It’s just one trailer. Let’s get that bit out of the way first. It’s a single trailer, 90 seconds long – or really, about 77 seconds of actual footage – and of all the world’s video game developers now, none are granted more benefit of the doubt, more pre-loaded, automatically qualified hype, than Rockstar. Nobody needs a breathless reaction to one trailer less. As other studios scrambled to meme Rockstar’s announcement-of-an-announcement post the other day, dipping their own reveals and posts in neon pink and orange, Christian Donlan described it as like being in Jurassic Park. A herd of already majestic Brachiosaurus and Gallimimus quietly minding their business in a field – and suddenly: T-Rex. A whole ecosystem scatters.
Its arrival – especially its nice and early one, like a dinner guest before you’ve done the Hoovering – means we’ve had to scatter in our own way too. We’ve run through what it suggests will feature in GTA 6 already, and the magic thread it points to at the heart of its story, and gathered everything we could possibly know about GTA 6 and put it in one place as a guide. But what struck me about it is less what it says about what might be in the next Grand Theft Auto, than what it says about Rockstar – and what Rockstar thinks of Grand Theft Auto itself.
Watch this thing through and watch it closely, and the whole of Rockstar’s lineage starts to reveal itself. This studio has been infatuated, obsessed, with cinema since the beginning of its modern era, which you might pin somewhere around the end of GTA 3, and the arrival of Ray Liotta-voiced, hawaiian shirt-clad Tommy Vercetti in GTA: Vice City. But in its years of growth since – and it has grown, much as many would justifiably argue GTA is known for its puerility – Rockstar also discovered something else. In San Andreas, with CJ, it took its first steps from viewing cinema as cool shots and camera movements and references to things actual films have done before, and discovered character.
GTAs are always tales of great cities, built on the foundations of sense-of-place above all, but following CJ around his life – a weirdly mundane life for GTA when you think about it, made up of trips to the gym, eating burgers, cycling home, before you get to shooting stuff in stolen fighter jets – you are for the first time zoomed in, focused first on him, then the world. Over the years since, Rockstar’s been wrestling with the balance, Niko Bellic a poignant character but also a muted one, his colour lost against the noise of Liberty City, and the bigness of ideas like opportunity and the American dream.
In Red Dead Redemption, it could afford to focus on just John Marsten, a man picked out with a long lens – a “hero shot” of a character, where they’re singled out for focus against a background that’s less populated and blurred. GTA 5 swung the opposite way, one of the great wide lens views of a city, and with it most of America, or even more broadly the West, in the wake of financial collapse. It gambled on splitting its character into id, ego, and superego with Trevor, Michael, and Franklin but in the process lost a little of them again. The three were really one person, a single character scattered across the game world that could never align with all of them at once, because they never came together as a whole.
By contrast, Red Dead Redemption 2 felt like a retreat – not in the negative sense, but the sense that it was a chance to regroup and refocus on the fundamentals, and hone in on what the studio really wanted to do. A man, a gang, a world designed as a setting for their story rather than a character of the story itself. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, as a work of atmosphere, environment and tone, but it’s the narrow lens again, the one zeroed in on its people first and always. Next to cinema – next to what it’s very tempting to call the real deal – you might say there’s still a gap there that Rockstar, imagining we know Rockstar, would be desperate to fill. If I were feeling harsh I might compare it to Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, where a man is studied as a character in himself but also as the character of a whole nation at the time: America with a zoom lens, rather than a fixed one that’s too long or short, where focus can be deftly pulled from the widest view of things as a whole, down to a single person exemplifying the problem in microcosm.
There’s a suggestion amongst film people who are much cleverer than me that Scorsese’s always been doing this, with everything from Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, to the even more obvious The Wolf of Wall Street, centering on a man but just as much the country’s reaction to him, and the place and way in which he was made. It’s a clue, I think, towards Rockstar’s goals that both GTA 5 and The Wolf of Wall Street came out in the same year, focusing on the same terrible men in the same terrible worlds that made them – and that both have been famously misunderstood as glorifying the thing they’re trying to skewer. (Albeit to different degrees of fairness, I think. GTA 5 encourages this far more than Scorsese ever has.)
Where’s GTA 6 in all this then? Back to the trailer, and back to the relentlessly honed, still totally peerless in blockbuster video games sense of cinematic literacy, and watch what they’re doing. First montage: city, prison, main character in prison. Focus pull number one.
Next up? One of the most striking upward pans of a video game world I’ve seen, in terms of sheer density and scale, but then: flamingoes; people on the beach. Focus pull number two, which is to say: this is a zoo. Into the next montage of vignettes, as the trademark GTA “social mirror”: a mashup of Florida Man, sewn together with social media square video, vertical video, slice-of-life carnage – many of them actual references to very real things caught on camera in real Florida over the years. The world. Then focus pull: the characters, and is that fear? Fear of the police, definitely, as Jason looks out the car window towards them, but here it seems just as much like fear of the world they’ve found themselves in. “The only way we’ll get through this is together.” And, ominously: “Trust?”
As always then, Rockstar’s first trailer is its big statement of intent. Only this time, they’re finally taking another swing at the storytelling prowess of real cinema – a place I suspect they’ve wanted to reach for a very long time. Just a trailer, yes – but what a trailer. They might actually pull it off.
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