2013 in Review: Grand Theft Auto V: An Ugly Journey Through a Beautiful World

You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of gaming's ability to squander something wondrous on mean-spirited pettiness than the latest GTA. And that's OK.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

They may seem an unlikely pair, but Grand Theft Auto V and Pikmin 3 make for bizarre mirror images of one another. Both revolve around three independent protagonists making their way in an expansive world. Both present moments of nearly breathtaking beauty. And both, fundamentally, are violent to the extreme.

Where they differ from one another is in their tone. Despite its need for constant savagery, Pikmin 3 goes out of its way to create an emotional connection between the player and the characters that inhabit the game world. GTA V, on the other hand, invariably comes off as a concerted effort to make its protagonists as unlikable as possible. I suppose that's part of GTA's schtick -- giving players a window into bad behavior as a chance to act out their antisocial fantasies, or whatever -- but for me it's always been the most difficult element of the series to accept. I play Grand Theft Auto games because they offer so much freedom and such vast worlds in which to run and drive around, and I do it despite their awful stories and characters, not because of them.

You're looking at one of the greatest games ever, if you ignore those idiots in the foreground. [Image source]

The gulf between what I want from GTA and what Rockstar North wants me to settle for has never been wider than with GTA V. Never before has the studio created such a gorgeous setting, and never before has it been populated with such despicable sociopaths. It's a parable for the modern video game industry: A $265 million investment for which teams of hundreds of people sculpted an expansive, interactive city in miniature as well as its elaborate surrounding environs, only to give players a suffocatingly narrow palette of things to do, all of which consist of crime, murder, and generally antisocial behavior.

I know, the game's called "Grand Theft Auto" -- it would be folly to expect it to eschew the crime stuff altogether. And why should it? But at the very least, that material could be so much better. To me, GTA V demonstrates just how much the mechanical underpinnings of video games have evolved over the past 12 years (when Grand Theft Auto III became a runaway hit), but also how the medium's actual content and purpose have failed to mature alongside those technical advances. When GTA III fed us pat crime caper clichés as a framing device for missions that boiled down to "kill or be killed," we accepted it. Not only did it represent a leap forward for gaming in 2001, the whole affair was all set in a world that looked and behaved as primitive as the knucklehead dialogue. In GTA V, though, the world has become far more convincing, yet the story and objectives are as clumsy as they were in GTA III. In this new setting, GTA's standard material feels practically atavistic.

The human skull on the left represents the world design, which has evolved nicely. The monkey on the right represents the plotting, which remains more primitive. The hockey mask in the middle represents the gameplay, which places you in the role of murderous psychopath. Symbolism! [Image source]

GTA V's faithful, microcosmic rendition of Los Angeles ("Los Santos") and the surrounding countryside is stunning in its detail. It feels vibrant -- alive. In the city, traffic and pedestrian behavior reflect reality. Outside the city, marvelously authentic farms dot the landscape while joyriders tear up the countryside with dune buggies and motorcycles. Water ripples and churns with a level of verisimilitude appropriate to a big-screen GC movie. The accelerated day/night cycle complements hyper-realistic changes in weather to produce a constant sense of variety within the environment. Even the cars handle convincingly, for once. GTA V presents players with the single most immersive urban sandbox game experience ever crafted.

Yet this extraordinary virtual universe exists entirely to play host to plotting and dialogue every bit as clunky as that of games two or three console generations ago. The GTA V script reads like the work of someone who tried constructing a crime thriller from secondhand knowledge after someone described The Wire and Breaking Bad to them. Its protagonists are all swagger, no soul; they lack the relatable flaws of great antiheroes. Despite the series' Hollywood aspirations, the characters spout dialogue that would get a real movie jeered on opening night. They're self-involved, anti-social, and generally demonstrate the worst aspects of humanity with none of the good to leaven their miserable souls.

The one exception comes in the form of Franklin, who like GTA: San Andreas protagonist Carl Johnson generally seems like a decent man with a tendency to make poor life choices. (Perhaps not coincidentally, both Franklin and CJ hail from the same neighborhood in Los Santos.) Unfortunately, his occasional redeeming moments can't overcome Michael, who constantly defends an atrocious family in which everyone behaves like they're mugging for a reality TV show, and Trevor, who is irredeemable human garbage.

The great thing about GTA V, though, is that after playing through the prologue (in which you gun down policemen like Nathan Drake on a Bob Marley bender, because even GTA wants to be Uncharted now), you can pretty much bail on the core game. GTA V spends an hour or two mucking around with character intros, but eventually you're given control of Michael and Franklin, shown how to switch between the two of them, and allowed to advance through the game at your own pace.

