For the uninitiated, The Lawless Perspective is an infrequent series of articles dealing with selected games. It is not designed as a review, or a second opinion, but as an analysis of the literary aspects of the game in question and, as such, the articles often delve deeply into spoiler territory. Consider yourself warned. This entry takes a look at Grand Theft Auto V, the latest entry in Rockstar North’s long-running crime series, and OnlySP’s runner-up for Game of the Year 2013.
Family, friendship, betrayal, sex, society, money, corruption, criminality, desire; the list of themes that the latest entry in Rockstar’s opus franchise touches on is truly incredible. It attempts to encompass life, but the vast scope winds up leaving much to be desired, and the literary reach of the game feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps that is to be expected when the core gameplay mechanics are designed to inspire players to let loose the basest aspects of themselves in an orgy of wanton violence, murder, larceny and sheer recklessness. Even so, it is difficult to shake a sense of disappointment when comparing what is with what might have been, especially when witness to its flashes of brilliance.
Unfortunately, that is all they ever amount to: flashes. For every cut of biting satire heard over the in-game radio and for every touching moment within the story, there are dozens that fall flat, failing to achieve their intended effect. It feels as though this is a consequence of the scattershot approach that Rockstar have taken to the subjects that they have sought to lampoon, with politics, celebrity culture, teenaged vapidity, gamers, gangs, rednecks and feminism, comprising just a small selection. But to blame it solely on stretching intention too far is short-sighted. In most instances the way that these subjects are handled is clichéd and almost juvenile. Effectively, there is no fundamental change in the way that the writers at Rockstar have doled out their mockery since they first made a conscious effort at doing so back in 2001, but with twelve years and eight games behind them, and the adoption of more mature and realistic visual and narrative styles, it has lost a considerable amount of its efficacy. It is far too blatant.
While the three lead characters manage, largely, to avoid being branded with this iron of obviousness in their portrayals, the same cannot be said for most of the supporting cast. The family and friends of the leads are vapid, one-note stereotypes. The government figures are the kind of demanding stand-over merchants that they have always been portrayed as in the series, and the remaining antagonistic characters are, primarily, unscrupulous businessmen that have their moment in the sun before promptly being forgotten by the players. The disconnected nature of the game’s collection of antagonists has a dual effect. On the one hand, having a diverse set of personalities and motives allows the three protagonists to be fleshed out more through the way they respond. On the other, it robs the story of certain sense of unity of purpose, outside of casting governments and big businesses in a negative light.
Shortly after the release of Grand Theft Auto V, it sparked controversy when Carolyn Petit, a reviewer at GameSpot, criticised it as misogynistic in its characterisation of women. Considering their general portrayal as brainless or immoral sluts, overbearing feminists and highly strung shrews, it is easy to see where such an appraisal comes from. But that does not necessarily make it a correct one. The reality is that GTA V is profoundly misanthropic, hating all people equally and drawing no lines between gender, race or social standing. Lamar is a stereotypical gangbanger; a shortsighted fool seeking an easy way to a life of grandeur with a propensity for every sentence to include at least one use of the word “nigger”. Ron and Wade are simpering lackeys in the face of Trevor’s psychopathic tendencies; the former horribly nervous and subservient, while the latter has the brains of a child. Then there is Michael’s son, Jimmy, a representative of the way that the typical gamer is portrayed in the media: socially awkward, overweight, lazy, a bit fond of hits from a bong and with a mouth as bad as any gutter-rat.
Frankly, the way that the writers for GTA V have gone about populating their world is terribly irresponsible. The game follows an old adage that character personalities need to be as pronounced as possible in order to better have the reader (or player, as the case may be) engage with them. There is nothing strictly wrong with this approach, but it cannot be denied that it robs the experience of a certain level of realism, which is all the more disruptive in a world that is crafted with the attention to detail that San Andreas has been. To be fair, it isn’t typically possible to infuse supporting characters with the same nuance and complexity as the leads, but a bit of restraint to the extreme portrayals on show would have been very welcome.
