While GTA 6 City of the Week looks at one location in the USA and evaluates it as a possible setting of the next installment in Rockstar Game’s popular open-world action adventure franchise every week, Foreign City of the Week, as the name suggests, looks beyond the borders.
While we mentioned that in this series wherein we look at potential settings for GTA 6 outside the USA, we’d try to focus on cities which are currently the subjects of international news in a positive sense, the current situation in the Philippines is too interesting a subject to pass up, even though it is mighty controversial.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you will have heard of the brutal but efficient tactics of the current Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, in his campaign against the rampant drug abuse plaguing the country. His speeches have spawned vigilante killings, a massive number of criminals – and an unfortunate number of innocents – have been killed as a result of the campaign.
However, we’re not here to discuss politics, because that is a topic for a different site. It’s up to you if you agree or disagree with Duterte’s methods, but we can all agree that this is a topic worth speaking about. That said, if you want some kind of cultural or political analysis of the crisis, I suggest you take a look at a publication focusing on those topics.
Today, we will look at how suitable the capital city of the Philippines would be as the setting of a major GTA installment.
During colonial times, the Pearl of the Orient was considered the most advanced and modern city in Asia. However, following a string of events such as the city’s destruction during World War 2, the relocation of the capital to neighboring Quezon City, a brief bout of authoritarian rule and a bitter mayoral rivalry lead to the city falling into poor maintenance.
Recently there were great efforts to reverse this process with quite some success. Manila today, though one of the most polluted cities in the world, has managed to mostly modernize and keep with the times as much as circumstances allowed.
Manila is the second most populous city in the Philippines with almost 2 million living in the city proper, while the surrounding metropolitan area (which would be included in the GTA map, should the city be chosen) is home to 22 million. Though not even the most populous in its own country, Manila does happen to be the most densely populated city in the whole world with over 40 thousand residents per square kilometer.
Manila is nestled on a thin stretch of land connecting two larger masses, squeezed between two bays. The area is also home to lakes and rivers, such as the Pasig which cuts the city in half. Both the city and the surrounding area provide a varied landscape. Manila features several distinct and wildly different neighborhoods, while the surrounding area is a curious blend of urban, industrial and natural areas. As such, it would be easy for Rockstar to re-imagine the setting as an island with multiple different areas to make things interesting.
The city itself is physically pretty small, being on 42.88 square miles. As such, While Rockstar pretty much simplified Los Angeles to the point where the street plan is barely even similar, they could almost realistically craft a 1:1, or at least 1:5 version of the city as opposed to the 1:bloody lots in the case of Los Santos.
Manila sits on a particularly unlucky stretch of land where typhoons, floods, storms and earthquakes are all likely and common. Whatever in the world drove people to settle on such volatile land is beyond us. Maybe it was for bragging rights – we can imagine the founder, Miguel López de Legazpi almost passed up the location because it lacked an active volcano.
We mentioned that Manila is one of the most polluted cities in the world. The situation is so severe that over 98% percent of the population is markedly negatively affected by the pollution, which causes approximately 4000 deaths each year on average. The river cutting through the city is used as a dump for both domestic and industrial waste, with several hundred tonnes being released into it daily.
Should you travel through the various neighborhoods of Manila, you will see a wide variety of different architectural styles. The few surviving older buildings will all carry the characteristics of the so-called “Earthquake Baroque”, which is like regular Baroque but incorporating ingenious feats of engineering which make the buildings less likely to collapse should the ground start shaking. Thanks to this style as well as new methods of reinforcement, post 1980’s Manila was barely ever damaged by quakes.
Downtown Manila features a pretty modern and advanced business area, while several buildings feature the same style as the older colonial structures, just made with modern materials. You’ll also find isolated examples of renaissance architecture as well as plenty of art deco buildings, almost all of which are theaters.
Aside from this varied architectural composition, Manila also features plenty of tacked-together slums. Many of these have grown beyond the city limits, with more than 4 million people living in the slums of the metropolitan area of which Manila is a part. Naturally, said slums are a hotbed for crime.
Veering back to geography for a moment, we’d like to point out that Quezon city is literally next to Manila. As in, they and a few other settlements are literally the same city, sharing streets and such, but separated from an administrative point of view. The same measure of variance in present in Quezon and the others as in Manila, providing plenty of inspiration to draw from.
