DETECTIVE TOUR DE FORCE
Grand Theft Auto is too real.
The Grand Theft Autos of the past were blocky, indistinct, abstract things. There was still room for the imagination of the player to fill in the gaps, and that distanced them from the actions of the main character. It was a game, first and foremost, a means of driving fast and shooting people in the face.
We can see the pattern happening with LA Noire, Rockstar’s flawed detective tour de force. Here is a a detailed and loving recreation of 1947 Los Angeles. Here is a story that features the downfall of a young man cursed by his experiences in the war. Here are a series of complex crime scenes and interrogations to explore and solve.
And yet; as a player, you can have Cole Phelps hijack a firetruck and hoon it down busy pavements on his way to routine administration task and suffer little to no ill consquences. Here is a game where Cole Phelps can waggle a dead prostitute’s hand back and forth for five minutes at a time while his colleagues try not to watch.
The actions the game allows you don’t fit the character that Rockstar have so carefully written. I’m loathe to talk about Ludo-Narrative Dissonance because, well, that word’s been over-used of late. It’s more a problem of choice. If you want to, you can drive down a pavement and send pedestrians scattering. Maybe that happens by accident more often than you’d like.
THESE ARE PEOPLE
Then we take the incredible character drawing and mocap and facial animation that Rockstar have learned – pioneered, even – and expand them out into Grand Theft Auto V.
This is no longer an abstract world. This is a world where you can watch Burger Shot employees go about pre-progammed janitorial schedules. This is a world of incredible detail, of adjustable sunroofs, of dialogue responses keyed finely to your actions, of endless depth and variety. A world of characters with families, and problems, and dogs, and interlocking histories.
So it seems strange, then, that Franklin doesn’t give a shit when he accidentally sideswipes six pedestrians in one go and kills four of them. That it can go past without a comment.
These are no longer blocky lumps of polygons that mutter “We’re going to ARUBA!” every few minutes, as they did back in 2001. These are detailed people with multi-part dialogue, undertaking a variety of actions more human than ever. When you crash your car next to them, some of them will whip out a cameraphone and take a picture of you. They go jogging. They do yoga. More so than ever, these are people.
The core gameplay of Grand Theft Auto hasn’t changed since the first title, back on the PS1 in 1997. We’re still stealing cars, dealing drugs, making money, and evading the police. What’s changed is the detail around all that, the depth of the world, the humanity of the characters that we play.
Rockstar have outgrown their own game model. In a world of vast choice – many of those choices amounting to horrendous violence and a callous disregard for human life – you can’t afford to make characters where that might not sit right.
The initial strangeness of Franklin’s first gunfight where, about half an hour into the game, he shoots about ten men dead as he fights his way out of a Hispanic gang neighbourhood can’t be ignored. We’ve not been told that this man is a killer, or even that he’s in a profession where killing is expected of him. He’s trying to make an honest living for himself by repossessing cars. All we have is that this is a Grand Theft Auto game, and shooting people dead is something you always do in Grand Theft Auto games so get to it.
I suppose, then, it’s the fine detail of the world and the treatment of the characters which makes Trevor so fucking disturbing when we meet him. Trevor is the only character that makes sense when you marry him with the actions we so often take as players.
Would Michael try out his new knife by stabbing three people in the street and then getting into a chase with the police? God no. Would Trevor? You’d have problems stopping him.
Trevor is a grotesque caricature of the base GTA protagonist when removed from the bounds of story – a money-hungry, drug-running, murderous sociopath with little to no regard for human life. He’s the character that we’ve all been playing for years. But now Rockstar are looking at him in detail, putting a face and a voice and a name to all of that, presenting him in stark reality to the family-man thief and the impoverished street kid.
Trevor is appropriately terrifying. It’s a strange and so far unique experience to control him as he hunts down another player character, another extension of yourself into this world, who is actively terrified of him. Hats off to Rockstar on that one.
(In a later mission, I crashed a helicopter when playing as Michael and the game flashed up: “MISSION FAILED. Trevor Died.” And, actually, that’s not a mission failure. That’s a thing that Michael actually wants, to be rid of this terrifying man, and if he can do it accidentally then so much the better. It’s a failure of Trevor’s heist, for sure, but it actively goes against the wishes of the character that you’re controlling at the time of death.)
This is not a bad game, of course. I have sunk hours of my life into it so far and enjoyed it despite the problems inherent with how it deals with, say, feminism. (I can get over the lack of female protagonists, Rockstar, but is it too much to ask for a SINGLE female character that is not solely defined by her relationship to men? You did it in GTA IV. I know it’s possible.) Technically, it is impeccable. It is an incredible development of the Open-World Fuckabout genre that Rockstar themselves pioneered. It is fun, and satisfying, and incredibly addictive.
But Rockstar are big boys, now, and we have to look at their games as the pinnacle of the medium that is videogames. They have to stand up to criticism on the highest level. If you’re making a game where you can side-swipe pedestrians for fun, you can’t make a beautiful world and have richly-detailed characters do the side-swiping unless they’re all Trevor.
So that’s the challenge, really, Rockstar: change the core gamplay to accommodate the characters, or change the characters to psychopaths (or back to mutes) to accommodate your core gameplay. Because right now, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, and I think you think it does.