Image Credit: Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto Online.
The official description proudly declares, “Robbing the biggest bank in the country? Been there. Raiding the casino’s vaults? Done that. Infiltrating the heavily guarded private party island of the ruthless drug lord El Rubio? Now you’re talking.” Now, I have indeed been there and done that, but conspicuously absent here is that time I saved the world from actual nuclear war, in the Doomsday Heist. Robbing a mere drug lord’s paltry island doesn’t seem quite so impressive compared to that. With Cayo Perico, and the Diamond Casino for that matter, the scope should by rights feel smaller, but these updates are bigger than ever; Cayo Perico is undeniably the most ambitious update the game has ever received. There’s more than just writing to consider when talking about games. I want to discuss how real-world context and technical updates construct a narrative of their own, and how this applies to GTA Online’s longevity.
First, there was the Heist’s update. This introduced a new format for missions, much more extensive in gameplay scope than anything that existed before. Next came the Doomsday Heist, the blunt, ‘bigger and badder’ sequel. Not only were the narrative stakes through the roof with the aforementioned nuclear war, but this time there were material changes to match: all-new interior environments for the new properties and missions. This update wasn’t a big deal because of the apocalyptic story, but because it delivered the most significant knock to the status quo the game had taken at the time. Following this, the Diamond Casino faced newly-raised expectations, and it met them with considerable style. Enter, the first-ever substantial change to the overworld map: on what was a nondescript construction site now stood the eponymous Casino, and with it came a shiny new heist. Though narratively, the stakes and scale were considerably lowered, the gameplay’s complexity had increased, and the mission structure was re-designed for the first time since Heists. The Casino’s inherent glamour as an idea and a setting fits with the more elaborate gameplay to reflect the change in your heist crew. More sophisticated and experienced, you have returned to your roots with the tools and expertise of superspies.
The trick here is that each new update brings a new real-world first, a new hurdle for the developers to clear. With Cayo Perico, the big ‘first’ is a map expansion, but it’s also the first heist you can complete solo. This ability is more important than it might seem, at least to the implied story. Before, it was very much Lester’s plan, and you were the crew he got to execute it, but this heist feels more personal. Having noticed your previous exploits, Madrazo approaches you, not some intermediary. You can involve your friends if you like, but that’s explicitly a choice for the player to make. For the first time, you run the show.
This style of expansion suits GTA Online, as it has a lower cost than the more story-driven alternative. Despite the marketing, little about Cayo Perico is really that big or new. The much-hyped submarine is the same as in the Doomsday Heist, just with a more interactive interior and the ability to pilot it. The setup missions all use settings that already existed, to a very noticeable and slightly hilarious extent. It’s a veritable greatest-hits tour with hangars, warehouses, offices, clubhouses, bunkers, and apartments all getting a look-in. And of course, who could forget the return of English Dave? God, I wish I could. Even the titular island of Cayo Perico is as cost-effective, and low-effort as such a thing can be. There’s no variation in the environment, few significant landmarks besides the mansion and some radio masts, and its sheer physical smallness is difficult to disguise. I don’t mean to downplay the effort that Rockstar’s famously overworked employees must have put into this update, but they clearly had a decent head start.
We’ve seen how these updates one-up their predecessors, but where is all this headed? The answer is far from exciting, I’m afraid. GTA Online is a live service, and Rockstar’s main priority is maintaining engagement. These updates aren’t designed to tell a satisfying story with an arc and an ending, but to create the illusion of change while changing as little as possible. Rockstar isn’t going to invest the resources it would into a newer project, and it doesn’t have to. All this being said, I cannot in good faith end this article without making the following prediction: be it five years or a 100, when the land is barren, the ocean dry, and all other sharks have been jumped, Grand Theft Auto Online is going into space.