us to make our own fun through procedural storytelling. The success or failure of an open world game is ultimately dependent on how fully its players relate to the world they inhabit. The feeling of a living, breathing universe around us is important. That’s unlike a “closed-world” game, in which we are just doing something. In an open-world game we are involved in being somewhere. The experience isn’t just one of action. We want to accept the world as being consistent and responsive, to feel ourselves situated in it totally.
Here’s how sweet tunes are part of that.
In GTA V, we are saturated with music. Though the radio can be turned off, in my experience, and that of my friends playing with me, it never is. The radio is crucial — it provides a wealth of high-quality, funky-fresh beats and a never ending stream of color commentary. Some of the most notable characters in the game – the announcers – are never seen. While other games feature songs and announcers of their own (note Fallout 3), in GTA the feature is fundamentally different. In GTA the radio is more than just repeating background music. It feels alive. We don’t expect to hear the same thing twice, and seeing as how most players will settle on only a handful of channels, we feel as though we may never see it all.
While excellent writing and good musical taste help elevate the radio to this position, it is the overwhelming amount of content on the radio that truly sets it apart. Rockstar is not a studio scrounging for cash. They have a Big budget, capital B, and they make Big games. Frankly, no one else could afford to spend as much time and energy on an in-game radio as Rockstar, and those few who could haven’t thought to or wanted to. Precisely because there is so much content on the GTA radio, it never becomes a stale in-game attachment that we switch off, at least in part because we never want to miss anything. While one could theoretically listen to all of it, to do so would require an investment well beyond what the average player has time for.
Contrast this to Fallout 3. Though Fallout has a radio as well, it features a fraction of the content, and for most players it winds up a fond joke by the end of the game. There is a philosophical principle at play here: quantity-quality change. The idea is that as a certain quantity of something increases, it undergoes a change in quality as well (i.e. pieces of cloth, laid on the ground, will eventually become a “heap” of cloth rather than merely a number of pieces). The same holds for the radio: In GTA V, the sheer amount of radio content takes it from being a simple side-feature (as is Fallout’s) to a central gameplay mechanic.
In RDR, the place of music is exactly opposite: we never have access to actual “songs” (just theme music) until they are given to us. And, oh, are they given to us: first, when we emerge from our wearying travels in the north out on to the endless Mexican deserts, again when we return to reclaim our family from the law-men that have made of us killers and thieves, and once more, as Jack Marston, our son, right before we avenge our father’s death. With such tightly structured atmosphere, it’s unsurprising that RDR’s central narrative was more successful than any entry into the GTA series. All three of the moments when music is introduced are iconic; even so many years after the fact I can still remember riding to find my father’s killer following the climactic shoot-out.
Alternatively, I have almost no outstanding memories of the GTA V main story, despite its being well-written and compelling. What I remember in GTA V, rather, is cruising through Vinewood in a slow-speed chase trying to avoid cops as “Smiling Faces” blares. Or returning from a difficult story mission as Michael, tearing down the highway and feeling like the bad guy from an 80’s action movie blasting Queen’s “Radio GaGa.” The comparison speaks to how the two games structure action: Red Dead Redemption features a stronger internal logic; its conceit-improvised violence on the part of the player went unpunished so long as no law-men were around, and a mask could be worn to protect one’s reputation. In GTA V, crimes can be seen by the eye of God in pitch blackness; they almost inevitably lead to chases, and overblown police pursuits are very much the point. RDR engaged us through its structure; GTA permits us to live out our fantasy. Both are immersive.
Not every open-world game can be of the Rockstar mold, however, nor should it want to.
Consider the Bethesda-styled open-world RPG (The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3). These games are also littered with sidequests, collectibles and stat increases to keep the player going. We also find a number of simply “interesting” things – monuments of old DC, which provide no direct benefit save for the experience (the concept, not the statistic). In the superhero open-world mold (inFamous, the Spider-Man series) we are engaged by a low hum of petty crime occurring all around us which we can prevent or, depending on the game, enable.
And, of course, different gamers respond to different things. Not everyone wants to spend the afternoon cruising around Los Santos to WorldWide FM. But music is important to open-world games in that it provides an element of consistency without interfering with the player’s agency. The idea that those pedestrians we mow down might be listening to that same god-awful reggaeton station we do makes it all the more satisfying, and that can be achieved without ever forcing the player’s hand.
Even after the central narrative comes to a close and we end up wandering the world we’ve conquered, music still structures our play. Though this is just a hunch, I think that GTA V probably has fewer people who’ve completed the main story, but far more free play time logged. It might be because Michael can still be a wise-cracking force of destruction, Franklin a cynical wheelman, and Trevor a psychopath; the music is there.
But when we head out as Jack Marston, something feels different. Maybe it’s because the character is different, or maybe it’s because it’s been a few years, but something feels unfamiliar, and it’s more than the catchphrases. It feels as though we keep saving people, we keep finding treasure, keep bringing the good fight to bad men. But it’s all just killing time. The world of RDR is quieter, more lonesome and bittersweet. It’s a world where music and meaning are given to us to as rare and precious things. But after all’s said and done, the world’s just got nothing more to give. Thank god we can still shoot meth heads with a rocket launcher.
Robert Gordon is a writer of short fiction, essays and plays. He lives in Brooklyn and enjoys critiquing endless RPGs, endlessly.