Video Games,

Review Via Debate: GTA V

Keza MacDonald
Alright, I’ll jump right in. Grand Theft Auto has never been an aspirational series. The first two Grand Theft Auto games were top-down, simple driving-and-shooting sims with an emphasis on violent mayhem. Over the years they’ve grown narrative and satirical aspirations, and certainly I think GTA IV and V do both manage to say something about the modern America they depict, but that original violent chaos is still a vital part of their nature. It’s not a concept or a world that makes sense, thematically, unless you’re playing as a bad, bad man (or woman, but Rockstar hasn’t quite gotten to that yet).

Greg Tito
Violent chaos is a theme of the simulation of Grand Theft Auto V. You can choose to be as vicious as you want, murdering civilians with a sniper rifle, or you can drive around Los Santos as a traffic law-abiding citizen. But you have a choice. In many of the missions, such as Michael’s infiltration into the Lifehacker offices or Trevor’s introduction, the character the player controls does incredibly evil and mean things with no choice provided to the player. If you want to play the game, you must commit these heinous acts with no real motivation or explanation of character. There are movies, TV shows and novels in which you witness similar acts, but in a game you have to allow the player more identification with the characters. There is no such identification in GTA V.

Keza MacDonald
Although a lot of games offer moral choice, I don’t think Grand Theft Auto ever has, and certainly not within the confines of Rockstar’s narrative. I also don’t think that giving the player choice over what’s going to happen is an obligation for a game. For me GTA IV and V are both about the impossibility of being good in a late-stage-capitalist world with so little goodness in it, where what gets you ahead is a wanton disregard for your fellow man. Rockstar’s stories are about reprehensible criminals (Trevor is among the worst characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction). Giving the player the choice to not participate in the kind of things that GTA V’s characters do would undermine that narrative.

However, your point about identifying with those characters is a very good one. I had sympathy for Michael and Franklin, but they’re not the good-guys-doing-bad-things antiheroes that typically prove easier to empathize with. Trevor, on the other hand, is an intensely dislikeable character. But there are a lot of good stories that star intensely dislikeable people.

Greg Tito
Choice defines games. Games are not passive entertainment; the player acts through the character in the game. Rockstar recognized this even more in GTA V with the choice to play three protagonists and the ending missions have several different outcomes depending on what choice the player makes. I disagree that offering choice would have undermined the narrative‒forcing the player to commit evil acts, sometimes even disguising those acts until their resolution, is what undermined the supposed satire.

And yes, there are many successful pieces of entertainment that “star” dislikeable people, but the narrative of GTA V fails because the player cannot relate to any of the protagonists. Michael has made it, yet he treats his family terribly while lamenting his broken relationships. Franklin disrespects everyone in his neighborhood, yet magically latches onto Michael as a father-figure. Neither of them elicits any sympathy. Trevor is actually the most likeable character in videogame terms, because we’ve been trained to enjoy his smart-alecky comments in our heroes, but he ruins that for the awful way he treats everyone subordinate to him. Because we can’t respect these characters, we cannot care what happens to them. That is poor writing.

Keza MacDonald
Choice is the difference between an authored storyline, and one that is more defined by the player. I think games can do both, and do them well. Forcing the player to do evil things ‒I’m thinking about the torture scene here, which made me feel physically ill ‒isn’t a pleasurable experience for them, but then games don’t always have to be fun, and actually I believe there’s power behind forcing a player to do something they don’t want to do. There were times in GTA V where I didn’t want to do what the game was asking me to, or where it played a cruel trick by disguising the consequences of my actions ‒like in the LifeInvader scenario ‒but I think that’s GTA V’s way of telling its story.

I also think that not respecting the characters doesn’t make the game less enjoyable, and it doesn’t make the game badly written. By the end, having gotten to know Trevor well, I could not wait for his comeuppance. I’d liken it to Vic and Shane’s fate at the end of The Shield. Game protagonists don’t have to be heroes. They don’t have to be guys we’re rooting for ‒especially when they are all vital parts of a brutal and nihilistic satire on modern America, designed to exaggerate and highlight its various hypocrisies.

I think GTA V is profoundly misanthropic. But that didn’t make it less enjoyable for me.

The other thing is the narrative disconnect between what you want to do and what the game wants you to do, but that’s a long discussion on videogame narrative dissonance and I think we may have covered the salient points there.

