“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
As a franchise, Grand Theft Auto has always revelled in the humour of America’s violence: both the physical and the societal. The arsenal of myriad, detailed firearms and explosives that let you unleash havoc on baddies and goodies alike, blowing them to holy hell and enjoying the realistic ragdolls and soft-body destruction of vehicles. The cynical systematic oppression of government and gangs both participating in the creation of false-enemies to justify expending equal number human lives and ammunition in defense of the American dream. Grand Theft Auto V, in particular, has the most concise tone and underlying subject matter: Americans are stupid and systems easily take advantage of that stupidity.
The game is crammed with referential jokes and punchlines that parody or allude to real life. Finishing the story and completing the canonical ending for the first time (I killed Trevor the first time, dude gives me the willies) I was left with an awkward question nagging at me. GTA V is entertaining and full of send ups of vapid American culture, but is it actually saying anything about the subject of its punchlines. Is GTA V laughing at America or is it getting at something larger? Is it actually a satire?
In Oscar Wilde’s The Decaying of Lying essay, he differentiates satire, as it pertains to a text that is art, and texts that are not. On this, Wilde makes the argument that “Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.” His point is that, reliably, good art, and by definition, satire, says something about the topics it describes. Realism is solely focused on description and entirely fails to make a point, while romanticism is more concerned with lobbying a philosophical argument or outlining a belief or idea. Romanticism persists. Makes us think. Invites us to change. Then to understand if GTA V is satirising something or just mean-spirited jokes about modern America, it’s necessary to discern if the story makes an argument or has an underlying philosophical belief.
I’ve been grappling with this concept for a few weeks now, even as I’ve started replaying Red Dead Redemption 2, the contrast and focus are drawn into view. Both games centre a similar protagonist: the Eastwood-esque over-the-hill gunslinger who no longer belongs in the new world. In RDR 2, this is Arthur, a slow but earnest cowboy feeling society closing in as he drifts from his gang and his surrogate father.
In GTA V, this is Michael, a washed up, sold-out bank robber with a terrible family and a nihilistic outlook.
While both games share an aesthetically similar protagonist, GTA V’s main character is not Michael. GTA V’s plot is driven by Franklin, a young gang-banger in Los Santos trying to pull himself out of the endless trap of gang violence and drug running. Franklin is intelligent, quick-thinking and respectful. He’s one of the few characters who appears actively aware of the bizarre reality surrounding him, and vocally critiques the terrible decision making and motives of the other character.
Franklin’s character arc sketches out a little like this: during a repossession gone wrong, Franklin meets Michael, a dangerous, bank robber who’s retired under witness protection with the FIB. Michael’s mid-life crisis sees him destroy a multi-million dollar property, indebting him to a local real-estate gangster, forcing him to get back into the bank business. Michael takes Franklin along. This decision attracts the attention of Michael’s FIB handlers, and Franklin quickly pieces together that something sketchy is going on. Before long, Franklin and Michael are conducting jobs for the FIB as Michael’s old associate, the psychotic Trevor Phillips, returns to town. What follows is a serious of deeper and deeper rabbit holes as our anti-heroes try and make a buck while attempting to extricate themselves from under the FIB’s thumb.
Centrally, the story explores the way past mistakes eventually consume the future. For Michael, it’s Brad’s death and Trevor as the ghost of murders-past. When Trevor comes back to town, everything grows more complex. The entropy that Trevor introduces shakes out all of the skeletons from Michael’s closest and exposes not just his past deeds, but his true self. The hyper-violent, hyper-competent cowboy is Michael. The retiree listening to Phil Collins and smoking cigars is a facade, a creation to keep the violent monster at bay. So that Michael’s return to violence pushes his family away almost says something about people. It’s not until the truth about Brad and North Yankton comes out that Michael’s family return to him. Michael, and by extension his loved ones, accepting his true nature as an agent of change through violence allows him to become fully realised. Michael’s journey is about confronting your past, and its consequences, allowing one to accept and come to terms with their true nature.
