Grand Theft Auto: Friendship is Magic.
(SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE GTA SERIES THROUGHOUT)
Drew Snider - Grand Theft Auto games have never had great stories.
Sure, since GTA III, they have featured high production values and strong acting. But the stories tend to be awkward, repetitive, and forgettable. This isn’t at all surprising, since the purpose of the narrative is to stitch together a series of chases, races, and gunfights. There’s only so much you can do within those limitations.
That hasn’t precluded innovation, though. While III and Vice City relied on story hooks related to betrayal and revenge, San Andreas attempted a more personal premise. It was the first instance in the series of a more sympathetic protagonist – at least relative to III’s obedient, blank-slate Claude, or Vice City’s temperamental, power-hungry Tommy Vercetti. In San Andreas, CJ’s motivations were less about reactivity or ambition, and more about loyalty (at least ostensibly). The stakes were highly personal, and the obligatory betrayals aimed to evoke more than just muted anger. CJ’s relationships formed the emotional core of the story.
This approach was carried forward, with varying degrees of success, to GTA IV and its expansions, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. The protagonists had someone to care about: Niko Bellic’s had his cousin; Johnny had his gang and his girlfriend; Luis had his family and his boss. While the stories remained limited by the nature of the game, they featured more relatable protagonists and more aspired to some degree of emotional variety.
One thing, however, remained nearly constant throughout the GTA games. The cast of mission-givers and ancillary characters were predominantly irreverent, egotistical, selfish, and combative. In short, they were assholes.
From the cocaine-addled Ken Rosenberg and the maliciously corrupt Frank Tenpenny, to the insufferable Kibbutz brothers and the hyperactive Yusuf Amir – players have grown accustomed to working for some of the most unsavory characters in this or any other medium. Certainly the franchise’s premises demand this to an extent – the player is, after all, dealing with career criminals most of the time. However, the pervasively aggressive and antagonistic interactions can be exhausting.
Used sparingly, this particular sort of eccentricity can be appropriate, if not enjoyable. I think that Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, Tommy DeVito, exemplifies appropriate use of an overbearing asshole in a story. But one Tommy DeVito is usually enough.
Moreover, Tommy’s ego and temper factor into the plot of Goodfellas. His being an asshole is purposeful, and has consequences. In contrast, GTA’s assholes are typically mission-givers. Regardless of how confrontational their interactions with the protagonist are, the player must do as they ask to advance the plot. The infuriating behaviour of these characters is often met with tolerance and acquiescence on the part of the protagonist. The stories sometimes manage some pretense for the protagonist’s cooperation, such as leverage or loyalty, but it’s just as often inexplicable.
It’s no secret that these interactions are excuses to get players into a mission – this just makes their purpose transparently obvious. It’s one thing for players to have little or no control over the course of the plot; it’s much more problematic for the protagonists to be pushovers, especially when they have an otherwise high degree of agency over events. The ultimate effect is to diminish the player’s investment and immersion in the story.
Enter GTA V.
The latest iteration’s story and characters suffer from many of the same problems. Michael’s family is loathsome, while Franklin’s friends are impulsive and unreliable (Lamar is strikingly similar to Roman, though arguably less irritating). Mission-givers and ancillary characters are largely of the same asshole stock, and conversations remain frequently combative.
At the same time, the game struck me as noticeably more varied and balanced in this respect. This is most evident in interactions between the three protagonists. The relationship between Michael and Trevor provides for a novel arc about abandonment and forgiveness. Meanwhile, Michael and Franklin allow the player to experience a mentor-protégé relationship from both perspectives.
This all makes sense from a design standpoint. Switching between protagonists during combat requires them to be on the same side of a conflict, and adopting multiple audience perspectives offers opportunities for novel plotting. It makes sense that the protagonists would be on good terms, or even friends.
But these ideas are more fully carried over into story and theme than I had expected. It’s not just that the game’s protagonists are friends; the game is about friendship.
Trevor’s struggle (or struggles) to forgive Michael for faking his own death invites us to consider the limits of tolerance between friends. Trevor, in turn, tests that tolerance in different ways – even if his loyalty was never in question, his personal unpleasantness and temper make him difficult to endure in the best of circumstances. Meanwhile, Franklin feels bogged down by his sense of obligation to friends. Lamar’s impulses and ill-conceived ambition routinely end in bloodshed, while Tonya’s relentless guilt-tripping lands Franklin behind the wheel of a tow truck with irritating frequency. This leads us to ask ourselves where we draw the line between generosity and helpfulness on one hand, and being exploited on the other.
Michael’s asymmetrical relationship with Franklin speaks to the question of responsibility to our friends. Was it right to provide Franklin the opportunity to participate in the heists, or should he have left him out for his own safety? Prior to meeting Michael, Franklin is longing for a new job, and he may even have gone straight. Here we’re led to consider where we draw another line: between hooking a friend up, and being an enabler.
These issues occur in a life-or-death context in GTA V, but they’re eminently relatable for most of us. We’ve all volunteered to help a friend move, and showed up only to find they’ve barely packed. We’ve had friends with strange views or off-putting quirks. We’ve lied to our friends, only to be called out on it later. Many of us have even had friends struggle with alcoholism or drug abuse, and wondered if we contributed to it, or if we’re doing enough to help them get better. Stories with high stakes often depend on a vague sort of relatability, but here it’s quite lucid and direct. We know exactly how the protagonists feel about each other.
