This editorial contains spoilers for the story of the game. If you'd like to experience the missions on your own, please stop reading now.
The sirens blared. It was so loud that my friend's roommate banged on the paper thin walls separating the bedrooms in their Brooklyn apartment to turn the PS2 the crap down. Problem was we were having too much fun playing Grand Theft Auto 3 to listen to him. We weren't doing any of the missions, mind you, but just taking turns getting as many stars as possible by headshotting pedestrians until the helicopters and tanks showed up, smashing cars into people and blowing up policemen for no other reason than pure enjoyment of fucking around with the game's physics and rules. We did this for hours, with no care as to the moral implications of our actions.
I was 23 years old when Grand Theft Auto III came out.
I'm now 35, and I got sick playing Grand Theft Auto V this weekend.
A lot has changed in those 12 years, not the least of which was my own sensibilities. I don't fault the people complaining about my review of GTA V, and how it criticizes the subject matter, but I couldn't ignore my churning gut and upchuck five stars for a game whose defining emotion wasn't excitement or elation, but sadness.
And please, this is not an indictment of the violence in games, or a call for change in the industry. I've argued and advocated for the content of our games here on the site and in personal discussions with conservative family members. Rockstar should not be ashamed for producing GTA V and the game has a right to exist like any other piece of art. As I said in the review, there's much in this game to be excited about - technically it's a masterpiece. The map is a joy to explore whether by car or by plane and most of the missions are exciting action set pieces. How much the despicable characters overshadow the story is up to you to decide, but it was a major factor for my enjoyment of the game, as it is with most I play. I just moderated a panel at PAX Prime 2013 in which we discussed the importance of narrative in games, and to ignore the poor presentation of the characters would be a disservice.
GTA V should not be praised for a shoddy story with little regard to writing strong protagonists the audience can understand and appreciate.
You meet each of the three characters slowly, and the writing does a good job of masking its inadequacies early. Franklin's life in the slums of L.S. seems shitty, indeed, and I respect that he wants to better himself, but he uniformly treats everyone in his life badly, even his friends and mentors. Before you have a chance to see Franklin grow, the story shifts to Michael, a middle-aged ex-criminal who hates the success he's forged. Michael doesn't like his son, his daughter or his wife's cheating, despite their "agreement", and to combat these feelings he gets mad at his psychiatrist instead of talking to his family. Somehow, in a way that's not made clear, Franklin and Michael form a bond and agree to do crimes together. We are then whisked away again to Trevor, the game's truly evil protagonist who revels in murder, torture and verbally/physically abusing his underlings. The characters go from these already meager circumstances, and graduate to pure psychopathy.
Granted, the series is built around bad people doing bad things, but there was almost always a reason provided for what the characters do, from John Marston to Tommy Vercetti. In contrast, the three protagonists GTA V are different shades of evil, sure, but not one of them has a motivation for their actions other than malaise, greed and psychosis. Contrast this with other crime stories, such as Breaking Bad or The Godfather, which depict familial obligations as a driving force, or the revenge stories of other Rockstar games like Red Dead Redemption and GTA: Vice City. It takes Breaking Bad several season to firmly establish Walter White as an evil man, but we're already invested as audience members by then that we want to witness his downfall. Even then, I probably would have given GTA V's story a pass and engrossed myself in the minigames and driving through California landscape in between the unpleasantly evil missions. But then you, playing as a character, commit such a horrible act of terrorism that I couldn't ignore the writing any longer.