I recently finished a fifty-five-hour playthrough of Grand Theft Auto V. It is a brilliant achievement. It’s a ridiculously fun game. It’s also a very disappointing game.
Unlike GTA IV (see previous post), GTA V is a flawed masterpiece worth playing, thinking, and talking about whose good will never erase its bad and whose bad doesn’t, for me, overwhelm its good—it just cheapens it.
About ten hours into my playthrough, my wife said to me, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you giggle as much as since you started playing this game.” And she was right. So many of the things that GTA IV almost got right were beautifully executed in GTA V. Driving (and piloting) was fun in its own right, and the different handling based on vehicle and terrain kept it exciting and strategically interesting. The quantity and quality of random things to be done, discovered, and experienced was staggering and, more often than not, fun and even clever (like the No Country for Old Men random encounter). The world itself was the most detailed and rewarding open-world game environment I’ve ever seen, and the variety was amazing (especially compared to the much more homogeneous environments of IV). I spent hours just exploring, or doing missions that let me explore (like cleaning up nuclear waste in a submarine and exploring all the underwater wrecks that led me to). I loved the animations when the characters failed awkwardly at things like jumping over a ledge.
Also, for the first time I was really interested in the characters in a GTA game. Niko in GTA IV was okay, but inconsistently interesting and rarely fun. Franklin and Lamar’s initial couple encounters (the ‘get a haircut’ rant and Employee of the Month controversy) had me laughing out loud at points because—finally—the humor was not based on junior high sexuality but the idiosyncratic attitudes and characteristics of two grown, flawed men. Trevor and Michael are similar. It is clear, from the very beginning, that Trevor is not a good man. But he’s fascinating to watch and listen to, because in addition to being a psychopath, he’s so intelligent and unpredictable and multifaceted. He’s hilariously okay with his sexuality, he’s a master of both understatement and incredible bluntness, and he seems to have his own, twisted code of ethics that he sometimes interestingly, conveniently, and believably chooses to ignore. I loved watching the protagonists interact, because while Trevor was clearly the most dangerous of the three, Michael’s treatment of Trevor and Brad was a terrible betrayal, and his constant lies about it made him less sympathetic than Trevor for me at many points in the game. Which was unsettling, because Trevor is an ultraviolent monster. But he’s a human monster, with an ongoing relationship to Patricia Madrazo that I was always thrilled to see come back up, and with a perspective on events that was consistently amusing and illuminating.
I loved the point in the game where Trevor suddenly has a suspicion about Michael’s grave and takes off to confirm it, and you find yourself playing as Trevor to get him to a plane to investigate. You don’t do much – just drive him to the airstrip while he and Michael talk on the phone – but this was perfect, because I found my mind racing. I had played as Michael going into the cutscene, and I knew Trevor was likely to go crazy, so on the one hand I was sympathizing with Michael and hoping Trevor wouldn’t find out what was happening. But there I was driving, helping Trevor find out. And, when I thought about it, Michael was the asshole in this situation, so really Trevor should know the truth. But he was a monster and the discovery would likely lead to no good. But was Michael any better, even though he doesn’t rampage as much? I had a lot to think about on the way to the airstrip, and I was loving it. Franklin’s perspective was also amusing and interesting, and my only real complaint about his character is that after the first quarter of the game, I feel like he’s disappointingly underused. He keeps showing up in the missions, but he’s not given much interesting development once the focus shifts to the Michael-Trevor dynamic.
The plot itself was good enough. The way the Michael-Trevor thing resolves is so-so, Franklin is underdeveloped, and Devin Weston and Steve Haines are often implausible, as are most of the heist logistics. But with characters I enjoyed listening to and gameplay as fun as it was, even a game-narrative fan like me didn’t really care that the plot was mediocre.
And then there are the flaws. The terrible, terrible flaws. The reason I’m devoting two blog posts to GTA is because, having finished my playthrough of V, I find myself fixated on trying to figure out why, when Rockstar North are so clearly good at so many things—including, in GTA V, making interesting characters out of generally unsympathetic men—the GTA games remain so stupidly sexist and cynical, the key word being “stupidly.” Sexism and cynicism could be interesting in a game, as character flaws or well-articulated, thought-out points of view that I disagree with. Cynicism could be nuanced and sympathetic, as Trevor is sometimes nuanced and sympathetic, despite being a psychopath. But the cynicism and sexism in GTA V stay stupid. They’re not well thought out, they’re not clever, they’re not amusing, like so much of the rest of the game is. (I know, humor is subjective. But I feel pretty confident saying that the sexism and cynicism in GTA V are almost always lazily one-dimensional).
