Let me describe a mission I ran into early in Grand Theft Auto V.

Ostensibly my character was looking to reconnect with an old partner to arrange a robbery, but for nebulous reasons I was tasked with sabotaging the new prototype phone about to be unveiled by LifeInvader, a painfully obvious and unfunny parody of Facebook that abruptly morphs into a painfully unfunny parody of Apple for no discernible reason. The mission ends with me in front of my TV, waiting for the Mark Zuckerberg-esque CEO of the company to step on stage so I can call the prototype phone and activate whatever it was I put into it earlier. Try to guess what happens- does it flash bestiality porn onto the screen or something, leaving me to lol heartily as this corporate titan’s reputation is destroyed?

Nope. What actually happens is that the phone explodes, graphically blowing the guy’s head off. It’s not funny, it’s just nasty and mean-spirited.

As it turns out that’s a good way to describe GTA V as a whole.

GTA V tells the story (when it’s bothered to, at any rate) of three criminals who are thrown together by circumstances into a series of major heists: Micheal, a retired bank robber who faked his own death and escaped to sunny Los Santos to live in stifling wealth with his horrible family; Franklin, a Los Santos resident who feels nothing but contempt for the drug-dealing and gang warfare endemic to his run-down neighborhood but gladly joins Micheal on what he sees as a higher class of crime; and Trevor, Micheal’s psychopathic former bank robbing partner who discovers his fallen comrade has been lounging by pool-sides for ten years and takes off to Los Santos to track him down.

You might say it’s a bit farcical to expect likable characters from a Grand Theft Auto game. This is after all a franchise that basically turned sociopathy into a gameplay mechanic, the series that spawned the (inaccurate) “killing prostitutes for points”, a phrase that’s entered popular consciousness even if most people who use it don’t know where it comes from. And yet Grand Theft Auto IV seemed to break new ground when Rockstar, apparently coming to the mind-blowing conclusion that players might enjoy a game more if they actually liked the protagonist, gave us Niko Bellic, a career criminal who had performed despicable acts in the past and performs more despicable acts over the course of the game but who is also polite and friendly and generally just comes across like a fundamentally decent person irreparably tarnished by the experiences he’s been through. I liked playing as Niko. I was interested in hearing his dialogue and learning more about him.

Now contrast this with Micheal, a career criminal who tries to make a clean break then gets back into the game because he’s bored. The gist of Micheal’s story seems to be “look how hard it is to be a rich white guy with a big mansion”. Or what about Trevor? Someone at Rockstar was very proud of Trevor, I can tell. And his abrupt flying off the handle and chaotic personality are kind of amusing, sometimes. For like five minutes. Then he becomes alternately annoying and despicable. That leaves Franklin as the most likable of the three leads, but his sketchy characterization left me unable to really work up any interest in him. I had trouble getting a grip on what Franklin’s actual motivation was, as his main purpose in the story is more or less to just go along with whatever anyone else suggests.

Together these three stalwart anti-heroes spend a good 90% of the game either trading inane quips or screaming insults containing the word “fuck” at each other. You could re-create most of GTA V’s script by copy-pasting the following dialogue a few hundred times:

Character A: Fuck you!

Character B: No, fuck you!

Character A: No, fuck you!

This starts to get wearisome quite quickly, not helped by the fact that our main characters are frequently joined by members of a side cast composed entirely of caricatures of the worst elements of American society amplified up to 11. Literally every single one is an awful, annoying, grating stereotype. This would be tolerable if the game didn’t so often seem to forget what story it was supposed to be telling. The main tale of Micheal and pals pulling off heists is constantly put on hold so the writers can rail against some aspect of Our Zany Modern World, regardless of whether it’s particularly interesting or makes any sense, so that one minute you’re planning a jewelry store heist and the next you’re abseiling down the side of a building for the FBI. The basic story of Micheal’s murky past coming back to haunt him and Franklin becoming his protege in crime is interesting, but it only occasionally rises to the surface of the fetid swamp that is the rest of the game’s writing.

I’ve never found the previous GTA games particularly funny, but the franchise reaches its nadir with GTA V, a game that seriously thinks “LifeInvader” is a good parody of Facebook and that merely introducing a recognizable riff on a real concept counts as satire. Look, reality TV! Selfies! Facebook! Apple! Look at all of these things you encounter on a daily basis, isn’t this hilarious! Also what’s the deal with airplane food? Rockstar, here’s a hint: if you constantly rub my nose in the shallowest and most annoying aspects of American culture I’m not going to get mad at American culture, I’m going to get mad at you for making me sit through this nonsense. Besides, the things this game says are all utterly banal and self evident. Facebook and Google are decidedly dodgy about data privacy? You don’t say! Reality TV is a vapid intellectual wasteland that exploits the public humiliation of shallow losers for entertainment? My God man we must alert the press. The one time the game comes close to actual relevancy is in a viscous parody of entitled male gamers, but the character embodying this trope is so fucking annoying I just wanted him to not be on-screen any time the story forced me to be in his presence. Also, Rockstar’s swipe at gamers comes packaged into a  recurring and deeply crotchety beef with “millenials” and their supposed aversion to work and productivity, a thematic strand that only serves to remind me how long it’s been since this franchise started.

