I can think of a handful of what I consider perfect movies. These aren’t literally perfect movies, of course. I don’t believe in some Platonic ideal movie made manifest. Instead, these are movies where a uniquely talented writer, director, and actors understand each other completely, and they have something relevant to say, and they somehow advance the medium or tell a story that connects with me. I’ve never really thought of videogames on the same level, which is odd, considering how I consistently try to apply the same standards to videogames that I apply to movies and other forms of entertainment. In five or ten years, with enough distance, will I consider Grand Theft Auto V one of those rare perfect games?
After the jump, I’m torn between “ask again later” and “signs point to yes”
I’ve jokingly proclaimed Saints Row IV the greatest game of all time, which is partly an expression of my enthusiasm for it and partly a reflection of its deliriously over-the-top ebullience. I would make no such statement about Grand Theft Auto V because at times, it fails at the conventional task of being a good videogame. I spent a lot of time basically spinning my wheels in Grand Theft Auto V, not advancing anything, not earning anything, not accomplishing anything, not leveling up any skill or earning any ingame money or improving the experience in any way. But that’s because the primary accomplishment in Grand Theft Auto V isn’t gameplay. It’s character. Grand Theft Auto V believes so strongly in its characters that everything else — even gameplay — is secondary.
There are four characters in Grand Theft Auto V. Three of them are you. Your mind, more precisely. Or even more precisely, your mind on Grand Theft Auto. This is a superficially Freudian diagram. Your id drives over pedestrians, your ego rationalizes that it’s the shortest way to get where you’re going and beat the game, and your super-ego makes you feel like a jerk. After all these years, Rockstar still hasn’t found a solution for how to build a game around this dynamic, so they built a game about it.
By splitting the narrative among distinct characters, each from a different background, each with a different attitude, each an aspect of open-world gaming, Rockstar makes a treasure of what used to be narrative trash. Remember all those times when Niko or CJ or Marston had to sacrifice meaningful character development for the sake of some mission where you gunned down thirty dudes because, really, what else are you going to do in an open-world game? Finally, Rockstar has a context for this dissonance. Franklin wouldn’t do what Michael does who wouldn’t do what Trevor does. Whereas previous Rockstar protagonists were yanked to and fro by erratic writing, now they’re facets of a complete narrative: an ego, super-ego, and id to the multitudes Rockstar contains, the multitudes you express, the fractured aspects of your mind let loose in an open world free of meaningful consequence. This is your mind on Grand Theft Auto. The therapist in Grand Theft Auto V is mostly a joke, but not entirely.
The ego, Michael, is the practical character with the long view that comes from having a family and a sense of his own mortality. He has compromised the blind impulses of the id, and as a result he has carved out a comfortable place in the world, if not the sense of animal satisfaction that comes from a life spent appeasing appetites. Franklin, who will ultimately decide the fate of this fractured psyche, is the middle ground between them. His future is still pending. Rockstar has made the adult center of their game a young black man aware of the limitations of being a stereotypical young black man, surrounded by layabouts, criminals, dingbats, junkies, and weirdos (the optional missions are dispensed by “strangers and freaks”). On the drive to the final mission, Franklin’s conversation with Lamar has the insight of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildstern Are Dead, but with the vivid argot of an early Hughes brothers movie or an episode of The Wire. It was one of the many times I would listen to dialogue in Grand Theft Auto V and marvel at how Rockstar has grown up and gotten self-aware, telling a story with confidence about characters who would never otherwise meet. No matter how hard Bioware might try, you could never get this sort of story in a game where you roll your own character.
The key is Trevor, the best Jack Nicholson performance not by Jack Nicholson. He is just what Rockstar needs to get away with whatever they want you to do. Trevor is unadulterated id and Rockstar plays it pitch perfect. He arrives and concludes based on his relationship to a vagina, with blood and violence throughout, grossly inappropriate and utterly unapologetic. He is rape, murder, torture, kidnapping, stalking, and not caring that you’re driving on the sidewalk. He is the necessary evil of open-world gaming where a game designer can’t possibly expect you to stop at stoplights, much less not murder people for no reason. He is where Rockstar’s newfound self-awareness digs down layers deep and hovers a few layers overhead, beyond the usual videogame tropes, looking in, examining the absurdity with a keen sense of the absurd. It’s not lampshading. It’s not the least bit glib. It’s not played for laughs or self-referential irony or even necessarily satire. It’s thoughtful, smart, occasionally profound, and often relevant.
