I Hate GTAV’s Heroes, But That’s a Good Thing
Posted on Friday, September 27 @ 13:34:36 Eastern by Paul_Tamburro
Apologists of the Grand Theft Auto series’ inherent crudeness will often point to how some of its more unsavoury elements are optional, with it ultimately being left up to the player to decide whether or not they want to venture into its open-world all guns blazing, or behave like a civilised citizen and stop for red lights, refuse to drive into oncoming traffic and keep their guns firmly in their holsters outside of the story missions. While this is true to a certain extent, playing the game in this way would be failing to embrace GTA for what it is—a lunatic simulator.
GTAIV placed us in the shoes of Niko Bellic, an immigrant who comes to the US in pursuit of that elusive “American Dream”. Niko was a sympathetic character. He struggled with the morality of his actions and his return to the criminal world that he had been trying to escape from. So when you, playing as Niko, pulled an innocent man from out of his car before shooting him right between the eyes, it created a notable wedge between the game’s narrative and its gameplay. The plot portrayed Niko as a likeable protagonist, but given your sociopathic tendencies in the open world of Liberty City, having him go on romantic dates with Michelle and engage in light-hearted banter with his cousin Roman seemed disingenuous. That isn’t a problem in Grand Theft Auto V, as all three of its central protagonists are sociopaths, and are thoroughly unlikeable because of it.
Grand Theft Auto V is being branded a sillier game than its predecessor. This isn’t true. GTAIV’s narrative was Hollywoodian in scope, but was uncomfortably placed in the open-world of a sandbox video game. Rockstar is a studio that has always been brazen about its cinematic influences, but it seemed that they wanted GTAIV to be a movie, with Niko being pegged as a typical flawed but ultimately good hero, which was in stark contrast to all the fundamentally evil extra-curricular antics the player would indulge in, such as gleefully mowing down pedestrians and staging shootouts in strip clubs. On the other hand, Grand Theft Auto V is happy to just be a video game and to embrace the wackier elements of the medium, and it manages to do this successfully by putting us in control of characters who relish the kind of wanton mayhem the series has always provided. This is far less silly than having Niko desperately trying to escape the criminal underworld the one minute, then staging an impromptu massacre in a fast-food restaurant the next.
Playing as three protagonists who are all varying degrees of psychopathic has led many to complain that you cannot engage or empathise with them, but I am baffled by how this is considered to be a flaw. Michael, Franklin and Trevor are products of Los Santos’ cruel world. It’s a city filled exclusively with bastards, so why wouldn’t they be bastards, too? For the very first time since the GTA series has had speaking protagonists, the atrocities that you commit in its open-world do not feel incongruous with the personalities of the characters you are playing as. But GTAV is not just the first GTA game to achieve this – it’s the first sandbox game to achieve this, period.
Previously, sandbox games either ignored your actions outside of story missions, as was the case in GTAIV, or they employed “karma” systems that awkwardly tailored the story to your actions, be they good or bad, like in Infamous. But GTAV’s protagonists aren’t anti-heroes, nor are their personalities capable of changing depending upon how many innocent civilians you slaughter—Michael, Franklin and Trevor are villains, and I found playing as them to be a breath of fresh air, despite not being able to “connect” with them.
Why are we so obsessed with connecting with our protagonists in the first place? For too long, games have almost solely been fronted by emotionally vacant everymen, purposely built to be as plain as possible so that the player can easily “become” them. In GTAV, you aren’t “becoming” Michael, Trevor and Franklin, you’re experiencing their story, and their story is one of three guys trying to earn lots of cash with no ulterior motive other than that they really like money. Michael is an angry, disloyal, bad dad desperate to experience the thrill of the criminal lifestyle once again. Franklin is a readily agreeable lackey, keen to learn of Michael’s teachings in the way of the asshole. Finally, Trevor is the living embodiment of all the worst parts of Los Santos’ world. He’s extraordinarily nihilistic, violent and perverse, and as such he has attracted the criticism of many, because how can we possibly enjoy playing as him when he’s so unlikeable?
Well, that’s the point. Your first introduction to Trevor makes it abundantly clear that he isn’t a good guy. He’s a guy who’d no sooner shoot you in your skull than take the time to look at you, which is exactly how you’ll be treating the game’s NPCs. He’s a lunatic, and GTA has always welcomed the player to become a lunatic within its world, therefore making him the most successful representation of the player Rockstar has featured in any of their games to date.
Los Santos is a city where police pull their guns out on you if you stare at them for too long, and where pedestrians will punch you in the mouth if you stand in their proximity. You control three of this city’s most prolific and dangerous criminals, so why on Earth would they be anything less than loathsome? After Niko spoke of his desperation to leave the crime game before running down bystanders in his luxury sports car, and John Marston helped Bonnie tidy up the Macfarlane’s ranch before tying a Nun to train tracks, finally Rockstar has successfully managed to balance plot with open-world gameplay—but we’re too busy complaining that we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of the characters they’ve achieved this with.