By Darren Franich
October 10, 2013 at 12:00 PM EDT
  • Video Games

Grand Theft Auto V is what it looks like when a suicidal architect builds a skyscraper. The game is beautiful and it is empty. I don’t mean that as an insult. The game might actually be about emptiness; it regards the human condition with less sentimentality than Werner Herzog. I can’t help but recommend Grand Theft Auto V, because I’ve played it for at least fifty hours. It is probably the best-made Grand Theft Auto game ever, and it is also the most soulless, which probably explains why it is so much fun. If this sounds paradoxical, it’s because of two basic truths that you only really understand after you’ve finished the game’s story, which took me about three weeks of sleepless nights and lost weekends:

1. Technically, Grand Theft Auto V is utterly brilliant. The visuals are beautiful. The various forms of gameplay — driving, flying, shooting, stealing, doing yoga, mopping floors, playing dress-up-doll with your three protagonists, becoming a small business owner — are very addictive, and if you get bored of them, you can always go do something else. I never even got around to playing golf, mostly because I was worried that the golfing would be so realistic that it would be exactly as painful as actually playing golf. This morning, I stole a plane from the airport and flew it all around GTA V‘s sandbox-world and watched the sun come up. As a feat of mechanical engineering, Grand Theft Auto V is basically impeccable, a Death Star built like a Swiss Watch.

2. Narratively, Grand Theft Auto V is utterly pointless. Protagonists in Grand Theft Auto games up to this point usually followed the rags-to-riches character arc: You began as a street soldier and ended up as a street emperor. The three protagonists in Grand Theft Auto V have their own unique affectations: Michael is a retired criminal with family problems who gets back into the game, essentially a Michael Mann one-last-score heist hero; Trevor is a crazy supercriminal who shoots people, essentially the villain from a Mad Max movie; Franklin is a car thief who learns how to be a better criminal, essentially every other Grand Theft Auto hero. While you play as those three characters, they experience things that are cosmically transcendent and microcosmically mundane, and it doesn’t affect them one bit.

The Grand Theft Auto games have always delivered their drama with a parodic sneer. Characters are archetypes and stereotypes; very often, they announce themselves as stereotypes in self-conscious dialogue. But past games in the franchise also took at least some of their motivations seriously. Vice City flicked at the crosscurrents of power in ’80s underground America, with various rising immigrant groups jockeying for power. San Andreas layered its lead character with genuine psychography, giving him a family to care about and friends to get betrayed by and a backstory that felt rooted in something more than watching Scarface stoned with your buddies. Grand Theft Auto IV went even deeper in that direction, rooting its lead character in a semi-serious world and featuring two endings with semi-serious consequences.

All of that psychography usually went out the window whenever you actually played either of those games, which enable and often require you to shoot rocket launchers at police helicopters. But GTA designer Rockstar Games kept on evolving. First they made Red Dead Redemption, the best open-world game of the decade, with its weary killer protagonist and its vision of pre-civilization America as a wasteland and that ending. Then the studio made L.A. Noire, a fascinating attempt to bring emotional complexity into the videogame world. And Max Payne 3 was, in hindsight, a feat of dissonance: A crowdpleasing shoot-em-up starring a depressed alcoholic wreck.

I don’t think anybody really loved either game. L.A. Noire was painfully boring, and Max 3 couldn’t do much with James McCaffrey’s fantastic performance besides turn Max into a vengeful drunk superhero uncle. But you could feel the game’s creators reaching for something. Rockstar Games has created some of the most vivid worlds in videogames. Could they build a vivid character, too?

This might sound like the kind of woozy artsy talk that some gamers despise. But in fairness, this question is right there at the front of Grand Theft Auto V. After a tutorial prologue, the game begins right about where Max Payne 3 ends: With a retired middle-aged killer trying to find some kind of balance in his miserable life. Michael is seeing a therapist, you see. That could be a reference to The Sopranos; it feels more like a reference to a score being settled by a writer who really didn’t like his therapist. The game begins with the therapist, and allows you to return to him a few times. It feels, at first, like the GTA creators are taking an intriguingly reflexive look at themselves: Putting the protagonist of a Grand Theft Auto game on the couch and forcing him to ask serious questions about himself.