If we were to designate an area on which to base a GTA 6 map where Manila is the main city, we’d select the parts of the Philippines surrounding Manila Bay. On the Eastern side of the map you’d have the Manila Metro including things like Quezon City, Valenzuela and Makati, include Balanga on the west with Mount Mariveles standing in for Chiliad and have the stretch of land connecting the two in an upward curve to the north be wilderness with small settlements. Populate the bay in the center of it all with small islands.
Being the modern center of the Philippines around which the whole nation turns, Manila’s economic ventures and many. The city is considered the national center of the following: finance, commerce, banking, shipping, distribution, logistics, entertainment, insurance, fashion, legal services, marketing, real estate, tourism and retail.
Manila features the largest port in the country, making it an important shipping center. It acts as a shipping gateway between the rest of Asia and the USA on the other side of the Pacific, being one of the easternmost shipping destinations. This aspect has lead several industries to thrive in the city due to the important materials being delivered here.
Manila is also an internationally renowned shopping destination, of all things. Possibly also thanks to the extremely busy and important mercantile port, not only is the Tondo district the best place to shop in all of the country, but many shopping-tourists visit the city with this as their main objective. The location has been dubbed the “shopping mecca of the Philippines”. Massive, expensive and modern malls include shops from the most popular global brands, while just outside the streets are lined with vendors who provide handmade and… hand-acquired goods at pretty low prices.
Looking at the city as if it were a map for GTA, you already have much of the groundwork laid down. There are six legislative districts in the city, allowing Rockstar to section their version of the city accordingly. There are two large ports, some necessary to any GTA map. The street plan is far from chaotic, with several large avenues branching out from the city center. The streets are mostly laid out in an organised manner, forming small grids of straight streets intersecting one another at uniform intervals, forming clean blocks.
Now, this is undoubtedly a big topic right now. Crime in the Philippines and thus in Manila has been pretty rampant since the colonial era. It is both a producer/exporter and distributor of narcotics. Drugs coming from Asia go through Manila towards Australia or to islands to the east, while Manila is the first stop for drugs being sent from South America to Asia.
Drugs are a serious problem in the Philippines. A very cheap, easy-to-make, potent and dangerous version of methamphetamine colloquially called “Shabu” is extremely common across the country, and the capital is no exception. While this has lead to much violence, it is structured differently than in the USA.
While in the USA, drug-related violence usually occurs between two gangs fighting each other to control a market, with the non-gang affiliated civilians not being involved (or only as victims), in the Philippines the ‘war’ is being fought between the drug dealers and the sober citizens who do not appreciate narcotics being distributed in their homes.
In the USA, vigilantes are fictional caped crusaders seen in comics, movies and TV shows. They are the characters you cosplay as when you’re at a con. In the Philippines, vigilantes are ordinary people. They’re the regular non-using citizen who is so fed up with addicts dragging the country down while dealers get rich via the suffering of others that they go out there and publicly execute criminals.
This doesn’t only happen with dealers, either. Criminals who escape the law, but are widely known to the public to be guilty are often found dead. These extra-judicial killings are common in the country and are generally tolerated by the authorities – after all, why worry about the death of a few criminals when you have other problems to deal with? They were filth anyway.
This has lead to such vigilante executions to become extremely common. To many people in the country, picking up an off-the-books assassination assignment is a great way to bring some more money to the house. ‘Assassin’ is a day-job for some people. Usually information, money and weapons are acquired from police, who then inform the nearest police station not to hurry whenever the murder is called in.
Even the element of the general public which does not engage in extra-judicial killings generally approves of the custom, as they all benefit from the drop in crime rates. One of the most famous groups of vigilantes in the country was the Davao Death Squad, which during its active years resulted in over 1000 extra-judicial killings of known criminals.
All that being said, don’t take this as if the gangs would be friendly with one another and cooperating to survive, oh no. The gangs in Manila are more than rival with one another, as turf-wars are hardly rare. Many slums change hands, so to say, on a weekly basis. This frequent violence is part of what riled up the general public against the criminals with such a fervour.
