With Grand Theft Auto V’s release behind it, Marcus Mac Dhonnagáin reflects on why he wasn’t enamored with it
I love Grand Theft Auto IV. It is quite easily one of my favorite games ever. Though it hasn’t aged exceptionally well, for the most part it was as an important entry to the franchise as Grand Theft Auto III was. The writing was exceptional, the narrative more serious and the driving and shooting mechanics were better than they ever had been. But what was really great about it was that it felt like Rockstar North were trying to say something meaningful for once, and instead of connecting a plethora of memorable pastiches together, it wanted to explore ideas like the American dream and the inability for material wealth to really solve a person’s problems.
Thus, with Grand Theft Auto V, I (along with the rest of the gaming world) waited with excitement to see what the studio would do next. And in terms of gameplay, Rockstar North delivered. GTA V is easily the best playing open-world game currently on the market; the driving matching what you’d find in a more stripped down pseudo-realistic, pseudo-arcade racer and the shooting easily matching that of a proper third person shooter. But the narrative is so problematic, so all-over the place, so unsatisfying that it’s difficult to care about those advancements.
While GTA IV played great for its time of release, going back and having to adjust to its somewhat antiquated controls is a bit difficult. But it’s made easier by the fact that its plot and characters are so compelling. It feels like they have soul. Though they have the veneer of simply being boisterous idiots, if you dig a little deeper you’ll find that they’re actually rather complex individuals who simply put on a front to pretend like their difficulties aren’t affecting them. GTA V, however, has no soul, and nearly all of its attempts to give a sense of character to its three protagonists is always undercut and never fully explored.
Franklin, the most promising of the bunch, sees very little development from start to finish. There was potential to explore the life of a young African American struggling to move up in a society devastated by the 2008 financial collapse. But this was all for nought, as he merely became a prop for Michael and Trevor’s spat.
Michael, a career criminal in the midst of a midlife crisis, also goes nowhere. None of his issues of being addicted to the life of criminality and how that balances with his family life are addressed by the end. Trevor, a psychotic, is merely a means to spice up the formula with his craziness.
Fans on the internet have pointed out that this lack of satisfactory story arcs is because GTA V has no real thematic underpinnings. And I wholeheartedly agree with this.
In GTA IV Niko moved from the lower dregs of Liberty City’s criminal scene to becoming a kingmaker of sorts. As a former soldier in the Bosnian Wars, he witnessed and participated in horrific acts of war, which by the end left him feeling like he had no sense of morality or, in his own words, that he had no soul. And while he comes to America to make a better life for himself, he cannot escape from who he is; a killer. And being a good killer in Liberty City turns out to be a very profitable venture for him, and allows him and his cousin to escape from their lives of misery. But, before he can, he learns that his life of causing pain and suffering to others isn’t something he can simply leave behind.
Though many have problems with GTA IV’s plot, there’s no denying that it at least follows an arc. There is a transition from Act I to Act II to Act III. GTA V lacks this entirely. Its characters merely exist to serve as vehicles to move from one spectacle mission to the next, and while they’re all fun and enjoyable, when you finish it there’s no sense that anything has changed, nor that the characters are different from the beginning.
Perhaps it’s the case that Rockstar North simply said everything it wanted to say in GTA IV, and that by GTA V it attempted to simply create a piece of entertainment. It’s a pity, because there’s so much wasted potential in how everything does play out. Franklin, Michael and Trevor all show promise of being more than they are, but the problematic script condemns them to being relegated as players in a pantomime that goes nowhere.