Grand Theft Auto V, or Honor Among Thieves

20 11 2014

As I mentioned before, when I finally broke down and played Grand Theft Auto 3, I tried very hard to play like a “good guy.” I tried waiting at stop lights and staying on the right side of the road. I studiously avoided plowing through pedestrians. I tried to live in Liberty City the way I do in the real world. Of course, that all went out the window pretty quickly, as I realized that the world of the game is carefully crafted to include real-world annoyances (long traffic lights, people driving slowly in front of you when you’re in a hurry, traffic jams) as a means of enhancing the thrill and fun of behaving badly. It recreates the irksome situations many of us face daily so that we’re positively giddy when we whip over into oncoming traffic to make better time, or we clip the rear fender of a passing car as we run a red light. If the roads were wide open, not only would it hurt gameplay by removing obstacles, it would hurt our sense of freedom to do whatever we wanted.

Of course, the GTA series offers that freedom outside of the cars, too, and the designers at Rockstar are just as careful about how they underscore it.

It’s always been interesting to me that, to a large extent, the main characters of the GTA games have been pretty easy to sympathize with. To a greater or lesser degree, they’re reluctant criminals (or at least start out that way). Circumstances come together in such a way that crime seems like the best course of action, and even when they’re waist-deep in it, they aren’t happy about it. With one exception, they usually seem disappointed and irritated by their own criminal exploits, and they certainly don’t find happiness through them. Except that one exception.


For those who haven’t played it, GTAV gives the player three main characters: Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. Their stories intertwine, and the player can switch between them at almost any time. Michael is a miserable retired bank robber who can’t get past the disconnect between his superficially perfect life and how empty and pointless he feels. Franklin is an smart, ambitious kid from the game’s Compton analogue who is constantly surrounded and dragged down by old friends and family. Trevor is… a psychopath. He’s an old friend of Michael’s, and the story of their relationship drives a lot of the gameplay, but all you actually need to know about him is that he’s dangerously out of his mind. And he couldn’t be happier about it. He has created himself a down-at-heels meth and gun empire in the game’s version of the Salton Sea area, ruling over an expanse of ugly desert peppered with dilapidated trailers and flyspeck towns. With a small collection of terrified idiot sycophants ready to do his bidding, no matter how insane, he is happy. His only ambition is expanding his operation, though not for material gain. It seems like he wants to do it simply because he’s good at it. In him, the player is given the first playable GTA character who feels completely at peace in his world. That he’s at peace makes him, frankly, kind of terrifying.

This is the brilliance of the world-building that Rockstar has done, and the thing that gets lost in hyperbolic discussions of the social decay that GTA represents. First off, let’s agree to one very simple thing – children absolutely should not be playing this game, or any other in the series. It is not meant for them, it is not good for them, and most of it will be lost on them. Smart, mature teens might be okay, but these things are for mature audiences. That doesn’t stop them from being very immature from time to time, but they’re not meant for kids. You can point to the violence, misogyny, and crime as reasons for that, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but the even bigger reason is that the world of the games is completely cynical and rotten to its core.

There is no good in the world of Grand Theft Auto, or at least vanishingly little good. At every level, society is venal and corrupt. The story missions show us that everyone in every walk of life is on the take, and the DJs, news, and ads on the radio stations reinforce that at every turn. The police are crooked. The politicians are stupid, greedy, and debased. The movie stars are vapid and self-obsessed. The captains of industry glory in their misdeeds, using them as marketing slogans. In GTAV, the head of a company that seems like Facebook with a dash of Apple’s messianic hardware savvy crows about how the company made all of their customers’ data public in order to sell ads – and the crowd cheers. In this world, everything is wrong. It’s our world turned up to 11. Or beyond 11, turned so far that the knob broke off.

The sympathetic characters we’ve played in the series to date were made sympathetic by virtue of the fact that they often seemed as disgusted by their reality as we were. They moved through their ever-escalating criminal exploits with a weariness and an implied hope that the next one would somehow be the last, that at the end they would be able to just settle down and live a normal life. They managed to convince themselves, and by extension convince the player, that they were the “good guys.” Michael says exactly that to his son at one point, trying to square his crimes with the lessons he’s trying to teach. Their discomfort made us comfortable. Even as we controlled their horrible actions, we were able to agree with the characters’ misgivings and tell ourselves that just like them, we aren’t as far gone as the world they inhabit.

Trevor throws a wrench into that line of thought. Or beats it with a wrench before pulling its teeth out with pliers and attaching jumper cables to its nipples. Literally.

If you haven’t played it and intend to, there are spoilers ahead.

I wasn’t kidding about the “literally” up there. There is a series of missions that finds our trio of antiheroes working for the FIB (the game’s version of the FBI), kidnapping a terrorism suspect and eventually torturing him. It’s clear from the outset that the guy is not involved in terrorism in any way, shape, or form. Michael seems to recognize this and recoils at what’s happening to the guy (though he never stops assisting the FIB), but Trevor is thrilled. The torture is a kind of minigame, with the player choosing the method and the intensity, and Trevor delivers gleeful one-liners as he inflicts increasingly graphic pain. Eventually, the guy gives up a name, clearly someone else who has no terrorist ties, but fits the profile and can therefore make the pain stop. That information is relayed to Michael, who snipes the guy in the middle of a party. The information doesn’t make it perfectly clear which of the partygoers is the guy, so it’s possible that the player will kill one or more wrong people before getting the right one (who is innocent, of course, so “right” is still wrong).

I’ve heard people complain about this set of missions, but I think they’re missing the point. They’re uncomfortable with the torture and ambiguity, but they’re supposed to be. It should make you uncomfortable to be a party to torture and assassinations pulled off from afar on the flimsiest justifications. Maybe that hasn’t happened very often in games, situations that make you feel like you’re the bad guy – this is the first time I can remember GTA going for that feeling with such gusto – but it’s a very good thing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s key to the growth of games as art. As fairly linear experiences, they make us understand that we have to do certain things to proceed, and they have the opportunity to make those things unpalatable as a way of thinking about the real world. I’ve raved about Bioshock before, as its big twist forced us to recognize that we, as players, had just killed hundreds of people for very little reason, simply because the context of a game made that the expected course of action. It may seem like a Mass Effect-like system of choice is the best way to go with something like this, let the player choose what he or she is willing to do, but I don’t think that would work with the message GTA is sending. We want to be the good guys – we don’t torture. We can recognize “Oh, this is a statement on US policy in the war on terror,” and then completely let ourselves off the hook by having our avatar refuse to participate. The point is delivered so much more effectively by not making it optional, and in fact making our avatar enjoy it.

And that’s Trevor. Trevor, the guy with no conscience, is our conscience. Every time Michael and Franklin soften the horrible world by wishing it was different, Trevor enjoys the hell out of all the awful things he does, and we have to recognize that we do, too – that’s the whole point of the game, right? Even the attempts to humanize him are tinged with madness – the game seems like it’s about to give us an explanation and some expiation for his murderous excesses, only to pull the rug out from under it. Trevor is the way he is simply because he is. Michael’s betrayal didn’t break him, he was broken before. Was he abused as a child? There’s strong indication that he was, but that doesn’t come until after the credits, and it still doesn’t exonerate him. He is a monster, and he is the player’s reflection. He wants to live and thrive in the awful world of GTA, enjoying at as he goes – just like the player. Just like Rockstar meant it to be.



One response

20 11 2014

You know what obeying the road laws gets you in GTA? Shot.

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