Grand Theft Auto V, the fifteenth Grand Theft Auto game (video games and naming, go figure) is finally upon us. After a solid two weeks to digest the game, clearing the story mode and playing quite a lot of the side content. the Scanline Crew is ready to render a verdict.
I was not soft-spoken in my skepticism that GTA V would live up to expectation. A little time spent with GTA IV recently had me questioning if the series could maintain relevance- IV’s janky controls and heavy-handed satire got a pass five years ago, but wouldn’t fly today. We’re through making excuses for the weaknesses of open world gameplay. I’m glad to be able to say that my fears were misplaced… mostly.
GTA V isn’t a revolution for the series. If you’ve played one before (or, because the media of the world are obsessed with it, probably even if you haven’t) you know exactly what to expect- open world crime simulation with an emphasis on gunplay and vehicles. That said, V does a lot to stand out in the series; being the first of the 3D GTAs to include multiple protagonists, adding much larger scale heists to compliment the normal story missions and side missions, and including random mini-missions that are generated on the fly as you go about the city. Though the map is a number of times bigger than any Rockstar game before it, you’re never short on things to do. The city of Los Santos, and its surrounding countryside, is endlessly entertaining.
The story of the three protagonists, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor, is as well written and engaging as a GTA story has ever been. Like IV, it’s a little long in the tooth- at points you find yourself wondering why the characters are still doing missions for some moron when it became clear they should just kill him a few hours ago- but the feeling only crops up during a few parts of the game, and a lot of the writing is genuinely dynamite. The arc of the story, as well as the individual scenes, are fascinating to watch play out. In addition, the game divides the missions up so that each character has a particular style- Franklin has the up-and-coming gangster material, doing drug deals and boosting cars, Michael has a lot of everyday problems (which he deals with in a pretty extreme manner), and Trevor is just a full embrace of GTA-style madness and violence. Dan Houser’s house sure can tell a good tale.
The writing isn’t without its weaknesses, though. Unlike the other two main characters, Franklin feels pretty underutilized- he has only one really important moment in his entire story, and the rest of it is just him doing jobs. Alongside Trevor and Michael, who go through some major character revelations and discoveries, his potential feels pretty squandered. The cultural satire that GTA is so fond of, too, always been pretty heavyhanded and passionless- often feeling like it’s there more because the writers want to stir up controversy or seem relevant than because they have anything good to say. That’s more the case now than ever.
Simply put, it’s bad. Obvious jokes, pedestrian wordplay, and very frequently misogynist attempts at humor saturate the game, in the airwaves or on billboards. It feels lazy, loveless, and just plain lousy. I’ll leave it to smarter folk than I to determine if the game industry has grown up, or GTA has gotten worse at satire, but the end result is the same- its attempts at social and political humor are wince-inducing, and I wish they hadn’t tried at all.
The gunplay is easy, but solid and satisfying. The mission variety is great. The world is immersive and incredible. And the tennis minigame is absolutely top notch. Once again, though, I find myself asking… could GTA get away with this again? As much as I like this game, if Rockstar releases GTA VI in five years with more pedantic humor and awful sexist undertones (at times, overtones), will the industry be okay with that? I’m really not sure. It’s time to grow up, Rockstar.
Aside from the clever, playful banter between the trio, GTA V delivers most of its humor using a giant rubber mallet with “SATIRE” scribbled on the side. Characters, corporations and billboards directly shout about the problems of their real-world counterparts, as if Facebook simply stating its own privacy-invasion techniques is the epitome of social commentary. Easy targets like Call of Duty and Scientology have already been thoroughly mined for jokes by better comedians, and by including virtually every subject and supposed point of view, the creators wish to avoid accusations of bias or unfair selection of sides.
While Rockstar conservatively refuses to take a stance on most of the issues it raises, the writers aren’t afraid to step to new lows when portraying the various women scattered about the story and streets. The women that populate San Andreas are mostly denigrated to THINGS; the strippers and prostitutes are there for the player’s arousal/abuse (there’s a minigame where you try to touch the girls during private dances), passersby are usually talking about blowjobs, and radio ads specifically refer to wives and girlfriends as if they are the man’s property.
The women who manage to avoid categorization as objects suffer a worse fate as antagonistic beings of blind anger. Franklin’s aunt, the fitness-obsessed pedestrian, and others are painted as militant feminists hell-bent on crushing all men beneath their feet. In the throes of their angry chants and aggressive actions, the narrative often insinuates their madness stems from an inability to find sexual partners, as if their refusal to stay in their place makes these women broken goods.
Perhaps the most infuriating element of Rockstar’s deeply misogynistic writing is its one sensible female character, Tanisha. Like Erica Albright from The Social Network, Tanisha knows Franklin well (being his ex-girlfriend helps) and reveals his personal failings. We see her scold Franklin for his childish nature and hesitancy to help his closest friends, and her cold honesty shapes him into a better person. Unfortunately, that’s the only side of Tanisha that we ever see; she rarely makes an appearance in the story, and when she does, despite knowing well that there are other parts to her personality, we only see the cold, nagging ex that just won’t cut Franklin a break.
I originally wanted to talk about everything that makes Grand Theft Auto V great. Each protagonist is a terrible person in their own way, but they have certain human qualities that make them relatable and sympathetic (Yes, even Trevor). The state of San Andreas is brimming with so much beauty and life that simply existing under its pixelated sun is a treat. I never had a dull moment in my first playthrough, and even when I dive back in, I still find all-new vistas and events.
As much as I love playing GTA V, it’s impossible and frankly irresponsible for me to ignore its outright disgusting portrayal of women. It’s even more troubling when such blatant sexism exists in a game so pervasive that it made over a billion dollars over three days. I don’t wish to condemn, blackball or ban GTA V; my only intent is to examine one of the most troubling aspects of the game and pine for something better.
It’s tough, because I feel like GTA V really is a great game… but I don’t wanna call it such when a lot of the writing is so deeply unpleasant. The best thing about it, perhaps, is how united the games press has been in calling it out. Perhaps that’s the newspaper to the nose Rockstar needs to be more civilized. But personally, I feel a review should have a score, and so give it one I shall. Four Stars Out of Five.
A simple letter or number grade isn’t sufficient to properly explain GTA V. It would be all too tempting to give it a high score because of its sheer craft when it comes to its living world and three protagonists, but I would feel incredibly uncomfortable giving such a hateful game any sort of positive summary. Much like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it’s an amazing achievement, but we should never forget or forgive Mickey Rooney’s racist Asian stereotype that runs throughout the movie.