GTA V on GTA

One of the fun things about the original 3D series of Grand Theft Auto games was how they slowly built out a world of interconnected characters, places, and events. Lazlow was a constant radio presence, with a wild up-and-down career journey over IIIVice City, and San Andreas. Characters we became familiar with in III, like silent protagonist Claude, eventual antagonist Catalina, or mob wife Maria, appear in San Andreas in roles that both act in service to a distant prologue to III and clearly indicate that everyone is the hero of their own story (after all, many would be quite familiar with the player avatar for the earlier game, yet they found him in San Andreas in a peripheral and relatively unimportant role, reframing him from conquering warrior to easily dominated sidekick at the side of Catalina). Other characters slip in and out of the games, creating the impression that they have lives of their own–characters like Kent Paul, Phil Cassidy, and Donald Love.

The HD continuity offered a hard reboot with Grand Theft Auto IV. The interconnected story lines and character arcs were brushed away. The game still felt distinctively set in a Grand Theft Auto universe, with its trio of major cities referenced (Liberty City, Vice City, and Los Santos). And of course, the wide variety of companies and products created to fill out earlier games were often reintroduced into the new game universe–especially the cars. GTA IV added so much, and reimagined Liberty City so completely, that it made sense to do away with some of the specifics, outside of the occasional Easter egg reference and the ever-present Lazlow.

With Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar could start folding in the new continuity established in IV throughout the new game. Most interestingly, in a trend started with the two story expansions to IV, the resolution to dangling tertiary antagonists was left for this title. For instance, annoying Mafia toady Rocco was spared at the end of The Ballad of Gay Tony because he was a “made man” whose death would only further complicate the efforts of Tony and Luis to end the cycle of debt and revenge that was trapping them, but in V, he’s fairly quickly dispatched after a couple run-ins with Michael toward the middle of the game. Similarly, Karen, the true identity of Niko’s double-crossing girlfriend, reappears in along with her unnamed handler as agents of the IAA; while she lives to fight another day, her handler is shot and killed in a massive firefight late in the game. (Or is he? Apparently he returns alive in GTA Online content set after the events of the game–though that whole timeline seems a bit of a mess at this point.)

Other GTA characters at least get referenced. Lester refers to an Eastern European guy who was making moves in Liberty City before going quiet, an obvious reference to Niko (and while it could mean he’s dead, I choose to read it as meaning that Niko finally got the quiet life out of crime that he could barely hope for). Packie, a close former associate of Niko’s, can be recruited to be a quite successful heist crew member. Brucie, friend to Niko, shows up in media marketing Bull Shark Testosterone, playing up a recurrent joke from the predecessor title.

There are even nods to 3D characters. The El Burro Heights district in Los Santos alludes to the character El Burro from GTA III. Other characters apparently have stars on the Vinewood Walk of Fame or other small call-outs (continuing similar small references from IV). Radio DJ Fernando Martinez joins Lazlow as a personality holdover from the previous era. A favorite small reference of mine is the mission achievement entitled “Better than CJ” in the mission “Derailed,” which you complete by landing Trevor’s dirt bike on the train he’s pursuing on the first attempt, and which is specifically referring to the “Wrong Side of the Tracks” mission in San Andreas in which C.J. chases a train on a dirt bike outside of Los Santos.

There are exactly two appearances I don’t like in the game: Johnny and Ashley. Johnny Klebitz was the Vice President of the Alderney chapter of The Lost outlaw biker gang in The Lost and Damned. Ashley is his ex-girlfriend, hopelessly addicted to meth. The game is set in motion by the release of the gang’s president, Billy, from a rehab program. Billy’s mania and drug use derail the progress Johnny has made in making the gang stable and profitable. Billy launches the gang into a couple of all-out gang wars before he is arrested by police again. Billy blames Johnny (ironically, it turns out, as The Ballad of Gay Tony makes clear that Billy had actually set Johnny up for a fall just before he’s taken out of the picture). Billy’s loyal and stupid sidekick leads a civil war, and while Johnny takes on the mantle of president and ultimately wins the infighting, most of the gang is killed. By the end of the game, Johnny is somewhat despondent, having seen most of his brothers killed, including his best friend, but he’s cleared the board of those after him, he’s established firm leadership with his surviving crew, he’s taken down the treacherous Billy in a daring prison raid, and he’s cut Ashley out of his life, apparently for good.