The effects of this shallowness is somewhat mitigated by the presence of three protagonists, a rather daring move on the part of Rockstar. It allows for a wider exploration of character than ever seen before in the Grand Theft Auto series, and some very interesting interactions to boot. It is a shame, then, that they are primarily motivated by no greater motive than that of money. As the driving force for the characters, it feels like a step backwards from Niko Bellic’s very personal quest for closure from the horrors of his past. That key motivation remains until the bitter end, but it is important to note that it is not always the main factor in driving the plot forward. As often as not, that is provided by the interactions of the three lead characters and their personal aspirations. This allows for a more human story to be told within the context of criminality, though only to an extent due to the nature of said characters.
Without a doubt, the real lead character is Michael Townley (alias Michael de Santa), a retired career criminal, lover of classic cinema and disgruntled family man. By the time that the events of the game take place, Michael has been in a witness protection program for nine years after betraying his former comrades-in-arms for the sake of a family that has grown to despise him. He isn’t happy. Instead, he is incredibly cynical and world-weary with a short temper that makes him prone to violent and irrational outbursts. It is his actions that set the events of the game in motion as, in a fit of anger upon learning that his wife was sleeping with her tennis coach, he tears the balcony from a multi-million dollar mansion, believing that it belonged to the coach. In this, he is mistaken. Instead, it is the residence of the mistress of a dangerous mob boss who quickly appears on the scene and demands that the damages be paid for. With no other option, he resorts to the life of crime that he had sought to put behind him.
Beside Michael from very early on is Franklin Clinton, a young gang member toeing the line between legality and crime in the employ of a disreputable car salesman. He is the most balanced of the three protagonists and, in some ways, the most mature. It seems as though his greatest desire in life is to make money and sees Michael as an avenue towards reaching the goal as he realises that it would be impossible in the lifestyle that he leads at the game’s opening. His history and background is mildly interesting — if the player can be bothered to seek it out — but the reality is that his main role in the game is that of an audience surrogate. He is present for little purpose more than to give players an introduction to Michael and Trevor, though he later acts as both a barrier and a link between them.
Then finally, there is Trevor Philips, the character that has attracted the lion’s share of the attention when it comes to discussion and analysis about GTA V. There is good reason for that as he is an incredibly complex character, and seemingly, the one that the writers at Rockstar North took the most time and care in developing. One’s initial reaction to his introduction is that he is an unbridled psychopath. Upon hearing news of Michael and Franklin’s first heist, he realises that the former — Michael — may not be dead as Trevor had believed for the better part of a decade. It sends him into a blind rage, resulting in him killing Johnny Klebitz — Lost MC Chapter President and veteran of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and The Damned — before embarking on an unholy crusade to wipe out the entire motorcycle club in Blaine County. Curiously, as the game wears on, Trevor is revealed to be the most brutally honest of the three, a moralist and something of a gentleman. The two callings of his personality form a peculiar juxtaposition. It should not make sense that a man who takes pleasure in maiming and murdering others can be viewed as sympathetic, but such is the case with Trevor Philips.
The character of Trevor has attracted a lot of attention for his psychopathic tendencies, but there is one particular mission involving him that has drawn a considerable amount of controversy. It tasks players with interrogation. A civilian has information that the government desires, and Trevor is enlisted to draw it out of him. To this end, players must torture the character, being given the option of ripping teeth, electrocution, waterboarding and assault with a wrench. It is a terribly violent scene to participate in and it is easy to imagine squeamish gamers being turned off the game at this point. The scene acts as an indictment of the methodology of governments, but it works better as insight into the personality of Trevor. With glee, he engages in these acts of ultraviolence, but he does not “dispose” of the victim as instructed. Instead, the victim is dropped off at the airport, told to flee the country and spread his story. At no other point is the peculiar moral juxtaposition of Trevor — and indeed the writers at Rockstar North — thrown into such sharp relief.