GTA V, stop talking so loud I can hear what you’re saying

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Grand Theft Auto V arrived in much the same way as the preceding three GTAs: to a fanfare of adulation and articles heralding it as another milestone on the road of gaming evolution.

Its pedigree is definitely one of innovation. The first GTA back in 1996 felt like an awesome step in the right direction. The game was a sprawling 2D world, a day-glow city, starring you as a nameless, faceless psychopath. Later came Grand Theft Auto III which would help cement the sandbox genre as the trend that everyone then attempted to ape. It wasn’t difficult to see why with it offering this beguiling simulated city, and a feeling that you could go anywhere and do anything.

In both these cases, for me, this illusion was broken fairly quickly. The original GTA 2D’s progression was dependent on accumulating money and this was only meaningfully accomplished by completing missions. If you failed a mission then it became almost impossible to beat the game. At that point play degenerated into driving aimlessly around a city with very little else to do except for a tediously long grind through menial tasks – or restarting the entire game to repeat the already dull missions.

I remember, vividly, one mission that embodied the chore that was the mission structure. It involved following a car – not too close, not too far away – for ages. I never finished that mission and I never finished the game because of it.

Almost 20 years later I played the same mission in GTA V. The only difference was the level of fidelity – oh yeah, and the fact that it was in full 3D.

Before I get into the nitty gritty of what makes GTA V not just an embarrassing game but a lazy one to boot, let’s talk about the good parts of one of the greatest games of the last generation.

The good

The world is an amazing accomplishment; the city of San Andreas is evocative of Los Angeles. From the sleazy Hollywood area to the sun-bleached muscle cages of Venice Beach, every moment feels authentic to the smog haze that is the cesspit of LA. This would be impressive if it were a linear game but it is it is almost mind blowing when you consider that you can go anywhere and do anything*.

For all the complaints I have with the story I cannot blame the voice actors for the ham-fisted writing and plotting. Every one of the performances is well-delivered with nary a lazy line; even the most peripheral of characters has their moment and they breathe life into the stillborn script.

With that out of the way, we are all set to go.

Please note, if you have any interest in the narrative events of GTA V but haven’t played it then this is not the article for you. I will be going into some detail about plot lines and characters, such as they are.

Missions, missions, missions

It is amazing how little has changed in GTA. Each story mission pretty much consists of driving along a road while you listen to some extremely tired dialogue while nothing really happens. When you arrive at your destination you will usually trigger a cutscene and then have to drive back to where you came from.

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If you are really unlucky there will be more to do.

Here are some examples of missions:

  • Walk into a building, go to a person’s computer, dismiss some porn pop-ups so that you can click on the anti-virus protection program. After doing that, go to a room and press a button so that you can watch a cutscene later, in which a man’s head is blown off by an explosive phone.

  • Go to a shipping yard. Drive a truck really slowly in order to pick up some cargo crates and put them somewhere else, so that you can then pick them up and put them on a truck. Once that is done you climb up a ladder to take some photographs of a boat.

  • Drive to a corner so that you can look at a parking lot. Drive to another spot and look at a security alarm, set the alarm off by shooting it (!), then drive around the corner to trigger a cutscene and watch some cops become alerted.

In a better pair of hands this could be made to work. Shenmue manages to make the mundane enticing by making the simple act of finding someone’s phone number obtuse. Driving a forklift truck is actually challenging so it becomes an exercise to try and win the early morning race. Failure at these mundane tasks means less money and an internal resolution to do better the next day.

With GTA, however, victory is a foregone conclusion because deviating from the plan that the developers have assigned to you means game over and you then have to repeat the monotonous charade again – and again – until you see the insultingly joyous “Mission Cleared” screen.

Unless you get the Mission Failed screen with the ease that I do…

That “Mission Cleared” screen really is insulting because you see it with such frequency and for the most minor of accomplishments (I talked to my son – brilliant!) that it feels as if the game is mocking you with a continuous mantra that robs its words of their meaning. Additionally, I feel that it undermines what these ‘missions’ are supposed to be, which is a build up of tension towards the set pieces of the game – the heists. Those klaxon-like mission screens serve as speed bumps and lessen their value every time you see them.

Oh yeah: the heists suck. They were much vaunted in the early promotional material with promise of dynamic setups for robberies and the opportunity to switch between each of the three playable characters to pull off immensely cinematic moments, like controlling a guy rappelling down a building to rescue a man incarcerated by federal agents, and switching intuitively to a sniper to offer support. The problem is that every moment is entirely dictated by the game itself; it is Rockstar North design crowding out any opportunity for emergent gameplay. It is so heavily scripted, for fear that you might try and do something different, that the game even sinks to wresting control from you to ensure you never step out of line with that vision. The developers make no mistake in relegating the player to a back seat. The ideas for visceral thrills are there: one of the heists ends with you walking through a small town, in full body armour, firing a mini-gun at helicopters. It is testament to the shitty game design that this whole scenario feels utterly rote, in much the same way that driving to one spot and triggering a cutscene does.