As many others have exhaustively covered, the game is riddled with treatment of and reference to women as subhuman sexual objects. The female characters, all secondary, don’t help much. The two most prominent are Michael’s wife, Amanda, whose plotline revolves primarily around her sleeping with lots of other men, leaving Michael, and coming back to him. We know practically nothing else about her – certainly nothing that’s developed or particularly interesting. Then there’s Michael’s daughter, Tracey, who is selling her sexuality and constantly getting into trouble and needing rescuing. There’s also Franklin’s aunt, a source of derision for her empty feminist new-age empowerment (a counterpart to Amanda’s rich wife hobbies) and sexual promiscuity. And, at the end, there’s Trevor’s mom, a former prostitute and stripper who makes him feel worthless to manipulate him into doing what she wants (though the manipulation could be simply a hallucination of Trevor’s, depending on how one interprets that mission). None of these women are characterized as sympathetic or intelligent or involved in anything worthwhile or even interesting. There are a few interesting female characters in GTA V (Maude, Patricia, Tanisha, Taliana, Tonya) but their roles are miniscule, even more so when compared to the volume of material in the game, the overwhelming amount of misogynistic depictions of women, and the bigger roles, which all go to male characters. There’s no defense of the misogyny in the game. It’s not clever, it’s not thoughtful, it’s not accurate, it’s not novel, and it’s not making an interesting point about the characters or the world. It’s just an unfortunate, slimy undercurrent to a game where so much else is worth praising.
GTA V’s cynicism is the same way. Everything it points its lens at is “stupid.” There’s little need to update the list I made in my GTA IV post, because the game has little new to say here. Liberals, rednecks, women, the government, the middle-aged, corporations: they’re stupid and bad. I suppose we can add millennials, social media, celebrities, beachgoers, psychiatrists, gamers, conspiracy theorists, etc. The list could go on and on, but the point is that the game’s attacks on these stereotypes are overwhelmingly dull—because it attacks empty stereotypes. They’re easy, uninteresting targets. Middle-aged men can be sexually insecure. Millennials can be lazy. Women can be superficial and either slutty or prudish. Wake me up when you get interesting again, GTA V, please. Even more baffling is that occasionally, this GTA game actually does make interesting social critique, like when Franklin pushes back against a quip of Trevor’s about lazy millennials to say something like, “Actually, that whole entitled millennials is more a middle-class thing. Where I’m from hustling still hustling.”
It’s clear from Franklin, Trevor, and Michael’s dialogue that Rockstar North is capable of writing interesting, funny, characters and social commentary. So why do they leave so much of the game to crassness and misogyny that could be recycled straight from an earlier game or a high school locker room? I’m not saying the series needs to be politically correct, but when nearly everything about the gameplay, characters, and world of GTA V is so much more sophisticated than previous entries, I don’t understand why they stick with such dull, stupid, unimaginative bigotry and lazy cynicism. Why pander to a perceived lowest common denominator in such a boring, mindless way? I’m convinced that if the whole game was like the main characters, it still would have been a phenomenal success – the game doesn’t need to hate women (and, to a lesser degree, everything else) to be fun. Clearly they’re capable of at least being articulately, cleverly misogynistic and cynical, so why didn’t that even happen? You can argue that easy, unthinking woman bashing and cynicism is what makes GTA GTA, and maybe that’s what it is. Maybe Rockstar north are truly invested—conceptually or economically—in producing a game that panders to the worst, laziest stereotypes and humor. But when they’ve proven, as they keep doing by making increasingly worthwhile games, that they are intelligent, creative people capable of building the most alive game-world ever, and writing characters as interesting and fun as the protagonists of GTA V, I can’t help but be massively disappointed that I still have to slog through so much stupidity to enjoy the rest of their amazing achievement. What do you think – does the background humor need to change? Is it pandering or sincere? Is it justifiable? Is it enough to ruin the game?