It seems that noteworthy, muchly publicised, exceptionally woeful game launches in recent years have been coming as thick and fast as new COVID variants. This most recent iteration of a video game pratfalling upon entering the world stage this time comes in the form of the Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. What's curious is that whilst the upheaval surrounding other game launches in recent years have been far more turbulent, lingering, and egregious, it's this remastering – or demastering – of three classic sandbox games from Rockstar that has strangely caught my attention. Within the San Andreas-esque haze of controversy and trenches of social media, it behoves one to wait until the dust settles, to keep your socks dry, and to end metaphors before they break down quicker than the laws of physics in Night City.
Last summer, rumours that Rockstar had something in the pipeline were in the offing. Excitement for an announcement regarding GTA VI seemed palpable. Ultimately, after a handful of leaks, it became known that the upcoming release was simply a remastering of GTA III, GTA: Vice City, and GTA: San Andreas. There were, no doubt, a sizeable cluster of GTA fans who had fantasised about these classics being released with some modern-day spit shine. But compared to the notion of a brand new GTA game with all the bells and whistles that Rockstar implemented in Red Dead Redemption 2? To many, the announcement was somewhat of a disappointment.
Then the launch on November 11th happened.
Immediately players reported technical issues: bugs, lazy “improvements”, questionable character redesigns, etc. For several weeks, social media was awash with clips and screenshots exhibiting the chaos of an unfinished product. Reactions from players ran the gamut of amusement, confusion, frustration, to outright fury. Over the last month or so since the eye of the storm, Rockstar appeared from the rubble to release an official statement of apology and a couple of post-launch updates. That's where we find ourselves now. With the dust somewhat settled, now seems a good time to go over the criticisms of the remasters and whether they were fair, slightly flawed, or outright unjust.
A Bug's Life
One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the GTA remasters are, you guessed it, the bugs. You could venture onto YouTube, type in “GTA remastered bugs”, and spend hours watching compilations showcasing the pure tomfoolery within a trio of clearly undercooked video games. You have ambulances spawning atop one another, kamikaze drivers, suicidal NPCs, deadly stationary trains, blinding rain – the list goes on. One particularly bizarre bug made it so steering your vehicle side-to-side on the road would have it widen exponentially. In the GTA III remaster players found that, by quickly scrolling through your inventory whilst running, you would suddenly be endowed with the agility of a cracked-out Forrest Gump. There was also another hilarious tendency on the GTA: San Andreas remaster for Sweet to be obliterated by lunatic NPC drivers during the middle of a mission debrief – causing a premature ‘Mission Failed' splash screen.
We can all agree that encountering so many bugs at this frequency by so many people is indicative of very questionable quality control standards and is therefore deserving of criticism. As John Linneman of Digital Foundry stated: “The bottom line is that it's impossible to believe that this remaster was properly tested – and if it was, it seems that the bugs were not addressed by the developer.”
It's difficult to gauge what specific bugs have been introduced via the “remastering” process. I've been replaying the original games recently and let me tell you that kamikaze NPC drivers, frustratingly glitchy missions, and strange visuals are parfait for the course of the OG GTA experience. The pure chaos exhibited in videogamedunkey's recent review of GTA III illustrates this perfectly. The internet was essentially still a foetus compared to today's standards when those originals came out. The classic GTA games simply didn't have the same level of exposure to a globally vigilant forum that modern games of today have. If a video game was buggy back then, it didn't have the evidence uploaded, distributed, and instantly available for the world to see, analyse, and discuss at once. This knowledge was contained within tiny word-of-mouth microcosms of video game friend groups. Having said this, one could successfully argue that, as part of the remastering process, it should remove the original technical issues of the very game it's improving rather than overlooking them in favour of introducing new ones.
Sin of Sloth
The sin of “cutting corners” and laziness has also been accused of the remasters. It's plain to see how such an accusation came to fruition. A handful of immersive details have been simplified or removed entirely. For example, the original GTA: San Andreas had it so that shooting a windscreen would create a fracturing effect, followed by an explosive splintering of glass if it were destroyed. Now, in the remasters, damage to the windscreen just deletes it from existence. No effect. Nothing. The same goes for the animation that used to occur in GTA: Vice City when driving your car into a body of water. In the original, several ripples appear and your screen and car are engulfed in water spray. In the remastered version, your car goes through the water as seamlessly as an oil-doused ghost of Tom Daley. These kinds of graphical shortcuts seemingly endemic to this remastered trilogy make little sense within the very concept of a remaster. It's indicative of a deliberate step back made ironically within a period of technological prowess that Rockstar simply did not have access to back then.