Greg Tito
Agreed. Games can absolutely offer both a guided narrative and one that depends on choice, but GTA V struggles with attempting to do both. The torture scene is a good example ‒the player is forced to participate in a terrible act to advance the guided story, but is given the choice of how to inflict pain and suffering upon an individual. The choice many would like to make during that scene is to not participate at all, not to use a wrench or pliers.

The scene is clearly meant to satirize the use of torture by U.S. agencies during the post 9/11 era. We know this because the writing tells us. Trevor delivers a manic monologue to his victim that is somehow meant to pull the punch from the horrible, gut-wrenching scene the player just experienced. We are meant to understand torture has no point, but the character that just did it is busy making jokes about S&M dungeons. Any weight the scene could have held is immediately deflated.

And finally, as satire, it fails because the player would never commit those acts in the first place. Spec Ops: The Line succeeds by making the player investigate the conflict between duty to your country and the moral implications of your actions. That’s a conflict that’s interesting because there is no right answer; Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t compare because it’s all terrible, all the time.

Keza MacDonald
Much as I disliked that torture scene, I think giving the player the option to opt out would have been a cop-out. By forcing you to participate in torture, it says something much more powerful about the American use of torture post-9/11, and makes you question yourself. I ended up turning the sound completely off and turning away from the TV during that scene, much as I might cover my eyes during a similar scene in a movie. That scene also helped reinforce Trevor’s character in my mind as a reprehensible psychopath who deserves no sympathy‒it would be completely out of character for him to feel remorse afterwards. That monologue‒post-torture‒was as damning a commentary on his character as the torture itself, for me. He wasn’t even fazed. He even says that we torture because we enjoy it, not because it’s got a hope in hell of extracting useful information for anyone.

GTA V says, through that scene, that the kind of person who tortures is a guy like Trevor. That’s a part of its commentary on the use of torture in interrogation.

GTA V’s satire rests on this crucial point: there are no good guys in GTA V, and no good actions. That’s the whole point of it, thematically: the impossibility of goodness in a world like this. Late-stage capitalism has created a society in which there are no good options. GTA is hardly a subtle satire, and it hardly delivers its message with finesse, but it’s certainly clear about its premise.

A good player making good choices wouldn’t fit in with GTA’s world.

GTA’s main tool as a satire is exaggeration. There are times when it tries to say something serious‒I think it tries with the torture scene, which I don’t believe was entirely successful‒but essentially its technique is to pick elements of modern America and grossly exaggerate them to the point of monstrosity. Hence its violence, hence its willingness to attack and lampoon literally every and any element of post-recession America from Starbucks to Facebook to Call of Duty to Whole Foods, and hence its cruel, messed-up protagonists.

Greg Tito
If GTA V had chosen its targets more carefully, it would have been more successful. Off the top of my head, the game satirizes coffee shops and Facebook (as you mentioned), but also racism, torture, the U.S. intelligence community, wealth, crime movies, video games, Los Angeles and America in general. I live in this country‒it is not all bad.

There is nothing wrong with exaggeration, but the framework needs to be solid. The player needs to be grounded in something or someone real in order to acknowledge the exaggeration. Every joke needs a setup, and every comedian needs a straight man. Something changed with this iteration in the series‒GTA V abandoned the hero’s journey.
Grand Theft Auto 3 began with a betrayal and through the rest of the game, the player attempts to get revenge. Tommy Vercetti is exiled to Vice City after his crime family abandons him, and must make a name for himself. Even John Marston in Red Dead Redemption is doing the evil things in the missions to make something better for himself and his family. Niko Belic can’t escape his past, but he does as best as he can in his new location of Liberty City.

In contrast, GTA V has three protagonists‒which muddied the narrative to begin with‒but then the writers attempted to create a story from nothing. What does Michael want? What does Franklin Want? Money? They have money after the first heist they pull off. Trevor could make his meth business a success, but instead he’s screwing around with Michael. He could get resolution from his best friend, but Trevor doesn’t do that either. The narrative of GTA V can end in a number of ways, but none of them result in the characters growing in any way. They just continue to exist in this screwed up America.

There is no story‒no progression of character‒just more exaggeration upon exaggeration to the point that no one can care or relate. It’s just meaningless noise and sadness…

Keza MacDonald
I think that’s the whole point of GTA V’s story: they can’t escape what they are, or what their screwed up America is.

