Ludendorff, North Yankton is where the prologue of Grand Theft Auto V takes place. You’re there to steal some cash and then things go sideways, setting in motion the game’s main events nine years later. The town is sort of an after thought, in other words, with lots of low-res textures and missing stuff. That’s kind of what makes it great though.
Unlike the rest of the game, the action in North Yankton is extremely linear. There’s no veering off the beaten path unless you want to incur a “mission failed” screen. Rockstar has taken the player there to set the scene and lay out some backstory, not to watch them then go off to the far side of town and break some shit. As the latest Boundary Break video shows, this meant the studio didnt’t have a reason to full flesh out the snowy, back-country town.
Not only is some stuff missing, but most of the buildings are extremely limited—just a few flat textures turned into boxes. One housing complex even has the side of another building, windows and all, for a roof. It all comes together to give the feel of a Hollywood studio lot where flashy films are made out of cheap props and sets that fall short when given proper scrutiny.
For a game like GTA V, however, that gives North Yankton a certain sort of special charm. Los Santos is a sprawling metropolis full of lights, people, and any number of details you probably wouldn’t even notice unless you’d played it for hundreds of hours (something many people clearly have done since the game remains an annual best-seller). North Yankton, on the other hand, looks like and HD mod for the original Max Payne.
I mean, look at this poor Christmas tree ripped straight out of a 1983 Polaroid. It’s almost viscerally anti-GTA in its cheapness and I love it because of that. As YouTuber Shesez points out in his video detailing the environment with a god-mode camera, the tree is meant to look 3D but isn’t. Rockstar bent the image of it so it tracks with your eyes as you move by the window, but blow through the wall as he does and it turns out to just be a flat texture in an empty room. No presents wrapped for the holiday. No warm milk and cookies. No family arguing over what to watch on the TV. Just a dark room with a blurry image of frosted Christmas lights.
In a way the incompleteness of town helps contrast it with the cities the GTA series is famous for. If the way to capture the look and feel of a city is in how you layer hundreds of anonymous faces, cars, side-conversations, and generic facades on top of one another, then the way to capture the soul of a snowy, deserted small town is in crudely clobbering together a main street complete with its own vestigial movie theater and way too many bars for the size of the local population.
Usually we think of games in terms of what they have—a day and night cycle? online multiplayer? dialogue trees?—and that’s certainly the case with a series that’s come to define what it means to be a sandbox game. What I appreciate about North Yankton, especially the one explore in the latest Boundary Break, is how empty, quiet and desolate it is. Sometimes what a game lacks, or at least appears to, can be as important in crafting a narrative mood as anything else.
There’s other stuff in North Yankton that’s a little more exotic, including an alien model encased in an icy river. Shesez also explores Los Santos as well and explains some of the magic behind how Rockstar used ingenuous shortcuts to do all the heavy lifting required to render a city as life-liked and believable as GTA V’s caricature of Los Angels. You should really watch the whole thing.