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GTA Play Specification

Gta_san_andreas_1 The monstrous market success of the Grand Theft Auto franchise has been discussed at great length, but how do these games break down into verbs and nouns? The following is my play specification for GTA: San Andreas, reflecting an all too familiar focus of play. For more on play specifications, see here. Remember, this is a subjective notation; there are many possible representations for any game.

Grand Theft Auto San Andreas: Play Specification

    C.J. (avatar)
    Vehicles (cars, trucks, motorbikes, push-bikes, boats,
         planes, helicopters, trains,  jetpack)
    Pedestrians (in various classes)
    Items (i.e. pickups; weapons, armour)
    Regions (see below)
    Safe houses

    Drive (inc. pilot, fly, pedal)
    Fight (inc. shoot, assault, explode et al.)
    Move (inc. walk, run, swim, paraglide)
    Clamber (inc. jump, climb over)

    (Various mini-game verbs)
    (Dating verbs: kiss, give flowers, dance, eat/drink)


    Wanted Rating/C.J.

Main Verbs

The GTA games are greatly tied up with the notion of extensiveness: these games attempt to deliver as wide a variety of elements as possible within their framework. However, the core of the play (which can be identified as the central subsystems of the game) revolves around very familiar verbs. On the one hand we have vehicle control verbs which I group under Drive, and on the other hand we have the "run and gun" verbs Move, Clamber and Fight. The use of these verbs in games are pretty common, and unworthy of discussion - although Clamber is an interesting case: although included as a jump function, it is actually used far more often to vault over a wall. Because the game is not focussed on environmental negotiation (as in a platform game), Clamber is a fully automated verb. Bravo to the team for not being tempted to imbed challenge in this verb.

These key verbs are used in a highly extensive fashion. For instance, although I have grouped all machine control verbs under Drive, significantly different systems are in place for four-wheeled vehicles, motorbikes, push bikes (which have a Jump verb!), boats, planes and helicopters. This is the extensiveness of the game in action: the high level verbs as I have drawn them characterise areas of play which are supported by a dizzying diversity of nouns (Vehicles). It is no exageration to say that without this the game would collapse.

Similarly, the Move verb is well supported with its specific instantiations. One can not only walk and run, but paraglide and swim as well. The addition of the swim verb (grouped here under Move) is a critical step forward for the GTA franchise, as with it the last of the game's killzones is eliminated. Earlier GTA games were fatal in water - creating a certain frustration, and a barrier to free exploration. Although this didn't significantly hurt the appeal of the game, eliminating this problem did increase the maximum potential audience for San Andreas.

There is little to say on the Fight verbs. There is nothing remarkable going on here, but the decision to provide an automatic targeting mechanism (thus making fighting easier) is thoroughly admirable: a game focussing on Shoot (like any FPS) may choose to make aiming a key verb, but there is simply no need here. GTA is a "mayhem simulator"; there is no need to add challenge in the individual verbs.

Additional Verbs

Navigate is an implied verb, but quite important to the play of the game. It is perfectly possible to play the game without  map reading and learning the layout of the various regions, but the enjoyment of the game (and the ease of play) is radically enhanced by doing so. In fact, I suspect that the people who most enjoy the games get a significant satisfaction from this verb. The map is of an exceptionally high standard, and can be used to plot routes just as one would do in the real world. For those unable or unwilling to do this, the waypoint markers can be used as 'beacons' to guide the player to the target, but this is a largely ineffective way to tackle the game. Still, the majority of players have little or no intention of completing the game.

Horn/Bell/Siren... this is pure mimicry (although sirens do clear the road). Well worth including, however.

is a familiar enough game verb, but in this game it allows an unprecedented volume of character customisations (sufficient that in adjectives I felt C.J's Appearance warranted seperate consideration from his Attributes i.e. his game stats). Another aspect of Purchase is the capacity to buy property (Safe houses) which greatly adds to the players emotional investment in the world. However, this element is underdeveloped and both could and should be taken further in the future.

Not only can the player Purchase clothing, tattoos, haircuts and accessories to customise their appearance, but they can use two verbs to alter the avatar's appearance in a unique and entertaining fashion: Eat and Exercise allow the player to change the weight of the avatar - allowing C.J. to become truly rotund at the corpulent end of the scale. Pure mimicry for the most part, this is nonetheless a tremendously satisfying addition to the game world. Exercise also serves to build muscle strength, which does have some game effect. Together, these elements (along with certain other attributes which I will not look into in any detail) are highly relevant to the Girlfriends, who each respond to a different combination of attributes.

Imbedded Mini-games

One will notice that many verbs which are present in the game - such as rob, photograph, extinguish, rescue etc. not to mention the verbs associated with the various poor quality arcade games, pool simulations and gambling simulations, are not fully enumerated. This is because to my mind they occur only in the context of specific imbedded mini-games. I believe these are best understood as additional 'chocolate box' activities offered to the player for their amusement. I suspect that, for the most part, many were not worth the development resources invested in them, but given that the core gameplay had been extended to the maximum degree of extensiveness concievable at this time, perhaps their addition was the only place the team had left to go.