For Franklin, his story is about growing out of the hood despite Lamar, his brother not by choice: the past he can’t escape is a person and identity. Franklin strives to learn from Michael’s techniques, angling to move himself up in the world, but struggles to balance this ambition as his old running buddy, Lamar, drags him back into gang-banging over and over again.
From the very first scene with Lamar and Franklin, Franklin is skeptical of Lamar. Vocally, constantly calling out Lamar’s terrible decision making and fantastic view of the world. The story comes full circle when Franklin, Michael and Trevor help Lamar out of a jam, and Lamar returns the favour. The only person who really learns anything is Lamar. Franklin becomes a better thief, yes. But he’s wary enough to know that Lamar and the gang-bangers are toxic, actively avoids them, and in the end fails to really learn his lesson. Franklin is… well, he doesn’t learn anything, not really.
The complication here is that the story can’t decide if Franklin is in denial of his identity as a gangbanger or if he’s trying to bury his past. The majority of his dialogue with Lamar is about denigrating Lamar’s terrible decision making or identifying Stretch for the dishonest two-timer he is. That Franklin rejects the old-school gangbanger Stretch, and his childhood friend Lamar, the story suggests that Franklin is right to be disloyal. Because at every turn Lamar is wrong. Every decision he makes backfires. Every deal he sets up goes south. You can imagine an alternate script where Franklin turning his back on Lamar has consequences: Franklin would achieve what he wants, but at a great cost. This does not happen. There is very little cost to Franklin ditching Lamar and the hood, except perhaps that he is rich and alone in a big house.
The game tries to make this a thing: that Franklin got what he wanted but now he’s alone! Except he isn’t. He’s forged a series of new, complex friendships in Michael, Trevor, Lester. Hell, even Michael’s son. And this is the problem with Franklin’s place as protagonist. He never pays a damaging price for achieving what he wants because the thing he’s giving up, Lamar and his homies, is a justified, correct decision in the context of the narrative.
The Lamar subplot directly contradicts the themes of the story then: Michael confronts his ugly past and must work through it. Franklin confronts his past and discovers he was right to move to begin with. Right at the very end of the story, if you pick the canonical ending, the narrative blue skies the dumbest resolution between Franklin and Lamar that is either definitive proof GTA V was written by twenty people or evidence that games can’t have good stories actually.
Lamar just straight up forgives Franklin for ditching him. And acknowledges that Franklin was right the whole time. The two make good and are buddies again. This is a generally authentic moment without a shred of irony. This says nothing except if your friends are toxic, ditch them and if they work out they’re the problem, let them back in. Fine. But to Wilde’s point, this is by definition realism. This arc and resolution mean exactly what they say, there’s no deeper romanticism here.
So then, maybe the story’s coda will bring us there. Our trio have a shoot out with tons of militia, and go on an assassination spree, hunting down and murdering all of the folks who crossed them during the story. It’s grimly satisfying, but what does it say about Franklin? About his growth? About Michael’s arc, or the past coming back to haunt you?
Well, not a heck of a lot. Is it funny that a complicated story of espionage and ingrained trauma ends with the three heroes just doing an assassination on the people who are the problem? I guess so. Is it ironic that Davies, the cowardly civil servant that’s let all of these problems happen, somehow gets to live while everyone else is murdered? Kind of. But these jokes have nothing to do with the themes of the story. Stretch’s death has no material or thematic relationship to accepting one’s true nature. Because no one except Trevor is a killer for fun, at least not canonically despite the player’s actions in-engine.
And this is why GTA V’s story is fondly remembered but never thought of. The narrative fails to ever say anything with its jokes. It never becomes satire because it doesn’t have any argument or deeper ideas to illustrate. To paraphrase Wilde himself: reality is invariably used as part of art’s material, but when a story surrenders itself to the raw material of reality, it surrenders everything. Meaning can only be drawn from describing what happened because the narrative failed to generate any persevering thoughts worth revisiting.