Grand Theft Auto V definitely continued the tradition of each entry in the series being an improvement over the previous. Looking back, every release in the franchise has advanced not only the nature of open world gameplay but has pushed the limits of modern consoles. GTA V is no different. However, on top of all of these incredible reasons for calling GTA V the best of the best, it’s something else that brings Rockstar’s most recent to an even higher level. In fact, all of the open world, motion capture and technological advances in the game are not so significant when compared to the leaps Rockstar North took in terms of character and narrative storytelling.
But first, let’s look back. The characters of “Claude,” Tommy Vercetti, Carl Johnson, and Niko Bellic, are not that complex. Their storylines are practically carbon copies of each other when you boil them down and oftentimes the majority of the story can be whittled down to just driving and talking. This isn’t to say that the previous games were not innovative, breathtaking and fun! But the innovations all centered on newer gameplay or open world elements and this usually led to most players bailing on the world and just terrorizing the open worlds of San Andreas, Vice City and Liberty City. And why not? The protagonists of most GTA games are motivated by revenge or criminal circumstances beyond their control. They’re not driven by much of an internal pathos.
In GTA V, the closest we come to these devices appear in later portions of the game once we’ve become heavily invested and two of our main characters have decided to embrace their criminal lifestyles (or in the case of Michael, make excuses for why he’s finding himself again leading a life of crime). Trevor is always a psychopath, the most in tune with a lot of player’s needs to just “tear shit up”… and that’s not to say he’s two dimensional. Of the three, he’s the one who experiences the biggest range of emotions, at times feeling betrayed by his friends and even (possibly) discovering true love… which was hilarious. It’s not surprising to find that he’s arguably the most popular character in the game. He’s even introduced by putting a definitive end to one of GTA IV’s more simple protagonists!
Franklin may sadly be the least developed of the characters, and bears far too many resemblances to Carl Johnson of GTA: San Andreas, but he has the self-awareness that CJ did not. He ends up improving his own position not through happenstance, but because that is what he wants to be doing with his life. There’s a major difference there, in that all three of these characters have aspirations worth rooting for, that keep players from simply abandoning their stories and wreaking mayhem. Eventually, when Franklin realizes that he has been doing the same line of work that he was doing while a gang-banger (except for a higher level of merchandise and financial reward) he laments that he hasn’t actually made any changes to his life. This could be a commentary on the lack of true development in previous entries but the self reflection is something that we haven’t seen before and is inherent in all three characters.
Trevor Phillips comes across as a garden variety wild man when we first meet him, but over the course of the game we learn of childhood psychological abuse, repressed bisexuality, and severe abandonment issues. These developments of course are not informed character traits told through exposition but are illustrated throughout the course of the game. Rarely does GTA V stop in its tracks to tell us something without having us experience it alongside the characters. Trevor is troubled and haunted by his life but not in the way Niko Belic was. Niko could never stop reminding us exactly how horrible his life was but we never saw or experienced any of it. They never seemed to inform his mostly “blank slate” character reactions. With Trevor, we get a character who is real enough that he doesn’t need to tell us, but that doesn’t keep the ghosts of his past from shaping the story and gameplay.
Michael… well, Michael is the man who can’t fight his own nature. He aspires to be something that he is not, and this leads to his kinship with Franklin, but he only succeeds in bringing trouble to himself and his family when he fights his true desires. Getting out of the criminal game in the first place is what caused things to go wrong for him, especially on a personal level, and he seems throughout the game to be either waiting for death to free him or a new direction. Even with danger arriving at his doorstep, it becomes more invigorating and healing for he and his family than the complacency that their lives had become.
And of course, you have the characters interactions and reliances on each other, which is the greatest aspect of the game. Each character’s actions have major implications for the other two and the plot, both on a story and character level, become fascinatingly complicated. The writing in a Rockstar game hit all time highs with Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire and now we are reaping the rewards in a story in which personal interactions can have just as satisfying a result for the player than pulling off a major heist.
These are all simple observations of characters who aren’t labyrinthine by any means, but who are far more complex than most video game characters of our day. Most have a singular character trait and direction (if they have one at all). They usually end up being what the plot requires them to be and the stories sputter to a halt with no internal engines to drive them. In the case of GTA V, like most great storytelling, the plot and the characters are tightly intertwined, the investment only growing tighter as the story continues. And even with all of the shooting, killing and social destruction, that is the type of innovation that helps move the gaming industry onto a league alongside its long respected peers.