Note: This post about the plot and characters of Grand Theft Auto V contains minor spoilers about the plot and characters of Grand Theft Auto V.
Playing as the Grand Theft Auto V character Michael De Santa, there are points where you’ll be walking around your McMansion and overhear your 20-something layabout son Jimmy playing video games in his room. He’s always spouting the stereotypical firehose of homophobia and rape threats over his headset. It’s kind of weird to realize, while playing a video game, that a video game is making fun of people who play video games.
Since its initial release almost two years ago, a lot has been written about Grand Theft Auto V’s content, which often can be sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic. Sometimes it’s just generally vile. It’s shockingly juvenile in a lot of its humor. It’s also a fantastic game. Grand Theft Auto V is an experience of being appalled and amazed, often simultaneously.
Grand Theft Auto V has a bit of an identity crisis, you see. It’s mainly a game about driving around a lovingly-crafted, hyper-realistic, miniaturized version of southern California, performing heists and escaping from police. Its creators have a clear love of cops and robbers action films, and the homages to Heat and To Live And Die In L.A. couldn’t be more clear if they’d put up posters for the films all over the city. But then there’s the game’s sense of humor – a social media company parodying Facebook called “LifeInvader,” the over-the-top radio spots for a testosterone-based energy drink, and side characters with as much nuance as a sledgehammer to the kneecaps. If the game is like Heat, it’s Heat with Trey Parker and Matt Stone dubbing over Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.
That doesn’t make it a bad game. Grand Theft Auto V is a good game. It’s a very good game. But it’s also tremendously weird because of this bizarre atonal dynamic between what you find yourself doing in the game and the “comedy” sprinkled heavily into it.
There’s actually a term for this weirdness: ludonarrative dissonance. Without getting too into the academic weeds, the term refers to conflict between a game’s narrative and its ludic elements – the gameplay itself. Clint Hocking, a former LucasArts creative director, first used the term critiquing Bioshock (and while I think it still has value as a concept, the term itself has fallen out of favor because of the fact that people who use it tend to be, not to put too fine a point on it, up their own butts).
Take as another example the preceding entry in the GTA series. Grand Theft Auto IV’s protagonist Niko Bellic is a war veteran from an unspecified Eastern European country looking to pursue a new life in GTA’s version of New York, Liberty City. As the story progresses, Niko is shown to be caring and polite, even when frustrated by his cousin Roman’s antics. He talks about horrors he saw in the war, and you get the sense he wants things to change, to start with a clean slate in America. “Perhaps here, things will be different,” he says.
And then you have him shoot a bunch of people and blow up cars.
In Grand Theft Auto V, the story and gameplay mechanics work more in tandem, but it’s the comedy that feels jarring. Critiques of the game for being misogynistic or homophobic are often brushed off with a shrug of, “well, it’s satire.” Is it, though?
Certainly there are satiric elements in the game – when sneaking into the LifeInvader headquarters, for instance, you are treated to a visual skewering of “edgy” social media tech culture. Visit a movie theater, and watch a cartoonishly pretentious black and white foreign “art” film (wherein characters speak both Italian and French to each other and the director even jumps in to underscore how important his film is). In a game that can easily take 70-100 hours to complete, it’s understandable – and positive, even – to eschew 100-percent thematic consistency.
When these “satiric” elements butt up against the plot, however, they’re far more jarring. As Michael’s family life deteriorates, a sequence has you try practicing yoga with his wife Amanda and her buff yoga instructor. Doughy and in his mid-40s, Michael struggles to perform several poses (as you follow on-screen prompts). Meanwhile, Amanda’s instructor gets a bit overly-hands-on with his student, who seems very at ease with this part of the class. Enraged, Michael lunges for the instructor and tumbles loutishly into the swimming pool. The entire scene is played for laughs, but when Amanda and the kids move out of the house shortly after, it’s retroactively depressing.
The most likeable of the three main characters is Franklin Clinton, a young black man who lives with his aunt in a poor area of Los Santos. His friend Lamar is a wannabe gangbanger, and, similar to Niko’s cousin Roman in GTA IV, serves to move Franklin’s plot forward as well as provide slapstick humor. Franklin and Lamar’s early game antics put them up against a rival gang, and it’s unclear whether the game wants to be New Jack City or Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.
Ideally, satire exaggerates or lampoons in order to demonstrate some higher truth. Grand Theft Auto V does lots of exaggerating and plenty of lampooning, but I’m at a loss to figure out what it’s trying to tell us. There are no ideals in this world. As Chris Franklin said in his video about the game, it’s a “South Park centrism,” with no moral center whatsoever. The jokes are so scatter-shot and wide-ranging that it’s impossible to tell who the developers think the “good guys” are, and that’s reinforced by three protagonists who are all criminals of various levels of depravity. The pedestrians strolling the city are all obstacles and marks, other drivers exist to be yanked out of their cars, and characters’ family, friends, and allies are buffoons. The CEO of LifeInvader is a funhouse mirror caricature, as are the DJs and newsreaders on the radio and television.
All of this is wacky set dressing in a crime story that’s played completely straight, in a virtual city that is so realistically rendered that I often find myself hopping in a car to drive around and gawp at the scenery without any particular goal in mind.
Maybe that’s what Grand Theft Auto V’s humor is doing, too. It doesn’t have anything to say, it just makes fun of whatever hoves into view as it drives on by. That’s fine, and the game certainly can be funny. But that’s not satire – it’s more an anarchic nihilism. It’s the Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point with Stewie from Family Guy airbrushed on the hood.
Now excuse me, I have a heist to plan.