On Grand Theft Auto V’s Attempt at Self-Justification

Spoilers ahead

It took me a while to realize what GTA V was trying to achieve. Yes, there are many statements in game about American capitalism, movies and celebrity culture, and a political system where leaders and bureaucrats think about “getting ahead” more than doing their job. Ricky McAlister pointed out the challenge of trying to keep away from these topics, particularly the first: the “C” ending has Michael talk about outsourcing and putting profits offshore while killing an investor. Franklin mentions that he’s not sure how different the “capitalism” he, Michael and Trevor practice is from the investor’s.

Let’s talk about the basic story before I offer a more developed critique. Franklin is a small-time hood whose girlfriend broke up with him to find someone more established and ethical. Franklin meets Michael while stealing cars. Michael is a retired criminal who through a corrupt government agent got out of the robbery business. His last robbery involved him getting shot, one of his partners getting killed, and the third partner – Trevor – disappearing. A fake funeral for Michael opens the game. Michael has a new name, a family, a lot of money and a lot of issues. Michael ends up taking Franklin under his wing, showing him how to do bigger and better heists, because his anger, obligations to the corrupt government agent that’s protecting him, and want of being a movie star push him to be daring. Trevor shows up when he realizes Michael is alive and wants into the gang. Trevor is a psychopath who will kill anyone over anything. He controls people using fear and anger; his broken logic is a strength that keeps everyone else on edge. Trevor has established a very profitable meth operation outside of Los Santos, the LA replica Michael and Franklin operate in. But Trevor also is very attached to the past, loyal to the old gang to a fault. He’s been sending letters to the old partner, believing him in prison and not dead. He wants to bust him out. The central action of the story revolves around Michael’s betrayal of the old gang when they were about to be caught to protect himself and his family. The old partner is lying in Michael’s grave, and it is just a matter of time before Trevor realizes the truth.

You can see that when the story is told with just the characters involved, there’s a lot fewer “-isms” and more fundamental issues at work. Franklin wants to move ahead, but can he move ahead while letting go? It’s hard to be rejected and invest seriously in a new life. Franklin is dealing with disappointment, and some of the more writerly moments in the game deal with this theme. When about to meet Dom, Franklin talks at length about his issues to a dog that seems to understand his every word. That dog disappears entirely, as if it never existed. It’s a comic but telling moment in the game, that Franklin doesn’t really have anyone to vent to. His disappointment makes him lonely.

Michael has all kinds of anger and guilt issues. At one point, a guy trying to make it in movies explains what hardships he faces. As the bottom of the barrel, he gets a lot of abuse for a mere opportunity. It’s convincing. However, it convinces Michael to irrationally scream “shut up” at him. Those anger and guilt issues stem from the fact that he wanted to live a dream, got what he wanted, and still wants to live a dream. His love of the movies, his escapism, is one half of the key puzzle of GTA V, the one Franklin fits into.

The other half is Trevor. At first, he’s just sick and very difficult to stomach. Later, as Franklin finds himself “straight” with Trevor and even Michael won’t kill him, you realize that he is a sick cartoon. He’s got control over anyone he wants through violence. His special ability is a “rage mode” where he takes virtually no damage and deals out a ton. As ridiculous as GTA is, with Michael and Franklin basically having slow time abilities as well as the typical ability to kill a small army, Trevor is that much more ridiculous. He gets property at the drop of a hat because of his meth operation. Everyone is an enemy to him except some dumb hicks who admire his honesty.

Michael represents an older version of the good life. Family, white picket fences, old movies and heroes. Trevor is about rage, drugs and control. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the game feels like a first-person shooter most with Trevor around. But gamer culture obviously is not exclusive to FPS games. GTA V has something to say about America and sold $800 million on its first day out. The real critique GTA is offering with Michael and Trevor, who are player-controlled, is about itself. American escapism nowadays is continuous with what American escapism was. Before, you’d watch Joe Pesci shoot a kid that mouthed back to him in Goodfellas. Now you have a controller as GTA tells you to plant a bomb to kill the Lifeinvader CEO. What GTA V tries to do is justify the sandbox game, its particular right to parody mass media and industry. To do that, it has to justify gaming metaphorically.

