In the audio commentary for the movie Bad Day at Black Rock, director John Sturges quoted Alfred Hitchcock, who had told him a rule for making movies called “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” He explains, “You want to have two things going. You reach the peak of one, you go to the other. You pick the other up just where you want it. When it loses interest, drop it. Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”
After its opening act, Grand Theft Auto V [official site] lets you switch at any moment between its three criminal characters: retired thief Michael, young hopeful Franklin, and the psychotic Trevor. You’ll perform some missions as one and, as you grow weary or their plot begins to lose interest, you can switch to either of the others. When you arrive, their story is already in motion, and you’ll find them at home, having a fight in a car park, or perhaps drunk among some farm animals. Meanwhile, back at the ranch.
The impact of this structural addition to GTA’s normal singleplayer ripples out throughout the game, and I think it’s the story’s strongest device for maintaining the integrity of its world even as its cinematic ambition continues to rub awkwardly against its pretensions towards player freedom.
I’ll spend a while trying to re-unite Michael with his layabout son Jimmy and, when I tire of the A-to-B driving sections and start to consider running over pedestrians on purpose, will flick over to Franklin. I’ll spend a while assassinating supposedly immoral business owners and profiting on the stock market and, as the trigger-happy repetition begins to feel like grind and I become tempted to use my firepower to create some havoc outside of the prescribed missions, I’ll switch over to Trevor. I’ll spend a while listening to him grumble and, as his relentless unpleasantness and psychopath-for-laughs schtick begins to make me feel sad about the game and myself, I’ll switch over instead to my GTA Online character, in which violently breaking the integrity of Los Santos is rendered as playful roughhousing by the presence of other people both as audience and co-conspirators.
Splitting Grand Theft Auto’s normal story of criminal excess across three distinct characters helps the game diminish or delay the consequences of those excesses. For example, Grand Theft Auto IV’s Niko Bellic at first felt to me like a sympathetic character; a recent immigrant to America attempting to escape his troubled past, but being inexorably drawn back towards old patterns of violence. That sympathy quickly dissipated after around five hours, when he was essentially rich, still doing jobs for people he hated, and persisting with violence long past the point where it had stopped protecting his family and friends and started hurting them.
By comparison, GTAV’s moment of lost sympathy happens later – at least in the case of Michael and Franklin – and happens for each character at a different moment. In the case of Trevor, who is unsympathetic and despicable from the start, his bond with the others makes him almost tolerable. I don’t like embodying him, but I understand why the others cannot wholly reject or escape him.
The structure of the game helps, but GTAV’s singleplayer is not simply a case of making the best of a bad situation. I’ve been surprised over the past week how much I’ve enjoyed revisiting these storylines and missions, after first playing them on XBox 360 at release. For much of the first half of the game at least, GTA is content to let you have fun. Michael restarts his life of crime because he is bored, aging, and desperate for excitement, and the missions are exciting, as you race down a highway after your stolen boat while Franklin jumps to and from the hood of your car, or as you perform your first heist by optionally gassing the staff of a jewellery store so you can make off without having killed anyone. Franklin, meanwhile, commits crimes because he needs money as a way out of his neighbourhood where other opportunities are non-existent. You share his thrill as he shifts from street thuggery and car theft towards more sophisticated crimes and a beautiful house in the Vinewood hills. All of this is depicted with levity and hint at an Ocean’s Eleven-style game that might have been, one where crimes are caper and we get to enjoy people who enjoy each other.
On page two, the messy satire of GTA, Rockstar unfortunately being Rockstar, and thoughts on Los Santos.