Even if previous games didn’t have particularly sophisticated humor they came across as mostly good-natured jabs at aspects of American pop culture that the developers recognized weren’t really that big a deal. It was delivered with tongue firmly in cheek and a knowing wink to the audience. Now, though? This shit is serious business. I get the feeling that someone (possibly several someones) at Rockstar really, honestly hates American Idol with the fury of a thousand burning suns and doesn’t want you to laugh at it; they want you to get as angry about it as they are, and they’ll slam you over the head with that anger until you either give in or start skipping the cut scenes. I went for option number 2.

I guess it’s this undercurrent of rage that informs how nasty GTA V can be. I’ve already talked about the exploding phone thing, an early mission that demonstrates a frankly worrying level of anger against Mark Zuckerberg on the part of whoever was responsible for writing it, but similar moments are peppered throughout. Trevor spends a good chunk of the game harassing, threatening and generally destroying the life of the timid cousin of one of his underlings, a sequence of events I think we were meant to find bust-a-gut-funny but that I found unpleasant and eventually even disturbing. The absolute nadir of GTA V’s dark side is a mission where you torture an innocent Azerbaijani man for the FBI, because when the US government tortures innocent people the responsible reaction from game developers is to let players in on the fun. Thus a long, extremely uncomfortable sequence where you (as Trevor, naturally) shatter the guy’s knees, waterboard him, pull his teeth out and attach a car battery to his nipples, all performed with interactive QTEs. Because that’s fun. Because that’s what I want in my entertainment.

(If you come into the comments sniffing about how it’s just a game, man I will punt you into the moon)

I don’t want to overstate myself and give the impression that GTA V is non-stop grimdark torture porn or that I hated every second of the characters’ interactions with each other. There are some funny lines now and again and some of the banter was quite endearing. But for the most part I found myself actually contemplating turning the sound off during the missions so as to avoid any more exposure to the dialogue and that fact that the characters just will not shut the fuck up for even a second.

So what about the actual gameplay? It’s certainly true that Rockstar have crafted a compelling open world. I had a lot of fun driving off-road vehicles down mountains and stealing fighter planes. GTA V’s environments are often stunningly gorgeous, especially if you venture out of the city and into the expansive countryside that takes up most of the map. Eventually, though, I had to start playing the story missions and that’s where things started to really go wrong on the gameplay front.

All of the old Grand Theft Auto flaws are still present- your characters still skitter across the environment like ants on roller-skates, the guns still feel weedy and unsatisfying to use, the cover system is just as finicky as when it was introduced in GTA IV, pedestrians still have a tendency to randomly scream and yell for no apparent reason, sprinting still feels like your character is being propelled from behind by some sort of invisible force. But I don’t remember past GTA games being quite this boring.

It boggles my mind that a developer can create an entire game world based around player freedom and spontaneous wacky situations and then saddle it with a story campaign that completely ignores all of that. GTA V’s missions are as linear as a Call of Duty game, a series of rigid checkpoints that too often reduces the player to a lion jumping through hoops in service to some “cinematic” aspiration on the part of the developers. Quick, go here! Now climb on that thing! Talk to the dude! Now chase this guy, except not really because if he gets too far away he’ll just stop and wait for you to catch up! You wanted to use your awesome souped up motorbike for this mission? Well too bad, you’re using a truck just because. Now land the helicopter on this exact spot and not an inch to the right! I’m not joking when I say that after five of these dreary, plodding affairs I was already getting apprehensive about doing any more. Far, far too much of this game is spent in endless, repetitive shoot-outs or driving long distances while the characters never stop talking.

If not for the awful storytelling and idiotic, grating “humor” I would have been able to recommend this as a fun open world lulz generator, good for a rental and a few days of driving off mountains. But no, I can’t. I realize that given the sheer amount this thing sold there’s probably a copy of it within your range of vision right at this second regardless of whether you actually bought one, but I’m still going to tell you not to buy or play GTA V. It is not worth your time, it did not deserve to bring millions upon millions of dollars into the bank accounts of its creators. It is the fetid product of a middle-aged establishment trying desperately to pass its inane bluster and cranky grumbling off as insightful satire. Cast it from your sight and let it be buried by time.


10 thoughts on “GTA V

  1. Pingback: Watch_Dogs | Doing In The Wizard

  2. Tim

    Playing through again, I’m really getting the impression the designers wanted the game to primarily be about the heists but the writer wanted to write a bunch of tiresome “insightful” shit that got in the way. The game would be far better if only the first and last heists were plot missions and there were ten or twenty others where it was up to you to pick a target, case the place, figure out a plan and get the pieces and crew together, with the story mainly focusing on Michael going back to the only thing he enjoys or is good at and becoming a mentor to Franklin.