That’s the larger purpose behind the shots it takes at capitalism and government while having you run around with a bunch of murderous psychos who cannot possibly be justified. The critique of capitalism in game is utterly laughable. Each company’s stock has a competitor. Wreck the competitor by murdering their CEO or, in the case of an airline (sigh) by blowing up jetliners, and the stock you own will go up by leaps and bounds. There is no way you could possibly use this game to educate anyone about the financial crisis or mountains of debt we have – you can’t show that the self-interest and good intentions of a number of actors got out of hand, coupled with some greed. It’s all greed and corruption in game, with your murderous psychos being used as tools by even more murderous, greedy psychos. The real reason to introduce capitalism for the sake of critique is to compare its practitioners with our characters, who are player-controlled criminals. In other words, there’s a reason why Jimmy, Michael’s son who does nothing but smoke weed and play video games, saves his Dad and betters himself. In a world where we can be reduced quickly to dog-eat-dog, what’s wrong with escapism through video games?

The critique of government is along the same lines, but has a bit more substance. The private army that is the Blackwater parody is ridiculous. The real threat from mercenary firms in American lives is not that they run around America killing Americans, but that they are invisible to the body politic for the most part. However, the interagency competition between the CIA and FBI parodies in game is much more serious and one of the more convincing storylines. The agents will do anything for promotions and glory, and the willingness to do anything to make it look like one is useful – to torture and kill on rumor as opposed to building a case – makes too much sense. The game goes beyond a shallow libertarian critique. It is very clear the profit/promotion motive can never be a substitute for justice or moderation, which you must have in law enforcement. It is also very clear that we only see utility in terms of getting ahead.

And that’s where the game’s strength and greatest failure lies. In giving the player the chance to make his three psychos work together, the game mockingly hints that some kind of fraternity can exist between gamers themselves even as the rest of the world goes to shit in the name of productivity and accomplishment. Michael’s speech about outsourcing and offshore profits is about placing trust in the people around you. It really has nothing to do with capitalism. But at the same time, this is not a serious ethos. Not in the least. Michael’s complaint about Trevor – a complaint that, in addition to his own selfishness, makes him want to kill Trevor – gets watered down as the game goes on. It isn’t clear it should be watered down; Trevor kills and tortures in excess, even for a GTA game. The very first thing Trevor does in game is sadistically kill a character from a previous GTA game. My brother remarked how that other character couldn’t catch a break. He was part of a fairly serious storyline where he had to kill in order to defend himself and ended up an exile. I get that GTA V is trying to break from that sort of seriousness, but this was a really tasteless way to go about that. It undermines any moral the game might try to consider, including an attempt to justify the sandbox given. It undermines the previous work the company has done well.

That sandbox, as others have noted, suffers from lazy writing. The absolute worst example of this is the “choice” given Franklin near game’s end. The FBI wants Trevor dead; some rich dude wants Michael dead. You, as Franklin, can choose to kill either or neither. Problem: Franklin has, not too long ago, saved both characters in quests you couldn’t choose. And both characters have saved him and his friend even while wanting to kill each other. Franklin verbally admits his gratefulness for all this. It’s cute to say “well, this parallels the choice Michael made,” but that’s not even true as Franklin admits at some point. The choice Michael made was complicated and difficult; the choice you face is the product of bad writing that stays untrue to the character Franklin is. I could care less about the A and B endings that come from killing Michael and Trevor. They’re not products of a serious storyline, of writers that know what they’re doing.

Finally, there’s the misogyny, however unintentional. There is no female in the game that can be taken seriously. I’m thinking this was somewhat intentional, to create a “boys only” club atmosphere might justify gaming even in its stupidest forms. Unfortunately, gaming isn’t justifiable in its absolutely stupidest forms, and the game’s slapsticky attempts to pin misogyny on our media-at-large fall flat given how it depicts women. Giving any of the characters a serious love interest with extended dialogue could have fixed this easily. I was calling Molly, a crooked lawyer working for the investor, with Michael and Franklin, thinking that there might be some kind of plot there. Nothing. Franklin probably has a self-realization when he tells Molly that she should quit being so in love with the investor, that it isn’t going to happen, but that just shows how shallow a character Molly, who has something like 40 words in game, is. Her whole character is known in 2 seconds. And don’t get me started on Maryann or Abigail or the utter mess that is Amanda.

GTA IV was too dark for me and I honestly enjoy the play of V a lot more (however: everyone should read this on GTA IV). Some of the satire – especially the Weazel News bits, the glory that is Bleeter, and “Fame or Shame” – is just incredible. But yeah, too much snark, ridiculousness and cheap jokes hurt what might have been a good statement about our newer attempts to live the dream. We do play games, just not the games that actually run over people to steal their money and leave them dead.

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