Far from the “male power fantasy” charge put forth by frauds, Grand Theft Auto V is the closest a game has ever come to fully exploring what it means to be a man in middle-age with unfulfilled ambitions, or ambitions fulfilled-but-unfulfilling. It also happens to be this generation’s capstone technical achievement, and a hell of a video game.
The joy of a game like Grand Theft Auto is found in laying waste to a hyper-stylized, over-the-top version of something approximating real-life America. Indeed, GTA is a magical place where everything wrong with this nation is cranked up to 11. This is why the cries of misogyny lobbed at it by the games press is beyond baseless. Here is a world where everyone, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, is a myopic, navel-gazing sack of wasted flesh.
Before/as GTA V was released, many in the games press took up arms in yet another Holy Crusade of Impotence against it for the cardinal sin of not being a sunshine-and-rainbows indie game. Many also decried the fact that, of the three player characters, not one was a woman. The braying and neighing from the frauds reached such a fevered pitch that writer Dan Houser came forth to explain that “the concept of being masculine was so key to this story.” Right on time, the crybabies and cat ladies pooh-poohed this reasoning. And yet, Houser spoke truth: There is no way that this story – this particular story – could have worked with a woman thrown into the mix to check off boxes on some milquetoast progressive’s media sensitivity manifesto.
The reason for this is simple: Grand Theft Auto V is the closest a game has ever come to fully exploring what it means to be a man in middle-age with unfulfilled ambitions, or ambitions fulfilled-but-unfulfilling. One might (as the games press does) endlessly and tiresomely debate whether or not the “male perspective” is overvalued in a medium that is overwhelmingly kept afloat by those with XY chromosomes, but it is another thing entirely to insist (as the games press does) that something approximating a real-world, non-muscled-space-marine male perspective is inherently not worth exploring, because social justice. Much to the chagrin of slacktivists and tumblrkin everywhere, Rockstar has masterfully, almost flawlessly chosen to explore that perspective.
There is no way this particular story works with a woman thrown in to appease milquetoast progressive hipsters.
GTA has traditionally been about building a criminal empire from the ground up. The series has always utilized a very simple rags-to-riches narrative as the background for its carnage. In GTA V, Rockstar asks, “What happens when a Claude, Tommy, CJ, or Niko finally reaches the top of the underworld?” The answer is as predictable as it is common: He gets bored with work, he retires, he settles down with a woman and starts a family. After a while, maybe the criminal genius and the woman pop out some kids. A while after that, maybe they begin to hate each other, and shit starts to roll downhill. Indeed, GTA V puts forth a proposition that is unheard of in the medium: After the big job is complete and the credits roll, the criminal mastermind is just as prone to the soul-crushing banalities of life as the accountant, the insurance salesman, or the dock worker.
Much of what makes the tone of GTA V work is the juxtaposition of its main characters against a world that is, in the parlance of the times, completely batshit. The world in GTA is as satirical and over the top as it has ever been, but our protagonists are relatively grounded. This is not to say they are dry or boring, not at all. Indeed, one of GTA V’s protagonists, Trevor, has more personality than 99% of this generation’s leading men and women combined. Putting it another way, the men we follow in GTA V are presented to us as fully-developed, flawed people, not simple caricatures or ciphers for player action.
Yes, they are neurotic, self-absorbed psychopaths. But their stories, dialogue, and motivations ring true to both the characters and plot. When the game explores Michael’s broken family situation, allows Trevor to grieve endlessly for a fallen buddy, or delves into Franklin’s desire for something better than living with an insane Aunt attempting to cheat him out of a home his mother bequeathed to him, we get to see a true human element in these characters, even if they are bad human beings. In point of fact, if we were to have met Michael, Franklin, and Trevor on AMC or HBO instead of on Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, we’d be hearing critics laud their tale as a brilliant coda to the current “golden age” of antihero-driven television. Alas, this be video games, so we must settle for the sound of Rockstar raking in beaucoup bucks over the objections of overly sensitive tech hipsters.
All three of these men are well into their adult lives. Each of them has either failed to achieve their goals, or worse, they have discovered that attaining their goals has not brought them any sort of lasting happiness. Michael, arguably the main character, has been living comfortably since pulling “one last job” ten years ago with his buddies. But all’s not well for him: His daughter Tracey is a vapid, fame-chasing bimbo who doesn’t care how she reaches the spotlight, be it trashy reality TV shows or porn auditions on a yacht. His son, Jimmy, is an overgrown manchild with an awful attitude, a sailor’s mouth, and no interest in anything other than dropping slurs during online shooter matches. And Michael’s wife, Amanda, is a former stripper-turned-housewife who has taken to cheating on him with everyone from tennis coaches to yoga instructors.
