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Why GTA 5's subtle narrative genius means I FINALLY love the series

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Remember the day that the first GTA 5 trailer hit? Remember how excited everyone was, and how the internet stopped working for an afternoon, along with everyone who was reading the internet? I was bored out of my mind that afternoon. Here I was, in an office full of excited games journos during the biggest and most significant gaming reveal of the year, and in truth I felt more like a vegetarian on Christmas Day.

You see I’d never liked 3D Grand Theft Auto. From GTA 3 to GTA 4, the series had consistently bored me to tears. Of course, the vastness of what Grand Theft Auto was doing had always been impressive. Thoroughly respect-worthy, in fact. But, being no fan of the series’ moment-to-moment gameplay or mission design, it always felt to me like a franchise coasting by on map-size alone. Map-size, and the fact that countless ‘less engaged’ gamers the world over will always buy it for the simple, dubious fun of smashing stuff up. Microsoft's game-completion stats potentially agree with me on that latter point.

The thing is, I didn’t care about Grand Theft Auto’s world-building. If anything, the series’ vast game-worlds just compounded the problem. With a huge, immensely explorable city but nothing interesting to do in it, the artificiality of the situation rang through the entire experience like a church bell that I happened to be sitting inside while a giant struck it with the very hammer of Thor. I wasn’t wandering around a real, living place, as many felt they were. I was moving a camera around a scale model built out of cardboard boxes and cereal packets. I get that GTA 4's narrative was supposed to create a sense of isolation, but the series had always felt that way to me. Like I was an outside observer looking at an as-yet unpopulated developer test-environment, trying desperately to find something fun to do.

But now GTA 5 has happened, and I’m merrily stuffing down turkey and sausages until I’m ready to burst. And then stuffing down some more. In fact the whole thing makes me wish for some magical temporal postal service, so that I can send some back-dated excitement to that first trailer day. Because simply, GTA 5 has deftly and completely fixed every problem I’ve ever had with GTA, and finally given me the experience I always wanted from the series.

Fittingly, it’s not the immense scale of GTA 5’s San Andreas that’s done it for me, but rather the way the game operates on a much more microcosmic way. And perhaps ironically, it’s about the way that the granular stuff then finally feeds into a satisfying, nourishing bigger picture.

For starters, the new approach to characterisation changes everything. GTA 5’s protagonists work for me in a way that none in the series has before. Partially I think it’s a result of the game’s abandonment of its traditional ‘rags to riches’ schtick. The old approach always felt to me like a product of game design rather than writing, using a default lowly outsider character as an easy way to parallel the player’s progress through the game.

Michael, Trevor and Franklin, however (the first two especially), are long-established, successful characters in their own environments before the start of the game, with the histories and fully-fleshed personal baggage required to make them real people, with real lives and stories, from the start. That’s a good beginning, but things go much further and much deeper than that. Because in GTA 5, it's all about the way the story is told. And Rockstar isn't the only one telling it. 

The dynamic of three protagonists sharing one narrative doesn’t simply provide an interesting new device; rather it accelerates an immense secondary narrative within my own relationship with my player-characters. No longer am I on the outside looking in, my avatar and myself standing in the rain with our faces pressed up against the window, watching the grand pseudo-simulation going on inside. Instead, there are two stories, playing out separately but feeding into each other constantly. One is made up of Rockstar’s scripted missions and cutscenes. We turn up to that one when required, and enjoy what we’re given. The mission design is excellent these days, and the gameplay mechanics finally enjoyable in their own right. But at the same time, we’re creating a wider, dynamic narrative that’s entirely our own.

Let’s say that Michael is planning a heist. We go about our business, doing the necessary planning to set things up. Some things go well, some things go wrong--I might screw up a mission, find a new approach, get caught in a random police chase or gang fight along the way, etc.--but ultimately we get there. Then I jump over to Franklin, who’s going about his business unaware that any of this is going on. We hang out, we explore, we window-shop for a few clothes that he can’t yet afford, and we do a Strangers And Freaks side-mission or two. But whatever we do and however we do it, it all feeds directly into my perception of who my Franklin is.

Then I switch back to Michael, who doesn’t know about anything that Franklin and I have been up to. My Franklin is evolving slightly differently to Michael’s Franklin (in that way that real people’s whole selves are always somewhat different to the way they’re variously perceived by the people who know them), and when Michael is making plans and recommendations regarding his new friend, that matters. For a more explicit version, see the early scenes in which I'm playing as Trevor, getting to know and even like the big unstable nutjob, but simultaneously hoping he doesn't mess things up for Michael and Franklin. While knowing that eventually, I have to get him to a place where he could. 

Suddenly I have a brilliant narrative tension, where I am simultaneously the audience of the story, its co-writer and it omnipresent narrator.