Kidnappings and smuggling is also pretty common in the city. Being such an active port, you can bet that several ships leaving the city, or arriving, are carrying some kind of cargo which was accidentally left off the manifest. Much of the illegal trade between the Asiatic countries and the Americas happens via Manila. This also brings with it the unfortunate proliferation of human trafficking.
Corruption is also obviously present, what with the whole “turning a blind eye to vigilantes” thing going on. Other than that, the dealers are trying to push back with their own dirty cops, as allegedly there may be around 300 police officers in the country affiliated with the drug trade. The conflict has been escalating ever since Duterte has become president, as the man is very outspoken about his contempt for the dealing of drugs – to put things lightly.
Reliable murder rates and automobile theft rates are actually pretty hard to come by, though the former is higher than in most cities we’ve looked at over the course of these articles (unsurprisingly) while the latter is lower. While car has become the main form of transportation in Manila, thus making the city viable as a GTA setting, in many areas of the country it just isn’t efficient. Cars cannot traverse the water, get stuck easily and weigh quite a bit, making them unpopular.
Being the capital of the Philippines, Manila is well known internationally. Most people who have ever visited the Philippines probably traveled through Manila even if it wasn’t their final destination in the archipelago.
Manila has plenty of popular tourist attractions that many people are bound to recognize. The old walled city of Intramuros features the most of Manila’s surviving pre-World War II buildings. The Theatre at the Cultural Center of the Philippines is often visited not only for the performances, but for the architecture of the building itself.
Manila is home to Binondo, the first “chinatown” per-se in the world. While it has since been surpassed in size, Binondo is still the second largest chinatown globally. Rizal Park, dedicated to a national hero, also features the Kilometer Zero pole, to which all other distances are compared in the nation.
Some other notable buildings in the city include the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the Manila Metropolitan Theatre, the Natividad building, the Manila Cathedral, the Minor Basilica of Saint Sebastian (the only prefabricated all-steel church in the world) and the City Hall.
Manila would provide a great setting for a kind of GTA story that calls on elements from the previous games but in an all new way. Imagine the multiple protagonists-approach from GTA 5, but limited to two characters who are enemies throughout the narrative. Make one of them affiliated with a criminal syndicate, and make the other a vigilante.
Sometimes the missions would depend on which you do first. Maybe the criminal character is tasked with stealing a weapons-shipment from a group of honest cops. Either the player goes through with this mission, wherein the vigilante will hear of this and try to track down the shipment, or they choose to play as the vigilante who warns the police, resulting in the mission as the criminal being more difficult because there will be more enemies, however at the end instead of stealing the shipment, the character finds out the identity of the vigilante.
At the end of the story, both characters get the same mission, and similar to the final decision in GTA 5, you have to pick which you will play as, the objective being killing the other. Both characters would have some kind of map-controlling side-objective. The criminal must expand the control of the syndicate to districts, while the vigilante would work together with honest-but-off-the-books cops to clean out districts. These would provide bonuses, forcing the player to choose: maybe I prefer the vigilante, so I clean out a district, but then my next mission with the criminal will be harder.
Now, such an approach would provide the story team with some unique challenges. They will need to write the characters in such a way that both are relatable, or everyone will automatically pick to favor the vigilante. They will also need to write the story in a way where player immersion is not ruined by the fact that often the player will know information their character does not.
Now, if Rockstar manages to pull this stunt off, they would go down in gaming history as having written one of the best narratives ever. If they don’t, they’ll be known as an ambitious team which bit off more than it could chew. Based on the quality of the writing in GTA 5, we’d guess the former of the two would happen – though Rockstar might need to give its writers a raise along the way.
Pros: geography, crime profile, recognition, story potential
Cons: high-end sports cars might seem out of place in this setting.
All in all, Manila has the characteristics to be a good GTA game by default, but it has the potential to be an absolutely ground-breaking and stunning GTA game if Rockstar is inclined to take risks with the main storyline. Obviously, the mere idea of playing as a drug dealer in a Philippines setting would be controversial enough to spark the next ban-GTA rally, but balancing a dual-character story where the two protagonists oppose one another would be an amazing feat.
Would you like to see Manila featured as the setting of a GTA game?
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