Various theories concerning this slapdashery have been suggested. One theory is that they had to scale back some of the original animations for the trilogy to run smoothly on the mobile version but failed to reinstate them. Another theory has been that instead of going over the maps manually, an algorithm or AI was used to automatically upscale the game's graphics. There has been evidence for this specifically as players have found typos littered throughout the many labels, names, and signs you encounter in the Definitive Edition trilogy; one particularly humorous example being the front of a deli/pizzeria in GTA III that once advertised espresso, flavoured coffee, and soup in the originals now promotes “depresso”, “raden coffee”, and “sop”.
The automatic smoothing of polygons has also impacted the original games' self-aware wit. The DIY-punned doughnut shop from the original GTA: San Andreas called ‘Tuff Nuts' that is adorned with a hexagonal bolt fastener to match the similarly angular-looking doughnut have both been given the smoothing treatment in the new trilogy. Bizarrely, the now perfectly round doughnut above the shop is accompanied by the “nut” that currently looks like an inexplicably small grey doughnut. It's strange considering this product was brought to us by the same company responsible for the insane fastidiousness of a game like Red Dead Redemption 2. This isn't to say that it should be expected for the remasters to include such high levels of detail. This expectation is tantamount to lunacy, which brings me to the unreasonable criticisms, absurd demands and ridiculous comparisons.
Remasters, Remakes, Regrets
One perplexingly popular example is a meme comparing the graphical difference between the original GTA games and the Definitive Edition trilogy versus those found in the first Mafia game and its Definitive Edition counterpart. The implication of the meme is that when one compares the astonishing visual improvement between Mafia and its definitive edition, the difference between GTA and the Definitive Edition Trilogy suddenly becomes depressingly negligible and, therefore, sloppy. This would be an amusingly astute comparison if it weren't for the fact that the two video games share the title ‘Definitive Edition' in name only. Gamers are more than willing to turn a blind eye to the known differences between reboots, remakes and remasters, and how accurately they correctly (or incorrectly) assign these categories simply because the GTA Definitive Edition Trilogy is currently considered fair game for mockery. It should be immediately obvious that the reason why Mafia: The Definitive Edition looks so much better than the original is that it's a remake; a brand new game built, over several years, entirely from the ground up with a new engine, assets, and technology. So why on earth would someone believe it is fair to complain that the GTA Definitive Edition Trilogy hasn't been equally upgraded when it's just a remaster? Similarly, tens of thousands of people have also been sharing an image on Reddit of a high-res, photo-realistic rendering of CJ from GTA: San Andreas beside a screenshot of him from the original game with the caption “For 60 bucks, I was expecting something like this. That's what we deserved”. Had Rockstar at any point promised a remake, then the original poster would have had the ghost of a point and not this distant elopement with the fairies.
A fairer comparison would be screenshots of the character remodels within the GTA Definitive Edition and those created by modders. We find little excuses here. The people responsible for the many texture packs and remodels had the same assets to work with as Rockstar, but none of the workforce, money, nor hardware, and yet still managed to achieve better results. But my point is that if this example is available to use for criticism then why resort to the silliness of comparing a remake to a remaster? Why weaken your own argument concerning justified disappointment by alluding to comparisons that are unreasonable?
Furthermore, if the urge to tumble down the various rabbit-holes of Reddit in regards to the GTA Definitive Edition Trilogy grabs you, then you'll notice that many of the slightly unfair criticisms are loaded with references to GTA VI and being “owed” something. After airing their grievances the jarring inclusion of several weak arguments following several stronger ones is suddenly explained when they conclude with some variation of: “still waiting for GTA VI and we get this!” Here, I think, is an example of misplaced anger. Whilst it's perfectly understandable to complain about the bugs, the freakish character remodels, the detail nerfs, and the miserly decision to remove the originals from all digital retailers, it's strange to also complain about not getting a game that has yet to be announced.
