One of my biggest issues with GTA IV was that I didn’t like Niko Bellic very much. I thought his story was interesting, if sometimes a little contrived, but I just didn’t think his character was particularly compelling, and some of his choices seemed flawed. I did play the game through to both its conclusions, but long before I reached them, I’d lost the plot and was treating each mission simply as the next level of a video game. I didn’t care who lived or died. I just enjoyed the proceedings as a practical video gaming exercise, motivated only by my interest in seeing what I might have to do next, and not caring at all why I might be doing it, or how it might affect the story.
I’m having a similar issue with GTA V. The three characters are all stereotypes to varying degrees, and I’m not feeling much empathy towards them. Franklin is probably my least disliked character, and that’s largely because he’s written with a sense of humor. While clichéd, his dialog has some funny moments, and his interactions with his cronies can be entertaining (if sometimes feeling weirdly 90's). Michael, however, I find very unsympathetic. While I believe I’m supposed to perhaps feel bad for his awful situation, it almost seems like he brought it all on himself for being such a douche, and now he’s stuck with it. And as for Trevor – he’s perhaps one of the most repellent main characters of any video game ever.
If the trio had been based a little more around the good, the bad and the ugly, I think that might have brought out more compelling character interactions between the different personality types. At least you might have a character that you can get behind. But for the most part, the GTA V gang is bad and ugly. Perhaps one or more of the characters might demonstrate some redeeming qualities later on in the game, but I’m already past the point of caring. Like the last game, I’m already skipping every cutscene I can, and playing through the game mission by mission. Don’t get me wrong – I’m having an absolute blast for sure. But all I want to know is what I need to do next, so I can get on with it and have fun, and not be reminded that I’m playing characters I do not aspire to be at best, and flat-out despise at worst.
Ultimately, this is an upshot of GTA’s basic structure, which has pretty much always been centered around a story that’s essentially on rails. The player looks at the world through the protagonist’s eyes, completing whatever tasks are necessary to advance to the next piece of plot. I have no issue with that per se – Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games this generation, follows this exact same structure. But while I loved RDR’s storyline, felt empathy towards its characters, and really cared about what happened to them, I’m experiencing none of that in GTA V. Indeed, it’s almost the opposite. I’m all up for playing anti-heroes, or following the questionable choices of characters whose decisions I can understand, even if I don’t agree with. But in many respects, GTA V just seems to be unpleasant for the sake of it.
On a technical level, GTA V is a mind-boggling achievement. It’s a living, breathing environment filled with amazing detail. Its sophistication is incredible and represents a new high water mark for the series. But while the technical side of things has evolved steadily over time, the creativity behind GTA’s structure remains largely mired in the same format that GTA III rolled out with some twelve years ago.
I was hoping that by now, GTA games would feature branching plots and meaningful choices. I understand that this kind of design structure is challenging to make, and in some respects involves potential wastage, because inevitably, the developer has to create aspects of the game, or branches of the storyline that not all players might see or experience. But to me, if you can create San Andreas, then surely you can create a more subtle, nuanced and involving story worthy of that utterly incredible environment.
Now of course I understand that GTA V is not for everyone, and that just like a movie, sometimes you like the story and characters, and other times you don’t. But what disappoints me is that this story – at least for me – takes the edge off what’s truly great about this game: its environment, and what you can do within it. Most missions are fun, and the heists are exceptionally good.
Is there any possible way that those could have been detached from a linear storyline, so that I could get to choose what I wanted to do? Perhaps making the objective simply to raise cash so I can enjoy all the fun and toys GTA V has to offer, but in doing so - pulling off heists, or doing “jobs” for people – have those choices result in meaningful consequences. Perhaps putting me at war with certain people. Perhaps even preventing me from doing certain things in the game until I “fix” the situation. Essentially, I’m simply articulating my desire to be able to more effectively pick and choose what I want to do. Be my own man. Let me create my own story and make my own moral choices. And not be propelled down a railroad where every station and stop is mapped out for me, and the destination is not a place I necessarily want to be.
And perhaps it will. I’m hoping that GTA Online will be the thing I’m looking for. If it contains all the fun stuff you can do in this game, and forgoes the plot – leaving me free to live the life in Los Santos that I’d like to live – I’m going to be very, very much down with that. That way, instead of simply playing through missions one after the other, I really do get to build something and create my own character and story. That sounds a lot more interesting to me than helping people I don’t like get rich.
I want that money for myself!