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7 comments

  • thelegendaryX - January 1, 2014 7:54 a.m.

    I actually got more bored with GTA 5 than I ever was with the others. Never really cared about the story and narrative, and I ESPECIALLY didn't care about these things in 5, because the protagonists are neither likable, relatable, or even tolerable on a regular basis. I never wanted to play a pathetic loser who can't get his mind right or show a modicum of principles or respectable traits before; why would I want to now? That's simply not what GTA has been about for me. I think the only reason so many people like Trevor, Michael, and Franklin are because they're comparing him to Niko, forgetting that Rockstar has done much better before. Give me back my badass protagonists! Besides, the story (ideally) is only supposed to make up a small percentage of my time playing this game. That's not how it went down, however. I finished the story and then it became painfully obvious how little there was left to do (that's actually fun). The broken cops and wanted level system (cops are psychic, overly aggressive marksmen who start shooting the moment you accidentally bump into someone on the sidewalk) made sure I never set out to cause a little mayhem and even felt rather restricted as to how much fun I could seek out in other ways. The map is actually a vast expanse of nothingness, making it feel as if Rockstar was just very cheap with us and hid it well. Even the collectibles were very unrewarding, worse than I had ever seen them before. Add to this the fact that there were sooooooo many great features/activities in previous GTAs that were simply not present here, making it all the more clear that this huge world they created was severely lacking (fun!) activities in comparison to its size.
  • CitizenWolfie - September 25, 2013 10:49 p.m.

    I've always enjoyed the narrative from GTA3 onwards but I can see what you mean David. And it's strange because I'm playing GTAV in a much different way to how I would normally play GTA games. I find myself playing to match the characters' personalities instead of using them as an avatar for my own. For instance, I wanted to check out the Epsilon program, but where I would have just gone and done it in GTAIV, I actually took a minute to consider which of the characters would do it themselves and switched to them. Similarly if I want to create some carnage I will switch to Trevor as it's just what HE'D do. I was dubious at first but the three-character format has been amazing. It's like Rockstar took each part of their GTA history and gave us a choice - the GTA1-2 old school, top-down style, rampage junkie (Trevor), the GTA3/VC/SA rags to riches crook (Franklin) and the post GTAIV/RDR career criminal looking for a new life (Michael). I honestly can't even pick a favourite out of the three.
  • rxb - September 25, 2013 3:58 p.m.

    Good read Hooters.
  • Timstertimster - September 24, 2013 11:08 a.m.

    I'm going to join the critics and state that the most intriguing improvement in V is police AI. SPOILER ALERT! Because if you are chased and manage to switch vehicles while not in their view, you can make a swift getaway. This is realistic. Unfortunately, you still have their "view cone" on your mini map, making hiding a cinch. I wish GTA had hardcore settings where such things can be turned off for a tighter thrill.
  • diamond-a-milli-milliner - September 24, 2013 8:47 a.m.

    I liked GTA 3 alot! I liked it better than San Andreas, I still think San Andreas was overhyped. GTA 3 in my opinion was fun because I had all the cheats, but I didn't care too much for San Andreas, Vice City, or GTA 4. However, GTA 5 is amazing & I can't stop playing it. GTA 5 is way more Dynamic & I love all the characters & their story lines. I haven't made it too far through GTA 5 but I'm getting a hint that there is a specific lesson/meaning throughout this game.
  • WrathLord03 - September 23, 2013 3:37 p.m.

    MINOR SPOILERS I think this is why the game had to go with multiple endings. A lot of people seem to be saying that one particular ending is the real one and the others were sort of shoved into the game late in the development cycle just so they could have different endings, but to be honest, all of them (from what I've heard, I only played one for narrative purity) are well-written and say something very different, but still meaningful, about the overall story. It's the fact that you create these characters just as much as Rockstar does that the endings were a necessity, and it's how you played them up until that point that ultimately decided how you end the game. It was brilliant. The way I ended the game completely depended on how I saw my Franklin and my characters having progressed throughout the story. I felt the story was missing just a little something, but it came together really well in the end and it's all down to what you wrote in this article.
  • ZeroZmm - September 23, 2013 3:32 p.m.

    When I first saw the GTA 5 trailer myself I thought it looked great, but I had my doubts.. GTA 4 was indeed very boring..And since I don't play online to faf around like most players do I never really went back to it after the story was done. GTA 5 is pretty much alive, I'm still surprised when I see a cop car rush past me following some dude that crashed onto them or a gang of thugs, and you don't even need to be in the streets for anything to happen, it's not scripted. And if it is, Rockstar is filled with wizards that knew it'd be hilarious to be doing Yoga and have a shootout happen just outside the house. Genius, just genius..

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