Delays and I.O.U's
When one looks back at the many poor video game launches of the recent past (Fallout 76, No Man's Sky, and Cyberpunk 2077 to name a few), one notices a troubling business model among game studios – unintentional or not – of hyping up their newly announced game to a pitch of biblical levels of insanity, delaying it several times, releasing what is clearly an undercooked mess, then bombarding gamers with post-release patches and updates until it reaches the standard it should have achieved at the time of release. What is more disconcerting is the trend within the gaming community to vehemently harass game developers about the potential release of an anticipated game, then go on to send those same developers death threats when the game releases and seems to have been rushed and incomplete. I understand that when it comes to release dates, the game developers and studios aren't necessarily masters of their own destiny (looking at you Hello Games). I also understand that some game studios seemingly go out of their way to hoist themselves upon their own petard. Obvious though it is to say, if the gaming community were to cultivate a more laissez-faire attitude toward delays and actively encouraged developers to prioritise completion rather than hasty but disappointing appeasement, then game studios might not feel compelled to announce such unrealistic release dates for their games. The current meta of bemoaning much-needed delays might, in fact, ironically incentivise studios to release clearly unfinished games without any delays at all. The GTA Definitive Edition Trilogy, though bug-riddled as it certainly was upon release, was announced and then released within a month and without delay (save for the physical copies). Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the ubiquitous, fervid cries for GTA VI might have fostered a drive to release a GTA product as quickly as possible that wasn't just another GTA V DLC? And might this logic apply to all anticipated games too?
What used to be a swirling magic factory where our childhood games fell from the sky to our amazement is now replaced with hundreds of gaming news sites tracking every source of info regarding the development status of an anticipated video game. Back in the day, the only way one could learn how to beat certain bosses or locate hidden quest-critical loot was by asking friends who also owned the game, buying guidebooks in the hope that they mentioned it, or trial and error. Now your average teen with some computing skulduggery can crack open the coding of any video game to find its secrets or, failing that, look up a Reddit thread or YouTube video that will reveal all within a few clicks. We've looked behind the curtain; we see the wires; we've eaten the forbidden fruit. This foreknowledge comes at a price, however: entitlement.
Don't get me wrong – you are utterly entitled to feel entitled when it comes to purchasing a so-called “definitive” edition and quickly find it to be objectively worse than the original. There is also nothing worse than a game developer who handwaves legitimate criticism from players as “gamer babies whining“. But self-righteous anger – particularly when it's rooted in the truth – tends to have the awful tendency of granting people carte blanche to accept all arguments supporting their position – regardless of how fallacious they are. Just because Rockstar released a subpar remaster and haven't released a new GTA game in nearly ten years doesn't mean they owe people GTA VI. Also, Rockstar announcing a remastered trilogy of old GTA games isn't some nefarious bait and switch where GTA VI was originally on offer. What gamers are “owed” is simply what was advertised. That's it.
Perhaps I am drunk on La Vie en Rosé when I recall how, as a child of the nineties, my ignorance concerning the inner practices and machinations of game development had cultivated an instinctive alacrity with which myself and other gamers of my generation accepted games. Arguably, this naivety afforded us a valuable lack of that entitlement. Nowadays, you get the feeling that with all our collective, technologically enhanced awareness of the gaming industry, a substantial chunk of the gaming demographic are impatiently keeping tabs on the progress of unreleased games – regardless of their hypothetical existence. From tirades online, it seems gamers of that frenzied ilk must spend a lot of their time starring at their wristwatch whilst cartoonishly tapping one foot as the anniversary of a studio's last release approaches with no sign of an upcoming announcement. As we find ourselves having passed the threshold of a new year where doomed resolutions are tradition, may we go forward committing to one where we, as a community, favour understanding despite our impatience and nuance despite our frustrations? And unlike some other video game studios that doubled down after horrendous launches, Rockstar apologised, reinstated the original trilogy to digital retailers, gave away the original GTA trilogy for free to everyone who bought the Definitive Edition Trilogy, and fixed a majority of the bugs. Fair play. Most importantly, bugs and memes aside, though few of the irked rabble would care to admit it, the games generally do look better.
So, with this case study for ropey game launches in mind, consider this a treatise on how best to navigate the world of self-righteous, internet-based rebuke, try to sift through the absurd complaints to pan for the gold nuggets of truth, and – with cooler heads prevailing – cut developers some slack in the hope that they can use it to tighten things up in the future.