But Grand Theft Auto doesn’t have any serious questions to ask. Nor does it really have any serious answers. Every single person in the beautiful world of Grand Theft Auto is an absolute douchebag; the game’s story is a parade of loudmouth goons. All of the villains are the absolute worst human beings you can imagine, and all of the heroes are even worse. Everybody talks too much and nobody has anything to say. Imagine if the Saturday Night Live sketch “the Californians” never ended, and you have most of the spoken drama in Grand Theft Auto V.

Now, listen. I’m not really sure the story or the characters of Grand Theft Auto V should matter, because I’m not really sure story or characters matter in videogames as much as we think they do. Story can matter — I love the Mass Effect series, which is basically a hundred and fifty hours of dialogue decision trees with five hours of semi-decent gunplay. But it’s possible to consider Grand Theft Auto V a masterpiece of game design and a failure of drama. There is a whole fascinating — and still essentially unsolved — mystery about the game’s aliens which is far more interesting than anything that happens between the three main characters.

But Grand Theft Auto V badly wants the drama to matter. It wants to make a point about America and capitalism and the difficulty of balancing professional success with personal happiness and Hollywood and authenticity and “authenticity.” The problem is, the only point Grand Theft Auto has to make is a point so aggressively cynical that — when you finally reach the end of the game’s main story — it is incredibly depressing.

You could argue that it’s difficult to analyze the ending of Grand Theft Auto V because — SPOILERS FROM HERE, although seriously guys, talking about the end of Grand Theft Auto V‘s story is about as spoiler-y as talking about what brand of camera was used to film Gravity or what kind of font was used on the last page of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — there are technically three endings to Grand Theft Auto V.

It all comes down to the last mission. Playing as Franklin, you’re told by one of the game’s many douchebag villains that you have to kill one of the other main characters. You’re given a simple option: Kill Michael, Kill Trevor, or choose the “Death Wish,” which means certain death, because you’re going to go up against all the douchebag bad guys in the game at once.

I can’t imagine that anyone picks the first two options, since Michael and Trevor are both much more interesting characters than Franklin. And, if Rockstar is being honest, they clearly identify the third option as the best one. If you choose “Death Wish,” you get to play as all three characters during an elaborate guns-blazing action sequence, followed by a sequence of revenge hits on the boring bad guys. If you choose to Kill Michael or Kill Trevor, the “last level” of Grand Theft Auto V is a brief car chase. (By comparison, imagine if the “last boss” of Super Mario Brothers was a brick block that you have to jump over.)

So, by the only metric that really matters for a game — is this fun? — the third ending is great and the other two are terrible. If you’re judging the endings as stories, though, they’re all pretty underwhelming. The “Death Wish” ending is totally happy: All the bad guys get killed. The “Kill Trevor” ending is nonsense — why does Franklin suddenly decide to kill a guy who hasn’t really done anything bad to him? — but it gives Trevor a great exit. The “Kill Michael” ending is also nonsense for the same reason — whenever Michael asks Franklin why he betrayed him, Franklin/the game has no good explanation — but there is the spark of something interesting in its portrayal of the student turning on the mentor.

The funny thing is, though, all three endings basically come to the same conclusion: Nothing matters. Nothing really changes. If you kill Trevor, then Michael angrily tells his student: “Surviving is winning. Everything else is bulls—. Fairy tales spun by people afraid to look life in the eye. Whatever it takes, kid: Survive.” If you kill Michael, Franklin calls up one of his friends and describes his entire experience in the game thusly: “S— been real crazy, homey. But it’s dealt with now.”

The most telling stuff comes in the third ending — the actual ending, really. As the three men kill their last enemy, they have this conversation. I’ve included some context translation in italics:

Trevor: “We can get back to the kind of capitalism we practice.” Now that we’ve killed a guy who only appeared in the game’s cinematics, we can keep doing everything we’ve been doing.

Franklin: “S—. I don’t know how much more better that is than Devin’s kind.” We just killed a man named Devin who was a very bad person who did bad things for money, and we are also very bad people who do bad things for money. Also, I just used the phrase “how much more better.”

