This editorial contains spoilers for the story of the game. If you’d like to experience the missions on your own, please stop reading now.
The sirens blared. It was so loud that my friend’s roommate banged on the paper thin walls separating the bedrooms in their Brooklyn apartment to turn the PS2 the crap down. Problem was we were having too much fun playing Grand Theft Auto 3 to listen to him. We weren’t doing any of the missions, mind you, but just taking turns getting as many stars as possible by headshotting pedestrians until the helicopters and tanks showed up, smashing cars into people and blowing up policemen for no other reason than pure enjoyment of fucking around with the game’s physics and rules. We did this for hours, with no care as to the moral implications of our actions.
I was 23 years old when Grand Theft Auto III came out.
I’m now 35, and I got sick playing Grand Theft Auto V this weekend.
A lot has changed in those 12 years, not the least of which was my own sensibilities. I don’t fault the people complaining about my review of GTA V, and how it criticizes the subject matter, but I couldn’t ignore my churning gut and upchuck five stars for a game whose defining emotion wasn’t excitement or elation, but sadness.
And please, this is not an indictment of the violence in games, or a call for change in the industry. I’ve argued and advocated for the content of our games here on the site and in personal discussions with conservative family members. Rockstar should not be ashamed for producing GTA V and the game has a right to exist like any other piece of art. As I said in the review, there’s much in this game to be excited about – technically it’s a masterpiece. The map is a joy to explore whether by car or by plane and most of the missions are exciting action set pieces. How much the despicable characters overshadow the story is up to you to decide, but it was a major factor for my enjoyment of the game, as it is with most I play. I just moderated a panel at PAX Prime 2013 in which we discussed the importance of narrative in games, and to ignore the poor presentation of the characters would be a disservice.
GTA V should not be praised for a shoddy story with little regard to writing strong protagonists the audience can understand and appreciate.
You meet each of the three characters slowly, and the writing does a good job of masking its inadequacies early. Franklin’s life in the slums of L.S. seems shitty, indeed, and I respect that he wants to better himself, but he uniformly treats everyone in his life badly, even his friends and mentors. Before you have a chance to see Franklin grow, the story shifts to Michael, a middle-aged ex-criminal who hates the success he’s forged. Michael doesn’t like his son, his daughter or his wife’s cheating, despite their “agreement”, and to combat these feelings he gets mad at his psychiatrist instead of talking to his family. Somehow, in a way that’s not made clear, Franklin and Michael form a bond and agree to do crimes together. We are then whisked away again to Trevor, the game’s truly evil protagonist who revels in murder, torture and verbally/physically abusing his underlings. The characters go from these already meager circumstances, and graduate to pure psychopathy.
Granted, the series is built around bad people doing bad things, but there was almost always a reason provided for what the characters do, from John Marston to Tommy Vercetti. In contrast, the three protagonists GTA V are different shades of evil, sure, but not one of them has a motivation for their actions other than malaise, greed and psychosis. Contrast this with other crime stories, such as Breaking Bad or The Godfather, which depict familial obligations as a driving force, or the revenge stories of other Rockstar games like Red Dead Redemption and GTA: Vice City. It takes Breaking Bad several season to firmly establish Walter White as an evil man, but we’re already invested as audience members by then that we want to witness his downfall. Even then, I probably would have given GTA V‘s story a pass and engrossed myself in the minigames and driving through California landscape in between the unpleasantly evil missions. But then you, playing as a character, commit such a horrible act of terrorism that I couldn’t ignore the writing any longer.
The scene wasn’t fun. It wasn’t done to prove a point or to be satire. It was just mean, cruel and ultimately unnecessary. I can’t really talk about GTA V without letting you know what happens so I’m going to spoil a mission about 5 hours into the game. If you are worried about that kind of thing, you should probably stop reading. Shit, if you have soul, you should probably stop reading too. And no, it’s not the torture scene – we’ll get to that later.
