Be warned. Early game spoilers to follow.
According to my Raptr.com profile, I have played eleven hours of Grand Theft Auto V. According to the Rockstar Games Social Club, I have completed 16% of the game. I left off playing as Trevor, out in the northern rural area of Los Santos, working for a Chinese businessman interested in my meth business. I am, of course, balancing my time between graduate work and actual work, and I haven’t had the same pleasure that many other GTA V players have had to fully complete the game and I fully realize that this post, though not even a full week after the game’s release, is already far from timely. I’ve been reading a great deal of the editorials and opinions on the market this past week, as well as discussion threads on r/Games and NeoGaf, which inspired me to write this.
I didn’t go into this game knowing everything about it. When it was announced, I wasn’t excited. When trailers were revealed, I didn’t care. I had purchased the previous installment, Grand Theft Auto IV, used and partially for the hell of it, and enjoyed it for only about an hour before I realized I never wanted to play it again. There were too many fetch missions. The girlfriends were finicky and difficult to please. Roman always seemed to call me exactly when I was on one side of the map trying to start a mission, forcing me to drive all the way to the other side of Liberty City just to keep from making him mad. I was intrigued by the game’s depiction of the American Dream as a fallacy, but I had trouble buying Nico’s naivete in tandem with his amazing ability to mow down hundreds of guys at a time without a care. It’s apparently okay now, five years after its release, to say that GTA IV wasn’t that great of a game overall.
Instead, I was wooed by gameplay trailers, romanced by the promise that GTA V was far superior to its predecessor, sporting one of the largest open world maps available today and an ‘Oscar-worthy’ script. Red Dead Redemption, another Rockstar release, is one of my favorite games, as it is for many others, and, in my opinion, one of the most well-written games ever produced. I believed Rockstar could do it again with GTA V, I finally bought into the hype, and I pre-ordered the game.
What follows is a critical assessment of the three main characters in the game, based on early gameplay. I realize that all of these men are criminals and their extreme qualities play into the game’s intent toward satire of the American culture. That said, read on.
I was about as tabula rasa as one could be about a video game going in. I knew there were three characters, but that was about it. Michael looked like the suave, classy thief. Franklin, generic GTA gang member. Trevor, sociopathic drug addict. High profile criminal heists require people of all skill levels, I figured, so I understood why a range of stock criminal characters would be used.
Upon meeting them in person, I was both pleased and disappointed.
The first character the player gets to know is Franklin Clinton, a young man living in the poor urban areas of Los Santos. Desperate to get out of a life surrounded by gang members and drug addicts, he works a job as a repo man for Simeon Yetarian, a car dealer. Yetarian’s entire business scheme is a scam on its own, however; he is shown using threats of racism against his clients to convince them to purchase vehicles and likewise forces them into contracts they couldn’t possibly afford, sending Franklin out to repo most of the cars he sells to sell again. Franklin works alongside his friend and co-worker, Lamar Davis.
I deeply enjoy Franklin’s character; he is far more than just the base criminal I expected him to be and is instead a very down-to-Earth man caught in a bad circumstances, and the closest we really get to a sympathetic character. He speaks openly to Michael of wanting to make a better life for himself, but remains stuck in a place of petty crime and without a means to move forward in criminal society, and make a life for himself outside of the slums. He shines against his peers as a thoughtful person, shown particularly in an early Strangers and Freaks mission where Franklin assists his drug addict friend Tonya by towing cars for her incapacitated husband across town so that they will have enough money to live on (or, perhaps more appropriately, buy drugs with). Tonya reminds him often of his dirty past dealing drugs on the streets, but he repeatedly insists he has moved on, and doesn’t want to live that life anymore. Curiously, he is even highly tolerant of Michael’s son, Jimmy, who repeatedly tries to pretend to Franklin that he is as street smart and as much of a ‘homie’ as Franklin is, despite being a privileged white punk.
Franklin’s character still breaks down for me, at least in these first hours and missions, when it comes to his friend Lamar, who is jealous, violent, and notoriously stupid, catching Franklin up in shootouts and deals gone wrong. Franklin, who, to most of the other characters, constantly reasserts that he isn’t who he used to be and how he wishes to leave his ghetto-bound life behind, still agrees to get caught up in Lamar’s ever more dramatic plans, acting almost as if he is merely a victim in being the voice of reason. His lack of autonomy and agency when it comes to Lamar goes against his desires to leave petty crime behind. Is he just too good of a friend to say no?
