Why GTA V’s Three Man Narrative Works
by Nathan MisaFeatured1 Comments15 Votes6284 Views26/09/2013Back to Articles
Like 90% of the gaming population, Grand Theft Auto V has ravaged my free time for the last week. The scale and scope of its open-world, the quality of its story and the general fun to be had in wreaking havoc is unrivaled in any other recent open-world title I can think of.
While everyone’s probably also sick of reading about it, there’s one particular facet of the game that deserves a little more spotlight, and that is its use of multiple protagonists.
If there’s one game that proves multiple playable characters can be an industry standard going forward, it’s GTA V. The sheer size of 2013 Los Santos and its countryside is a massive setting to tackle with just one self-contained narrative, but Rockstar has delivered on their promise in driving an ambitious story and world forward with three unique, interconnected perspectives, not just as an artificial game mechanic.
Multiple POVs have always been my favorite narrative mode. I’ve always found the best stories are the ones where writers can flesh out their settings and characters with more than just one limited narration, and toy with the audience’s perception of who the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ are and who exactly is a reliable narrator.
Multiple character perspectives isn’t exactly a new concept to the video game medium, of course — Heavy Rain, Hotline Miami, The Walking Dead: 400 Days, Tales of Xillia and even the DLC for GTA IV are all recent examples that come to mind that have pushed the idea in exciting ways.
Heavy Rain was all the more memorable for its four protagonists and their unique, but intertwining stories that gave us a closer connection and understanding of each ‘hero’ and their journey. Hotline Miami, a similarly ultra-violent, over-the-top game to GTA, let us murder waves of gangsters as Jacket, yet concluded the narrative through the eyes of a character he had killed, and realise just how important the context and details was, which Jacket completely missed.
But these were more linear journeys with tighter, more rigid game design. The default paradigm for the non-linear, open-world genre has generally been one character, their story. Sandbox games with infinite possibilities is another story.
Rockstar have actually already experimented with different perspectives prior to the ambitious GTA V — L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption’s final hours showed the value of having another set of unbiased eyes on Cole Phelps and John Marston and realise that, y’know, maybe they were actually real assholes — and GTA IV’s two DLC add-ons showed how awesome it was to experience the same main story from two wildly different perspectives. However, they had never created three characters readily available to the player to switch between at will within the same vast fictional world until now.
Rockstar have delivered on their promise in driving an ambitious story and world forward with three unique, interconnected pespectives, not just as an artificial game mechanic.
Admittedly, a lot of people probably only play GTA v and other Rockstar games for the driving and murdering simulation, and that’s cool. But Rockstar’s evident 50/50 split between serious crime dramas and satirical parodies in every one of their games does draw in gamers, like me, who want to play the story for the story and immerse ourselves fully into their impressively detailed worlds.
GTA V goes two steps further than past entries and grants us the opportunity to really examine the story and who we’re playing as from two additional perspectives seamlessly available to switch to, something past entries lacked, and fix the issue of inconsistent characterisation.
In GTA IV, Rockstar crafted a much more gritty crime drama about the dark underworld of Liberty City than previous games, which featured fairly over-the-top storylines and cartoon-like violence. Niko was meant to be a more relatable, sympathetic protagonist than his predecessors, and while the overall story was still good, his characterisation was doomed from the start to clash with the franchise’s established manic, violent gameplay.
Niko was imposed upon us as the hero; the good guy; the down-on-his luck immigrant who wanted to help his friends. But the franchise is all about killing and chaos, so he also, when convenient, became the bad guy; the sometimes psychotic murderer with no remorse, and then the slightly contemplative and reluctant killer.
Niko had no consistent, defining characteristic that we could connect with and as a playable character, he failed in a narrative sense because we could never delve into his mindset and understand how exactly he justified not wanting to kill one person and murdering a room full of gangsters the next moment.
Ultimately, Niko had to be so unpredictable as to fit Rockstar’s varying gameplay and mission design (what’s GTA without murdering and stealing?). The two DLC add-ons which introduced Johnny Klebitz and Luis Lopez tried to fix these things, but it still made GTA IV, in my eyes, the weakest story-telling in the franchise. It also ruined the enjoyment of missions because Niko just didn’t seem like the type of guy that should or would pull such antics off. I didn’t want to experience this story as him, but alas: I was stuck with him.
GTA V side-steps this problem by having three unique playable perspectives that essentially represent the different facets of the ever-evolving GTA series. Trevor is the psychotic, neurotic protagonist that kick-started the franchise (Claude, Tommy), and whenever the story needs to veer back into mindless killing, the series’ roots, he’s the player’s go-to-guy. Michael is the ‘anti-hero’, the complex criminal with layers of depth and more ambiguous motivations that Rockstar needs to craft a better story beyond ‘kill everything, get money’. Franklin is the poor, dumb but relatable criminal who just wants money and a better life, not necessarily blood; a hybrid of CJ and Niko that doesn’t have to change in personality when the missions demand it.
One great thing about this is that fans who may not connect with one particular main character but will find common ground with another. Sure, we have to play as all three, but I hated Trevor and made sure I only played as him when I needed to and got more out of Michael’s more interesting family drama and Franklin’s struggle from gangbanger to expert thief.
Gameplay-wise, it also just flows better. Trevor’s an ex air-force pilot, so now the crazy antics of hijacking planes is not only re-introduced into the series, but it has a logical narrative placement as well. Michael’s the best shooter of the trio, and Franklin’s your getaway driver. Swapping between them in missions adds that extra sense of danger and strategy — what big heists should be like — and when you count in the hired goons, GTA V shows none of our ‘heroes’ are super-soldiers who can achieve such spectacular crimes on their own and makes each of them and their roles unique, and the heists all the more epic.
Rockstar have grown up since the early days of GTA. They’ve continued to write more involved, serious stories while retaining their trademark satire, toilet humour and murderous gameplay. The only way they were going to keep both was to have three playable protagonists that represent each part, and for the most part, they nailed it.
With the core trifecta in GTA V, we not only get to experience the different facets of Rockstar’s game design (murdering, stealing, driving, chilling) with the right characters, but we also get multiple perspectives, more time with supporting characters who shape each character’s lives, and more awesome ways to tackle every mission differently.
The trademark ridiculous, murderous scenarios are inevitably present for every gamer who just wants chaos, and sure, I love mindless killing as much as the next guy, but I do like the darker, serious stuff a lot more. This time around Rockstar made sure they maintained a balance between their multiple narrative themes, gave context and ensured it made sense with who you played as.
In the end, these characters are still ultimately products of Rockstar’s mind and predetermined storyboards: Trevor will forever be a psycho, Michael forever a failure and Franklin just another product of the streets, and GTA will always be about rampaging the streets as a criminal: but at least in my file, I can play them as I want and stick them to their established backstories and personalities without worrying about the game changing them when it’s convenient for missions.
Take-Two themselves are already confident that multiple main characters will be an industry standard moving forward, and while I think it’s the strongest feature of GTA V, it’s also got its problems to be ironed out. Splitting the story in thirds gives less time and weight to each of their paths, and I did feel that Michael got a lot more spotlight than the other two, so going into the next-gen when such ambitions are more possible, balance will be the key.
For the most part, though, I do think that Rockstar have established a pretty good benchmark for future open-world games to seriously consider multiple main characters. Now all that’s left is for RPGs to follow suit. Imagine Mass Effect’s wider universe explorable through multiple, customisable characters, or an actually good A Song of Ice and Fire RPG with the same narrative depth and multiple viewpoints as the books.