Let’s get it out of the way: GTA V may just be the best Grand Theft Auto game. It may also be the most disappointing – and it is probably one of the dumbest games in the series. Credit where credit’s due: Rockstar Games do one thing amazingly well, better than anyone else out there, and that’s creating living, breathing worlds. Their obituary to the Old West, Red Dead Redemption, is one of my favourite virtual worlds bar none, the sort of place that I enjoy inhabiting and navigating, even without following the story or sidequests. Just being in the world covers so much of what I look for in games.
Red Dead Redemption also works in one key way that GTA V flubs, and that’s the character writing: yes, there are the joke characters, the broad caricatures of two-faced hypocrites, but Rockstar’s western knew when to take its cast seriously. It didn’t work all the time or with every single character, but by and large the dramatis personae of what could perhaps be called Grand Theft Horse carried the weight of its narrative. I understand that Rockstar might not want to write tragedies all the time – something that Red Dead Redemption ended up being quite effectively – but when it comes to humour the company’s writers tend towards the lazy, obvious joke… and then they flog it until way past its expiration.
I admit, there were moments in GTA V where I laughed out loud, and there were others where I sniggered. There are storylines in the game that work due to a combination of fine voice work and their sheer absurdity, but for each of these storylines there’s a character whose venality and stupidity is so drawn out, so overplayed it’s cringeworthy. What’s worse, perhaps, is that these characters are essentially all variations on the same theme: people who are smug and think they’re the best thing since sliced bread, yet they are essentially hollow. Which is fine until you realise that GTA V is 90% populated with such characters – and no, this does not strike me as a convincing parody of Southern California, and it’s most definitely not an interesting parody – and that the writing itself exhibits the same smugness. By comparison, Rockstar’s previous foray into Los Santos and surroundings in 2004’s GTA San Andreas (it’s already been ten years? now I definitely feel old) also had the broad jokes and the caricatures, but it brought together a band of mismatched characters that genuinely felt like family by the end of the game. By comparison, I don’t miss any of GTA V‘s cast of misfits and murderers, since with so many of them it’s clear that the punchline will always precedence over the character. There are exceptions: moments that show genuine wit and complexity, and jokes that don’t rely on the nth variation on the theme of “Haha, aren’t Californians/Americans/people stupid, vapid and easily fooled?”, but compared to Red Dead Redemption it all feels too much like a middling sitcom writer had watched The Sopranos and decided that they could pull this off.
Much was made of the lack of female protagonist in the game, especially since GTA V‘s main innovation is that there’s not just one but three playable characters. Seeing how limited Rockstar’s palette is in their latest, I have to say I’m glad they didn’t try to write their first female protagonist in this one. In fact, my main recommendation to the company would be this: they’ve pretty much perfected the creation of living, breathing worlds and mechanisms to enjoy being in that world. They have great artists, they choose fantastic music to add another dimension to their worlds, and they have ideas. What they should do is bring in new writing talent that doesn’t just do what they already do. They should get writers whose skills can shake up the by now rather stale mix of HBO Lite (imagine the worst moment in the weakest episode of The Sopranos) and Southpark-style loud parody. They don’t need to go for Greek tragedy or the Dickensian sweep of The Wire – but they should stop telling what is essentially the same joke. In brief, whatever they do next, I’d rather not think that it’s an improvement on their track record to date in every respect other than the writing. If that’s the case, I might just stay in GTA Online, because when the lines are provided by other players I don’t expect the writing to be good.
P.S.: For the record, GTA V‘s most maligned character, Trevor, is actually the most interesting at times. Yes, much of the writing is lazy and repetitive, but there are moments when his lines display a self-awareness that, while not particularly deep, does stand out compared to his usual lazy “Ooh, isn’t this edgy, offensive and craaaaaazy?!” shtik, the aftermath of the infamous playable torture scene (ah, to be a gamer in 2013…) being a case in point.