GTA 5 Review: Damn it Feels Good (& Bad) to Be a Gangsta
By now, everyone knows what Grand Theft Auto V is about. Michael De Santa is a retired bank robber living off his ill-gotten millions in the richest part of Los Santos, San Andreas, under the purported aegis of federal witness protection. He spends his days drinking, smoking, watching TV and generally being a miserable prick to his wife and kids because he hasn’t felt like a human being since leaving his life of crime behind. Into this domestic mess comes a kid named Franklin, a young hustler from the Los Santos’ south side who desperately wants to climb up out of the hood and make something of himself. Michael, motivated by the chance to feel alive again after a decade of crime-free ennui, takes Franklin on as a protege and the two form an unlikely friendship that leads directly to the successful completion of a lucrative heist.
That heist catches the attention of Trevor, Michael’s old partner in crime, who has spent the last decade thinking Michael is dead. Living in the GTA version of the meth-plagued California desert, Trevor has spent these years becoming the truly worst person possible, dealing meth, running guns, killing indiscriminately, and physically and sexually abusing everyone he knows. The revelation that his best friend might actually be alive drives him even crazier than he already is, and after tying up a few loose ends around his neck of the woods, he travels to Los Santos where he forcibly inserts himself back into Michael’s life.
This sets in motion a series of events that cause every bad choice Michael has ever made to bite him in the ass. His betrayal of friends, his selfishness and hypocrisy, his refusal to take responsibility for his own actions, all of this is contrasted against Trevor’s total embrace of his most vile impulses. Franklin, meanwhile, is presented with three very different possibilities for how his criminal (and legitimate) aspirations might play out if he follows in Michael’s footsteps. Whether or not the trio can make it out of their mess alive – indeed, whether they even should – is the question put to players as they control each of the three protagonists through a series of heists and other assorted crimes for government, private enterprise, and criminal entities.
This story brutally lays into the vastly unequal society America has become since the economic downturn really picked up steam, while at the same time mocking the way the midlife crisis has become something of a political zeitgeist. It also unflinchingly criticizes all three characters for the monsters – or not – that they really are, damns the player along with them for good measure, and still manages to be satisfying and fun right down to the last cut scene.
Michael’s story is the spine of the game, and it’s here that you’ll notice the odd maturity that seems to have set in at Rockstar. Where Grand Theft Auto IV was a bleak, meandering look at the American dream that never quite came together successfully, Grand Theft Auto V succeeds admirably by rooting things to the story arc of a character who is gradually revealed to be a selfish bastard in desperate need of a reality check. The effect is that when his story finally comes to a close, it feels earned; it’s not simply the logical progression of mission completion, but real character development. You’ll even find yourself touched by the way his relationship with his family progresses through the game, not an easy feat for a game that also allows you to help out a cult of serial killers, or implies that someone has quite literally had sex with a teddy bear.
“You have a story that ends up feeling kind of like the Coen Brothers riffing on Michael Mann via Choose Your Own Adventure.”
If Michael is the spine, then Franklin is the heart of the game, and his story provides a similar sense of growth and change. In fact, the final outcome of the story hinges around Franklin’s arc during the game, and that helps to cement the game’s themes more effectively than anything seen in previous GTA games.
Trevor’s story remains somewhat undeveloped throughout the game, but that’s because his purpose, as I see it, is less about any personal journey and more a means of ramming home the game’s meta-theme, the idea that if you think about it, murder simulators like Grand Theft Auto are incredibly disturbing. That refusal to let the player off the hook for how much enjoyment they may get from this game might be the most impressive thing. GTA V contains every bit of the sociopathic brutality that has defined the series, and it’s as much fun as ever, but never once does it allow the player to forget that they are taking great pleasure in the commission of unforgivably terrible acts.
This is most strongly conveyed during a moment in the mid-game in which you’re forced, as Trevor, to conduct a brutal ‘enhanced interrogation’ – straight up torture, actually – at the behest of the FIB (the GTA universe equivalent of the FBI). It’s perhaps the most disturbing thing I’ve ever experienced during a game, but what makes it worth the time spent hating yourself is the fact that after controlling Trevor as he gleefully proceeds to go at the prisoner with a pipe wrench, pull his teeth out with pliers, waterboard him, or electrocute him, you then help the prisoner escape certain death. All while Trevor babbles on and on about how torture never works as a means of gathering information, it’s merely a way for the torturer to exercise his sick sadistic tendencies on a helpless recipient. Just like you, player.
If anything, this aspect of the game feels like the ultimate rebuttal to moral guardians who live in terror that the youth will be led astray by such games. The torture scene is disturbing, but that’s the whole point. You are complicit in acts of tremendous horror, and forced to confront the fact that they are, in fact, horrific. Violent films, violent books, violent TV shows, all of them make similar demands on their viewers, and GTA V suggests loudly that experiencing situations like this interactively is no different. It’s a marvelous accomplishment.
Add to this the excellent performances by the voice cast, and a series of supporting characters who quite literally represent everything wrong with America in the second decade of the 21st century, not to mention a final arc that ends with [SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO READ] your choice of three distinct endings that each convey a clear moral point, and you have a story that ends up feeling kind of like the Coen Brothers riffing on Michael Mann via Choose Your Own Adventure. GTA V doesn’t reach the same epic heights that San Andreas, still the storytelling peak of the series, did, but it manages to do something GTA IV attempted, and failed at – make everything feel extremely personal.
One Thing: This should go without saying, but it’s a GTA game, and that means copious violence and other objectionable acts. But even with that in mind, this might be the most disturbing, and darkest, entry in series history. In several cases, the depths of human depravity are portrayed or alluded to, including sexual abuse. Anyone who might find such things a trigger might want to consider sitting this game out.