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

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.

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.