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

My three protagonists and I are all along for Rockstar’s ride, but at the same time we have a satellite narrative running in parallel, one that exists between the four of us and which is a product only of ourselves. I, as the player, am the only one who knows all of it, but that makes the bigger story being told entirely mine. And it doesn’t stop with dramatic irony. The game’s endlessly eclectic character re-introductions upon switching provide a wealth of material for internalised player-narrative, each asking questions about why the protagonists are where they are and how they got there. And those questions always lead to answers, which I provide myself.

Let’s say that Michael is particularly pissed off with his family’s nonsense after a recent mission. Let’s say I switch to him after playing as one of the other two for a while. Let’s say I find him at the end of the pier at two in the morning, staring at the sea and smoking a cigar. Immediately, in my head, he’s out on a soul-searching late-night walk. This further informs my version of him. We get a beer and go on a rollercoaster to blow the cobwebs out a bit, and that even further informs my version of who he is. It’s brilliant, subtle, and startlingly powerful characterisation device, at once reactive to the material the game throws out, while allowing me to entirely dictate that material’s meaning and resonance, and use it to flesh out a real world and its characters.

None of this would work, of course, if Grand Theft Auto still suffered the same characterisation problems that had always turned me off before 5. You see for me, GTA has always been the dubious poster-boy for ludonarrative dissonance. It’s always been billed as a series that allowed me to do what I wanted, however I wanted to do it, but that only worked on a mechanical level. The gameplay inputs technically did allow me to do whatever I wanted, but the narrative integrity of the overall game-world did not. And that made things fall apart for me very quickly indeed.

I could only plausibly play my character how I wanted to up until a point. Eventually the game would take over by in some way telling me who my character was and exactly what they would and wouldn’t do, making only the most token of excuses just in case things didn’t line up. That was one of the reasons I couldn’t get through GTA 4. The whole thing was bludgeoned to death by Niko’s mantra of “I hate violence, I want a better life, oh hang on, I’ll just kill 500 people for this coke dealer I’ve only just met”. It was yet another case of GTA building what should have been an amazing world and then never letting me believe in it.

But GTA 5 seems to have learned from Red Dead Redemption. That game got things right. John Marston was a perfectly-pitched character, written with just the right level of laconic nobility and no-nonsense motivation to allow any play-style to maintain narrative integrity. GTA 5’s characters work in the same way, each holding traits that provide defined personality and enough ambiguity for interpretation. Michael is solid, but with a reckless desperation for thrill-seeking escape.Franklin is well-meaning and dependable, but is perhaps slightly naïve, and craves any kind of a career path. Trevor is an ambitious and successful businessman, but also a flat-out psychopath, so all behavioural bets are off.

And all of this, of course, plays out in the most reactive game world I have ever yet encountered. The sheer levels of interactivity--from stopping to play some sport on a self-delegated day off, to flipping someone the bird at the traffic lights in irritation, or just to see what will happen--allow all of the above to happen in a real place, with mine and my protagonists’ shared story being further fuelled and informed by the wider world at large on a moment-to-moment basis.

GTA 5’s Los Santos isn’t just a game setting. It feels like a genuine, fully simulated city. And with myself and my characters now able to create a genuine, fully simulated, utterly fleshed-out, shared life within that place, Grand Theft Auto has changed from a series I could never become immersed in, to an experience I could live in if I didn’t still need to eat real-world food. And it’s done so in the space of one game. Bravo, Rockstar.

Though I am now admittedly screwed when GTA Online goes live.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.