There is a review of Grand Theft Auto V forthcoming, don’t you worry, but today there’s something else I’d like to talk about with the game. It’s about the three main playable characters, one of the biggest features repeated and advertised leading up to the game’s release. You have Michael, a retired bank robber living the cynical end run of the American Dream; Franklin, a former gangbanger trying to find a way out of his less-than-ideal lifestyle; and Trevor, a drug-dealing, gun-running, psychopathic son of a gun.
Trevor is the main point here. Franklin is somewhat relatable to CJ Johnson of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas if CJ wasn’t trying to reform—hell, they even have the same gang colors—and Michael is at this point just another Rockstar protagonist who wants to do good by his family but keeps getting sucked into doing bad things. Trevor, however, is new in so many ways. (As is the ability to switch at any time between these three playable characters.)
He’s crazy. Probably legitimately and totally fucked in the head. His mood will swing on a dime with little to no provocation and he’ll kill you just for asking him a question the wrong way. Even his two cronies Ron and Wade are rarely safe from his outbursts and they are the closest thing he has to friends. Trevor took out a desert-bound contingent of The Lost MC twice and then, on a whim, made himself the biggest drug and gun runner in Los Santos by killing the previous holders of that title.
His character skill is perhaps most indicative of this complete detachment from reality. Whereas Franklin gets a bullet time driving thing and Michael gets a bullet time shooting thing, Trevor goes into rampage mode where he takes less damage while inflicting more of it. He is, of the three, most geared towards killing. Just a few missions into his introduction and you have a full arsenal, unlike Michael and Franklin who have to purchase anything past a pistol and a shotgun in the early parts of the game.
Trevor is, for all intents and purposes, the answer to the problem many people have had with Rockstar’s open world games and, really, many games in general. The popular term for it is “ludonarrative dissonance,” but that’s really just highfalutin talk for what amounts to characters doing things that go against their characterization simply because it’s a video game. For instance, why is Nathan Drake killing all those people when he’s otherwise just a simple explorer and treasure hunter? Or how can John Marston justify all those dead bodies in his wake when he’s trying to turn over a new leaf?
Trevor solves that by simply offering up a guy that kills just because. Michael is suited for setup missions and Franklin for driving things (which coincidentally also solves the problem of other Grand Theft Auto games where there was just a single character being the catchall for all kinds of missions), but Trevor just gets to go crazy and we get to watch.
Except it still doesn’t fill out every corner of the puzzle. In Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas, I never really had a problem with just rampaging in the world. I’d pick an intersection, let loose some rockets or grenades, and see how long I could hold it down. It was like an ad hoc king of the hill with the game’s AI. In GTA III, it was largely because Claude never spoke, so it was easy to not care about how irresponsible you made him, and in Vice City and San Andreas, the entire milieu was one of a cartoon slant. Shooting dudes by the droves was the least of anyone’s concern.
But continuing the more realistic approach started by GTA IV, GTA V makes our “heroes” rather fragile. This makes the more grounded presentation feel more like something to be worried about whenever you fuck with it. Even though most of the people in Los Santos are portrayed as empty, vapid, soulless folk only thinking about their looks and their money, you still feel bad about taking away their lives. It happens so easily to you (just a couple of bullets to the chest does the trick), so you begin to value other lives in the same way.
And it certainly doesn’t help that Trevor is kind of a nice guy. Michael is his best friend, and has been for such a long while that he can recall a time when Michael’s daughter was small enough to sit on his knee and play. He helps an elderly couple enjoy their vacation (albeit with some killing and for, uh, sordid reasons) and he has polite, engaging discourse with his partnered gun runner at a purchased airfield and the woman who doles out bounties to hunt. While he certainly is capable of rampaging through the entire city and laying waste to the town’s population, it just doesn’t seem to mesh with the person we’re presented.
That, however, could be the big switch, a Rockstar juke. Here we are, given a character that we think is their direct response to the dissonance between the narrative and the gameplay of such an open world game, but then we are shown that the story impetus gives us reason to think that this guy isn’t so bad. That guy who stomped a guy to death just for talking is really just angry that he was deceived. In fact, we should be more concerned with the people that Michael and Franklin kill instead; they have no justification.
Maybe Rockstar is making some sort of commentary on our perception of games. Maybe they’re joining us in saying that the dissonance is there and it’s ridiculous, but it also can’t be meaningfully addressed. At least not easily. Not unless you’re entire game is about it (see: The Last of Us). But either way, I know I won’t be rampaging anytime soon.