I could keep going on about how boring each of the story and side missions was but I can already hear naysayers countering that I should let loose in the sandbox environment as was intended. I mean, no one plays the story missions unless they have to, right?

Verbs are everything and nothing

The problem is that it wouldn’t make the game any more exhilarating if I had followed that advice. The reason for that is the main ways to interact with the world are kill and drive, and both are pretty rubbish in execution.

Automatic lock-on for shooting is set up as standard. This turns every action sequence or encounter into an utter farce. You press one button to get your assigned target and then press another to kill/destroy it. This is repeated until that utterly deplorable ‘Mission Cleared’ bullshit shows up.

For a game that aims to be mature the assignment of murder to a couple of button presses seems reductive to the point of irrelevance. You can argue that killing comes naturally to the people you control and that it clearly reflects the characters’ psychotic/homicidal tendencies in the same way that breaking into a car and driving it is second nature; making it simple for the sake of narrative coherence. The problem with that line of reasoning is that when you look at the larger picture of GTA it ends up looking like Rockstar wanting to have their mechanics cake and eat their satirical/serious storyline – without really having to see how the two marry or considering how they contribute to the game’s bloat.

So, some will agree that the missions are kind of shit and they aren’t really supported by strong gameplay. What is it that makes up the majority of what people enjoy?

The answer is drive around and shoot stuff until something happens.

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I’ve indulged in this senseless, destructive hedonism and then been accused of not being imaginative enough in my killing sprees. Apparently, as explained to me, I can do anything but I am not doing anything well enough.

My problem is that the systems implemented severely attempt to limit your options.

Two contemporary examples of games that allow you to do anything where the underlying systems encourage you to indulge in them are Just Cause 2 and Minecraft.

Minecraft is a technically inferior game to Grand Theft Auto V but you have to marvel at how each of the systems encourages the player to explore the possibilities within the world. The night/day cycle requires you to protect yourself and also search for shelter. Searching for shelter causes you to learn how to craft and subsequently build. Upon learning how to craft you realise you can upgrade items. Upgrading forces you to explore for more rare items. Exploring will eventually make you hungry, so that will demand you learn to hunt and farm so that you can feed yourself. I am barely scratching the surface but the synergy between each of these pursuits is so clever and yet so simple.

Just Cause 2 doesn’t have the same set of intricate systems but what it understands is that, as a player, people will do different things, and that it is okay to break the game. Missions do not tell you what is necessary and instead expect you to figure it out and, occasionally, fail. At the same time, you might show up over-equipped or over-prepared for a scenario and breeze through it. Just Cause 2 respects you for that and instead of neutering you, empowers. On top of that your chaotic actions do have an impact; you will find that your destructive nature slowly destabilises the current government. It isn’t a lot but at least you feel like there are consequences to your actions.

GTA V is dull in that respect. It works in coaxing you to commit crimes in which you drive recklessly and shoot people. The result is that you are then chased by an ever-escalating police force; the sensible option is to escape and neutralise that threat but that would mean going back to doing the deathly dull missions. The challenge and the way that the systems are built instead encourage you to continue to elevate that threat and see how you long you last: keep shooting and keep driving.

There are a few achievements/trophies that encourage this behaviour but because Rockstar is too busy trying to tell a story it won’t give this part of the game what it really needs – a leaderboard – so that fans can fully indulge in the ‘best’ part of this game and compete for scores in how long they can evade authorities. As a result this sidetracking is empty, especially as when you get caught or killed it makes little difference. You restart with all the weapons you had so you can continue doing the same meaningless shit once again, having no lasting impact on the world.

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But hey, man, it’s all about the story!

Except the story is terrible.

If I was being polite, I’d say that GTA has a tone problem. It swings so heavily between pathos and jokes that I want to forgive it, but mainly it has caused me so much whiplash from the constant seesawing that I just want it to stop.

Here’s a quote from Claire Hosking’s article in Polygon about how to improve the reputation of games and gamers:

“The hard part is many people believe all games are infantile, sexist and feature gratuitous violence. The whole of games culture is presented as being insular, defensive, belligerent and even toxic. The bigger problem is that much of game culture lives up to that stereotype.”

