Grand Theft Auto V, the people and the place - Initial thoughts on the latest GTA trailers
I apologise in advance if this week's post comes over like me running into the room and yelling "ohmygodGTAVisabsolutelythebestthingintheworldaaaaargh" but seriously - SERIOUSLY - this game looks remarkable.
If you've been aboard the International Space Station and therefore missed the three new trailers, here they are in full. Now, here's why I'm so psyched.
A problem I've had with former GTA front-men is that they've never felt as if there was anything for them except for crime; after they'd killed, stolen and wrangled enough money, I didn't feel like they had anything to go back to.
Franklin however seems to have a genuine desire to stop what he's doing. The bickering he does with his friends in this most recent video, and the cameo from what looks like a disappointed girlfriend in the November trailer, show the framework for a more developed character. Michael, too, seems to be facing struggles beyond finding more ammo and faster cars. The fragments of his home life that we've been privy to so far illustrate a world beyond just capering. Trevor is the only unconvincing one of the trio. It feels like Rockstar is billing him as a plausible vector for players who just want to muck around, so his lifestyle looks suitably computer game-y.
So, they seem like rounded characters. But they also seem more grown-up. Niko Bellic's embittered war veteran/killer with a conscience story was healthy - it was more than other GTA characters had ever gotten - but it was also a little childish. It was the stuff of Call of Duty and Batman comics - Grand Theft Auto V is drawing inspiration from higher art. The Sopranos, The Corner and Heat all resonate in these latest trailers. I'm looking forward to some haughtier ideas.
Grand Theft Auto's strongest characters have always been the cities, though. From the Faux York City of GTA III, to San Andreas' approximation of the West Coast, landscape has been front and centre stage of Grand Theft Auto, informing the story all the way. GTA IV is the strongest example. A sweeping, almost-novel of a game, it follows Niko Bellic as he steadily loses interest in the American ideal.
The city he docks in is Liberty, a condensed kind of USA-in-a-can populated with a cross section of white and brown, rich and poor. What Bellic encounters is a microcosm of Western culture at large; across the game's impressively short 50 hour runtime, he brushes against every ugly - and beautiful - facet of American life, to the point where his violent response can be justified. The city in GTA, as I said, is where the story happens.
The American city
And by the looks of things, more than any other GTA to date, Grand Theft Auto V is letting the American city have its day in court. Eyebrows were raised, mine included, when Rockstar first dropped info on the game's chief gimmick: With a tap of a button, players can rotate their perspective between the three main characters, Freaky Fridaying on the fly between wealthy criminal Michael, beleaguered hood Franklin and the deranged Trevor. Originally it seemed like a death trap; it seemed like it would make the game cluttered and disorganised. GTA IV's sociopathic vision of America worked well because the game was fixed to one man's look. Allow players to keep switching personas and it feels like you could end up with a loose, disconnected bag of narratives.
That concern hasn't been quite put to bed - I still feel like GTA V runs the risk of being too big. But after those recent trailers, I'm beginning to feel like that might be the point. Michael, Franklin and Trevor each have their respective personal lives, but more than Bellic, Tommy Vercetti or the other GTA leading men, I feel like they're going to serve as cameras on the city more than reliable narrators.
We're getting a more thorough examination of a place than ever before. We have Franklin on the common rungs, watching the city kill itself from beneath; Trevor out in the sticks, hanging with the outcasts and weirdoes; and Michael in his detached house, giving us insight into the venal upper tiers of LA society. GTA V is shaping up like a David Simon book. It looks to be as much an interrogation of a place as it is of a people. With Franklin the entrenched underclass, Michael the frustrated one percent and Trevor the fringe, we have the same cross-section of Westerners as we do in GTA IV. But with that mechanic of flipping between them, we'll be able to see the lives they have first-hand. As Bellic, we were an outsider looking in; as Michael, Franklin and Trevor, we're seeing the US from the inside out, and from every angle.
That's the main thing that has me excited for GTA V, the other is bit more basic: This game looks f*****g cool. Generally I hate the word because it's non-descript. I hate when IGN gives a game a "plus point" for having "tonnes of cool features," because what does "cool" mean in a quantitative sense anyway? Nothing. But I genuinely cannot think of another word for Grand Theft Auto V right now - it just looks so cool.
The setting looks cool. The costumes look cool. The music sounds...cooler than cool.
Despite all the loftiness about location and politics, it's that coolness, I think, that will be the handle. Ars Technica has already pointed out that Franklin's third looks derived from The Wire. As much as I'd like to hold everyone in the world at knifepoint and make them watch that show, I can understand why people lose patience with it. But GTA V, with its pop music, gun violence and jet-skis, has set itself up as more digestible. In the way Ken Levine defended BioShock Infinite's box art as a way of reaching different audiences, I'm optimistic that Grand Theft Auto V will get an important point across to a big load of people. There's substance and style here by the looks of things, but without one trumping the other.
In short then, ohmygodGTAVisabsolutelythebestthingintheworldaaaaargh.
I can't wait for 17 September.