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GTA : Every road lead to carjacking (but Trevor's the best)
GTA scenario is incredibly good, right? But most of the time, when it's done, the game becomes boring. Why? The GTA scripts lead us to the very fun gameplay we know, but some characters seem to work better without a narrative-oriented scenes.
January 19, 2018
16 Min Read
Grand Theft Auto is about carz, gunz, sociopathologic behaviour and satire - and of course, all this in a sandbox open world. This is an assumed way to let off steam for the player, a world for his pure selfishness. Rockstar pushes it farther with each new game, as censors harass them continually. But nowadays, any studio could copy this gameplay, which is overall very simple. What makes GTA unique is its intense storytelling.
That doesn’t sound easy, right? how to make sense with a random bloody exposing boobie festival besides proposing a very solid writing apart from the pure sandbox? Because that's basically what Rockstar do, right? The game constantly holds you by the hand during the missions, telling you what you have to do, and telling its story through a lot of (awesome) cutscenes, which is barely compatible with the open world aspect and thus the coherence between the gameplay and the scenario. I don’t spend much time on Rockstar games myself when there’s not much more story to explore, which means that the outlet effect works because the story makes my violent game meaningful. The sandbox alone, even with micro-elements of scenario such as the need to eat to heal, sleeping to save, dressing up, or characters commenting the player's actions, isn't enough to make sense as a whole.
I suggest a study of some characters of GTA IV and V to show two points:
One: very different stories can lead to those very same gunshots that we are fond of, and inspire welcomed variations in a gameplay that is pretty much always the same.
Two: there is a similar pattern for a lot of them, and some scenarios are better than the others because whereas some are pertinent practically for the missions only, others manage to cover the sandbox aspects too because they build up a logic that makes the character more coherent in the context.
I know this is a long post, so if you know those games very well, maybe you may want to jump from bold to bold to Trevor's profile.
GTA IV: Liberty city, Ballad of Gay Tony and Lost and Damned
He is a Serbian veteran dropped in Liberty City full of the American dream his fantasist cousin put in his head. Niko didn’t know electricity before he turned twelve, killed many people during war, and continued afterwards as a professional criminal. His main motivation is to protect his cousin, who fought with him during the war, but turned pacifist and stupidly optimistic to hide his own traumas. Of course, it results in gunshots and chases.
Niko Bellic reacts as a traumatized veteran and a very little educated person. He is extremely aggressive and hostile, a guy you wouldn’t be rude on. The escalation of violence is really quick when he’s around. His world isn’t like the other character’s world, so there is some logic that his reactions are completely disproportional. His profile is simple, but much efficient in GTA.
Luis Fernando Lopez
He grew up in the street, selling drugs and taking part in gang wars. He managed to get out this mess working with Tony, and they weaved a reciprocal link of father-son relationship. Luis grew out of violence but it seems that the criminal life is running after him when Tony gets serious money problems, and his former gang bros call him to drug wars. He needs a lot of easy money.
Luis happens to know how to fight because of his past too. Evolving in a very hyped environment, he gets his hands on shiny weapons. Luis is kind of cold, he just knows he has to hit harder than his enemy. He certainly would prefer not getting involved, but his loyalty forces him to act. Maybe the least sandboxable character but I must admit his steady life aesthetics makes him an original character to explore.
Is the vice-president of the Lost Motorcycle Club. He spent his time to make the gang clean, almost legal, since the president got away to rehab. Billy Grey, the president, comes back to lead the club in order to make money with illegal traffics. Moreover, Billy Grey can be suspected as racist according to different suspicious suggestions during dialogs, and ready to whitewash the gang. There, John has a problem : he is Jewish, one of his pals is black.
Again, we have a character with a violent past and skills to dismember people, forced to take guns out. Almost nothing original, except for the motorcycle aesthetics and all the tiny stories it implies, which are fun and welcomed. This civis pacem para bellum moral paradox is maybe the most interesting thing about this character. Alas, being a good guy doesn't work very well in GTA, and John pays for this weakness.
At this stage, we get it: we have different ethnic groups, violent pasts to justify their skills, irritability in different ways, and noble intentions to sound more tragic. GTA V characters have the occasion to be a bit more developed thanks to these clever "switch to character" cutscenes, that permit to include small random scenes describing their habit. And since they know each other very well, they need to be cleverly written so there is no sameness between them.
Franklin doesn’t want to get involved in fights, but he’s really good at it, and finds out he can make a lot of money with it. Franklin is a tragic character in a subtle way, because he's trapped in a poor violent world he can only extirpate thanks to a rich white man: Michael de Santa leads him to more professional criminal works. The character is a bit more subtle than the precedent ones, and the social critic is bitter. Franklin escapes from black gang violence with white society violence. Must he hate Michael, or love him ?
I like it, it suits well to Rockstar’s method for being sharp on social critics. But his personality doesn't fit to the GTA sandbox. He always try to reason other characters, and only kills because it pays well - but in the sandbox mode, it doesn't pay well, you do it because it's funny. At least, his passion for cars and luxury suits for being random on roads and pimping him, and his impressive physique gives the need to punch things.
Michael de Santa
He is a talented rogue that succeeded in life: he has money, suits, credits, a boat and a family - where everyone hate each other. The problem is that Michael is a violent criminal, and his wife fell in love with his former him. Being a potbellied pater familias makes him boil in the inside and act stupid with his family. He can’t hold back on living the criminal life again. The first occasion to say "I was forced to" is enough to make him jump right in.
