Of all the Grand Theft Auto games, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is the closest to a perfect unified experience. Released in 2009, it was initially designed for the Nintendo DS and later ported to the PlayStation Portable, iPhone, and Android, and the technical limitations and innovations of the DS lead to some innovations on the part of the developers; the DS has a clamshell design in which the player has access to two screens, one of which is a touchscreen that the player uses a stylus on, on top of the more typical d-pad and buttons setup common to video game systems. The simpler technical specifications meant the developers had to downscale the graphic and gameplay complexity; rather than the typical third-person perspective and fully animated and voice-acted cutscenes the series had long been trafficking in, the gameplay was turned to top-down shooter (very much resembling the gameplay of the first two GTA games released on the PlayStation 1, although unlike those CW was rendered in real-time 3D) and the cutscenes were a series of silent still images with subtitles. There are three things here: the designers commit to their technical limitations completely and deliver a slickly designed game that never wastes your time, the designers find genuinely exciting uses for their cool new toys, and the story is a perfectly crafted farce that is both thrilling to play through and increasingly, absurdly hilarious.
I’ll start with the story first. You play as Huang, the ne’er-do-well AJ Soprano-esque son of a recently murdered Chinese gangster. At the start of the game, he’s left China to deliver a sword to his uncle in Liberty City, only for things to go horribly wrong – the sword is stolen and Huang barely gets out alive, and the rest of the game tracks his quest to get the sword back. Huang is one of the most oddly sympathetic protagonists I’ve ever had the pleasure of riding along with, especially in the context of a comedy and especially in the context of a GTA game. Most GTA antiheroes are driven by some kind of ambition; the characters of III, Vice City, Liberty City Stories, and two-thirds of V are actively and gleefully climbing the ladder, fucking over enemies in revenge, and trying to seize as much power as possible. CJ of San Andreas and Vic of Vice City Stories are mostly driven by community and family and trying to protect them. Michael of V is a GTA protagonist who won, became past his prime, and is finding himself descending into old habits. Huang, on the other hand, really just wants to be left alone; he’s chasing the sword less because he cares about it (he notes at one point that his father claimed it as an ancestral family weapon when in reality he won it in a card game) and more because it feels like the thing to do, and this ends up pulling him into some high-stakes gang warfare where all he’s trying to do is keep his head above water.
The majority of the plot is people forcing Huang into inter-gang power struggles; he gets blackmailed and threatened not just by multiple Triad gang members but by Korean gangs, corrupt cops, biker gangs, and Italian mafia goons. The thing is, one of the central jokes is that almost nobody seems to click on that Huang is working for everybody and he never bothers to correct them. Back in 2014, someone did a series of videos on sitcoms cut down to just the plots, and many people remarked that Seinfeld stood out as having plot turns that were inherently funny, and there’s much the same effect here; there’s some truly transcendent bits in the late part of the story where Huang will go to one boss and be told, say, fuck up a rival’s supply line, then immediately go to someone else who complains that someone fucked up their supply line and to go get revenge on a rival boss. The two hardest characters to make interesting and sympathetic are either observational or apathetic, because both are generally passive enough not to act; Huang is an absolute delight because his passiveness is in a situation so extreme that it becomes an active choice that gets a lot of people killed, and the fast-moving plot feeds him a lot of information to observe (perhaps part of the reason Huang is so sympathetic is because he lives in a perpetual state of exasperation). The overall emotional effect is that he’s living in a world where a lot of people are doing really stupid shit that is going to fuck themselves up and he doesn’t care enough about them to bother pulling their asses out of the fire.
The gameplay backs this all up. One of the big innovations is touchscreen minigames tied into simple tasks you have to fulfill; the most common one is the process of hotwiring a car, but there are others that range from filling tanks of petrol to hacking into security panels to making molotov cocktails. In theory, this should be obnoxious – they barely qualify as games because they take two seconds but definitely require enough concentration not to fuck up, which ought to slow down the pacing and be really fiddly and annoying. But in practice, they make the whole thing more fun – I have a rule that if I fail at something in a video game and it doesn’t feel like my own fault, that’s bad game design, and the minigames in Chinatown Wars are designed well enough that, when I fuck them up, I curse myself out for being stupid, and what really happens is that they make the game feel more immersive; these are the tasks that a petty criminal has to do to get by on a day-to-day basis. There’s a similar vibe to the other big introduction to the series: drug-dealing. It basically rips off the old freeware game Drugwars (which I played as a kid in the variation Dope Wars), but in this case combining it with the overall gameplay of GTA serves to make both parts more awesome; the basic idea is that you can find drug dealers around the city and buy drugs off them or sell drugs to them, and different dealers offer different prices every day, like a stock market with the added joy of the risk of being busted by the cops and having to shoot your way out like Reservoir Dogs. This is fun as fuck, and it will almost certainly end up being your main source of income outside of the main storyline.
The overall combined effect is one of warmhearted banality. Each individual element of the game is simple to master, and it’s the mixture of raw ownage and the cumulative effect of amassing a lot of money that makes it thrilling and fun. Unlike other games in the series, the designers don’t get overly ambitious; a touchscreen minigame is literally the first action you can do in the game (smashing the window of a car to escape it as it sinks into the bay) and the drug dealing comes very early in, and after that there are no big dramatic changes or additions to the gameplay. This ends up mixing with the main story to create an interesting tone and theme: Huang is just trying to keep his head above water and he’s surrounded by all these idiots trying to achieve grand, complex ambitions and schemes to get the top spot, and by comparison Huang is just living out the (relatively) unglamorous day-to-day work. There’s always a risk with this kind of thing where the story is essentially saying ambition is bad (JK Rowling fell hard into this with the Harry Potter series, where the title character’s feckless aimlessness was pushed as moral virtue) but it feels a touch more complex than that. It’s more like conveying the sense of having a job you actually like, where it’s fun to get paid to solve variations on the same few puzzles, and to be rewarded not with some spectacular achievement like the corner office or big mansion but rather the proof that you did a thousand jobs well.