GTA V: a record-breaking, best-selling, billion-dollar-making enfant terrible; a game that garnered universal adulation from the specialist press; and a behemoth set to step back into the ring with a soon-released, rezzed-up remastering.
But, if we take a clear-headed, critical look, GTA V is also a messy, confused and, in many ways, poorly executed experience. With GTA V fever due to re-emerge sometime in the Fall, it feels an appropriate juncture to acknowledge some of the game’s more problematic issues.
However, let us start with the positive: GTA V is a masterpiece of engineering. The seamless open-world; the relative lack of geometric and textural pop-in; the animation; the numerous systems working harmoniously: the game is a phenomenal achievement. But games are more than just exercises in technical brilliance, especially a series such a GTA, with its snide, side-ways swipes at culture and society, its brutal violence and its heavy focus upon character and narrative. And it is within these attributes that many of GTA V’s issues reside: issues of thematic, tonal, narrative and character inconsistency.
Before delving further, and to better understand GTA V’s failings, we must cast an eye upon its predecessor, GTA IV. Birthed at the tail-end of the Bush administration’s fear-mongering and the omnipresent war on terror, GTA IV turned a bleak, bruised mirror onto the American dream and the principles of American freedom, delivering a brave, bitter and satirical statement during a particularly odd and fearful time in modern history. This thematic core led to a strong tonal consistency within GTA IV, and one that fed into the world itself: from the rendering of the city; the colour palette; the humour; the characters – they all tied together to create a singular vision that gave the game a solid sense of identity. Assuredly, it had its flaws and was susceptible to vast swathes of ludo-narrative dissonance but GTA IV was an important piece of work
Unfortunately, Mr. Joe Average appeared to be dissatisfied with this new, serious GTA and Rockstar was left in a tricky position. Evidentially, Houser and Co. wanted to create gritty games replete with characters and narratives equal to those of Chase, Milch or Mann (look at Red Dead or Max Payne for further examples) yet, on the flip side, they also needed to appease fans by returning to the slap-stick brilliance of the earlier games.
So, what was the answer? Well, Rockstar could have split their desires and created a new IP, one that dealt with deeper, more mature subjects and narratives, whilst returning GTA to its early, Benny Hill brilliance. Instead, they attempted to integrate both disparate elements into one game and here-in lies the root cause of so many of GTA V’s failings: it is a game with an identity crisis, having no idea what it should be, fighting within itself to be the thing Rockstar wants and the beast the consumer demands and, by virtue of this, it ends up a very muddled creature.
This muddling adversely affects GTA V in many ways. The game has no thematic consistency; the humour is all over the place and scattershot, veering from farcical to mean-spirited within the blink of an eye; the jabs at society are unfocused and often irrelevant; violence is played for laughs, then attempts are made at a pointed social statement. Meanwhile, the characters, despite the pretence of depth, have no real development-arch and remain resolutely one-dimensional: the wants and urges of Michael, Trevor and Franklin told through cutscenes and conversations are undermined by the cartoony missions they undertake; their motives are confused and insubstantial; and, by attempting serious and the silly, everyone ends up flapping around like a fish gasping for water.
Let us elucidate through an example or two. Whilst the narrative sees Michael wrestling with his violent tendencies and attempting to be a better family man, the game’s missions demand you to drive over a peeping tom for giggles, pull off murderous rampages for chuckles or steal an aircraft for laughs. Elsewhere, Franklin, tired of violence and petty crime, desperately wants to get out of the ‘hood; a facet of his persona strongly rammed down the payer’s throat from the beginning. And yet the game forces the player to gun down waves of enemies, steal cars and create endless chaos all in the name of rib-tickling titters. And through all this, GTA V never provides sufficient justification for these character-breaking jaunts of violence beyond the old “it’s funny, right?” chestnut. Elsewhere, the tonal dissonance within the game’s satire results in an awkward cocktail that spasmodically lurches from the puerile to the unpleasant: jabs at the smart phone generation rub uncomfortably with undercooked stabs at Guantanamo Bay-style torture practises and clever jibes at materialism sit side-by-side with spiteful sneers at women. Now, one could argue that all this is just a deliberate dig at the American dream and Los Angeles-sociopathy, but, in truth, it simply feels like a negative by-product brought forth by Rockstar’s attempts to merge their desires with the expectations of the GTA consumer.
The problem with all this is how little the player ends up caring for the situations they are placed within or the consequences of their actions, thereby robbing them of a satisfactory conclusion to their endeavours. By the end of the game, nothing is learnt, nothing is developed and nothing ever gels into a coherent or satisfactory whole. The story just descends into a series of expletive-filled arguments whilst shadowy, ill-defined governmental entities work the strings in the background. There is a flat, one-dimensionality to the whole endeavour, and characters simply lose any credibility the story so desperately strives to imbue them with.
More importantly, it appears as though these issues are irrelevant to both critics and the majority of players too, indicating the lack of respect most have for the video game medium. Apparently, as a collective, we do not expect one of the biggest video games of all time, and a bastion for what the medium can achieve, to have any reverence for basic storytelling, thematic consistency or character development. Certainly, games should be about the play first, story second, but when a developer places such emphasis upon the latter, we cannot help but engage with it.
So, with GTA V set for a remastered version this October, maybe we shouldn’t place such importance upon the technical nip ‘n’ tucks the next-gen version is receiving, but instead we should hope that Rockstar have taken the time to address some of the game’s thematic, character and narrative failings. Surely, improvements within these areas are of greater importance to the game and the player’s experience than some higher-rez textures and greater polygonal counts?
However, let us not end on a negative, for, despite its numerous shortcomings, GTA V can still make us smile or laugh, and, occasionally, a flare of genius shines through the confusion. Rockstar are still the best world-builders around, and GTA V still has moments, missions and milieus that take your breath away. We can only hope that the next time, when the inevitable GTA VI comes about, Rockstar will have the sense to stop throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the series and instead make a game full of clear-headed brilliance, where character, narrative, humour and world all mesh together in a sublime and satisfying whole.