    I can’t really agree with you about Niko, though: with both him and CJ in SA there was a massive disconnect between who the story was about and what you were allowed to do when it was your turn. A GTA protagonist needs to be capable of anything, not just a basically good guy with shit luck or whatever.

    I think with Franklin they were trying to address something that annoyed me in SA, the suggestion that it was wrong for CJ to be ambitious or seek a better life for himself because he had to “be true to the hood,” which somehow meant living in a dead-end neighbourhood under a bridge with his relentlessly small-time guilt-tripping hypocritical manipulative asshole of a brother.

  3. Tim

    Much as it’s not well done, I do think people criticising the torture mission missed what it was trying to do: it’s supposed to present a counterpoint to the ticking clock scenario that’s often used to justify “enhanced interrogation.” Here there’s a time-critical situation and a guy with vital information, but the torture doesn’t help at all (in fact it just makes it harder for the guy to remember) and ultimately the shot is called on a fifty-fifty basis by a bunch of bored agents in the field who just want to fuck off and get back to their normal lives.

    I guess the idea was people would be like “well, what about GTA?” when people bring up Jack Bauer (which IIRC Anton Scalia actually did at a congressional hearing) but most people just saw it as more grimdark adultry.

  4. Pingback: The VGX Awards | Doing In The Wizard

  5. KC

    I think people like GTA V for the same reason people seem to love The Name Of The Wind; it’s not about what they want, it’s about what people *think* they want.

    People think they want sophisticated, adult fantasy. Rothfuss’s “Kvothe needs money” plot cul-de-sacs certainly seem adult enough – in the same way doing your taxes is adult – and if you squint sideways at the purple prose, the teenage-notebook lyrics, and the nonsense metaphors you might trick yourself into seeing actual poetic devices.

    Likewise, people want to think they’re playing more than just a silly videogame. They think they want a sophisticated crime drama – a Scarface for the PS3. Some gritty anti-heroes, profanity, et cetera and away we go.

    Anyway, Saints Row IV was a million times better than GTA so go spend some money on that, I guess.

    1. Al

      I disagree when it comes to GTA, I don’t think it’s main appeal is as a sophisticated crime drama. Everyone I know bought it just to run around and blow things up.

      1. KC

        Then why did it outperform -critically as well as sales-wise- SR IV: whose sole purpose was to run around blowing things up in much more interesting ways (with better characters, with a better storyline)? I think it was because it looked like there was more there than there really was.

      2. Al

        I don’t doubt that the critics and marketeers buy into the delusion, but I definitely think the average fan is more attracted by the open sandbox gameplay than the story (just anecdotal, of course).

        I also think there is a huge nostalgia bonus that Saints Row doesn’t get – GTA III was seen as revolutionary, and later installments have been about expanding and perfecting that game, I think, for the designers and fans alike.

        So the difference in sales is more a result of the legacy of the series than anything else.

    2. Tim

      I don’t think it’s right to blame the players for Dan Houser’s pretensions of talent (the games industry’s attempts to gaslight players into accepting their bad practices are somehow our fault gets too much praise, especially for clueless shit like Spec Ops: The Line made by people who don’t even know why people play that kind of game to begin with); the GTA series’ main weaknesses are being overwritten and focusing too much on excessively planned and micromanaged missions where all the open world stuff is useless because you’re just running through a checklist of allowed actions. People hated 4 because it was so concerned you’d be bored that it constantly nagged you to do side missions while you were trying to mess around and have fun. V at least cut down on that, and I’d say in raw gameplay terms was at least a small step back from the brink. I think the series really died when Liberty City Stories made you redo the stupid swordfight from San Andreas but *specifically* redesigned to prevent the clever-dick option of using your shotgun instead of the sword. Because why reward the player for being creative, they’re there to do what you tell them to!

      It does come off as a bunch of grizzled thirtysomeshits failing to empathise with youth and whining about how their culture is worthless and vacuous due to its failure to be exactly the same, which has always been a pastime of the chronically middle aged.

  6. Al

    It doesn’t seem like the humor’s changed much, although I do remember in 3 there being a lot of stuff about black helicopters and government conspiracies, so maybe it was at least directed a little higher up. Didn’t play 4. Rockstar’s apparent inability to even consider a woman as one of the three protagonists I think is indicative of the lack of imagination behind these games. They’re trying to perfect the experience of earlier installments, not do anything new.

    The next revolution with these real-world sandbox games will be a fully immersive level of detail along what was the name of that horrorish game in the house you reviewed a while back with realistic consequences for behavior. When you can go into every room an every building (if you have the key or can break in), and there is stuff to do or look at or take in each one, that opens up whole new moral modalities for gameplay that haven’t really been seen before, especially if that openness is paired with a more vibrant and nuanced punishment and reward landscape as well. Games have been hobbled by the perception that combat AI is a lot easier to do cheaply than social AI, but with MMOs and the graphical demands slipping away (or with many games them turning into art design demands) we are going to see this second type of gameplay really open up.

    It is strange they haven’t figured out the controls, though, it’s like they work on nothing but the animations until the very end, or something.


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