Perhaps the most interesting of the imbedded mini-games is the dating game, which is completely new for San Andreas and owes a certain something to the Japanese dating simulator. Although many players doubtless did not connect with this element and ignored it, it is far and away the most unique of the mini-game activities included. It comes with a variety of verbs just for the purposes of the mimicry of the experience: including kiss, give flowers, dance (also possible as a seperate mini-game) and eat/drink (in cut scene form only).

Although the individual mini-games are unremarkable, the sheer volume included serve to provide a certain aleatory entertainment - as the player occasionally stumbles upon something new and interesting, simply because of the sheer volume of random things thrown in for good measure.

Similarly, there are the collection mini-games of oysters and horseshoes, which are also aleatory to some extent, and the tags, photographs and car exporting, which provide alea and mimicry. However, since there is for the most part no reward if the player doesn't complete the collection, these elements fall rather flat. Only the most driven completest player will see them through.


Perhaps the signature element of all the GTA games is the Wanted system. It's function is so widely known, I won't recap it here. So significant to the play of the game is this system that I felt it should be represented by a verb - but it is not a verb the player can enact, but rather a verb that the game applies to the player. This is what I mean by Enforce. The game sends an infinite supply of police officers, SWAT teams, fighter jets et al (commensurate to the current Wanted rating) in order to fight, detain and annoy the player. This in turn produces a certain kind of play which is intimately tied up in the nature of the game. It need not be expressed as a verb, of course, but I feel it this is a case of the game employing a verb against the player: one can imagine a two player version of this aspect of the game in which one player is the quarry (C.J.) and the other deploys the enforcement. In this game, perhaps, we would need different verbs to express this play, but as a 'black box' system owned by the game system, Enforce seems a sufficient representation.

The World

In deciding how to express the world in terms of nouns, I find that considering the world to consist of a series of tesselating Regions is the most satisfying. Each region contains:

  • A police station, which is a point at which the avatar is placed after an arrest
  • A hospital, which is a point at which the avatar is placed after 'death'
  • One or more safe houses, where the player can access their wardrobe and save.

In effect, each region is a complete game world in itself - the extensiveness of the game world as a whole results from placing so many of these regions together as a coherent whole. I suspect that there are some sixteen to twenty regions in all.


The core verbs of GTA: San Andreas are not that interesting in themselves. After all, we have seen no end of driving games, and there is certainly no shortage of run and gun games either. However, the lavish extensiveness of their representation in this game is worthy of merit - not only has (almost) every concievable aspect of the verbs been expressed in the game world, but the tuning of these systems is for the most part very smooth indeed. I have not found a more enjoyable motorcycle system in any other game to date, and indeed rarely touched the cars at all when playing myself. This game polish is a side effect of the sheer size of the budget upon which the game was built, but that does not mean that the team should not be praised for the time invested in not only implementing the subsystems, but getting them to be smoothly polished.

The playground world of the GTA games has been copied by several other games - but to my knowledge has not been improved upon in any significant manner. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is a competently rendered alternative to GTA with more focus on Fight and less on Drive, but it suffers from being essentially more of the same. (It also features twin stick controls which was sheer foolishness; part of the success of GTA comes from its low dimensionality of control). Recent Driver games have been quite badly designed. True Crime lacks the extensiveness that is so critical to the feel of the GTA worlds. The Godfather is a competent clone of GTA III, but is otherwise unremarkable. It's all pretty much reiteration. The Simpsons Hit and Run at least substitutes Jump for Fight.

What will be interesting to see is new playground worlds with new verbs - not shuffled versions of the same approach. I am sceptical of the publishers stumping up the cash to invest in such experimental projects - and of developers ability to deliver them - but I am in no doubt that they will emerge, in time. It will be interesting to see what verbs they employ.


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Excellent. Thank you for the rundown.

My only question would be, why consider the vehicles as a wide variety of separate nouns and not, say, a few nouns with a wide variety of adjectives attached?

What I mean is, consider that most of the vehicles can fit into three categories - wheeled, winged and water. The difference between them is the adjectives they contain. This seems substantially different from, say, DnD's insane use of nouns of all different type and flavor, requiring different usage and stats.

In GTA, all wheeled vehicles share controls in common, though some have variations (the bike with jump, the bigfoot with its four wheel steering). Same with winged (even the bladed aircraft and jetpack use similar controls to planes) and watercraft. The way they handle provides the difference.

Choosing a vehicle to meet your needs in-game can be seen as a choice between the three main categories and then a judgment on your choice's adjectives (assuming you have familiarity with that vehicle) - or, of course, the decision to proceed on foot.

I'm only suggesting one noun is needed for all the vehicles (namely 'Vehicles'), but I have listed the seperate classes underneath for reference, just to emphasise the extensiveness of the game. The distinctions between them are taken care of by the attributes, as you suggest. Basically, I agree, and I think the play specification above can be read in this way, despite some ambiguity. :)

This is good stuff, I'll have to write up a play spec of MC.

Please do! I'm keen to see other people experimenting with the method, and I'd like to see more of the inner workings of Magic Circle too.


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