"My pace" turned out to be "as slowly as possible." I hopped into a car with Franklin, ignored the mission icons on the minimap, and proceeded to explore San Andreas from tip to tip. I went speeding along highways cloaked in the darkness of night. I watched sunsets while sitting on west-facing capes overlooking the ocean. I wandered in the desert for a day like some kind of modern day T.E. Lawrence after I wrecked my car far from civilization (it my own fault for trying to see how far I could make it by driving along the train tracks). I visited remote farms and "borrowed" their tractors. I drove a semi cab to the peak of Mt. Chilliad by taking bike paths, terrifying several backpackers along the way. I traveled the streets of Los Santos while obeying traffic laws to the letter to get a taste of Grand Theft Auto life as experienced by NPCs. I played GTA V for hours on end by barely touching on the plot, only occasionally completing a story quest to reconfirm that, yes, the characters, plot, and mission design are easily the worst thing about the game.

Take to San Andreas' expansive desert regions and you can try to simulate the 40 days Jesus Christ spent wandering in the wilderness. (The Bible doesn't say he rode an ATV, but it doesn't say he didn't, either.) [Image source]

I can't decide if GTA V is a qualified success or a fascinating failure. Rockstar sank an unbelievable investment into creating a narrative work that, frankly, I hate. And yet, by ignoring the part of the game they pride themselves on, I had a great time. It truly is a sandbox game (and in the most literal sense of the word, considering how much time I wasted doing nothing much in the desert): A big, open space in which players can make their own entertainment.

In that sense, at least, GTA V marks a substantial improvement over Grand Theft Auto IV. Like this year's sequel, GTA IV saddled players with a contemptible husk of a human being and a trite story as well, but it also shackled the sandbox world with infuriating limitations. NPCs would constantly pester you to drop what you were doing and play minigames with them. Real-time crises would nag at you with on-screen icons. Even Liberty City itself was structured in a way to funnel players into a handful of limited pathways, discouraging exploration and free-roaming. It failed both as a story and a sandbox, whereas GTA V does nothing for me on the plot front but presents such an extraordinary world to house its petty tale of crime that I didn't care.

Make no mistake, I feel like GTA V is a terrible waste of potential. So much time, money, skill, and labor at work to create an immersive world, yet it all exists as nothing more than a vehicle for a story with HBO aspirations and The CW execution. But clearly people -- more than a billion dollars worth of people -- enjoy it, so who am I to judge? Ever since GTA IV, I've been convinced that Grand Theft Auto needs to change, to make an effort to bring its narrative up to the standards of its world-building, but GTA V has changed my mind.

GTA V gives you the freedom to simulate living like a bum beneath a bridge pylon, if you want. Sounds boring, but it sure beats sitting through yet another cutscene about Michael's obnoxious children.

I see now that there's room in this franchise for the series' standard sociopathic protagonists, ham-fisted satire, and by-the-numbers story-telling so long as I have the freedom to push it all aside and savor all the things the series does well -- because what it gets right it gets so, so right. This new rendition of San Andreas is the gold standard for open-world games, and eventually, some other franchise will match it while pairing it with a narrative that's equally engrossing. Until then, I'll just keep pretending Michael and Trevor don't exist while driving sport cars off high cliffs into the ocean or whatever other pointless nonsense I can think to try in GTA V's wonderful clockwork simulation.

So GTA, you keep right on being GTA. I don't know that you're exactly a game for everyone, but I can find my own amusement in your depths, even if it's not the portion of the amusement your creators poured their efforts into. Besides, Saints Row wouldn't be nearly as amusing without a big, inviting target to take the piss out of.

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for deadpixels #1 deadpixels 4 years ago
    While I can agree that much of the narrative is grating, I would hardly say the core mechanics of GTAV are a minor improvement over earlier games in the series.

    Having recently sunk a great deal of time into San Andreas on the iOS I was immediately reminded of just how much more dynamic the gameplay feels in the latest entry in the series. The by the numbers murders and muggings we've been accustomed to since the Playstation 2 iterations have been replaced with multifaceted heists that require planning and offer optional approaches making them infinitely more interesting than the arguably primitive missions we've come to expect from the series and were by far my favorite part of the game.

    The pacing of missions has also been much improved. One moment that stands out to me is when players control Travis as he pilots a single engine aircraft in pursuit of the Merriweather cargo plane. Trailing the hulking jet from a safe distance while avoiding radar was a tense experience, and finally moving in for the kill, dodging rocket fire only to crash into the plane and board it as bullets, bodies, and wrecked vehicles rain out the cargo bay was as exhilarating as any moment in an Uncharted game.

