Grand Theft Auto V is the biggest and most ambitious a longer running game series, yet despite its scale and many improvements, the game proved difficult to engage with as a whole. Christmas time last year, my eldest brother lent to me his copy of Grand Theft Auto V on PlayStation 4, a series I hadn’t played since Vice City was released 11 years prior. It was clear from the early hours of the game, the world and its characters had been fleshed out to a point where San Andreas felt alive of its own accord, and previously frustrating mechanics (lack of checkpoints, vehicle accessibility) had been ironed out allowing a much smoother gaming experience. However despite all these improvements, GTA V felt like less of a game, and what the player is able to achieve within it all seemed strangely insignificant.
Yet on paper this seems ludicrous, GTA V is largely the same Grand Theft Auto affair as its predecessors, only a heck of a lot bigger. The open world playground is huge and there’s plenty to do, with anything between playing tennis to having the army chase you down the city streets for the massacre you committed outside of a hospital. There are still missions to undertake which propel the narrative forward and this time around your progress in them doesn’t limit exploration of this expansive world map. Furthermore the biggest change to the series here is the fact there are three protagonists to control, each with very distinctive personalities and fleshed out in a way which makes them far more engaging then the flaccid individuals of series past. Surely this must constitute a better game overall?
Not necessarily, as despite the often dizzying scale of the project, it feels less compelling to play around within. Often in GTA III for instance, it seemed the most pressing matter to attend to was to cause havoc on the street corner, simply because it was fun. True it didn’t achieve anything more than highlight our own moral deficiencies, but it showed how much fun the game could be to mess around with. The random, zany acts of violence did make the PS2 classics very enjoyable indeed. Yet throughout GTA V it never seemed like an idea to start causing trouble, rather to just get on with things.
This is because GTA V’s biggest flaw is that we’re no longer the masters of this universe; instead we are guests being strung along for the ride. The characters are so ‘alive’ that we don’t taking control of them can be unsettling. Franklin, Michael and Trevor all have their own autonomy and this is evident when swapping between them; the game takes us to where they are on the map and gives us a glimpse into their lives. Only once we take control of them there’s this sense we’re imposing our will on them, barging in and stealing their autonomy. It’s an odd feeling certainly, but one that is only further enforced when meeting up with them within missions. True we could have arrived at each mission with any character, but the other two are there all the same, living regardless of what we, the players, have in mind. This is in stark contrast to the previous titles, as with only one (often void of personality) protagonist we feel more connected to the game because the character on screen is assimilated with the player, and not an entity unto themselves.
This transgresses further into the fabric of the world of San Andreas, as even the people walking the streets have more personality than ever before. Rather than being silent automatons with limited function, these people are a lot more active than ever before and somehow playing the game just for that zany violence feels like we’re imposing on the will of others. These people in the streets may have no redeeming features, but it doesn’t make for quite as fun a game to kill one-dimensional people over automatons. This is ultimately GTA V’s problem as more scale and more depth don’t exactly translate into an engaging game.
Despite this there are aspects of the story mode that do keep the player engaged. Franklin as a whole fits the classic GTA protagonist role, working his way up from petty thug to criminal overlord; he is perhaps the least interesting protagonist in terms of narrative. Yet unlike Michael and Trevor he doesn’t have history, and thus he is easier for us players to assimilate our experience with. He also doesn’t set up his own missions unlike Michael and Trevor, who make us undertake missions they know more about then we do. We may be linked with the latter pair’s bodies, but never their minds. The final decision at the game’s conclusion is quite telling as we must choose either to kill Michael, to kill Trevor or the Third Way. The player doesn’t get to kill Franklin as he is the game’s true protagonist and is the only character that we are fully assimilated with.
GTA V reveals a series that is at odds with itself; how does it expand without sacrificing itself as a game that’s wholly enjoyable to play. Arguably GTA Online is performing much better than the story mode before it and perhaps this is the future the developers may set their sights on in future. Unfortunately as ambitious as GTA V is, it cannot help but be at odds with the very player trying to engage with the experience. It doesn’t make for a bad game, but it makes it difficult to fall in love with it.