I’m sure everyone has the same memory, the same halcyon, bullet-ridden recollection from 2001. Hell, even spanning the following years through 2004, I’m sure it still holds true. It was a time when console multiplayer wasn’t its own genre (unless you count the entirety of Halo as one) and PC gaming was still in a lull.
Personally, I recall sitting in my friend’s living room. His parents gone, house full of rowdy high school boys, and us passing the controller around. The game? Grand Theft Auto III. A product that looked to be populated with Final Fantasy VII character models, it was still immensely fun to go on rampages for as long as possible in that horribly low resolution Liberty City.
It was an experience defined by a total lack of connection with the Claude, the pedestrians, and the city. Every action was viewed as inconsequential and every person expendable for the sake of fun. I wouldn’t say it was a sign of video game-induced psychosis (one that Fox News would say is the impetus for all shooting sprees) but rather it was definitely a byproduct of a silent protagonist with a trite story and a cartoonish representation of violence.
Jump to 12 years later, and we have Grand Theft Auto V. By and large, it’s still the same digital framework: a big open world, dangerous cars, deadly weapons, and a story about questionable people doing questionable things. And yet the entire experience has changed oh so dramatically. It is a wholly phenomenal game and it is treading new ground: role-playing.
Granted, the territorial exploration isn’t necessarily intentional. But with a more accurate representation of the protagonists, antagonists, and myriad of side characters, it’s a lot easier to empathize with them—yes, even the absolutely fucked and insane ones. The entire milieu of the game from realistic graphics (all right, not realistic. Let’s say polished and appropriate.) to more personable personnel opens up connections that Rockstar probably wasn’t even aiming for in GTA III.
It works, though, and it has a whole bunch of side effects. Namely, a drastic reduction in desire to recklessly demolish everything in sight. Even in the face of getting chased by cops and gangsters and other flavors of armed foes, in the previous generation of Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas, all I wanted to do was drive on the sidewalk and watch bodies bounce off my hood.
In Grand Theft Auto V, the appeal of having bodies ricochet from my chassis to a streetlight to the ground evaporated. Even though being chased and evading the police in this latest Grand Theft Auto game is pretty fun in a real cat-and-mouse sort of way, breaking the law seemed, well, wrong.
An obvious statement, sure, but in a game named after a major crime, the most I egregious trespass I engaged in was the eponymous act of stealing cars, although walking through downtown Los Santos was oddly pleasurable. But driving on the sidewalk almost always led to pedestrian death, which never seemed to fit any of the three characters.
Michael De Santa is a career criminal, but he’s definitely not a bad guy. He’s definitely not a blanket killer. His ostensible goal is to just make his family work and try to enjoy his retirement. He sees potential in a young fellow and he wants to mentor him, take care of him. He cares about his friend, even though his friend is a psychotic meth tweaker. He’s mostly a good guy, save for the bank robbing.
Franklin Clinton had all but left the life of hustling and gangbanging until he shacked up with Michael. He did work for a rather unscrupulous car dealer, but at least it was a legal operation. And it was just a series of unfortunate events that landed him in real trouble, but he doesn’t kill for just any reason. He hangs out and trains his dog Chop, he helps a childhood friend’s husband not lose his job, and he avoids street trouble when he can. He’s also a good guy, save for the bank robbing.
Trevor Philips, however, is crazy. He’s 100% fucked in the head, as I’ve previously stated. His emotions are based on some alchemy that determines whether you are a friend or a foe and takes dangerous offense to any mention of his Canadian heritage. His in-game introduction should suffice for illustrating how unhinged he can get. But he too can be a good guy, save for the bank robbing.
Each character is redeemable in some way, probably so people don’t hate playing any of them, but that makes you want to inhabit them in very particular ways. The most telling is the radio station when playing each character. Michael listens to a range of new age pop stuff while Franklin listens to hip hop. Trevor listens to punk rock and I try to accommodate all of them. Even if it’s a song I don’t like or if something I really, really like is playing on another station, I will stick with their preferred genre because that’s what they would do.
Each of them also has a particular strength in terms of gameplay skills. Michael shoots, Franklin drives, and Trevor flies/goes hulk. And I tend to change up my play style to suit their strengths, even though the actual stats tend to level out about halfway through the game. Even then I would use Michael to try for more headshots and Franklin for more racing or chasing situations and Trevor for when I had to deal with large crowds.
Their special abilities—all variations on a Max Payne-ish bullet time effect—certainly play into it. Inhabiting the roles of each character, it would make sense that it’s not just their baseline stats for shooting or driving or being an insane motherfucker but also what they can bring in after years of that particular expertise.
This, in effect, makes them each a class equivalent in an RPG. Knights, mages, paladins. Shooters, drivers, pilots. Combined with the superb characterizations of the three protagonists (and the always excellent if not meaningful or original support cast), I found myself approaching Grand Theft Auto V more and more as a role-playing sort of situation. It definitely has all the elements of one that just happens to be stuck inside of an open world action game.
Even the agency normally associated with the slower and character-driven games is handled, albeit not so much in a narratively influential state. But the decisions afforded to you through planning heists and just in missions in general (what route to take, how to kill this fellow, etc.) attempts to offer commensurate choices.
And of course there is the fact that there are stats for each character that you can level up. But that’s low hanging fruit for the role-playing influence. Grand Theft Auto V is a fantastic open world game that shows what production value can achieve on a grand scale. But it’s also a great role-playing game.
Crazy to think just 12 years ago all I wanted to do was blow up Liberty City.