Early-ish in my GTA V playthrough, Boy-In-The-Hood Franklin was sitting on a bench with tubby criminal fixer Lester. Not a lot had happened in the last hour – I’d been photographing a boat as Trevor in preparation for a heist, which inexplicably required me to drive a big forklift around the Los Santos dock three times (I kept running over oblivious dock workers), then shift some shipping containers with a crane. I was bored, and itching to blow something up. Lester obliged with a mission to take out a suit and his entourage in a hotel car park with a grenade launcher I’d just bought – much more like it.
But during the conversation – on a park bench, eyes-front, just a couple of strangers making polite conversation – Franklin said something that threw me. Something along the lines of “I like shooting people in the head as much as the next guy, but…” I’m not attempting what he actually said, for fear of straying into some spectacular racism, but that was the gist. And it just made me think, ‘really?’ That didn’t sound like the Franklin I’d got to know in the past few hours – it sounded like an excuse for some extreme, out-of-character massacre.
This is the problem I have with GTAV: the uneasy compromises it has to make between the character stories it wants to tell and the series’ stealing-cars-shooting-cops DNA. I like the stories – I feel for Michael, constantly maligned by his whinging, bitchy family and struggling to escape his bank-robbing criminal past. It’s just much harder to do that when, apropos of nothing, he stops his stolen car in the middle of a freeway and start firing grenades into passing motorists. It’s not dissonant, in the usual sense – my problem isn’t that Michael and Franklin step out of character whenever free-roaming controls are passed to me. It’s that the sort of thing I’m doing runs directly counter to their characters’ goals. Michael’s laying low, so shooting down LSPD choppers for a laugh makes no sense. Franklin’s trying to escape the hood, so wasting businessmen in broad daylight so Lester can make a quick buck betting on a competitor’s stock makes no sense.
Like CoD, GTA is such a big franchise that there’s only so much tinkering Rockstar can do with under the hood. And, in a way, that’s a good thing – I like GTAV very much. But if you think about previous series protagonists, it’s a rogues gallery of psychopaths. Niko was arguably the series in transition, a man with an implied war criminal past starting out on the bottom rung of Liberty City’s underworld, but before him came C.J. (the cop-killing gangbanger), Tommy Vercetti (the Scarface tribute act), and before that, the murderous blank canvas that was GTA III’s mute villain/hero Claude. Running down pedestrians in GTA III couldn’t be out of character, because the protagonist had no character to begin with. Which is why when GTAV presents exactly the same formula (with some current-gen cosmetic updates) it comes across disjointed – trying to spin two plates on one stick.
I don’t buy that this is a fix that Rockstar couldn’t have written itself out of. I don’t believe it’s impossible to have an open-world crime sandbox and a good story as the same product – not just two separate products on the same disc.
At the same time I’ve been playing GTAV, I’ve also been charging my obese, top hat-sporting Boss around Saints Row IV (it’s been a productive fortnight). Saints Row has a story to tell – aliens have invaded Earth and put the Saints into a computer simulation ripped lovingly wholesale from The Matrix, and your protagonist justifies their super-powered dicking about in the virtual city of Steelport as damaging the simulation, thereby spoiling the aliens’ plans. It’s not the Tarantino gangster flick that GTA’s trying to be, but its story is coherent: the Boss isn’t, in his heart, a good guy struggling with a dodgy past. He (or she) is a psychopath who loves blowing shit up in stolen tanks. And on top of that, nothing the Boss does is really happening – it’s fine to lay waste to a park full of people with a helicopter gunship, because it’s all a simulation and no-one’s really getting hurt. It’s the same sort of chaos you can wreak in GTA, but in terms of consistency, Saints Row puts the bigger game to shame.
But I think there’s another way that GTAV could have told its same exact story without resorting to Saints Row’s wacky sci-fi get-out clauses. Rather than choosing to switch between its three protagonists, why not just make Trevor the hero?
GTAV is Trevor’s game – he’s the only character who could, believably, be driving to a side mission, get clipped by another motorist, then flip out and kill 50 people with a rocket launcher. That’s just who Trevor is. So what if, after the game’s bank heist intro, you wake up as Trevor ten years later, not Michael or Franklin. You still follow the same narrative, finding out Michael’s alive and planning heists together, but Trevor does all the point-to-point, free-roaming legwork. And if you feel like nicking a plane, beating up a pedestrian or knocking over a liquor store on the way, well, that’s just Trevor being Trevor.
You wouldn’t have to get rid of Michael and Franklin, or even relegate them to NPC status. You’d still play as them, but it would be contextual. So, once Trevor has sourced whatever macguffins are needed for a heist, you switch to Michael stepping through the revolving doors of the Maze Bank of Los Santos. The heist is Michael’s show – any and all security that needs to be bypassed, tellers that need intimidating, police shootouts that the robbery incurs are his to deal with. And once you’ve made good your escape, you switch back to Trevor.
Yes, that would shift the balance of gameplay time toward Trevor and away from Michael and Franklin. But so what? Outside of their storylines (and ignoring superficial special abilities), all the characters play the same way anyway – same guns, same vehicles, same city. All you would lose would be a few hours of Michael or Franklin driving from one checkpoint to another, replaced by Trevor driving the exact same route. That’s not a big sacrifice.
I don’t have issues with GTAV’s story and characters. It’s sleazy and misogynistic, for sure, but true to its protagonists – at least in the cutscenes. But now that Rockstar has fully committed to telling grown-up stories with the series, it needs to find a way to connect the dots between what its antiheroes have to say in their story moments and what they’re allowed to do once control over them is handed back to players, who mightn’t give a toss about narrative and just want to steal a fighter jet. As the series moves to grown-up storytelling, Michael and Franklin are the sorts of characters it needs. But Trevor is the hero it deserves.