In GTA V, we run back into Johnny and Ashley as soon as the player regains control of Trevor for the first time since the prologue mission. In fact, the perspective switches back to Trevor in the middle of fucking a strung-out Ashley over his trailer’s kitchen counter. His hedonistic moment is interrupted when a news report on the TV in the background reveals to him that his old buddy Michael must still be alive after all. Trevor is immediately enraged and sets into motion an insane plan to quickly wipe out all competing gangs in his area so he can turn his attention to tracking down Michael.

On his way to do the deeds, Trevor is confronted by a heartbroken Johnny, who pleads with him to stop his affair with Ashley. Whereas Johnny was a hardened, confident man, a leader who rejected the influence of drugs in his life, and never a pushover, Johnny is now portrayed as weak and craven, quickly talked down by the domineering, alpha presence of Trevor. Johnny also appears to have given into a meth habit in taking back up with Ashley. We don’t ever get any explanation as to how he could have descended so quickly in the span of five years, how he gave up on his principles and ended up with Ashley yet again, living a wretched half-life fueled by Trevor’s drugs–let alone how he ended up in San Andreas all the way across the country at all, with a rebuilt chapter of The Lost MC following him. There’s no time to explain. Trevor launches a surprise assault and bashes Johnny’s brain into the pavement. Then he goes on a rampage against the remaining bikers, killing off Johnny’s two remaining close biker friends from TLAD, and mocking them, as well as their leader and his death, in the process. Ashley can be killed in the aftermath of Johnny’s death, or left grieving. Either way, a news report can later be heard documenting her death.

I recognized Johnny in my first playthrough of GTA V, but while his death seemed cruel and unnecessary, it didn’t strike a chord with me. Now that I’ve played V after completing TLAD‘s story, however, the death isn’t just cruel but incredibly arbitrary for a former protagonist, and Johnny’s depiction seems incredibly out of character. It’s hard to understand what Rockstar was doing here. Sure, it made Trevor seem like an unpredictable agent of chaos, able to practically interfere with the fourth wall. Even someone who you’d think would have protagonist armor is given a swift death (a bit peculiar, when you think of how you can endlessly have him killed and wake up in a hospital when playing TLAD, just like any other GTA protagonist). And it is certainly shocking for anyone who recognizes Johnny. But it seems so very senseless. (And underneath the scandalizing senseless killing in GTA’s open world and media image, the stories are typically big dramatic affairs that follow tenets of traditional storytelling.)

I guess the lesson I can take from this moment is that Rockstar is quite happy to mock and disparage anyone and everyone–even the fans of its games.

A GTA Series of Posts to Come

All the recent hours in Grand Theft Auto games has the series, particularly its themes and characters and locales, taking up a lot of mental real estate for me. As such, there are a series of topics that I want to explore. For now, that includes:

  1. Why I believe the games fail as satire;
  2. How Grand Theft Auto V let down its female characters;
  3. The ways in which Grand Theft Auto V references, celebrates, and mocks its predecessors; and
  4. How removing the HUD and radar radically improved my San Andreas experience.

I’ve already posted a relatively long essay that could be boiled down to why I prefer San Andreas over the other games. It probably also functions as an introduction to this series of essays and why I feel motivated to write them. I hope to continue to post them over the next week. Why the planned increase in posting frequency? For one thing, the topics are fresh in my mind, and I’d like to get them down on paper (or in a digital file, more likely) as soon as possible. For another thing, I’m most definitely not going to make this blog primarily about Grand Theft Auto. Many people love the series. Many others hate it. I happen to be among the former, but there is a lot that I dislike about each game I’ve played in the franchise. They’re deliberately distasteful, and their edginess often comes from punching down and reliance on broad stereotype. I don’t want to be in a GTA head space forever. And for those who can’t stand the games, I’ll hopefully truncate the time in which you might see me posting excessively about them. Then again, we’ll see how I do with time and motivation over this week.