    Sure, the characters may be detestable, but moments like these underscore what a huge improvement GTA V's main storyline brings to the table in terms of variety of missions and core gameplay mechanics.Edited December 2013 by deadpixels
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  • Avatar for ScorPWNok #2 ScorPWNok 4 years ago
    This is a weird piece. Gives me the distinct impression that Jeremy has played about an hour apiece of a couple previous GTAs, and not much more of this one. Many of the criticisms seem kind of out of place here, in that, yes, they are completely valid digs at the series as a whole, but are actually things that Rockstar has made HUGE improvements on in this game. Specifically the plot/characters. Seems like a weird calling-out of the series in general, but mistargeted.

    Also, what the hell is with that Uncharted reference? Complete non sequitur.
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  • Avatar for MojoBox #3 MojoBox 4 years ago
    I'll back you up Jeremy, if others won't. The worst part of GTAV is playing GTAV the way Rockstar wants you to. The missions are strictly linear and punish you swiftly for deviating from Rockstars grand plan. The writing is atrocious across the board, the plot is meandering and padded, the character is awful, the "satire" is so low brow I feel like fifth graders writing poop jokes could do a better job. And yet I beat the game and put a good 50 hours into the damn thing. The raw experience of playing the game is pretty great, I just wish I didn't have to consciously dismiss a large portion of the experience in order to get the good stuff. It's like watching a stupid action flick because the action is good, and nevermind the plot that's not what I'm here for. All well and good I guess, but it'll never be as good as a more holistic experience.
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  • Avatar for INSOMANiAC #4 INSOMANiAC 4 years ago
    This article would've been considerably shorter had you not said the same thing repeatedly in every paragraph.
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  • Avatar for garbagefdfsonedsfsdf #5 garbagefdfsonedsfsdf 4 years ago
    Imagine a JRPG with this game engine and budget...only in my dreams

    Unlike Jeremy I can't even play this atrocious disgusting shit, a sad state of our society that this is what gets them off
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #6 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @ScorPWNok I've played GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas to completion and sank about 15-20 hours apiece into GTA IV and V, so... not sure where you're getting that impression.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #7 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    Jeremy is completely right. GTA games have always had amatuerish, juvenille writing, and that hasn't changed in GTAV. The characters continue to be 2 dminesional, unlikable, and complete cliches. As always the tone is extremely inconsistent. The sophomoric humor is embarrasing.

    I actually prefer the storylines of early games in the series simply because they don't try to take themselves seriously at all, and are at least entertaining in their ridiculousness. The best moments of San Andreas is when you're being directed by James Woods to invade Area 51. That's a more entertaining moment than anything in GTA 4 or 5.
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  • Avatar for ScorPWNok #8 ScorPWNok 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish AHA, you've exposed yourself as the liar you are, Parish. You never beat GTAIII because NOBODY has ever beaten GTAIII. It's too janky.

    Anyway, I feel the need to defend GTAV from some of your criticisms because, to me, it represents serious positive growth for the series.

    I have downright despised most GTA games for almost exactly every reason you mention here. Especially in IV, I found the story and the characters just plain gross. It was, as you put it, an ugly game, and honestly I've felt that way about almost every Rockstar title (aside from some of Red Dead Redemption). So when I saw preview footage of GTAV, I completely wrote it off as looking exactly the same as the rest and swore to not waste my time on it.

    But then I ended up playing it at a friend's house and was blown away by what I saw as a number of steps in the right direction.

    I realize that this is completely my opinion, but I find Franklin, Michael and yes, even Trevor interesting and relatable in ways that no GTA character has been previously. I know guys like Trevor (to a degree). I see some of myself in Michael and Franklin (again, to a degree). This shocked me. Little things like moving to Michael from another character's perspective to find him sitting alone in his car, in his driveway, head down on the wheel, listening to Bob Seger and seemingly afraid to go in and face the family that hates him. That alone is about 100 times more nuanced that any other game in this series.

    Something else that I think is really notable is that, for maybe the first time in any Rockstar game, there are characters that actually LIKE each other. The guys who write these games are such cynics that almost every time, the plot devolves into some sarcastic psychopath grudgingly doing missions for people he hates, seemingly for no reason. This peaked in Red Dead Redemption, (where every mission-giver was unbearably annoying, and someone who John Marston should have just shot and been done with it) and GTAIV (where it was pretty damn unclear why Niko was "friends" with any of those people). Meanwhile in GTAV, the relationships may be strained at times, but there is genuine camaraderie and loyalty between the three main characters. There's actually almost real human feelings there! It seems like a small thing, but it makes all the difference for me and connecting to the plot/characters.

