Grand Theft Auto 5: The Ferrett Review

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I thought much more kindly about Grand Theft Auto once I realized the developers of the game actively despised me.
This fact was conveyed to me by Tom Bissell’s amazing review, which may be one of the best pieces of videogame writing I’ve ever seen.  In it (among other many salient analyses of how videogame culture works), Tom states that Grand Theft Auto is, in fact, a large parody of its audience, and implies that actually, the developers don’t seem to like us all that much.  Why else would they keep giving us boring tasks like mopping floors and driving twenty minutes across town to get to a mission?
The truth dawned: Rockstar’s entire genre is actually punishing us, in a way.  They know how to make a fun game, no doubt.  But what they’re doing is saying, “Okay, fuck it, the goal of Grand Theft Auto is not to make our customers happy, it’s to see how many hoops we can make them jump through for our amusement.”  And once I began to internalize that idea, the concept that actually all of GTA 5 was basically one grudgefuck for an audience it actively loathed, Grand Theft Auto became enjoyable.
Because despite the frothing of reviewers everywhere, GTA is an ambitious game with substandard controls.  It’s full of terribly designed missions: how do you learn to fly a plane?  Not by taking the flying tutorials; no, those aren’t available until you’ve done the flying mission.  And the flying mission has a literal three-minute segment where you soar over the ocean, gracefully headed towards home, and then crash on the runway because landing is tricky and you can’t read the little pop-up hints.  And so, if you’re a bad flier like me, you wind up playing the same fucking mission for eighteen minutes, spending three minutes to get to the inevitable fuck-up at the end.
But that’s okay.  That is, like Harlan Ellison’s AM, the way the game designers are taking out their aggression on me.
Grand Theft Auto 5 never quite becomes a game as I understand it.  It is, in fact, an endless series of tutorials, many of them shoddy.  Every mission is pretty much “Follow the instructions, and if you deviate from them in the slightest your mission is over.”  Right up to the final mission, you’re chasing a dot on the screen, you’re learning how to squeeze the mop, you’re learning how to use a parachute.  You’re always following orders from a God, and that God is cruel.
Because as noted, the tutorials aren’t particularly helpful.  They’re all in small type, arriving when you’re distracted by other things – yes, let’s make you read things when you’re chasing a boat down a freeway! – and failing to comprehend them in time gives you insta-mission failure.  In fact, pretty much anything gives you insta-mission failure.  Take a wrong turn while chasing the celebrity?  Insta-mission failure.  Even though your travelling companion told you to turn right, this wasn’t the correct right, and now after following directions you will be chastised with the horrid blue “MISSION FAILURE” screen, you must do it again.
But that’s okay, because the game hates you.
The point of Grand Theft Auto is not to explore, really, it’s to see how closely you can conform to Rockstar’s demands.  You do precisely what they say, or you don’t do it at all.  And there’s a certain grim pleasure in getting through it, because the new and upgraded mission checkpoints mean that every mission is doable with enough repetition, so there’s not an actual challenge to it.  The same could be said of Saints Row, but Saints Row wants you to have fun.
Grand Theft Auto, I’m convinced, is nothing but subtle hatred.  I mean, they give you this grand and glorious landscape, meticulously detailed, and then on every mission they force you to glue your eyes to the little navigation box in the lower left-hand corner.  They’ve surely seen other games where directions are given with cartoonish arrows pointing down streets so that you don’t have to take your gaze off the road, all so that you can appreciate the alleyways and mini-malls, and won’t crash into other cars while straining to see the GPS.
But no!  Aware of all the alternatives, Rockstar said, “Ah, fuck ’em, let ’em stare at a tiny map for seven-tenths of the game.”
The thing is, you are rewarded for all of this by some fascinating characters and rampant creativity.  I like Michael, the bored and whiny ex-criminal.  I like Franklin, the ambitious hood guy.  I am compelled by Trevor, the psychotic, even as I pretty much hate him and the idea of him.  And you get some wonderful dialogue and character interaction, and each of the missions are amazingly skillful in the writing.  There are only a few core mechanics – go kill someone, go chase someone – but Rockstar is an absolute master of wrapping those repetitive goals in new ideas, so when you’re chasing someone for the fortieth time it feels fresh because you’re driving a bus on an assassination mission, or chasing a boat to get your kidnapped son, or beating some psychotic woman in a race you never wanted.
You’re doled out rewards.  The game is just enjoyable enough to make it up for its many flaws.  And, I suspect, much of the rabid fan base is Stockholm Syndrome in action; if you’ve dealt with all of this tedium, you eventually come to believe that this was a wonderful game, perfect, because you jumped through all of these hoops and you couldn’t have done that for no reason, could you?  No.  The game must be wonderful, without flaw, because you endured all of this.
But Grand Theft Auto’s ambition is endless, its execution flawed.  Even the storyline turns out to be a disappointment; as much as I rooted for Franklin and Michael in the beginning, they have no character arc.  Franklin’s lesson is that if he remains slavishly devoted to the incompetent remnants of his past, he will discover himself, and Michael’s lesson is that if he just keeps killing and making heists he will regain himself.  Literally the entire tale is “Just keep on keepin’ on,” and while there are a lot of eddies and fun sidelines, there’s no real climax except for the endings which are, by the game’s own logic, the bad ones.  The individual writing is beautiful, almost pristine, and the voice acting is hands-down the best I’ve heard in any game, but does it assemble into a coherent whole?  It does not.
And as has been noted a thousand times before, it’s a little weirdly anti-woman.  Yes, all the characters in GTA are overblown and bizarre, but some are at least sympathetic; the game tries mightily to give Trevor some understanding, implying a very bad past full of betrayals and abuse.  Yet while the game will attempt to justify a meth-making, violent psychopath’s motivations, there is not one woman in the game who makes sense at all.  They’re all shrews, intended to cut down the male characters, and they are only acceptable when they begin to bend to their wills.
Grand Theft Auto 5 is a lot better than GTA 4, and I suspect that’s all most people wanted.  But it’s also not as fun as the GTA 3 lines, because there are fewer crowds to plow through, and it just seems harder to create massive mayhem.  I wanted to blow up twenty, thirty cars, and I had to work far too hard to engineer such an environment.
Grand Theft Auto dislikes you.  It’s mocking you for playing it.  And there’s stuff worth there to play, very worthwhile, but one senses that they’re making you dig through the muck on purpose to find the jewels within.  If I had to give it a rating, it’d be a B, maybe a B+ – some much-needed fine-tuning could have made this the best game in XBox history, but really, would Rockstar have wanted to make it that easy for you?

1 Comment

  1. Mark D
    Oct 14, 2013

    Thanks for directing me to that link, that was indeed one of the best pieces of videogame writing I have ever read. I especially enjoyed his metaphore of GTA as the offensive Republican uncle that used to have his heart in the right place but now just seems mean spirited.
    I recently got Saints Row 3, the complete pacakge, and now I tend to agree with what you’re saying. GTA V is so much more polished, and in theory there is so much more to do, but everything is so tedious, while everything is just so much fun in Saints Row. I mean, even getting to the activity location is fun as you get to take a jet, jump out of it and do a little base jumping diversion.

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