While the main characters' plot isn't exactly swell, the supporting cast is just as bad. One of Franklin's side missions involves a paparazzo, and you end up helping him on his adventures through Los Santos trying to take "muff shots". One mission has you sneaking onto the grounds of a teen star and tape her having anal sex. You are there for about 90 seconds, just watching the two go at it in full view. Admittedly, the banter is chuckle-worthy - "I won't release a sex tape for at least another three years" - but I was surprised Rockstar was willing to experiment further with showing explicit sexual content post Hot Coffee. What's gross is that you as the player support the paparazzi in harassing people, and we're supposed to think it's funny. I don't like shows like TMZ either, why would I think it's fun or funny to engage in the exact behavior that pisses me off?
Everyone you meet in the city seems to be unhappy or upset about something. Michael's kids are depressing stereotypes - one is a COD-player who does nothing but sit in his room calling his opponents "faggots", the other is a fame-obsessed teenie-bopper who is used as a plot device instead of a fully-fleshed out female character . (Please see other writers for a discussion on the claims of inherent misogyny in GTA V, I don't feel qualified to discuss it much but it must be acknowledged.) Everyone you pass on the streets delivers snide comments or has conversations on phones that express how unhappy they are. I understand Los Santos is supposed to parody the vapidity of L.A. - and I hate that city as much as the next New Yorker - but the constant cynicism is tiring. Every joke drips with malice and sarcasm, with none of the ebullience and hope for the culture that infects the satirical comedy of The Daily Show or The Onion.
I was already disappointed in the game's story, and then you meet Trevor. The scene I described in the review was a horrible introduction, setting him up as a reprehensible character. You go on to murder gang members, rival meth cooks, and even just a bunch of "rednecks" because of an imagined slight. The last event is one of the rampages the series is known for, mimicking in some ways the kind of gameplay I enjoyed when I was in my early twenties. Again, I don't begrudge the violence or even the subject matter, but after playing through the missions I described above, I was just sick of hearing Trevor bellow. He's angry, and he wishes pain and suffering on a lot of people but he does have one redeeming quality - Trevor demands women be respected. Congratulations to Rockstar for creating a fully-realized character! Unfortunately, it's hard to remember that when you play through a sequence in which you torture a prisoner as Trevor.
Again, spoiler alert, but there's another mission which demands mention. In order to be allowed their freedom, Michael and Trevor have to work with some FIB agents to track down a suspected terrorist. Trevor gleefully looks at the pliers, car battery, gas can and monkey wrench, and you as the player get to pick which one you use. What fun! The mission shifts back to Michael trying to assassinate the target your victim identifies, but needs more information. Back to the torturing! Afterwards, Trevor drives his victim to the airport, and goes off on a tirade about how torture is ineffective as an information-gathering method. "Torture is for the torturer ... You torture for the good times! Sometimes you torture for the torturee, but only if they are prepared to pay." Haha, an S&M joke. Hilarious.
You could say this sequence is supposed to be satire pointing at the use of torture in the last decade to prosecute suspected terrorists. The problem is that other forms of media have done it better by showing the effects that torture has not only on the victim, but on the perpetrator. Jack Bauer in 24, for example, hates what he does and the scenes in which he tortures people is just as hard to witness, but the audience can at least see the effects his actions have in a serious and mature manner. If Jack Bauer made a dominatrix joke after torturing someone, it would be just as ridiculous as GTA 5.
A piece of art can evoke all kinds of emotions. It doesn't have to be all happy-go-lucky all the time - as I mentioned I enjoy stories like Red Dead Redemption, The Godfather and Breaking Bad. But for a game that you could spend hundreds of hours playing, there needs to be variety. A good story needs pacing, and I felt the humor wasn't enough to balance out the hollow, meaningless evil of the main characters. Why do these guys even hang out together, when they obviously hate themselves and everything around them? It ultimately doesn't matter if the protagonists meet their demise or if they somehow redeem themselves and go straight. Many people won't get far enough in the game to experience it because the characters were so poorly written.
A lot has changed since 2001, when GTA III came out. I got married, had two kids, and I'm now in charge of a website dedicated to discussing the experience of games and their impact on our culture. The world has witnessed acts of terrorism around the globe, and shootings here in the U.S. are frightfully common. I don't like to watch the news; I play games for an escape from all that shit.
Grand Theft Auto V is like watching the news. It just makes me sad.