That would be a real leader for the story, but that’s not that true. Again, this character is driven in the criminal life by a threatening gangster - funny detail, he fell in this situation because of a family problem. Still, Michael loves to steal, is very sarcastic and very irritable. He's just between those characters that suffer the story, and the ones that make the story. The fact that he never wants to do what the player wants to do is a bit annoying.
Trevor makes the story. While every other character would like to avoid conflict, and still get involved against their will, Trevor just overtake it. He's exactly like an NPC bad guys of any other game, except that he is one of the three playable main characters. That's exactly what we are looking for in a GTA, and I believe in fiction in general : a hero that doesn't wait for things coming to get him before acting.
Let’s talk about this gangster character that forces Michael to rob again. Trevor, who had to deliver the payment, just cut his ear off and steal his wife, just because he "kinda got a little angry" - which apparently doesn’t make any sense, and yet is very creative and efficient. The story suddenly changes from its initial line because of his bad temper.
Trevor is mad, it feels like anything can happen. He's always on the edge, his anger can lead alone to a whole storyline - and the text, the actor play, delivering the story of the mission, are delightful. He can’t stop having waves of wrath about anything, so monstrously empty on the inside that everything hurts him. He is transgressive and excessive about everything. When he tells his story about why he can drive planes, he explains that he went to the Air Force to "maybe, just maybe, drop the Bomb" - but didn’t got through the psychological exams. He just wants to nuke the world! Can you be more hyperbolic? By the way, he is the only non-porn game character, as far as I know, that have his balls modeled in 3D and shown off on screen!
He was made for this world
GTA gameplay is the only logical outcome for such a character. It even makes me think about the D00M 4 main character because he just permits us to enjoy the full potential of the gameplay without taking the risk of playing to something that doesn't make a sense: he's already crazy, and as a mad man, everything makes sense because everything is objectified to serves his psychose. The player does just the same because the NPCs are objects as much as a person is nothing much but an object to Trevor. Just add the ambitions of living the American dream, you have the perfect fit. He Trevor is the. GTA. Character. Period.
If you don’t play to GTA but are interested on character’s writing for video games, try to watch some cutscenes on Youtube about Trevor. Rockstar was really holding something pertinent, because his angry madness is so chaotic that anything conflictual can happen because of him, and he have no consideration for human being. And that’s precisely what we are looking for in a GTA game. At this stage, missions with Trevor can even look like a random sandbox journey, bullying people randomly - the difference is that there is an objective, and the other characters have a pain to get Trevor to fulfill it. With Trevor, the scenario is an open world itself!
Trevor wins because he is a plastic character
Each one of those characters are excellent, but Trevor has something that the other ones don’t have or fail to have. When each one of them is forced to act by an external force, Trevor is acting because of an internal force. Thus, Trevor is not just making sense in the missions and potential emergent micro-stories: he makes the whole game an emergent story, because everything you can do in the game makes sense to him as he lives to express himself, just like the player turned on the game to express himself.
That’s something that felt right with CJ in San Andreas too. Carl Johnson was a very colorful and cartoonesque character in a delirious world. He didn’t seem serious about anything, and that’s what made him good as a GTA character; the city was his playground. Moreover, the possibility to personalize CJ makes him a plastic character, and the player can identify with him more easily. And he is black, isn't that awesome? In how many game can you identify yourself with a black character?
The emotional motivation, which is not based on facts, is another way to make a character plastic, because he can do anything, and the reasons of his frustration is up to the player. The personalization of the character go through its interpretation by the player. "Trevor is angry as much as I am, maybe because his dad was alcoholic just like mine. He understands me. Let's burn cars together." In fact, we can reach some explanations about Trevor's twisted mind, but it comes at the very end of the storyline as a reward for finishing the game. Maybe this is a way to end up the catharsis and encourage the player to do something else with his life. But still, nothing is resolved for Trevor.
Of course, I like Trevor more because I am sensible to his misery too, but maybe I just wouldn't play to GTA if I hadn't some frustration to express by simulating violence - and he is the best at this. It's one of a fundamentals of the exegesis methods I kept from my studies: base your work on your intuitions, as an exegete as much as a creator, and try to understand why you feel like you have a good ideal. If you have to keep one thing out this article, keep this tip, it's free.
It can sounds pretentious, but this is an interesting exercise to wonder how the character writing could have been better. Maybe insisting on some traits would have made them more efficient for the player to identify with them ?
Michael could just love too much the gangsta life to retreat, working on his love for movies, and become an avatar of a true GTA fan. Maybe Franklin would be a really cold guy determined to get out of poverty no matter what, and become the avatar of an hardcore gamer obsessed by scoring. Johnny could have been a really twisted white knight that could commit crimes to wipe out drugs and racism from his club, and the player would have explored his vigilante side. Luis could have played it on over-professionalism and lead a secret hitman life, becoming the incarnation of a need of intimacy for the player. Niko is decent, but lacks of this plastic aspect we can find with Trevor: he is just less playful, which was a conscientious choice from Rockstar for GTA IV to make an intense and dark storytelling sacrificing CJ's funny aspects.
Exagerating is a key to a successful character. You need to iterate their personal traits to make them strong and clear, so the player can wait for the character’s reactions, and try to guess how he will affect the storyline. Making a gameplay before a storyline, which I believe is pertinent, is maybe harder to write a scenario, but GTA shows there is infinite possibilities!
Eventually, I will say that even if Rockstar paints worlds without hope and thus, violent, racist, sexist worlds, the exercise of making different main characters for the stories could go way farther with a tiny little push. Let’s try, for example, to imagine a main character that is a woman? Tricky huh? But it sounds obligatory now! If the next GTA doesn't have a woman main character, that mean they just don't have the balls.
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