I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto 5 for about 12 hours now. My progress is pitiful: the last time I looked at my save file, it listed a total completion of around 20.7%. But I’ve already taken so much in, seen so many things and places that I have to take a breather to figure out where it’s going before it becomes overwhelming.
Despite GTA5‘s rampant violence, misogyny and overall crudeness, its three protagonists are, for the most part, brilliantly written and fleshed out characters. They have good sides and bad sides – yes, even Trevor – with witty dialogue unique enough that they don’t sound like three versions of the same soundboard.
Yet they must be exasperated with the paper-thin tropes surrounding them. Michael, a former gangster with the weight of decades of crime on his shoulders, trudges along with a cheating shrew of a wife, a sexed-up idiot for a daughter, and an addicted gamer with a bong for a son.
The other supporting casts are even worse. Franklin lives with an aunt who constantly yells at her television. His partner in crime, Lamar, can’t stop talking about his homies or how much of an O.G. n***** he is. (I’ve heard that word more in 10 hours of GTA than in the rest of my life). Trevor has a bunch of redneck friends in the frontier of San Andreas, one of which spends most of his free time firing his sniper rifle at unsuspecting drivers.
It all becomes a bit much. Saints Row 3, GTA’s slapstick second cousin, faltered in long play sessions when it became clear that it never had an “OFF” switch for the insanity it threw at you. Once in a while I wanted a mission that didn’t involve whores wearing cowboy hats or aliens or Japanese game show pedophiles or all three at once.
GTA5 seems to have the same trouble with what it considers satire of American popular culture. The spoofs come at an incessant pace, and the writers appear to have favoured quantity over quality. Drive around Los Santos and you’ll pass by a Spitroasters, Liquor Hole, Lucky Plucker’s and Lesbianco, and billboards without a sexual innuendo are few and far between. A hippie yogi plies his trade by contorting bored housewives’ butts and faces against his crotch.
It stabs at the underbelly of pop culture but it feels too obvious, like the comic who tells an endless stream of jokes about the Kardashian family. It all becomes too easy, too TMZ, even if the obnoxious paparazzo Franklin runs into is pretty funny.
When Franklin once again finds himself towing trucks to help his coked out cousin’s girlfriend, I share his exasperation. Why is he doing this? I’m not sure why I’m going along for the ride, but at least I have a way out. I can turn the power off.
But then Franklin helps Michael tear down the deck of a house allegedly belonging to the tennis coach allegedly banging his wife. And then Trevor goes Breaking Bad on his meth lab rivals. And then Trevor walks into Michael’s house, and they meet for the first time in nine years!
And just like that, the game reaches a new level of chaos. It’s a tidal wave of low-brow humour and supposed satire, but I’m pulled back in with the moments that rise above it.