Franklin, on the other hand, is a guy who isn’t anywhere near where he thought he’d be at this point in his life. He lives with his crazy aunt in a house that his late mother left to him, his friends and acquaintances are short-sighted hood lifers who have no aspirations outside of gangbanging and/or drug use. Franklin wants more out of life — he sees a guy like Michael and thinks the grass is greener — but he’s having a hard time achieving it. Beyond that, Franklin’s longtime love left him for a better life with a more respectable (read: wealthy non-criminal) man.
Last, but surely not least, there is Trevor. Trevor is a sociopath, a drug manufacturer, and just an all around horrible, broken human being. Let us all take a brief pause to roll our eyes at the fact that much of the games press took great pains to display their horror that a character like Trevor Phillips could be written into a medium they are eternally desperate to ruminate upon with would-be Zooey Deschanels at bars; a medium they misguidedly and meaninglessly champion as “inclusive,” “mature,” and “grown-up.” These are ostensibly adults, and yet they saw fit to go through the tired motions of feigning shock that a video game series named after a felony might feature a not-so-nice person as a protagonist.
Even still, for all his awfulness, Trevor Phillips remains one of the greatest video game characters to ever exist. Yes, if there’s a mission/mission segment inside GTA V that requires you to murder hundreds of innocents with a rocket launcher, chances are it’s going to be a Trevor mission. But isn’t this what the frauds claim to want? In point of fact, didn’t the frauds invent their own precious term to express their desire for this very thing? The lovable, lunatic threesome in GTA V neatly and competently solves the total non-issue the hipsters had with GTA IV’s protagonist agonizing over his war-torn past moments before emptying an uzi into Not Times Square. Verily, in GTA V, each man’s goal is reflected in his own mission arc. Michael wants to feel young again and reclaim his family’s respect. Franklin wants to elevate his game while remaining a (comparatively) moral man. Trevor wants to fuck and kill and kill and fuck, but also seeks to save a friendship and gain closure re: the death of a man he viewed as a brother. Trevor Phillips is a complex man. An awful man, to be sure, but a man with far more depth than the poorly written protagonists of this year’s sacred indie cow.
This is what a $250,000,000 video game should be.
And oh, yeah, Grand Theft Auto is a hell of a video game. It is, quite frankly, beyond incomprehensible that a piece of software this complex, this majestic, this finely tuned and honed exists in the world. The rumored development price tag for this game of games, this monument to the medium, this pinnacle of playable progress, sits north of 250 million dollars. This is what a game that costs 250 million dollars should deliver. By this, I do not mean that GTA V’s world is a simulacrum of our own. Let us not speak in terms of real-world “believability,” as when we do that, we give credence to the impotent claims of hipsters and frauds that reality and video games are somehow inexorably intertwined, that the vapid sluts and abominable bastards who inhabit Rockstar’s opus will inevitably result in school shootings and terrible violence (ironically, these are issues the hipsters dedicate little ink to, busy as they are meticulously cataloguing every instance of perceived sexism in gaming).
Instead, rest assured that all of GTA V’s systems (to say nothing of its world-class soundtrack) interlock in such a way to provide its audience members with one of the most immersive, highly playable experiences one could hope to find within a game. GTA V doesn’t approximate our world as much as it transports the player to its own, a morally corrupt universe that reflects and amplifies the ridiculousness of (American) meatspace while maintaining its own wonderfully cynical identity. Through the development of the phenomenal Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, Rockstar has honed its skills, mechanically speaking, to a point where its flagship title no longer must be thought of as “the sum of its parts” to be viable. Yes, the usual selection of side activities returns, but in GTA V, they exist to supplement strong mechanics, rather than mask janky qualities in the core game: In GTA V, the cars no longer control with IV’s sluggish (yet far too easy to destroy) vehicle physics; the shooting finally becomes something to enjoy rather than endure.
The sheer levels of technical craft and mechanical precision on display in GTA V ensure that the willing player will lose himself in its world. Untold amounts of time will be lost to long, aimless rides through dusty deserts or lush wildernesses during the in-game sunset hours (truly something to behold!); stopping only as the mood strikes to shoot up a lonely dive bar or deliver an obnoxious jogger/biker to a group of cultists for payment. When the act of malice is completed, the player may then take a selfie of his handiwork, upload it to the cloud, and resume his nighttime drive to the sounds of Britney Spears or Eddie Murphy.
In other words, this game is genius.
Indeed, everything about GTA V is set up in this fashion, with one overarching goal; a goal often lost or neglected in the current hipster invasion of games discussion. The singular mission statement of GTA V is to give the player maximum levels of deliciously guilty pleasure, hipsters (and clods and social justice warriors and tumblrites and all other assorted miserable lots) be damned to the ironic, joylessly-detached hells they came forth from. For this reason, and for all the many reasons laid out above, Grand Theft Auto V is Subtle Blend’s 2013 Game of the Year.
Game of the Year, 2013
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games/Take Two Interactive
Platform: 360, PS3