If you have to tune me out for a while, I’ll understand. But I hope you’ll give one or two of these posts a try, even if you can’t stand the games. Thanks, everyone, for reading!

A couple trips around San Andreas

I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto lately. It’s been something of an obsession, playing these games again. I played GTA IV and went through the ending in which Roman, instead of Kate, dies. This was a first for me, and so I started playing The Lost and Damned to continue exploring old content that I hadn’t given a chance before. I finished that story, so I played The Ballad of Gay Tony, which I’d never touched at all before.

On finishing that, I took a short break from the series before launching into GTA V. I did some things differently and encountered some new content I’d missed before (it’s a very big game), but I certainly didn’t touch everything, and there are still some heist options I’ve never selected. Still, I finished the story. I chose Option C again, working to save all the protagonists and taking out all their enemies, because it’s the only option that feels right to me, after hours playing as all three of the protagonists, and leaving the choice to Franklin, who reads as primarily a loyal follower throughout much of the game and who had just overcome a selfish urge to abandon his old friend in an earlier mission. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to betray a friend after that, especially a mentor. And everyone getting something close to a happy ending feels right.

I took another very brief break before returning to the land of San Andreas in the game with the same name, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It’s been quite a while since I’ve interacted with this game, and it holds a special place in my heart. It was certainly my favorite of the original 3D era, and even now in the HD era, it’s probably still my favorite title in the whole franchise (with the caveat that I haven’t played any of the 2D games, any of the side Stories titles, or Grand Theft Auto Online, which has certainly become its own thing instead of a multiplayer component to V).

There are many reasons that I’ve always favored San Andreas. For one thing, it’s an incredibly expansive game. There are three major cities and quite a lot of countryside in the game. There’s a whole system within the game of slowly conquering territory in Los Santos to expand the Grove Street Families. It was the first game to allow the protagonist to swim, but it added and refined a variety of other features, like flying planes and riding dirt bikes and parachuting and using jet packs. It also gave the player a lot of choice in what to do, with a range of activities scattered about. And while the entire series’ signature is providing a massive, open world to wreak havoc in, San Andreas leaned heavily into roleplaying territory. You could customize your appearance and work to improve stats. There was even a hunger/energy system that required you to eat to stay alive and healthy but that could also result in your protagonist getting fat if you didn’t stay active enough.

Furthermore, I think the game benefited from being focused on a hyper-specific setting, like Vice City. Whereas all GTA games are dark satires with absurdist elements that often disrupt any emotional depth to the stories, Vice City and San Andreas at least feel like they represent something more than violence and anarchy. Vice City is very much so a parody of Miami in the eighties, and the focus on developing the aesthetic and sense of time/place gives the game what feels like a bit more substance. It helps, too, that Vice City leans hard into particular pop culture elements instead of the usual hodgepodge of crime narratives, benefiting from stories and themes drawn from products like Scarface and Miami Vice. Similarly, San Andreas attempts to emulate Los Angeles in the nineties, and it too draws from specific works, notably hood films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society for its first act.

In addition to all the above, I just really like C.J., the game’s protagonist, and the cast of acquaintances he makes. C.J. is defined by loyalty to his family and friends. He’s a little goofy, has a bad sense of humor, and doesn’t always make smart decisions or think things through. But he is quick to trust those he likes, and his trust is usually rewarded (with two very big exceptions). C.J. wants to better himself, and a lot of the story is about him finding ways to grow beyond the impoverished urban life he came from (it’s a GTA story, so those ways largely involve crime and corruption). And this is the only GTA title I’m aware of to build toward a single, cohesive happy ending. In comparison:

