It’s time. I have lifted the PS4 version of GTA V. Having sunk most of late 2013 into Rockstar’s finest, enough time has passed to play the game as new again. It only gets better with age. But why does this game appeal to me at 32? Surely this is a game for aggressive teens.
To me the genius of the game lies in the three character system. It allows all gamers to identify with one of the characters, then the context of the other two characters mean different things for different people. Let’s look at Michael, Franklin, Trevor and the major flaw with hindsight.
Michael speaks to my age group. Although slightly older than me and with children in tow, he is experiencing the limitations of his age. Before he was young, reckless and in charge of his own destiny. With how the fates have conspired at the beginning of the game, he is a shadow of his former self. All it takes is a chance meeting with Franklin to reignite the spark in Michael. While i am not as far gone as Michael, a piece of me loves the early scene where he leaves the noise of the house behind, sits by the pool and has a cigar, while drinking and listening to Phil Collins. I’m sure we have all wanted to do this at some stage. When playing as Michael, the other two characters take on a different meaning to me. Franklin, is the younger protégé, while Trevor is the friend you have grown out of. I can already think of examples of both in my private life, which is why the character resonates with me. Michael is the lead character for me, he drives the story and gave me such a sense of immersion that I have to play it again. His visits to the psychiatrist, his relationship with Trevor and how it impacts his family. All of it is of a high level TV drama. It’s easy to say it riffs off The Sopranos, but how many other things have borrowed from the GTA franchise. The excellent Drive with Ryan Gosling, heavily borrowed the themes and design of Vice City, so much so that there is a nod to the famous jacket from the film in GTA V, my only complaint is that Trevor has to wear it rather than it being across all characters.
Franklin is the character I identify with least. He is younger than me, comes from a different background and has interests I only have a passing knowledge of. He is just like CJ, the lead character in San Andreas, my least favourite of the previous games. Because I don’t have to play as Franklin all the time, I don’t feel the same resentment and can treat him as an interesting diversion, much like other people treat Michael. Towards the end of my original play through, I had even started to change Franklin for the better. I changed his dress sense, his car and his apartment. The game lets you take control of these two characters and run with it. If i had been a different person though, Franklin would have been my choice. My friend who is 19 associates himself much more with Franklin. His love of cars, carefree attitude and lack of cynicism in general appeal more to him than they ever can to me. This also comes to the fore in the multitude of social options available in the newer versions of GTA V. I never saw the appeal of the ‘selfie’ camera or anything else but the younger players love this. Only now do I see the comic, almost Jackass potential of the game. My friend and I share many stories like this, me complaining about the lack of etiquette online and him laughing at me getting gunned down while standing in a gun shop.
The spanner in the works is Trevor. The loose cannon, incendiary device sitting at the heart of the game cannot be tamed, cannot be changed and for some cannot be liked. He is the very essence of the original GTA games. If you want to pick up the game and cause chaos for a few minutes, you pick Trevor. His horrible introduction and continued repulsiveness polarized gamers on release. Some people called him out as the seedy face of gaming, using him as an example of all that is wrong with the world. But did these people ever try to play Trevor as I did? I viewed him very much as damaged goods, just because he acted appallingly in his cut scenes, didn’t mean to say he was insane when I was in control of him. Of course his missions did border on the manic, but I dressed him as best I could and enjoyed the contrast of him acting normally when under my control.I actually behaved more callously as Michael, hopefully not an indication of myself. Trevor is one of my favourite characters in gaming, all because of his limitless potential and ability to generate debate. Even now mention Trevor among gamers and thy will all have different stories about what they did with him, how they reacted to his introduction and how they ended the game. Think of other open world games, did the main character from Watch Dogs or Saints Row have this impact on you?
Now in the title I called this a flawed masterpiece and I stand by the description. The one glaring omission from the game is a strong female character or lead. I would have loved the ‘Trevor’ character to be female, it would have opened up many avenues and really pushed the boundaries as far as the gaming community are concerned. While the game received a few dissenting voices regarding misogyny at release, I found the real issue to be a lack of a female vessel for women gamers to get as immersed in the experience as I did. I handed the controller to my wife to play and immediately, she went for Trevor. The care-free rampage that ensued, was brilliant to watch but it made me think how she would have reacted if the character had been female? Surely she would have been hooked like I was with Michael.
I disagree with the opinion, the game is disrespectful or sexist towards women, the most famous this piece from Carolyn Petit on Gamespot.(I must add the abuse the reviewer got at the time was unnecessary and a poor reflection on the gaming community). The game is a heightened stereotype of LA, all the main female characters I encountered have easily identifiable real-life counterparts. Michael’s family are a horrible bunch and that includes his son, as well as his shrew of a wife and fame-hungry daughter. It’s not Rockstar’s fault that the world is like this. People will counter this argument by saying the online game allows for female character creation. I’m sorry, but this isn’t good enough. The online game is a wonderful playground and social experience, but it is not a story driven adventure, a strong female version of Trevor would have cast all the arguments away in one fell swoop. Unfortunately to this day the missed opportunity remains a mark on this otherwise brilliant game.