Greg Tito
In the world of GTA V, no one can. So why play at all?

Keza MacDonald
I agree with you on Marston, but I’m not sure GTA has ever had heroes. It’s not even had anti-heroes‒it’s had criminals. If anything GTA V is the most honest of the series, because instead of starring a character like Nico Bellic, who supposedly wants to make a good life for himself but ends up in the same old life of crime, murdering hundreds of people over the course of the story whilst continually beating himself up over it, it stars three career criminals who also can’t escape who they are. Nico was also a commentary on the futility of the American Dream, though, I think‒the inscription on the Statue of Happiness (a barely-disguised Statue of Liberty) in IV’s Liberty City didn’t leave much up to interpretation.
Again, hardly subtle, but that’s the message: this system will eat you.

As for what the characters want, I think that’s a really interesting point. Franklin supposedly wants out of the gang-banging life that’s expected of him, but he’s seduced by the prospect of a bigger score that Michael presents.
Trevor doesn’t want anything. He’s cracked. He just exists moment to moment, following his violent impulses.
Michael, though…I think there’s humanity to Michael. He got exactly what he wanted: out. He wanted out of life as a criminal. He got a big house in the Hollywood hills, a beautiful wife, two kids, and it all turned to shit on him. His kids grew up into spoilt LA brats, his wife hates him, and he can’t get away from his own personality, his own need to create chaos and fulfil himself through crime. Michael’s sessions with his therapist are revealing here.

GTA’s America turns everybody into a monster, and I think what Rockstar invites us to consider is how far away GTA’s grossly exaggerated, hyper-violent America is from the real one. In some respects, are they so different?
I mean, obviously yes, America isn’t anywhere near the garish nightmare that Rockstar paints it out to be, but it still has something to say.

Greg Tito
Rockstar is trying to prove the American Dream is false‒everything from the inscription you quoted to the marketing copy has made that clear. But in the fantasy of GTA V’s world, there is nothing to compare it to. Is life better in GTA’s Europe? Are all humans destined to live a life of sadness and torture?
I reject that idea. I don’t think it’s especially revealing or clever, I just find it tiresome. Grand Theft Auto V’s supposed theme would have been made better if there was a character or a plot that followed a progression. That learned some of the truths the game is trying to impart along the way. Instead, it is as meaningless as watching COPS.

Keza MacDonald
Video games are continually presenting us with aspirational narratives. If you just do everything you’re supposed to, you’ll save the world, you’ll get the girl, you’ll defeat the bad guy. It’s a childish narrative that I’ve heard a thousand times, and I found GTA V’s nihilism refreshing. I also found it bitingly, wickedly funny most of the time, as well as a technically excellent video game, which meant that for me, despite its darkness, it wasn’t a depressing game‒though it is a sad one. I’m not saying that games shouldn’t say something aspirational, or tell a story that shows personal growth and reveals truths. They absolutely should. But GTA doesn’t go for that. What GTA wants to do is hold up a warped mirror to ourselves and our society, and ask us how far away we really are from what we see.

GTA fails to say anything hopeful about any of its thematic preoccupations. But that doesn’t make it a failure.

Greg Tito
I respect Rockstar for attempting something different, and the technical capacity of the game is undeniable. I appreciated GTA V’s excellent elements of exploration and discovery. The narrative failed because the characters were so consistently despicable, and inconsistent in their motivations, that any point or them was lost. You say GTA V holds up a mirror, but I don’t see any part of myself in its reflection. If there was more to compare to our own experiences, if there was a character who, like us, strives to do something‒anything‒and succeeds, then I could appreciate the satire of Los Santos. But because all three characters go from evil and pathetic to even more evil and pathetic by the time the credits roll, the story has no impact. Rockstar could have just given us the simulation, and proved whatever point just as well.

In a movie theater in Los Santos, you can go in and watch a surreal Italian film called Capolavoro full of silly images and inexplicably French sub-titled dialogue. At the end of the ten minute film‒I stayed and watched it all‒the director of the film appears and seems to laugh at you, the viewer, for staying and watching the movie. He says, “It is only by creative expression, in a world devoid of color and unique camera angles that our true nature can be revealed.” It was pointless. What does it say about the player who “plays” by watching this movie in Grand Theft Auto V?

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