  • In III, silent protagonist Claude is motivated by revenge against a former lover. He makes few friends and seems to have no close relationships. Most of the people around him end up dead–often at Claude’s hand. He betrays and is betrayed repeatedly. And even his triumph at the end feels hollow. The whole game delights in nihilism and dark satire, and that’s reflected in the story. Its misanthropic themes play out to the very end, when it is suggested that he kills a romantic interest he rescues, merely because she annoys him. He is a pure sociopath and develops no true connections with others.
  • In Vice City, Tommy Vercetti is considerably more charming than Claude, but he’s still a thug and a sociopath. He rises to great heights, carving out his own empire in the titular city, but he makes few true friends and mostly succeeds by killing off the competition. In fact, the game culminates in his betrayal by his partner, Lance, who worked in collaboration with his old mob boss. Sure, Tommy ends the game with a small circle of “friends,” most notably the drug-addicted, weaselly mob attorney he connects with at the start of the game, but it’s still a tale that traces its roots to the tragic arc of Scarface, trading out a final death for material triumph.
  • In GTA IV, Niko is repeatedly betrayed throughout. He has at least two friends left at the end of the game–Little Jacob and Brucie. But the game’s endings result in the death of either his cousin, who is also his best friend, or his girlfriend, who is implied to be the love of his life. And Niko never really makes it to the top, no matter how much money he makes. At best, he can scorch enough earth around him to hopefully reach a point where no one is sending hitmen after him anymore. But it is clear that he will remain haunted by his past.
  • In TLAD, Johnny has taken down most of his biker gang. He has only a few close associates left. He’s cut his codependent, drug-addicted girlfriend out of his life. He’s killed some friends and lost some others. And he doesn’t have much going for him. The whole story feels bleak, a narrative of a fall rather than a rise. And given that Johnny and his remaining friends are all killed off by Trevor Phillips early in GTA V, it turns out that there’s no happy ending after the credits after all.
  • In TBOGT, Luis and Tony end up basically where they started. They have the nightclubs and they have each other. But they haven’t really gained anything from their experience.
  • In GTA V, the ending depends on player choice. But only Option C seems like a really happy ending, since a protagonist ends up dead at the hands of Franklin in the other options. I’ll concede that Option C is a happy ending, but it feels more like tying up loose ends in response to plot twists guided by a series of structured heists, the repercussions of Michael’s past actions, and Trevor’s chaotic and unpredictable interventions. Michael and Trevor might be on relatively friendly terms, but there’s still a lot of unresolved hostility between them. And Franklin keeps his mentors and his close friend Lamar, but he still lives alone in a big house. Given that he complains that Michael’s life alone in a big house when his family temporarily leaves him is depressing, it stands to reason that Franklin might be wealthy but still feels as empty as he did at the start of the game.

In contrast, C.J. ends his journey considerably wealthier and surrounded by friends and family. He has found not just material success but happiness. While he had to deal with the consequences of some very close betrayals, his loyalty is largely rewarded, and he ends his adventure having broadened his family to include many new and interesting friends.

That all said, every GTA game is a satire. Every game wants to be loud, shocking, and crass. In attempting to push the limits, the games often veer into shock-value territory populated by shows like South Park or Family Guy. There are way too many “jokes” that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. Even in a game modeled after hood films and following a black protagonist, there is no serious effort to deal with systemic or everyday racism, and to the extent that racist systems are acknowledged, they have no real impact on game systems and often are handled via offhanded comments. (In other words, it’s very clear that these games have been creatively shaped by white, cisgendered, heterosexual, middle-class male Gen-Xers.) Every game tells a larger-than-life story full of violence, depravity, and mayhem. Even the most mentally balanced of protagonists can be led through wanton destruction between missions under player control, and every game has big set-piece missions involving the killing of dozens of cops and gangsters. These are not games set in a morally just universe, and they are not games about good and true heroes. But San Andreas came closest to telling a story about a hero trying to do the right thing for people he cared about–and actually succeeding.