Michael: “Hypocrisy, Franklin. Civilization’s greatest virtue.” I am making a big point right now.

This is the endpoint of the game’s narrative: It begins in chaos and ends in chaos. I guess you could argue that this is supposed to be funny, but Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t really feel like a funny game. It feels like an angry game. It hates women and it hates men, it hates rich people doing yoga, and it hates poor people who can’t get their lives together. It hates liberals and it hates conservatives, and it doesn’t take either of them seriously. When I reviewed GTA V after playing about 1/3 of it I compared it to South Park, but the more I played, the more I realized that comparison wasn’t quite accurate. South Park is incredibly cynical also, but it takes its cynicism seriously: It attempts to find some kind of logical path towards something like Truth.

Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t even try to take that journey. This point is made directly by Michael during the ending scene. Summing up all of his experiences since we first met him, Michael concluded: “I still hate myself. But hey: At least I know the words for it.” The game even bookends Michael’s journey with a final epilogue trip to the therapist, which begins with Michael saying: “I don’t know… I just… I just want… I want something that isn’t this.”

Is it weird to read that statement and wonder if it represents some kind of greater authorial statement — by Rockstar Games, or by GTA steersmen Dan and Sam Houser, or maybe by the whole videogame industry? Grand Theft Auto has been a major defining force since 2001: Longer than the Beatles were a band, longer than The Simpsons was good, longer than anyone is allowed to be president. Visually and in the most mechanical gameplay terms, Grand Theft Auto V is better than any of Rockstar’s last three releases; hell, because it incorporates so much of those games’ innovations, it occasionally makes Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire and Max Payne 3 feel like retroactive Grand Theft Auto V mini-games. But the game feels inured to its own perfection. It may actually hate itself.

“I’m getting too old for this nonsense,” says Michael in one ending. As a videogame you play, Grand Theft Auto V is incredible. As a story you experience, Grand Theft Auto V is disappointing. As a midlife crisis, Grand Theft Auto V is mesmerizing. It’s a game about very rich men who can’t find happiness in their money but also can’t find happiness in things that aren’t money. They only really come to life, really, when they get to do the kind of things you can only do in a videogame.

In that sense, Grand Theft Auto V might also be criticizing its own players. Really, the game feels like a feast of fan service. When you die, you don’t lose your weapons. You have pretty much all the money you’d ever need after a few hours of playing. Pretty much everything can be solved with a rocket launcher. “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” the producers seems to be mumbling under their breath. At the end of the game, you actually receive a psychological profile, based on your gameplay. From what I’ve seen, almost everything in that profile is negative, albeit “funny negative” in a sneering way that you could laugh at. (Among other things, the game described me as “Terrifyingly insular,” “Tedious and predictable,” and also noted, “thinks they are a wise type who sees the bigger picture.” I chose to take the last one as a compliment, but I don’t think it was intended as such.)

What I’m getting at it is that the makers of Grand Theft Auto V seem to have the David Chase/Dan Harmon complex of viewing their own fans with extreme distaste. Bizarrely, this is probably why Grand Theft Auto V is so much better than, say, the upcoming Call of Duty: Whatever. But it’s also why the new game — which is filled with sun-dappled imagery — feels ultimately hermetically sealed and deadening. A lot of people will probably argue that the downer endings of Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto IV are more “depressing” than any of the possible closers for GTA V. But those endings were rooted in some kind of believable emotional through line — in a humanity that the game took seriously. Grand Theft Auto V thinks all humans are inhuman, and it couldn’t really care less.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Video Games: The Addiction: Tom Bissell’s landmark work of immersive videogame journalism/personal essay remains the most interesting thing anyone has ever written about Rockstar, not least because of the implication that Rockstar’s videogames are more drug than art.

Grand Theft Auto Continues to Treat Female Gamers Like Roadkill With Latest Installment: Molly Lambert on the plight of the female Grand Theft Auto fan.

Americana at Its Most Felonious: Chris Suellontrop talks to GTA writer/spokesman Dan Houser about the new game.

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