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Published December 7, 2009

Depending on your point of view, Grand Theft Auto IV was either a fully realized recreation of a major a city – the “living, breathing world” cliché that we and many others abused last summer – or a monumental step backward from the absurd freedom of San Andreas. For a long time, I tended to side with the former. Though I missed my jetpacks and Harrier jets, the stronger storytelling, relatively speaking, seemed to be worthy trade. But as I play through The Ballad of Gay Tony, with its explosive shotgun shells and parachuting mayhem, I realized how dull the original IV was, and how much the Eastern Bloc immigrant character deserved a better game. But the GTA that I’d really like to see done over? That would be The Lost and Damned, the unofficial “Sons of Anarchy” episode that almost always misses the mark dramatically.


Two fictional biker gangs enter…

I should warn you that this post will contain minor spoilers for FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” which just wrapped up its second season last week. But somehow, this show about a motorcycle gang starring Hellboy and the British guy from “Undeclared” has become one of my current favorites. Seeing as it’s from Kurt Sutter, one of “The Shield” alumni, I guess I should have had more faith, but I never expected to become so wrapped up in the lives of these bikers. I think the show works so well because the writers know how to use restraint. Nobody expects the same from Rockstar, but the developer could really use this show as a lesson.

While the Sons of Anarchy Motor Club, Redwood Original (SAMCRO) specialize in gunrunning for most of the two seasons, there’s a surprisingly small body count. Whenever you think a body’s about to get dropped, it doesn’t. Whenever you think a club member is going to seek revenge, he doesn’t. And then whenever you think the dust has finally settled, it hasn’t.*

*A brief recommendation – if you are a fan of the show, I suggest you check out Alan Sepinwall’s notes from this season. He’s an incredibly insightful TV guy for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, and I definitely feel like I’m cribbing his notes as I write this.

For instance, at the beginning of this most recent season, something terrible befalls club matriarch Gemma Teller (Katey Sagal), and we assume that when she finally tells husband/prez Clay (Ron Perlman) and son/VP Jax (Charlie Hunnam) what happened to her, the well-connected perpetrators will pay in blood. However, Clay and Jax instead come together to think things through, to not act in the heat of the moment. Psychological warfare instead of physical violence (for a little while, at least). The show defies expectations in the same way as “The Sopranos” used to do, and while our collective bloodlust isn’t sated, we’re given tender or tragic moments that have much more profound effects.

The Lost and Damned wants to be “Sons of Anarchy” very badly, and I’m not just referring to the motor club motif. Much like Clay and Jax, leader Billy and his second-in-command Johnny Klebitz are at odds throughout, and this feud creates a rift within the club. Like Jax (last season), Johnny also has a drug-addicted girlfriend whom he wants to help, even though she appears to be a lost cause. And most notably, Jax and Johnny both believe that change can happen from within the club, so that it’s not all about smuggling guns and drugs.

Now, if Jax was just a fun-loving peacenik, that would make for a pretty lousy show, so of course he has an explosive temper. You don’t see it often early on, but when he’s pissed, the show is downright chilling. Jax wants to control it but can’t help himself. The problem with The Lost and Damned is that it has no idea how to portray Johnny’s same internal struggle.

I know, I know…this can be said about every GTA protagonist post-Tommy Vercetti. But I recall this dissonance reaching new heights of ludicrousness here, as Johnny pleads to Billy that they should get out of the violence business mid-mission…even as they’re shooting up cops and blowing up patrol cars. That was my breaking point, where I decided that GTA was a broken storytelling medium. You can have all the tough guy banter and slick cutscene editing money can buy, but it just doesn’t work if the protagonist between missions and the one during missions just don’t match up.

 I wouldn’t want to follow either of these nuts

And while Jax may not be the club president, he is his own man. He stands up to Clay and isn’t afraid to go “nomad” if he feels betrayed. Johnny, despite gaining control of The Lost Motorcycle Club halfway through the game, is still just an errand boy, doing stuff for people he doesn’t want to do because Rockstar is seemingly too afraid to put the keys in the players’ hands. I could live with this issue if there was more subtlety to GTA cinematics, but it’s still obnoxious to be chastised throughout the entire game.

And for all of the careful plotting and quiet moments, “Sons of Anarchy” isn’t especially highbrow. Sutter shows that you can still have your badass shootouts and juvenile humor. There’s a guy named Halfsack who keeps showing off his Neuticle, for chrissakes. But when you have the freedom to mow everyone down, there won’t be too many folks left for the ensuing drama. I love the GTA series, and I think The Ballad of Gay Tony is one of its best entries. But I hope with the next game, Rockstar does some radical retooling.** Vehicular triathlons and skydiving rescues can stay, but save the plot for another game. Maybe L.A. Noire?

**This is probably where you point to Chinatown Wars, but I need my 3D skylines. Not knocking the PSP/DS game though – it’s wonderful.

UPDATE: Some readers have asked me to clarify some of the points I raised above. First of all, I think the series’ trademark freedom is at odds with the Rockstar’s storytelling ambitions, and I don’t really see how the writers can reconcile this disparity. I think if the developer really wants GTA to tell their tales of the city’s underbelly,  there needs to be real consequences for the player’s actions.

GTA IV toyed with this idea occasionally. Most notably, Niko took on a few contract hits in which he could form an alliance with one bad guy or another bad guy. But these moments really called attention to themselves because they felt out of place with the rest of the game. Keeping up with my strained Sons of Anarchy comparison, SAMCRO makes several key decisions every episode. Some business decisions are obviously more important than others, but they all put something on the clubhouse table.

In addition to my suggestion of simply “moving the drama” to a different game, I think Rockstar could continue to experiment with the episodic model. Some scenarios could be the ball-to-the-walls madness we’ve seen in past games, but why not put the player in the shoes of a slightly crooked cop or a bounty hunter? You wouldn’t need to enforce traffic laws or read perps their rights upon making an arrest, but giving the player some incentive to not mow down pedestrians would be a start in the right direction, I’d say.

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