I’ve had some more time recently to play GTA V singleplayer more, and I figured having seen the changes made to the PC version compared to my original experience on the PS3 it was time to discuss. As a starting disclaimer, I haven’t finished the singleplayer campaign and have instead replayed much of what I’ve already played on the PS3, for all I know the story could nosedive into obscure cyberpunk fantasy halfway through. This shouldn’t really be an issue as I don’t intend to cover GTA as self-enclosed story anyway, instead I wish to discuss the themes and general narrative trend of the single player.
As you’re probably no doubt aware the story of GTA V is split across three characters, one ex-bank robber turned LA mansion dwelling day-time drinker: Michael. One psychopath turned… well psychopath: Trevor. Finally the relatively faceless Franklin, a child of “the hood” wanting to do better than become yet another failed OG. Of this cast Franklin is the most “GTA”, providing a faceless character into which the player can inject character however due to how the game switches these character around those efforts often fall short. Previous incarnations of GTA allowed the player to take an almost finished character, like Niko and then through gameplay and a little imagination finish the character construction. To begin with Franklin appears to be this character however the character switching soon forces the player into Michael or Trevor whom then interact with a Franklin beyond your control. I think perhaps the intention of the character swapping was not to break immersion in this manner but rather allow the player to immerse themselves into different characters. The end result of this, I feel, is the opposite as the player is forced to play within the rails of the character that they’ve been forced into for that section of the game. Whilst Franklin in fairly faceless and can be moulded and played just about any way the player wishes, Michael and especially Trevor have very specific modus operandi and to play those characters of these rails feels wrong. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by years of highly customisable RPGs, it’s probably better to view this manner of storytelling not as we normally would for a game but instead as might for a television series.
This television series comparison is the closest I can get to describing the manner in which the GTA V story operates. To some extent the character/perspective swapping is very similar to devices found in novels, but I wouldn’t reckon that’s the inspiration. Instead the inspiration of the GTA V story seems to be rather distinct: the Breaking Bad flavour of television. I’m not saying that it is absolutely inspired by Breaking Bad itself, instead I’m saying that the game has turned away from an extroverted zany humour and is now attempting to grasp a tragic dark humour. This ties rather closely I suppose into the setting of the game, an LA of today. The choice of LA is interesting as the city is generally considered to contain some of the least pleasant examples of Americanisation to be found anywhere, it is in fact the quintessential warped dreamscape of the American dream. The timing too, being as it is a modern day representation means that this becomes a return to the area for the series, further complicating matters and building this sense of tragic humour. The characters mirror the game, pushing into middle age, the frivolities of youth passed and left with a difficult sense of directionless. I would say that the whole construction is quite clever, with the city and characters mirroring the game itself within its own timeline rather nicely. Much of this representation ties nicely, although it’s perhaps a little obvious. The vapid nature of Los Santos’ residents is a rather scathing indictment not only of LA but also of this represented culture in which GTA V exists, the directionless sensation of the primary cast representing quite clearly the game itself, building a new fortune from a past reclaimed. Franklin is the GTA San Andreas, sucked into world where the 90s gangster culture has now aged beyond relevance and his response to those “OG”s that attempt tempt him with the past is much the same. Michael is the success of the game series, a muddy criminal past that has led to a dull middle-age existence, success as a chore. Finally Trevor represents the instinctive psychopath of the guilt-free GTA free-roam, a necessary addition if only to ensure that this quintessential GTA character is recognised as the other two playable characters display some form of humanity and morality.
For whatever reason a part of me wants to dislike all of these elements of GTA V. I want to say that all of this shows a game taking itself too seriously, that this form of critical awareness is unnecessary and lost on 95% of the intended audience and 99.99% of the unintended audience of 12 year olds with bad parents. The problem is, I can’t really say that I don’t like all of this, again I feel that it was unnecessary but that’s not really enough to dislike it. The character switching does bother me a little, but I feel that that’s the reason for GTA Online’s existence where the entire purpose is the construction of a unique character and the immersion into their existence in San Andreas. The entire point of the story of GTA V is that every part must be taken with a pinch of salt, the entire narrative continues a dark and tragic humour of Breaking Bad. As a cultural artifact GTA V represents the gradual collapse of the American dream in almost all of its forms, attacking both those that legitimately gather the wealth for success and those that do so illegitimately, generally through blurring the lines between the two. Perhaps this actually represents a healthy realisation of the bankruptcy of American “culture”, a self-awareness that as a nation the US desperately needs to accept and embrace. Though perhaps even at the shallow level at which this message is buried it is still too indirect, what is the point in this critique if the majority of those playing the game lack even the basic understanding of irony required to read the message. My greatest issue with the story is possibly exactly this: the audience will likely misunderstand and misinterpret the game to such a degree that what is in fact a critique of the subject is twisted into a celebration of the subject. The nearest comparison that I can make is Al Murray’s “The Pub Landlord”, a satirical character so perfectly constructed that his irony is lost on the majority of his audience, at which point in the eyes of many he becomes a celebration of the idiocy he critiques with such unfortunate skill.
This hasn’t really been a regular review, but then with something like GTA V something a little less analytical wasn’t really going to cut it. The game is immense and the world is astonishingly well realised, even ignoring the aspects that I’ve mentioned above. The common critique of GTA has been that the series has now pushed itself into being too serious, especially compared to the Saints Row games that have continued the zanier traditions of the early GTA iterations. I’m not sure that this critique quite holds out though, yes the zany humour and obvious ridiculousness are gone but it’s been replaced by a much deeper and more scathing form of satire. GTA V is the middle aged game suffering a midlife crisis, struggling to find meaning and satisfaction in its success, it is Michael.
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