GTA does nothing to dissuade one from such opinions. This is most apparent in the way that they have decided to frame the three characters that you play as.

Michael

The first character you play as is a classic self-victimising abuser. The opening of the game is a heist gone bad and he abandons his friends to live in witness protection and escape his life of violence. He neglects his admittedly terrible family and spends the entire game blaming everyone else for his problems. When he is forced to confront any of these issues he reacts in a manipulating manner or with immediate violence. Occasionally, in an extremely clumsy manner, another character will straight out call him on his bullshit (usually during one of the very long boring drives to some pointless destination) and he will successfully shrug it off. Michael shows that he only uses his problems as excuses for him to act out; he has no desire to fix any of them because if he did he might have to face up to what a shitty person he is.

This could represent a masterclass in character study but the writers and the game insist on framing Michael in a twisted positive light. This is done by juxtaposing him with some of the worst human waste committed to screen (more on one in particular later) and it ends up making the audience sympathetic with him. When you are dealing with corrupt agents, racist cops and government officials abusing their power, you tend to be a bit more lenient toward an honest, down-on-his-luck criminal scumbag.

Michael and Franklin

The only people that berate him eventually end up being his enablers. An example of this is his wife. She leaves him only to return after she encourages him to beat up the Yoga instructor that she has been sleeping with. This scene is particularly odious because not only is this done while Michael’s son is encouraging him, it’s clear that if the writers had wanted to they could have created a macabre partnership between Michael and his wife with the Yoga instructor an innocent casualty of their destructive relationship. Because they instead feel the need to paint the world as ‘everyone else being wrong’ the instructor is just another abusive arsehole and, as the player, you feel Michael is justified in knocking the guy’s teeth out. Compounding this, the vignette is aimed at making you feel sorry for Michael for going back to his wife.

The worst is when the game then just throws Michael’s denial in there for jokes. One mission called ‘Legal trouble’ is a pernicious example of this. A long-running build-up of Michael’s involvement with a burnt-out director requires you to go around bullying people to make sure that a film gets made. The twist comes when it turns out that the producer doesn’t want the film released, so he takes the film reel and hands it to his lawyer, Molly Schultz, to get rid of.

Michael, conveniently, just stands there and waits for her to get in a car and drive off before whipping himself into a frenzy and giving chase. Inexplicably she has a police escort/pursuit and for some reason panics (women, amirite?) and ends up causing a high speed chase across an airport. The whole time Michael, who initiated this entire chase, is shouting about how she should calm down. He can’t seem to understand why cops are shooting at him as he has ‘done nothing wrong’. The chase culminates on foot after Molly crashes her car (women drivers – pfft); she then gets sucked into a jet engine and turned into giblets. Michael retrieves the film and has to escape the cops; much to his surprise they seem to be upset with him after he chased and harassed a person to their death.

After all of that ‘fun’ it turns out the film was never in danger and the whole thing was backed up digitally. Jokes!

The whole thing is so tonally messed up that it made me kind of sick.

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Franklin

Franklin is a bit of a nothing character. There are some clumsy attempts at pointing out that he is no longer “Down” with his “Homies”, and at the end of the game there is a moment where the writers try to imply that the corruption of money – of lots of money – means that Franklin is on the same path as Michael, but it is waved away in favour of a crescendo of explosions and bullets.

The writers were clearly inspired by films like Menace II Society, but Franklin lacks the magnetic and scary performance of Larenz Tate and ends up just being the token black guy. His dog Chop had more things going for it.

Amusingly, by being the shallowest character Franklin ends up being the most likeable.

Trevor

Trevor is one of Michael’s betrayed friends from the beginning of the game. He is a wide-eyed, skullet-wielding psychopath and also happens to be the biggest example of the weak writing and the clumsiness of the game’s justification of its violence.

Trevor is portrayed as an agent of pure chaos. He is used as the personification of the player’s desire to wreak havoc, or at least that seems to be the intention. A lot of people I spoke to would role play: Michael was the cool efficient type that didn’t mind getting his hands dirty, Trevor in contrast was used to run rampant over San Andreas. I wouldn’t mind him, gross caricature that he is, if the writers weren’t so intent on trying to make me identify with him.

His anti-establishment stance is the biggest joke. Trevor is supposed to be someone who has fallen off the radar and is happy to have done so. However, every mission shows him being entirely beholden to the establishment. It could have been interesting to try and explore a real anarchist character, or to have even reached an SLC Punk-level of self awareness and acknowledge that even people choosing to exist outside society still fit grudgingly within the system. Instead Trevor is a parrot for Rockstar’s poorly thought-out politics. Trevor will rant about the state of America or the decaying of the American dream and it just feels utterly trite.

