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.