Final SPOILER WARNING.
The middle-aged white guy Michael does something stupid, so he has to make money fast. Michael needs help, so he contacts an old cohort named Lester. In exchange for working with Michael on a profitable heist, Lester asks him to do something in return. He makes Michael sneak into the Lifehacker offices- think Apple, Facebook and Google rolled into one – and plant something on a prototype cell phone. Then, hours later, Michael watches the press conference in which the Lifehacker CEO does a bad Steve Jobs impression and introduces the prototype. According to plan, Michael calls the prototype phone. The CEO answers the call, and the phone explodes, liquefying his brain in a splash of red. He falls down dead in front of the screaming crowd. Lester phones Michael to congratulate him, and Michael says, “That was heavy man.”
The event is never mentioned again. On to planning bank heists!
There are several problems with this mission. It’s meaningless. Lester seems angry at Lifehacker for some reason, but it’s never adequately explained what his beef really is. If he committed the act for some purpose, say, to protest worker treatment in China, at least that would be something. Instead, it’s just a terrorist act played for laughs, graffiti writ in blood.
Worse, you have no idea what the real culmination of Lester’s plan is until the CEO is murdered before your eyes. Duping Michael, and therefore the player, into committing this heinous act magnified the disgust I felt at my actions. “I did that? How horrible!” The shock and surprise served no other purpose than to shock and surprise. As a player, I had no way to prepare for my actions. I had no context to affix the sequence as satire, if that’s what was intended. It’s a sloppily constructed sequence seemingly crafted to draw mainstream news coverage and ire.
This is further compounded by the fact that the player has no choice but to go along with Lester’s crazy wishes. There’s not even a binary morality system in GTA V, so I had to do this thing if I wanted to continue playing the game. It isn’t a side-mission, or something that can be skipped. If you want to continue playing the story, you have to blow up Steve Jobs. You as a player have no choice in that matter. Taking away player agency is generally a bad thing. It’s even worse when you make them do something they may not be comfortable with to further the story.
And this last point is the real problem. I have no opposition to creating mayhem within the world of GTA V. I’ve shot thousands of bystanders, run over them with my car and even hit a few dogs – yes, there are dogs roaming the streets of Los Santos. In previous Rockstar games, I’ve killed the people I was playing poker with or the occasional prostitute. But I made those decisions. I chose to switch off my morality for a bit, and indulge in testing out the boundaries of the simulation. It’s fun to do so sometimes. It’s a game, not real life.
But that’s not how the mission above works. In the story, I was duped into blowing up a man’s head on live TV and there was no reason given for the action. It means nothing, but I was forced to do it anyway. I don’t think that’s good storytelling or good game-making. It’s shocking for the sake of shock, not in a fun or interesting manner. I can certainly imagine a player playing through that mission who might laugh or cheer when the guy’s head exploded. That’s not me, and I’d wager it isn’t a large number of Rockstar’s potential audience.
I was reminded of the controversy surrounding the Russian Airport scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In that mission, you play as US operative masquerading as a terrorist, and have the option of shooting and killing civilians. Back in 2009, the internet and mainstream media went apeshit, but I always thought it the controversy was unfounded because you could choose to be a good person and not shoot anyone. In this scene in GTA V, you have no choice. Without any mental preparation, you suddenly commit a terrorist act. In my mind, that’s a thousand times worse than No Russian.
While the main characters’ plot isn’t exactly swell, the supporting cast is just as bad. One of Franklin’s side missions involves a paparazzo, and you end up helping him on his adventures through Los Santos trying to take “muff shots”. One mission has you sneaking onto the grounds of a teen star and tape her having anal sex. You are there for about 90 seconds, just watching the two go at it in full view. Admittedly, the banter is chuckle-worthy – “I won’t release a sex tape for at least another three years” – but I was surprised Rockstar was willing to experiment further with showing explicit sexual content post Hot Coffee. What’s gross is that you as the player support the paparazzi in harassing people, and we’re supposed to think it’s funny. I don’t like shows like TMZ either, why would I think it’s fun or funny to engage in the exact behavior that pisses me off?