The fourth character is a crucial element in any open-world game. Previously, Red Dead Redemption offered Rockstar’s greatest, widest, most vividly realized world. That’s no longer the case. San Andreas is an interpretation of Los Angeles and its environs, from the high desert to the meth labs in the trailer parks to the mountains of Big Bear to the dark waters off San Clemente to the nighttime glow along Hollywood Boulevard to the sun leached auto body shops and houses of South Central to the winding roads in the Santa Monica Mountains, all brilliantly exaggerated and carefully compressed according to everything Rockstar has learned since they invented this genre. This is a world full of unforgettable details, steeped in atmosphere and style, with the ebb and flow of day and night, populated variously to give neighborhoods distinct flavor. It’s as evocative an expression of America as Liberty City, but with the variety of Red Dead Redemption, pushing the power of your console as far as its likely to go. This isn’t just a grand open world game. It’s an awe-inspiring swan song for the last generation of console systems.
You can hardly fault the story in Grand Theft Auto V for suddenly coming to a convenient conclusion. Frankly — get it? — this is a game without a conclusion. The character selector is a four-piece pie where one of the pieces is your persistent online character. The other three pieces — Franklin, Michael, and Trevor — are just as persistent. More or less. Rockstar has decided that’s for you to decide. There is no grand finale, no over-the-top conclusion, no showstopping climactic set piece, no apocalypse or twilight of the gods. In fact, the final heist is the weakest. The most memorable missions are wisely peppered throughout the main storyline. So after about fifty hours or so, Grand Theft Auto V lets you neatly arrange its pieces, put to bed its worst bad guys, resolve any outstanding karmic debts, and let you go your own way with some serious spending money in your pocket. It’s Bully’s endless summer, but for adults. There are no surprises or twists or reveals. It’s a bit like the way Vince Gilligan closed out Breaking Bad, but with the option to keep going after it’s over. Open world games aren’t allowed final episodes.
In Far Cry 2, I never minded the long stretches of nothing to do but drive. As sure as any painting, negative space can be a part of a videogame. Similarly, a lot of the gameplay in Grand Theft Auto V is of questionable value in terms of actual progression. This isn’t the carefully tuned player incentive machine you get with, say, Saints Row IV or Guild Wars 2, where the time you spend is converted directly into some sort of ingame currency. It is instead a world uncoupled from the usual feedback loop. A lot of the activities in Grand Theft Auto V are simply there to do, without any incentive beyond the actual doing. A lot of the gameplay is simply the be verb. You are here, “here” and “are” being the operative words.
And perhaps better than any finely tuned gameplay, a funny thing happens in the course of all the being, whether you’re working your way along the storyline or pushing the A button for a half hour to finish the Coyote Country Triathlon or seeing what happens if you court the strippers long enough. If you like the world enough to spend time with the characters, you don’t mind doing the bits that don’t have an immediately obvious payoff, which means you come to care more for the characters, which means you have more time to appreciate the details of the world, which means you spend more time with the characters, and so on. In order for this formula to work, all three elements of world-building, character development, and gameplay have to mesh as surely as a screenwriter, a director, and actors in a perfect movie. Rockstar has come close to that sort of perfection with the Ballad of Gay Tony add-on for GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption. They actually nailed it with Bully. But it’s never been as grand and effective as it is in Grand Theft Auto V. Finally Rockstar, a multinational company with a unique voice that persists doggedly in spite of its enormous success and occasional game design shortcomings, has finally accomplished what they’ve been trying to do for so long. They’ve crafted an unforgettable American masterpiece worthy of an auteur.