GTA V. What a way to close out this generation of consoles. I know there are still some big games coming out for the 360 and PS3, and the generous install base of the two systems will ensure they're still supported for at least another year or two, but in a lot of ways, GTA V feel like the last BIG ONE.
I just finished up the main story yesterday and I'm still sorting out my thoughts. I need some time to let things simmer and figure out exactly what made this game so special. For now, take a few scattered observations -
In the continuing fight against my OCD-completionist tendencies, I went into GTA V with a conscious effort to just do the things I enjoy; no more fuming over a broken controller after flunking out of one of the series notorious racing mini-games, or slavishly collecting every tiki statue collectible a la' Vice City. Instead, I focused on just getting down with what I liked about the game.- sprinting past all manner of side missions and fluff content I'll have to explore some other time.
I was surprised to find out that still involved a lot of silly shit.
The paradox about GTA is that in a game filled with crazy high-speed chases, shoot-outs that routinely end in double digit body counts, and parachuting off skyscrapers, some of the most engaging and endearing content comes from totally mundane shit.
I expected my laser focus on fun to burn away almost everything but main story-line missions. Instead, I still made plenty of time to hit up the bars with Franklin and his friend Lamar, watching the two get blasted and shit talk each other. I spent some time with Michael and his deeply flawed efforts to reconnect with his fractured family. I drifted through the shops with every character and picked out a few outfits I liked, special props going to Trevor and his Jack Nicholson from The Shining impression, and Michael's Max Panye inspired wardrobe. I played darts, tennis, watched Vinewood Cinema, listened to street freaks blabber on for ten minute chunks, checked in with the therapist, and even played around on the in-game web browser.
It's a sly little piece of sleight of hand, but one of the core ingredients to GTA's success is the mundane stuff. The little breathers between the explosions of chaos that ground the world and make the action sequences stand out. The fine detail of the world that makes it a weird sort of cathartic life simulator – The Sims with the occasional sidewalk bludgeoning .
It's interesting to compare it to Saint's Row, a game I praise largely for removing all the errand running and distractions I kind of begrudgingly enjoy in GTA V. While they are both open world crime games, they've gone in two completely different directions. GTA V somewhere straddling the line between simulation and game - a 'fun-house mirror' reflection of our world that stays true to it's own logic and- and Saint's Row, which is completely aware it is a videogame and operates by making EVERYTHING as fun and as big and flashy as possible.
I love them both for completely different, and largely contradictory, reasons.
The characters really grabbed me this time out. Michael and Franklin alone are much more interesting protagonists than most former GTA stars. But the real attention grabber was Trevor. Not because I liked him, but because he made me genuinely uncomfortable for a good long time.
Trevor, made specifically to invoke the spirit of the typical GTA player, is a horrifically violent bully. A petty sadist with a mental disorder. While a great deal has been made about his comic relief moments ("tee-hee, he'll wake up in the mountains wearing a dress!"), the much more interesting aspect of his character is that many of his scenes and actions are played exactly as terrifying and malicious as they would be in real life. The violence is one thing, but the way he subjugates and dominates his "gang" of terrified neighbours, and mentally handicapped errand-boys, is actually quite chilling.
While Niko Belic did a great deal of hand-wringing about his violent lifestyle, Trevor is the first character that actually forces the player to face up to the idea of being a monster. Seeing different reactions to that online, ranging from "they crossed the line", to "DOODZ, I tottaly am in luv with Trevor!1!!" has been fascinating. I'm sure there will be some interesting blogs and articles written on the topic in the coming weeks.
Still, as much as I was repulsed by Trevor at first, by the end of the game I actually came to pity and even like him. His rare moments of genuine vulnerability and the deeply sad backstory they reveal are touching. And while the clues are subtle and up to interpretation, I felt by the end Trevor really did suffer from a mental disorder in a realistic, and totally horrifying way. No matter how vile and awful, I can't help but feel at least a bit sorry for someone who can't trust their own perception or mental state.
For all the comedy and chaos, Trevor might be one of the more believable depictions of metal illness I've played in a game.
Much consternation has been made about the treatment of female characters (and lack of meaningful ones) in GTA V. I share a lot of the same concerns. But I do hold out hope for the future. Given the way Rockstar handled DLC in GTA IV, I wouldn't be surprised if a few characters that received minimal screen time will show up in future Los Santos stories. The optional getaway driver Talina, the affable hacker Paige, and FIB agent Karen all seem to be screaming for similar treatment to what Johnny and Louis got in GTA IV. The new multi-character narrative, which Rockstar MUST continue with given how successful it was, should make it easier to get a proper female main character in the next title. It still sucks that apparently it is too much of a financial risk to bet on a solo female protagonist, but I'm not sure if that is shame on Rockstar, or shame on us gamers.
I also think that for as much as I enjoyed the story of GTA V, I would echo complaints about them running dry creatively. The satire is of the kind I appreciate, but after a decade of hitting the same note, it's getting stale. They've aped, homaged, and ripped-off just about every classic crime movie at this point, they're running out of ways to make the "small time gangster turned kingpin" narrative feel fresh or relevant. As I mentioned earlier, the most interesting narrative bits in the game to me was the character stuff; Michael and his tortured family life, beleaguered Franklin stuck between staying loyal to his friends but aspiring to a better life, and Trevor's complex hybridization of monster and lost-puppy. Maybe bringing in a female lead would be a good way to stretch their creative muscles and explore some fresh territory.