Everyone you meet in the city seems to be unhappy or upset about something. Michael’s kids are depressing stereotypes – one is a COD-player who does nothing but sit in his room calling his opponents “faggots”, the other is a fame-obsessed teenie-bopper who is used as a plot device instead of a fully-fleshed out female character . (Please see other writers for a discussion on the claims of inherent misogyny in GTA V, I don’t feel qualified to discuss it much but it must be acknowledged.) Everyone you pass on the streets delivers snide comments or has conversations on phones that express how unhappy they are. I understand Los Santos is supposed to parody the vapidity of L.A. – and I hate that city as much as the next New Yorker – but the constant cynicism is tiring. Every joke drips with malice and sarcasm, with none of the ebullience and hope for the culture that infects the satirical comedy of The Daily Show or The Onion.
I was already disappointed in the game’s story, and then you meet Trevor. The scene I described in the review was a horrible introduction, setting him up as a reprehensible character. You go on to murder gang members, rival meth cooks, and even just a bunch of “rednecks” because of an imagined slight. The last event is one of the rampages the series is known for, mimicking in some ways the kind of gameplay I enjoyed when I was in my early twenties. Again, I don’t begrudge the violence or even the subject matter, but after playing through the missions I described above, I was just sick of hearing Trevor bellow. He’s angry, and he wishes pain and suffering on a lot of people but he does have one redeeming quality – Trevor demands women be respected. Congratulations to Rockstar for creating a fully-realized character! Unfortunately, it’s hard to remember that when you play through a sequence in which you torture a prisoner as Trevor.
Again, spoiler alert, but there’s another mission which demands mention. In order to be allowed their freedom, Michael and Trevor have to work with some FIB agents to track down a suspected terrorist. Trevor gleefully looks at the pliers, car battery, gas can and monkey wrench, and you as the player get to pick which one you use. What fun! The mission shifts back to Michael trying to assassinate the target your victim identifies, but needs more information. Back to the torturing! Afterwards, Trevor drives his victim to the airport, and goes off on a tirade about how torture is ineffective as an information-gathering method. “Torture is for the torturer … You torture for the good times! Sometimes you torture for the torturee, but only if they are prepared to pay.” Haha, an S&M joke. Hilarious.
You could say this sequence is supposed to be satire pointing at the use of torture in the last decade to prosecute suspected terrorists. The problem is that other forms of media have done it better by showing the effects that torture has not only on the victim, but on the perpetrator. Jack Bauer in 24, for example, hates what he does and the scenes in which he tortures people is just as hard to witness, but the audience can at least see the effects his actions have in a serious and mature manner. If Jack Bauer made a dominatrix joke after torturing someone, it would be just as ridiculous as GTA 5.
A piece of art can evoke all kinds of emotions. It doesn’t have to be all happy-go-lucky all the time – as I mentioned I enjoy stories like Red Dead Redemption, The Godfather and Breaking Bad. But for a game that you could spend hundreds of hours playing, there needs to be variety. A good story needs pacing, and I felt the humor wasn’t enough to balance out the hollow, meaningless evil of the main characters. Why do these guys even hang out together, when they obviously hate themselves and everything around them? It ultimately doesn’t matter if the protagonists meet their demise or if they somehow redeem themselves and go straight. Many people won’t get far enough in the game to experience it because the characters were so poorly written.
A lot has changed since 2001, when GTA III came out. I got married, had two kids, and I’m now in charge of a website dedicated to discussing the experience of games and their impact on our culture. The world has witnessed acts of terrorism around the globe, and shootings here in the U.S. are frightfully common. I don’t like to watch the news; I play games for an escape from all that shit.
Grand Theft Auto V is like watching the news. It just makes me sad.