Full Disclosure: I have not finished Grand Theft Auto 4 or 5, and likely never will. (My GTA IV disk is AWOL and GTA V stopped working so I deleted it from my hard drive) While they are impressive feats of engineering, they are deeply lacking in a vital quality: respect. Respect for the player, respect for the player’s time, and respect for their own internal consistency. Foremost in my thoughts is Trevor, the third of three protagonists to be unlocked and by far the darkest.
Trevor Philips is, on the surface, a very clever character. I’ve heard from various unconfirmed sources that Rockstar intended each of the three protagonists in V to be a deconstruction or representation of a type of sandbox game player. Michael represents the intended player, who plays the game largely as intended: doing missions, robbing banks, but all in all a fairly reserved person. Franklin is the completionist, speaking over and over about how he wants “something more” than the random diversions his fellow gangbangers embroil him in, but he also has access to two of the long-term collection quests. Franklin wants everything he can get, but he doesn’t just want to start fights for no reason. That’s Trevor’s territory. Trevor represents what the average joe thinks of when he imagines someone playing GTA: objectively, he’s a psychopath, killing people who insult him, running people over in his nigh-indestructible tank of a pickup truck, going on rampages for no reason besides the fact it suited him at the time (rampages are actually one of his side-activities). There are hints that Trevor is also a jab at rival franchise Saint’s Row, as many of his traits and story beats are reminiscent of the characterization of SR’s “Boss”. Both are highly-driven, consistently-underestimated individuals whose sole motivation is the control of an entire city’s criminal underworld. Both think the most effective method of taking control of said underworld is to kill everyone who won’t submit to working for them, and both largely succeed. (Spoiler: everyone who fights Trevor or the Boss ends up dead in an excessively-painful way.) Trevor Philips Enterprises/International is similar in concept to the Third Street Saints, albeit MUCH lower-rent. Trevor is Rockstar’s take on what the Saint’s Row protagonist (boy, nameless characters are annoying to write about, huh?) would be like if they were transplanted to a reasonable facsimile of the real world. Trevor is what you’d get if someone really did only accept being in total control of a regions illicit dealings. “You go through me or you don’t go at all” writ large. That’s Trevor’s high concept, though. How he’s utilized in a plot sense, however, tends to be very scattershot.
In one mission, “Minor Turbulence”, Trevor flies a crop-duster biplane into the cargo hold of a low-flying cargo jet, kills the mercenaries inside, and hijacks the plane for his own use. (Or tries to, anyway. There’s no way to actually escape with it without being shot down. Just as well, as it’s so large even the in-game airport can’t fit it.) It’s widely considered to be one of the best standalone missions in the game, and it’s no coincidence that Trevor is the only character in GTA who can diverge from the semi realistic physics of the game to that extent; another nod to the increasingly ridiculous antics of the Saint’s Row series. Trevor is also involved in the most controversial and (in my opinion, unfun) missions in the game: “By The Book”, in which he tortures an innocent man for information so Michael can find the right man to shoot. It’s slow-paced, brutally-detailed, and says absolutely nothing about torture as an information-gathering method other than “do a quicktime event to burn this guy’s chest hairs off with a car battery!” It’s not essential to the story for any reason other than that it’s mandatory to unlock the next story mission. Neither the man Michael ends up killing nor “Mr. K” the torture victim end up being relevant to the story at all (I’m not sure, but it might not even matter WHO Michael kills.) It’s an awful mission, and reveals the truth of how this game was written. This wasn’t some Telltale Games adventure plot, carefully constructed based on interplay between character motivations and morals. This entire game was built around the writers asking themselves “what can we have the player do next?” and just putting that into the story, whether it fits or not. Whatever Trevor’s motivations, backstory, or concept were at the outset, by the middle of the game it’s clear that he’s less a character and more a clever cheat for the writers. Whenever the level of drama or shock value, they can simply copy-paste “Trevor does something ridiculous and stupid” and go from there. Need someone the player can control for a torture mini game? Trevor can do it! Need someone to make sure a plane gets crashed into the ocean for a later plot-point (I assume)? Trevor starts with a high flight skill! He’s praised by players who love his pattern of getting into trouble and solving his problems in the most outrageously-violent way possible, but what they forget is that he usually starts the trouble himself, by acting in a way no sane person would. After his tightly-plotted and paced introductory missions, (Which are still full of the “Trevor causes stupid problem, Trevor fixes problem in insane way” story pattern, by the way) Trevor quickly stops being a character and turns into a plot device.
One of the very few brilliant conceits of the story is that Michael (the story-focused player, keep in mind) is absolutely terrified of Trevor, not just because Trevor wants revenge and doesn’t know that Michael is the man he wants revenge on, but because Trevor (the screw-everything, anarchic player) doesn’t care about Michael’s intricate personal relationships, or the trouble his actions could cause. The player Trevor is meant to represent doesn’t care about the story of the game he plays, just about winning, and Trevor’s disregard for others mirrors this. It’s an incredible piece of plot development and it’s a shame the rest of the game wasn’t on the same narrative level. Now, it’s important to note that NONE OF THIS MAKES GTA V A BAD GAME. I’m not overly-fond of it, for a variety of reasons, but it did entertain me in parts, and many others have rated it quite highly. But for all the pride the writers of this game have in their (enormous) piece of literature, it is too unfocused, cynical, and mean-spirited to keep my interest for long.