They can’t even keep Trevor consistent. In one boring mission he chastises his compatriot for being overpaid at his harbour job considering how badly he does it. Less than five minutes later he goes on a tirade about how the guy is being taken advantage of by his girlfriend and how she was living off of his hard-earned cash.

His rampages and murderous sprees in missions are all excused because there just happens to be an ethical reason to do them, too. The writers seem to be desperate to tell you that Trevor isn’t all bad.

Trevor

You end up having to shoot cops, but the story explains that they are corrupt. Later you shoot FIB agents (the game’s parody of FBI) but they are all on the take so that doesn’t matter. Even later you are killing Merryweather agents, but fuck private military companies so that’s fine.

This is part of what I meant by Rockstar wanting to have its cake and eat it. They like the idea of Trevor being a nutter, but he has to be a nutter with principles. His vile urges are preferable to the corrupt establishment – and they want you to believe that.

Spann wrote about the benchmark Trevor moment, which is him torturing an innocent man. Spann argued that this scene was important due to gaming needing to mature; this was achieved by being forced to indulge in Trevor’s seedier, nastier side. It is a great article but having now played that scene I don’t think it is well executed at all. You press a couple of buttons and get to hear some hilarious one liners. Interestingly, another Rockstar game, Manhunt, does a much better job at making you understand the maliciousness of actions through mechanics. This scene in GTA, by contrast, ends up feeling like Hostel if at the end of the film the torturer and victim ended up being buddies. Spann argued that the reason Trevor rescues his torturee (he drops him off at an airport with no clothes, no money and no passport, so it is a rubbish gesture) is to show how anti-establishment he is, but my interpretation was Rockstar twisting a character to their whims because they are unwilling to make their audience feel bad about themselves.

Other defenders of Trevor – because that is the kind of response his character receives – will point to the tender relationship that he develops with Patricia, the wife of a drug lord. I think it is fair to say that although this begins with him kidnapping her as revenge for her husband’s transgressions, the game tries to show the sweeter side of Trevor.

An excerpt from the book ‘Why does he do that? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men‘ by Lundy Bancroft explains my reaction to this clearly:

“At the other end of the spectrum we find an equally common – and equally misleading – view of abusers: the abuser as a man whose gentle humanity is just barely hidden under his abusive surface and who can be transformed by love compassion and insight. One morning he will wake up to realize how hurtful he has been and will renounce his cruelty, particularly if he has the love of a good woman. This outlook is portrayed and supported in popular songs, movies, romantic novels, and soap operas.”

To see how an abusive man is portrayed accurately you need only look at Nil by Mouth by Gary Oldman, or read Porno by Irvine Welsh and pay attention to Begbie’s storyline. In both cases you are made to understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the abuser that he takes out on his victim; there are grace periods and honeymoon phases but to try and paint them as softies looking for a good woman is irresponsible.

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When the opportunity arises near the end of the game to either kill Trevor, Michael or neither (again allowing for the player to not have to make any choices that might make them feel bad) I chose neither as I didn’t like the idea of choosing one miserable character’s ideology over the other’s. I wish I could have chosen both.

But, but– but it’s satire!

Any time I pointed out clunky dialogue to fans of the game they would hand-wave it away with the argument ‘it’s supposed to be satire.’

There is such a thing as bad satire and GTA V is full of it. It tends to take the ‘all sides are equally bad’, which given the topics of the storyline is cringe-worthy. Its broader jokes (FIB instead of FBI, adverts about playing video games instead of sleeping with your wife) make Spaceballs look like South Park and South Park look like Nathan Barley.

As mentioned before this need to swing between joke-heavy sections and trying to be serious and cinematic, even at the best of moments, feels like it doesn’t gel. At the worst of its moments it is a clusterfuck of swearing and explosions, like a Michael Bay film trying too hard.

I could go into more depth on the game’s bad satire, but why bother when I have spent this much time criticising it already and there’s a Cracked article that does it way funnier than I could.

In conclusion…

The missions are boring; the mechanics and systems that support these are flimsy; the story is lazy. So why is this the best game ever made?

I proposed this question to a few people after laying out why I thought the game was bad. The most common response I got: you should try the Multiplayer.

GTA Online

Fuck. Me.


*I say ‘anything’ but that doesn’t really constitute much to be honest. In fact, you might have been able to figure that out, if you are reading this footnote after you’ve read the rest of my article. I will say: if you made it this far, I salute you. If you cheated and jumped right to this point, stop right now and go back to the main body of the article. It gets really good. Honest, it goes beyond passive-aggressive tones and just goes outright aggressive.