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Opinion: Grand Theft Auto V’s Story Is At Odds With Itself
Grand Theft Auto V has been out for almost a week now, and I’ve been frantically playing through it for review, which you can look for sometime this week. I’m a film student, so with video games, I generally look at things from a slightly more storytelling centrist perspective, and I’ve always loved the GTA series for its highly confident sense of storytelling. The series has had a interesting thematic evolution throughout the years, and in many ways GTA V feels like the somewhat awkward culmination of this evolution.
To give a quick history lesson, Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2 were rather bare, plot-wise, with a streak of satire and general disdain for society and authority that didn’t have a whole lot to say beyond being the megaphone for the Houser brother’s streak of 90’s era hip-hop rebellion. The Grand Theft Auto 3 saga, especially 2005’s San Andreas, were substantially more developed tonally, taking place in a ridiculous, hyper-stylized version of America, where drugs were everywhere and the cops were openly corrupt.
Grand Theft Auto IV traded it’s predecessor’s lack of subtlety for a deeply rooted sense of cynicism. The world of this next-generation Liberty City was harsh and dark and completely and totally dysfunctional. The further you got into the game’s world, the more depressing and desperate it felt. The somewhat light-hearted political satire of previous games became far more biting and vicious, best embodied by the dark-humorist Weazel News radio stations. Some loved this mature tone, and some felt it was too strong a departure from previous entries.
With Grand Theft Auto 5, the tone feels like a middle-ground between the two extremes. The radio stations of Liberty City return almost wholesale, updated vaguely to reflect the events of the past few years, but the satire feels more aimless than before. The characters are more outlandish than ever, but Rockstar still tries to give them emotional arcs and moments of humanity. The plot is more grounded and dramatic than that of San Andreas, but it isn’t afraid to lean into moments of violent insanity, especially during the game’s heist sequences. The tone feels like a weird and sometimes inconsistent amalgamation of the series’ previous games, and feels at odds with itself at times.
It’s like the team at Rockstar spent the past five years being really into Breaking Bad and the Fast and the Furious films, and wanted to make a game that combined the two’s styles.
This sense of tonal conflict is best represented by Michael’s family and their relationships. In an early game mission, Michael violently smashes his son’s television with a chair. It’s a ridiculous outlandish moment of violence, and it works because of how knowingly barbaric Michael’s response is. But then it’s followed by an well-written character moment that sees Michael and his son racing down the Los Santos boardwalk. Then the mission transfers into a violent gun-fueled jet ski ride through the sewers. At time like this, Grand Theft Auto V’s tone feels at odds with itself, wanting to have the drama and character moments of cable drama, but unsure that the audience will be willing to endure the quiet pace required for these moments to have impact.
While Michael’s family might embody the downside of this middle-ground style, the character of Trevor proves it can work. Unnervingly violent and operating on a f*****g insane sense of moral code, Trevor steals just about every scene he’s in, and really feels like the only character that can match the game’s changes from seriousness to camp. At one moment, he’ll brutally murder an entire game of bikers, and in another, he’ll deride his hillbilly slaves for using the word “bitch.” The contrast in his character is hilarious, and carries the game through its more awkward tonal transitions.
I don’t quite know how to feel about the story of Grand Theft Auto V, not yet. It feels less ponderous than GTA IV and less nonsensical than San Andreas, but at the same time, it seems to lack an identity. The heists, and the light-hearted dialogue wrapped around them, are great, but sometimes the actions just feel outlandish when compared to the grounded tone of the world. And the character moments often work and feel dramatic, if you forget about the outlandish actions leading up to them. It’s like the team at Rockstar spent the past five years being really into Breaking Bad and the Fast and the Furious films, and wanted to make a game that combined the two’s styles.
Previous Grand Theft Auto games, no matter how you felt about their tone, felt confident in their style, but here, it feels like a story at a crossroads between insanity and realism. It’s enjoyable, sure, but it definitely feels like a response to the criticism of Grand Theft Auto IV, and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a little disappointing.