A lot of this is present in GTA IV, even more so in the expansions. But it’s both more central and more developed in GTA V, mostly because the central relationships are between three playable protagonists. It’s even easier to empathize because we have a fleshed-out knowledge of each character’s motivations and reactions.
Michael drags Franklin into a very dangerous series of events because of his mistakes; Roman does the same to Niko. We have an understanding of how and why Michael screwed up – we even feel some artificial agency over it, because we pulled down Madrazo’s mistress’ house. We also see Michael’s hesitance to involve Franklin in the heists, showing his conflicting senses of faux-parenthood. He likes Franklin and would prefer that he stayed safe; at the same time, he sees Franklin’s potential and knows he could benefit from guidance and criminal opportunity. Meanwhile, Roman’s life is largely opaque to the player. He is irritating and does little of consequence other than make mistakes that the player has to deal with. Niko struggles between resentment of and loyalty to Roman, but players could only relate to the resentment.
Indeed, the protagonists seem to reflect and build upon aspects of previous characters. Franklin is typical of GTA protagonists such as Luis, Johnny, and CJ – youthfully ambitious, fed up with what he sees as small-time work, feeling held back by loyalty and affection, and (often inexplicably) easy-going. Michael is simply Niko aged a couple decades, and given what he thought he wanted: a way out of the criminal life. As GTA IV implied somewhat grimly, such characters have difficulty leaving both because it’s all they know, and because there’s an underlying love for it, whether or not they want to accept it.
Trevor, however, is unlike any previous GTA protagonist, save for the standard greed and fierce ambition. As Trevor, it’s you who are the eccentric bully, and the other non-player characters who are forced into acquiescence. It’s you who has the explosive temper, the over-the-top drug habits, and the deep-seated maliciousness. He is quite unlike the typical GTA protagonist, and much more like the typical mission-giver.
By playing as Trevor, we’re afforded glimpses into his past, and insight into his personality and motivations. His abusive, and possibly incestuous, relationship with his mother seems to inform his uncharacteristically accommodating and friendly relationship with women he finds attractive. His father literally abandoned him. His instability cost him a career he loved. Despite being frequently and thoroughly violent, his threats to Michael are ultimately toothless because he values their friendship so much (at least, prior to the final act of the game).
But as Michael and Franklin are elaborations on previous GTA protagonists, Trevor is an elaboration on the typical GTA asshole. But by including some semblance of nuance and depth, and exploring his vulnerabilities, the writers were able to make Trevor interesting and even a little sympathetic. Almost all of this was accomplished by including a handful of interactions that weren’t the cruel or combative, like with Mrs. Madrazo or Maude. Role reversal offers some variety, when his mother treats him the way he treats Ron and Wade. His interactions with Michael are quite combative, but for a clear emotional reason. Trevor feels less like a hateful caricature, and more like a human being.
Perhaps most importantly, Trevor’s personality matters to the narrative. As with Tommy in Goodfellas, Trevor’s temper has substantive consequences for the story. It’s the reason Michael didn’t reveal he was alive, or that Brad was dead; indeed, Trevor reacts to the latter revelation by leaving Michael to die. Concern about Trevor’s behaviour is a persistent source of tension. That the world recognizes and reacts to his eccentricity makes this game’s narrative feel that much more grounded.
I was also struck by the absence of a sudden but inevitable betrayal. I was almost certain that Dave Norton, the FIB agent who helped Michael fake his death, was going to be this game’s Lance Vance. If not him, then Lester, or even Ron. Instead, the protagonists’ trust in each other and supporting characters is rewarded (notwithstanding Franklin’s choice at the end of the game). Less Lance Vance, more Little Jacob. Before, the series’ cynicism seemed only to deepen over time, with IV representing a brooding and misanthropic peak. Rockstar seems to have retreated from that, to the game’s benefit.
Is friendship a force for good in GTA V? Not necessarily. Sure, loyalty and co-operation save our heroes more than once. But Franklin’s naïve acquiescence in helping Michael demolish a stranger’s house is the catalyst for the rest of the plot. Michael’s influence over Franklin, as discussed above, isn’t clearly in Franklin’s best interest. Our last interaction with Tonya suggest she and JB aren’t any closer to getting clean, no matter how many cars Franklin tows for them. And ultimately, Trevor remains an extremely violent person with a hair-trigger temper – the sort of friend any therapist will tell you to cut ties with. The game isn’t going out of its way to be sunny or life-affirming. It’s just using friendship to help players relate to the characters and invest themselves in the narrative.
Overall, GTA V is a major step in the right direction. While I don’t expect the series to totally abandon its cynicism or inclination toward caricature, it offers hope for more balanced, varied, relatable, and tolerable casts in the future. It reminds us that GTA narratives can innovate in ways that don’t directly address the series’ arguably unavoidable ludonarrative dissonance. It reminds us that we can take things sort of seriously. It’s a game about stealing cars and shooting people, with a story about friendship.