Thursday, May 11, 2017

Dave Critiques - Grand Theft Auto V: The potential of multiple characters


Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of Grand Theft Auto V. Just a friendly reminder that I will be discussing the game for those who have played it. If you haven’t and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

Unlike a couple of my other critiques where I start off with a moment that exemplifies the game, I will be using this critique to discuss one moment in particular. No no, not that one. That moment has been discussed to death. I want to discuss this moment. The moment that Trevor finds out that Michael killed their friend Brad in order to fake his own death and has been lying about it. When this scene started to play out and Michael and Trevor pulled guns on each other, I held my breath. I was excited and scared. I was sure that this was the reason we were playing 3 characters in this game. I was going to have to make a choice to kill one of them right here and now. The way the story had been escalating called for this moment. Then it didn’t happen. Trever runs away, Michael is set on by Chinese goons and eventually captured, and Franklin has to bail him out before they kill him. After being rescued, we’re basically at the same place the scene started. True, Trevor now has had his suspicions confirmed so has no reason to trust or work with Michael. Hell, he has ample reason to kill him. It’s what you think would happen after every other violent action Trevor has taken in the game up to this point, but no. Later on Trevor actually saves Michael and the two begrudgingly work on their final heist. It’s all quite anti-climactic.

And it’s a shame because of the opportunities that multiple characters presents. So let’s compare this to every other Grand Theft Auto game to begin with. In these games, you’re always playing an anti-hero of some variety. Sure your actions may have a good motivation behind them, but at the end of the day you’re commiting theft and murdering hundreds of people before the credits roll. There’s not even much ludonarrative dissonance between the story and what the player can do when they muck around in the open world. Sure you’re more of a psychopath if you steal cars, kill pedestrians and lead the police and army on a chase full of rampage and wanton destruction, but it’s only a more extreme version of the actions your character is taking if you follow the main plotline in any of these games. And that’s part of their appeal. The game plonks you down in a believable approximation of the real world at the time these games are set and allows you the freedom to act out playful dark impulses. I’ve heard it said that most people who buy the GTA games never complete them, or even unlock other parts of the world. I think that’s because most people enjoy playing with the systems and fulfilling these desires of destruction rather than play through a crime drama or a tale of gangster revenge.

So as the player, you are attached to the character you control. You see things from their point of view. There’s a saying in writing that we don’t have to agree with the main character of a story, but they have to be compelling enough that we will follow their actions out of at least a sense of curiousity. That’s why we can spend hours with Tommy, CJ, and Niko. We want to see what the game is asking of us as the main character, and how the character we are controlling will react. It’s almost like we’re playing a part of a play we don’t know the lines to, so we’re just as interested to see where it goes. The fact that games are an interactive medium allows such characters to get away with not being as well written or well motivated as we would expect from a similar character in a book, film, or on television because we are the motivation. We want to keep playing the game.

But ultimately games are a storytelling medium, even if that story is as simple as “I as the player overcame a challenge and feel great in having done so.” Things get a little more complicated when the game is actually trying to tell a story alongside the narrative of the player’s actions, but it seems easier to get the player to agree with a character they play as because they have an actual stake in what the character is going through. Once again that stake can be as simple as “I want to get to the end of this game, so of course I don’t want the character I am playing to die or feel bad”, but once you begin to meld gameplay with narrative motivation, the player starts to care a lot more about say Michael’s family thanks to the missions that have involved protecting them.

Now one of the easiest ways to create conflict in a story is to put together two characters who have completely different world views or motivations, and watch them butt heads. This is where the potential for multiple characters arises as we return back to that standoff in the snow. In any other GTA game, we would be controlling Michael in this scene. He has the family, he has more to lose, and Trevor is definitely a great antagonist for him, especially because Michael is more than a bit of an asshole, and this situation he finds himself in is primarily his own fault. Yes Trevor is a psychopath, but at least he’s honest about what he is and what he wants. Michael definitely has room to grow as a character so you can imagine playing Michael in this scene and being completely on his side.

Only we’re not just playing Michael. We’re playing Trevor, and Franklin too. Suddenly this showdown has a lot more weight to it. If we were just controlling Michael we might still agree he got himself into this situation, but we’d want him to get out of it because we’re invested in him as the player character. Having control over both Michael and Trevor, there’s now cause for concern as this scene is playing out. I was certain that the game was going to ask me to make a choice. I was certain that it was going to ask me which of these two characters I sided with in the moment, and I was afraid it was going to ask me which character would live, and which would die.. I was scared because at that moment, I had no idea which choice would be the right choice, and it was one of the most amazing narrative moments in the game because of what was playing out in my head.

Of course I’ve already stated that the game did not take this route. Trevor escapes and Michael gets captured. This perfect opportunity to showcase the potential for videogame storytelling was lost. Well that’s my feelings on the matter at least. The funny thing is the game tries to give the player such a choice later on, but as Franklin. Not only does it not have any resonance, I think it’s kind of a false choice. Let me explain.

You’ve completed the big heist that was supposed to be a suicide run. Michael and Trevor have escaped from a giant double cross, and one of the game’s douchey antagonists Devon Weston appears on Franklin’s front door. He wants Michael dead. Franklin tells him that the FiB has already told him to kill Trevor and he doesn’t want to kill either of them. Devon leaves and you’re given three choices: Kill Trevor, Kill Michael, or team up and take everybody down. I chose the third option. It leads to a giant shootout against the Merryweather mercenary group, and then a series of missions killing everyone in the game who has given our three main characters grief. It ends with Trevor capturing Devin Weston and all three shoving a car into the Pacific ocean with the billionaire tied up in the trunk before the credits roll. Michael and Trevor still don’t like each other, but their antagonism is played off lightly because of Franklin, and the fact they have a ton of cash now, no one after them, and they can all go their separate ways.

This is the only positive ending. I Youtubed the others and both killing Trevor and killing Michael have a sense of betrayal to them that leaves a bitter taste. I think it’s because while the game tries to play Franklin off as a character who has no loyalty and is only in it for himself, his willingness throughout the game to go along with all of the crazy schemes asked of him by Michael, Trever, and the FiB play counter to the subplot of Lamar guilt tripping him for forgetting where he’s come from. Both Michael and Trevor are mentors to Franklin, and not only is killing them off a dick move, but it leaves the FiB and Devon Weston unpunished, and one of the many things that GTAV is great at is making you hate Steve Haines and Devon Weston. To roll credits without either of those guys getting their commupance would have been even more anti-climactic than the lack of a choice at Brad’s grave.

And apparently if Trevor or Michael are killed, there are consequences in the post credits game. Their cut of the final heist goes to the other two players, and certain connections are cut off. So it seems the developers chose to change their open world based on this final choice. In my research it was claimed that the third option originally ended with Franklin dying, so at one point in development it would have been impossible to end the game without one of the three protagonists making it to the post credits world alive. That decision might have made the end of the game have more impact, but I dunno. I just feel like the way things ended up, they squandered a golden opportunity to showcase what a game with multiple protagonists can really accomplish. What are your thoughts? Would you have chosen to side with Michael or Trevor if the showdown ended with one of them dead? What choice did you make at the end of the game?

Let me know in the comments, and thanks for watching.

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