GTA V: Living the Life

You may have read our review on Grand Theft Auto V, but a game this big deserves a broad set of opinions. Stephen here shares some of his thoughts on the game. Please note this article contains mild spoilers for the GTA V story.

So Grand Theft Auto V came out and was a big success for Rockstar. Even with a few bugs and a little bit of controversy, this juggernaut franchise cannot be stopped, and the online was not even available at launch. Technically, artistically, and gameplay wise Grand Theft Auto V is fine, but what impressed me the most is the game developers efforts to turn the city of Los Santos into a living breathing world and use characters and choices to cause players to look at the humanity of the world that they are participating in.

A staple in the GTA games has been to have their stories focus on the absolute worst in the world, the darkest reaches of humanity and dregs of society. The motivation for most of the protagonists has been to build up from nothing, stepping on everyone they have to on the way up with almost no sign of sympathy or decency in sight. It pays to have a cold heart to make it in that world, but that does not always make for the best story.

Grand Theft Auto V changes that in several ways. There are now three main protagonists, each with their own families, friends, and enemies; all parts of lives that they are invested in. Though Trevor and Michael already have a past together, they are coming from different walks of life when the game really gets going, just as Franklin is. Michael is retired, Trevor is still trying to make it, and Franklin sees that there are bigger opportunities out there than what the streets can offer. They each stand out different enough with their personalities, different goals, and each possessing an odd loyalty to friends that becomes evident as the story proceeds.

What makes these character’s stories matter are their relationships to other characters that populate the world. Michael has his family and shrink, which he does not like any of them. Franklin has friends that seem lost without him and have embraced the life in front of them, and an ex-girlfriend that he is still hung up on. Trevor has minions and a lot of enemies, simply because he can’t seem to get along with most people between psychotic episodes. What brings them together feels about as natural as it can in a game like this, but they have their own lives outside of their shared adventures.

The ability to switch between the three protagonists is a nice addition, but what I loved about it the most was that none of the other two were ever where I left them. While playing as Franklin, Michael and Trevor were still going about their lives in Los Santos. Upon switching back, I never knew if one of them would be sitting at home watching television, coming from a strip club, stuck in traffic, or playing golf. There are so many side activities to do in the game, everything from the shooting range to yoga, that they could be doing almost anything. They also change clothes randomly, adding an additional lifelike quality to the passing of time and individuality of the characters. I also like, though it has only happened once, that it is possible to see the other characters about the city while doing a mission on the one the player has selected.

Player immersion into the characters is more predominant with personal side missions and scenes that give choices. To be the psychotic killer everyone thinks the character is or to show mercy? Several scenes place the protagonists in situations that add to their personality and force them to take actions that actually challenge them, and therefore further involve the player to these lives. The torture scene has been brought up a lot. I did not think it was that bad, though I am surprised Rockstar did not make that mission available to skip—which they should have in my opinion. The player is given the choice of what tools to use and how long to do it, and though the character is not clearly affected by the act, mercy is shown. It is the player that has the choice in the majority of these matters, which allows a connection, increasing the immersion. To further state this, the game issues a psychiatric report at the end which states the players ‘problems’.

The choice in the final mission actually caused me pause. Even though I knew what I wanted from the result, the fear of making the wrong decision and breaking up what I had worked so hard on building had me second guessing. I haven’t finished all of the side missions yet, but several of them have kept me surprised at the depth Rockstar puts into their characters. I am more interested in going to see Michael’s therapist than I am shooting up a strip club. This is far from perfect, and will be lost on many players, but it is a huge step in the right direction. There needs to be more to a game than just the killing and looting. The best games feel like their own world, establishing a connection with the player, giving them a reason to keep going back to check in on old friends.

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