    So, to me, it's stuff like that that matters. Obviously, they're baby steps, and in the aggregate, you are dead on about a lot of the stuff you're saying. Despite its blockbuster status, GTAV is nowhere near the films/television/literature it apes and/or aspires to. But dammit, at least it's headed in the right direction. It's head and shoulders above IV specifically, and I think it's (potentially small) successes in this field need to be recognized. Let's grade on a curve here.Edited December 2013 by ScorPWNok
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  • Avatar for Breadbitten #9 Breadbitten 4 years ago
    "Despite the series' Hollywood aspirations, the characters spout dialogue that would get a real movie jeered on opening night."

    I cannot disagree more. I may not have seen enough movies or have read enough books to judge Grand Theft Auto V against the heavyweights, or even the lightweights, of those mediums, but as a game it is one of the most smartly written and expertly acted pieces of work this industry has seen so far.

    Also, I feel like you misread both Trevor and Franklin somehow. In my opinion, Franklin may be even more of a degenerate than the other two. He is incredibly overambitious, and not for the right reasons, he treats his friends with utter contempt and has the audacity to call up his ex to "apologize" while he's in a strip club of all places!

    As for Trevor, he is...appropriate. In a mad way he makes sense within the framework of the gameworld. Trevor is clearly a damaged individual, but he is surprisingly nuanced and sensitive for that very reason. He has no qualms in having multiple "booty calls" in his mobile phone yet he treats women with a modicum of respect (see how he barks at Wade for calling Ashley a "bitch" in his introductory mission) unlike any of the other characters, then there's the infamous torture sequence, which I thought was just brilliantly done.

    I can understand how you'd miss these since you were so put off by the narrative itself right from the beginning, which I can respect; but please, at least try and wade through the whole thing if you are going to be forming a constructive critique of the end product. A great read anyway!
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #10 AxiomVerge 4 years ago
    I rather like the characters and story in Red Dead Redemption; if they could have made GTA V more like a modern-day version of that, I'd be all over it.
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  • Avatar for Breadbitten #11 Breadbitten 4 years ago
    @AxiomVerge They already tried something like that in GTAIV once and everyone is well aware of the narrative dissonance it created. You see, it's the very nature of the Grand Theft Auto franchise that prevents it from being taken TOO seriously. Red Dead Redemption was the very opposite of what Rockstar have done so far, New Austin was a very minimalistic world which lent to a degree of solemnity and melancholy; you couldn't possibly achieve that in a game that's about the wanton jacking of cars and the indiscriminate killing of people in a well-populated burg.Edited December 2013 by Breadbitten
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  • Avatar for Breadbitten #12 Breadbitten 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I think he was just being cheeky with that assertion. x]
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  • Avatar for alexb #13 alexb 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish I can't agree with you when it comes to the characters. They definitely have relatable flaws and ambiguities, as well as surprising bright spots, beneath the bluster. I think you've really got to complete the storyline if you're going to critique the writing and characterization.

    There was some surprising nuance in the way the relationship between the three main characters develops and shifts over the course of the story. For instance, yes, Trevor's a terrifying degenerate, but he has some interesting facets as a character that aren't immediately apparent, like his self-defeating compulsion to actively collect misfits, rejects, and failures in an earnest attempt to wring love and acceptance from them even as he dominates and abuses them. That doesn't mean he's really a good guy; he's not. But it does make him more complex, interesting and even pitiable monster than he initially appears. But if you've only played the game for about 20 hours and have spent almost all of your time goofing off in that wonderful sandbox, this is not apparent.

    I'll grant you that the weakest writing revolves directly around interactions with Michael's terrible family (who, it must be said, /are/ in fact mugging like they're on reality TV; there's a subtext that the town's vapid, wealth and fame driven culture has ensnared and ruined them). Jimmy are especially Tracey are grating and cliched. The writers just didn't do a good job with the kids' dialogue and character motivation. The performances themselves were also questionable.

    But the male bonding stuff between the main characters and the parts that subtly question their worldviews and conceptions of their own masculinity are pretty well done. And the majority of that stuff is in the second half of the game (and often in in-mission dialog rather than cutscenes) because they've got to build up that hard boiled tough guy stuff before they can tweak it.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #14 JohnnyBarnstorm 3 years ago
    Finally playing through this again. I love the game but hate, hate, hate the characters and writing. The jokes are obvious and unfunny, the satire is nonexistent for the most part (except for the torture - that was prescient about real-life handling of interrogation)... but it plays so darn well. And the world is jaw-dropping and incredible.

    The writing took a huge dive after GTA IV, which had at least somewhat relateable characters, female characters that weren't shrews, although more of a gulf between what they did in the game and in the cutscenes. For reference I've finished GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas, and IV. I love the genre.

    So, yep. I skip the cutscenes and keep playing.Edited 2 times. Last edited January 2015 by JohnnyBarnstorm
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