[Note: This article spoils the entirety of Grand Theft Auto V.]
Rockstar, for all of the grand and intelligent bounds they have leaped in video game storytelling, still wrestles with a problem with their narrative design; scope. Where others worry about reaching too far, Rockstar has zero fear in going beyond their grasp, fully believing in the phrase “shoot for the moon, for even if you miss, you will land among the stars.” The problem, of course, is a matter of surviving in the vacuum of space if you miss. A human needs air, and a game needs something similar. Rockstar, it seems, has a something they are fond of using: a main character grounded in very relatable circumstances. Red Dead, Max Payne, Bully, these games thrive on the strong characters at their core.
The problem arises when they fail to make the scope of the characters fit the scope of the stories they want to tell. L.A. Noire fumbles a fascinating lead in Cole Phelps by deciding to spread all of his character development in two minute bursts every 4 hours, and piling all the plot onto the last desk. San Andreas bungles a potentially interesting main character in Carl Johnson by making him handle so much extraneous bullshit on such a large scale that it gives him no time to actually develop the story of his friends he loves/hates on Grove Street.
With Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar was determined to not make this mistake. In the course of doing this, they made the the right decision for the kind of game that would attempt a satirization on this scale. Rockstar created multiple protagonists.
Multiple protagonists is a concept Rockstar has been experimenting with for a long time. Grand Theft Auto IV used it over the course of DLC, showing the separate yet thematically connected stories of Niko Bellic, Johnny Klebitz, and Luis Lopez in the differing tiers of life in Liberty City. They stand on their own as independently powerful stories, with self contained moments of pathos, drama, and development that are specific to each story, whilst also crossing over in both physical and thematic ways. And all the while remaining tethered to very relatable circumstances. Niko has a past he wants to hide, Johnny has a family to hold together, and Luis is caught between old and new friends. Though technically separate stories, they felt like part of a cohesive whole. It works like gangbusters.
This multiple perspective take on Liberty City is, clearly, the primary influence on the multiple protagonist perspective of Grand Theft Auto V, and the characters and stories they have chosen to tell are, on paper, absolutely incredible. The triumvirate of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor is, on paper, a brilliant web of thematic goldmines. Each of the three represent corners of the American world. Michael as the penthouse rich man who got there the wrong way. Franklin as the common man on the street screwed by the world he grew up in. Trevor is the one mad as hell at the whole system and thinks he is far above it. Combined, they should allow Houser and his writers to attack the entirety of modern America on a scale they’ve never been capable of. If they nail the characters, the potential is limitless.
But they don’t. On paper, they’re great. But in practice, they totally collapse. They collapse because they have no focus, and they have no focus because you are allowed to change between them at any time.
The problem with being able to swap between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor at any time is that it totally robs the story of pace. Pacing is key for maintaining any sort of solidarity with these characters and their journeys, but the randomness engendered by the switching mechanic shoves into disarray any attempt by Rockstar to enforce some sort of structure or a sense of urgency to the narrative at large. In small doses, however, the switching works. The heists make it work, the excellent torture sequence makes it work. And they work because the switching is scripted or fitting the tone of the mission. Its about editing to form a cohesive narrative, rather than chaos. It is no coincidence that most memorable moments of Grand Theft Auto V are mandatory character switches.
But outside of that, in terms of the overarching plot Grand Theft Auto V tries to weave? Switching between characters destroys the forward momentum of the other storylines, no matter the method in which you play through it. If you play it by doing one mission for each character at a time in a cycle, the constant starting and stopping of arcs may preserve a sense of involvement in the characters, but the propulsion necessary to keep tension and interest falls totally slack. Attempting to gauntlet through the storylines one at a time simply throws the other characters to the wayside, accomplishing the same thing.
In what I assume was an attempt to counter this, Rockstar constructed a narrative in which the multiple characters were together as often as possible. Instead of building up these converging stories (with the glorious exception of Trevor) they get them out of the way as soon as they can so they can pal around together on missions, and the constant switching doesn’t really abandon any other character to a dead halt in terms of their actions. It does bog down any hope of being invested in the personal character arcs of anyone. Bringing the characters together so soon, and so often, naturally distances them from the stories they are introduced with. Bringing Franklin and Michael together in the first 4 hours of the game, and throwing the triumvirate together for the entire last 15 hours of the story, utterly sabotages their personal stories. It takes all of the attention and air out of them. When that occurs, the death knell for Grand Theft Auto V is sounded; the characters fall apart.
Franklin attempting to escape the gang life holds no water because we don’t spend enough time in that environment to get a feeling for it. We see the last minutes of that life before he is whisked away to a wonderland of dreams and white collar bad behavior, and his former life is given no time to breathe.
Michael’s family running away from his return to illegality leaves no impact on you, landing with a resounding “oh well” rather than the crushing sadness Michael would be feeling. When Merryweather comes back to kill his family you feel nothing during your attempts to save them because you have spent so much time away with other characters that you cannot actually bring yourself to care.
And Trevor, because of the swiftness with which he bounds between characters after his brilliant introduction, has no center to his relationship. He moves too fast for the writing to catch up, and that undercuts any emotional impact the volleys of arguments him and Michael have over the course of their story. As a result, the emotional crescendo that is supposed to be the standoff at the grave in North Yankton amounts to nothing. It is undone immediately in favor of the action climax at the Union Depository and the subsequent action scenes in the A, B, C endings.
Perhaps that is the ultimate summation of the flaws of GTA V; in the great Rockstar games, the ending is a character beat. In Red Dead, Bully, Max Payne 3, and GTA IV the ending is a resolution for the characters, the finalization of an arc. Here, it is a chase sequence. An action beat. A thrill. In Grand Theft Auto V, the “best” ending is the one that preserves the status quo of switching between the triumvirate at will rather than the satisfies the needs of the characters and story. The others result in one or two lines of melancholy dialogue. The whole thing is structureless, weightless, and that blows any social commentary Rockstar could have wanted out of the sky. Again, its no coincidence GTA V’s most memorable moments are scripted character changes. Structure is key to a story of this scale. GTA V has so little structure it cannot support itself, and that is what ruins it.
I leave you with a question; When was the last time you really thought about the story of Grand Theft Auto V? When was the last time you reflected on it with fond memories? For Grand Theft Auto IV, the heist mission, the cynical Niko Bellic, the desperate Johnny Klebitz, the trapped Luis Lopez, and all the commentary they weaved is remembered. In the heat of Los Santos, however, you were too busy switching around, flying weightless through the air, to care about those below.