Michael de Santa, formerly Townley, is the second character the player interacts with, a former high profile criminal who has since retired from the business after faking his own death. He lives in the wealthy Vinewood area of Los Santos, a near replica of the Hollywood Hills, with his wife Amanda, and children Jimmy and Tracey. It is unclear what Michael occupies his time with in his retirement, but it is through him that many of the past time activities are unlocked, such as tennis and yoga.
Michael is the character I didn’t expect to dislike. Promotional photos of him are of a clean cut man in an expensive modern suit, and I expected something closer to everyone’s favorite suave asshole Don Draper than what I received. Michael is indeed an asshole, that is true, but is not suave and debonair but instead a fairly one-sided, borderline sociopathic manchild who lives off the adrenaline rush of extremism and crime. His wife and children are as combative and angry as he is, presumably because he is the main influence in the home and subsequently a poor parent to both of his children. The case can be made, however, that his wife Amanda is as terrible of a person as her husband; she is first caught cheating with her tennis coach, to which Michael reacts psychotically and ends up owing millions to a gang lord (which is actually beside the point here), and is again caught shoplifting, forcing Michael to hijack the police car she was detained in. After each of these events, she routinely claims to Michael that he is a worse person than her and is therefore in no place to judge her for her foul actions.
This is not to say that there is no hope for Michael at all. He is the character I have played the most, after all, and his missions have been the most enjoyable for me out of all the characters. I appreciated in particular the mission in which he attempts to bond with his son, Jimmy, after smashing his television when Jimmy refused to stop playing his game to talk to him. Jimmy, somewhat reasonably upset, calls Michael out for being a child and Michael subsequently expresses frustration with being unable to know the right way to connect with his son, and it is here we see a more vulnerable side. Though their father/son bike ride ends in a high speed chase as Michael attempts to rescue Tracey from her fling with apparently well armed porno directors, Jimmy is still sincere at the end when he tells his father how much he enjoyed their time together.
The problem with Michael, perhaps, is that he lacks an ally who can appropriately understand him, his past, and his motives. His wife leverages his past against him, his strained relationship with his wife puts further strain on his children, who in turn are combative and act out for attention. Franklin, with whom Michael seems to share an almost familial-like camaraderie, may indeed be the character to help Michael lose some of his Jack Marsten roughness, and gain a little more of John.
The final character is Trevor Philips, a former criminal friend of Michael who ran heists with him, prior to him faking his death. Likely the closest to my initial impression of him, Trevor is indeed a strung-out sociopath, sexual deviant, and rage monster, but one with a unique position in the part of the world he inhabits. I don’t intend to spend too much time on Trevor as I have not spent much time getting to know him yet, outside of his initial introduction as an extremist on par with Michael’s excessive outbursts.
Trevor’s first few missions position him, quite effectively, as the ‘smart’ one among the friends which whom he runs a criminal business in the rural northern reaches of Los Santos. Ron, one of his closest men, is subservient but deeply paranoid regarding political conspiracy theories, a fact with creeps into conversations between the two of them every once in a while. Wade, his other partner, is a Juggalo implied to be cognitively impaired in some way, but who is also fiercely loyal. Completing missions around the town places Trevor into contact with redneck neighbors and bikers, all of whom seem to respect him deeply, or learn to fear him quickly. He is not afraid of mocking even friends to their faces (for example, he mimics Cletus’s stereotypically southern accent in conversation with him) and stands clearly as the King of the wastes, unpredictable and dangerous, if not powerful and feared.
On Friday I spent some time while I was at the office playing GTA V so that my coworkers could see what the game is like. They posed questions about the driving controls, about the plot. They mocked me for my heavy reluctance to engage in crime where it wasn’t otherwise scripted and I defended my actions against the intensity of the police’s AI, which makes it difficult to get away and lose their trail. They sat and worked next to me while I drove through the city, navigating freeways and overpasses at sunset. When I went home, I navigated similar freeways, similar traffic, through my similar neighborhood to my house. It’s sometimes amazing for me to see the appeal in spending so much time a world that is so much like our own, when I find myself more easily lost in the space fantasy of Mass Effect’s Illium, or the northern fortress of Solitude in Skyrim.
I am not yet in love with Grand Theft Auto V. At times, driving is pedantic, missions frustrating, dialogue laughable, and plot holes extreme. But Rockstar has always shined in their ability to draft a character and flesh out a world and they have already beaten even my lowest of expectations. I am playing for Michael now, for Franklin and for Trevor. I am playing because I want to see criminals be good men and good men be criminals. I want Michael to find his gentler side, Franklin to escape slum crime, and Trevor reconnect with his old partner. I want to help them tell their stories, and finish them however they need to be finished.