It’s no secret now that Rockstar Games usually draws inspiration or at least pays some homage to classic movies in its products. Either as a general theme of the game or through specific callbacks, the beat-of-their-own-drum developers have a penchant for showing off the breadth of their cinematic interests.
The most obvious is The Warriors, a 2007 beat ’em up that was literally about the 1979 film of the same name (which was in turn about Sol Yurick’s novel). Look past that, though, and you’ve still got plenty to work with. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, for instance, was basically a love letter to 80s films like Carlito’s Way and Blow along with the classic television show Miami Vice. Hell, the ending is basically lifted whole cloth from Scarface! But, you know, with a happier ending.
And while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas could pass as a Bad Boys spin-off, it was a bit disappointing when in a Variety and PlayStation Official Magazine, Rockstar creatives Dan and Sam Houser said Grand Theft Auto IV didn’t “really have any cinematic influences” and that they “wanted something that felt fresh and new and not something that was obviously derived from [a] movie.” I mean, there were still plenty of movie references like a Natural Born Killers line and a mission heavily inspired by the 1995 movie Heat, just not as categorical.
But Red Dead Redemption—whose protagonist is a spittin’ image of Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly—is a distillation of everything Western, so it seemed like Rockstar was back at its cinematic oeuvre. Even L.A. Noire, albeit a Team Bondi joint, is pretty much L.A. Confidential with Chinatown and The Untouchables subplots.
Then the second Grand Theft Auto V trailer hit and I was left wondering if Rockstar had gone back to the GTA IV design philosophy of being unfettered. After all, there didn’t seem to be any overt themes to the game based on those two minutes of what appeared to be in-game cinematics. I mean, sure, it was a bit goofy and felt at times like an action film, but so do a lot of games. Hell, all of Rockstar’s games feel that way, but it was still a lingering notion in most of the Internet’s collective mind: what is Rockstar going for?
After listening to the 11-20-2012 Giant Bombcast, though, it seemed like I’d come across a convincing answer. Around the 2:49:50 mark, they begin discussing the trailer, and Ryan Davis says Jeff Gerstmann gets pretty close in describing it as a “late-period Robert De Niro action-comedy…but not a good one.” And while I couldn’t (and still can’t) quite think of anything with De Niro in it that fits the amount of action and goofiness necessary for this comparison, the concept, at least, seemed to resonate with me.
What if instead of wearing the game’s influences on its sleeve, Rockstar simply decided to make their own action comedy film but as a game? Red Dead Redemption got pretty close, but you could tell through its design that RDR is definitely homage and not without its hearty winks and nods. GTA V will undoubtedly also have those elbow nudges as well, but the meat of the game and its marketable feel is likely to be all its own.
Davis makes the crack that a “record scratch and a dog putting its paws over its eyes” wouldn’t be out of place, and while once again I don’t wholeheartedly agree, that type of goofiness seems like it would fit well with the game, if not those two gags in particular. The jokes will much more be in line with Rockstar’s tastes, such as with the hear/see/speak no evil thing, lines like “I’ll swing by and sign the contracts all right, just ignore the bodies,” and the young vs. old “bounce” repartee.
Most telling are likely the action sequences shown. There’s something very particular about how the car chases shown are kind of off-kilter and little irreverent, just the way action sequences in an action-comedy would have them. That guy is hanging off of a schooner! That dog interrupted the chase! Wacky!
All of which is definitely not a knock against the game (hell, it’s not even out, so it’s way too early to be passing judgment on anything). If anything, it seems promising. For so long, Grand Theft Auto games have been that sort of irreverent with a slice of some classic cinema on top, but GTA IV noticeably derailed that before the expansions went back to that inherently goofy nature. But when the past three big title releases in GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire are exceptionally serious (in relative terms, anyways), it’s almost refreshing to see Rockstar attempt something so purely old school GTA.
So we may not get any more movie influences from the Housers & co. That’s fine because it seems like now they’re trying to take inspiration from their own past and making it current. It’s an interesting thought, pondering how a developer/publisher has released so many signature titles so as to afford the ability to become its own existential callback. The Rockstar oeuvre is being mined by Rockstar itself, and if you can’t be roused from your slumber for that, then I don’t know what to tell you. Except, well, video games are pretty fun, but I feel like you already knew that.