When I started playing Grand Theft Auto V, I thought this was where the review would go. But somewhere on the way to Monday morning, it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. Not because I couldn’t get to the end of the story. I probably could. But because I didn’t want to get to the end of the story. I like this game too much to not let it take as long as it wants to take. In fact, I’m not even sure a review will appear this week. I’m pretty far along, but in the tension between wanting to find out what happens next and wanting to luxuriate in Rockstar’s richly realized San Andreas, the luxuriating tends to win out. If there’s one thing Rockstar’s games deserve, whether I like them or not, it’s seeing them through to the end at their own pace.
After the jump, not a review
As befits the greatest game of all time, Saints Row IV is mainly verbs. Big, amazing, crazy, glorious, unforgettable verbs, strung together according to a calculating gameplay grammar. But for all their design insight, Volition has never rivaled Rockstar’s penchant for places. Settings. Cities. Valleys. Vistas. Roads to places you want to go. The people who live there. The sounds, the sights, the light through the clouds, the meticulous detail, even the empty spaces. Rockstar does virtual places where sometimes the verb is just to be, even if there isn’t always a compelling gameplay reason to be there.
That’s what I keep thinking as I’m playing Grand Theft Auto V and not getting to the end of the story. I suspect there are a lot of “systems” in here that don’t actually do anything. For Rockstar, sometimes the systems, the gameplay, take a backseat to the place. And when you design a world this well, just being in it can sometimes cover for the gaps between gameplay. If you played Red Dead Redemption — something I’ve done for literally years — you know this. Rockstar makes places I just like being. They’re evocative enough and inhabited by characters I care enough about that I don’t necessarily need to earn experience points when I buy clothes, or when I drive on the wrong side of the street, or when I chain together consecutive punches.
But I don’t just mean graphics. The amazing last-gen tech that presents San Andreas on my Xbox 360 is only part of the story. The greater part of the story — greater on a couple of levels — is the characters. Previously, characters have been a bold and uneven element in Rockstar’s games. Nikko Bellic, John Marston, Kelso and Phelps, Jimmy Hopkins, and CJ have all been cruelly buffeted by the demands of gameplay, alternately helping strangers or mowing them down, saddled with inconsistent or absent motivations, doing things just because they have to be done to get the next bit, not necessarily because it makes any sense. It’s as if Rockstar’s writers and game designers are in separate wings of the building without each other’s phone numbers.
Grand Theft Auto V takes a new approach to uneven characterization by telling a story about three very different playable characters. Rather than have James Marston agree to gather flowers for an old lady one moment, and then help the Mexican army torch a town the next, Grand Theft Auto V has different characters for different narrative demands. The three characters form a sort of ego, super-ego, and id structure. That’s not apparent early on, when the story might seem like a trite May/December, ebony/ivory, Watts/Brentwood situation. Interesting, but perhaps a little forced, and at least the characters of Michael and Franklin are vividly drawn, written, and acted. But then the id arrives, mid-coitus, balls deep in a crack whore, withdrawing to descend on Los Santos in a cloud of dust, thunder, and trailer park debris. It’s the most startling narrative shift since the end of Red Dead Redemption and as near as I can tell, it’s Grand Theft Auto V just getting underway. So this is what Rockstar has up their sleeve. Not just three characters like a party in Mass Effect. Three characters with three stories, each playable, mostly at your own pace, each from a different world, each thrillingly different from the others.
I keep thinking of a small part from the movie Heat. Videogames love Heat’s downtown Los Angeles shootout. But the part I keep thinking of while playing Grand Theft Auto V isn’t the shootout. It’s the part with a young pre-Presidential Dennis Haysbert. He’s a kid in Heat, really. His character is just out of prison, and he’s trying to make an honest living washing dishes. We’ve met him in an earlier scene with his wife, and we discover he knows one of the main characters. They press him into service to be the getaway driver for the heist that will lead to the famous shootout. At which point he’s quickly shot in the head. This character from a whole other part of the city, from a whole other life style, from a whole other set of concerns, shows up and almost immediately goes away. Grand Theft Auto V reminds me of that intersection of worlds, but without the tragic ending. Yet. Who knows where this is going?
My initial concern was that Rockstar would somehow betray these three characters the way they did Nikko Bellic by dropping him into a fifth-rate goombah finale at the end of GTA4, or the way they did Phelps and Kelso by dragging them through a world with so little gameplay, or the way they did James Marston throughout Red Dead Redemption, or the way they did poor Max Payne. But that concern fades the more I play, because there’s something new in Grand Theft Auto V, something that’s been missing for a long time: a sense of self-awareness bordering on wisdom. It’s sly, sometimes subtle, sometimes nearly lampshading, but it’s more nuanced, mature, and grown-up than anything I’ve seen from Rockstar since, ironically, Bully. I’m eager to see where it goes.
So this isn’t a review. But at this point I know enough to tell you — enthusiastically and without reservation — this is a game that deserves its inevitable commercial success, the adoring reviews that have probably just now been posted, and however many hours you can spare it.