Do Grand Theft Auto Games Actually Need Strong Protagonists?

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Story and characters are usually the last thing on everyone’s mind when a new Grand Theft Auto game is announced. Usually, people want to know:  A) Where is it being set?  B) Is there any new fun stuff I can do? Yet, when the games are released, all reviewers seem to fixate on the playable characters. GTA IV was lauded as having an amazing character arc, chock-full of pathos and emotion. GTA V went so far as to include three playable characters, who all met with mixed reception. Some reviewers bent over backwards to praise their effect on the game, others heavily criticized their personalities and personal choices.

Me? I honestly don’t think I cared too much either way. Their individual quirks and MOs became window dressing as I raced around the city, turning pedestrians into literal pulpy window dressing on my car. GTA is more about the experience and the freedom of playing around with the engine – the games are giant toys. Yet, the games’ characters and the stories they weave do lend an undeniable color to the proceedings. After all the story missions have to have some “story” behind them to not feel like the random, repetitive jobs found in side missions or on GTA Online.

Even then, the majority of story missions weren’t memorable because of how they affected the plot as much as the new fun shit they introduced. So, the question is: where does character lie on the spectrum of importance? Do characters make or break an otherwise good GTA game?

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A Silent Legacy

Many sandbox style games want you to feel like you personally have a place within their world. Skyrim, Saints Row, and Dark Souls all have nearly silent protagonists that you can customize to the nth degree. Any dialogue choices are secondary to the fact that you barely hear or see any actions outside of your own personality.

GTA III mostly commuted to this approach. The game made you a errand boy, performing odd jobs for the higher ups to earn money and respect. No one missed that the protagonist – identified by most fans as “Claude” – had nothing to say during the process. You did as you were told and had fun in the meantime.

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A Break in Tradition

Vice City switched up this formula by giving your character a mouth. An entertaining one, at that. All of Tommy Vercetti’s actions spell “badass” in every sense of the word both in and out of cut scenes. A prime piece of evidence would be his charming threats to any antagonistic cops that are chasing him down, eg “I’m going to rip off your head and shit down your neck!”

Tommy enhanced the game wonderfully with his take no shit attitude and his aversion to having his balls busted. I admire his gusto and think he is one of the best video game characters of all time.

That being said, Vice City wasn’t dependent on Tommy to be good. The real star of the game, as with any GTA game, was the setting. The titular Vice City embodied a tangible vibe from a colorful era. Everything from the cars to the architecture to the radio stations made you feel like you were in the circa Scarface cocaine cowboys phase of ’80s Miami. Tommy was just a component of this feeling, about as important as Dennis Hopper’s porn director character for establishing the mood.

Fun shooting mechanics and driving physics bolstered this vibrant atmosphere. The game looked good and felt good, with a fun main character to boot.

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Turbulence

San Andreas failed to follow up on this cohesive package and suffered greatly for it. The huge map had many different feels to each city, even going so far as to don a different filter when you entered each one. Unfortunately, this strategy resulted in a rather bland overall effect. No one city had as much personality as Vice City did, evidenced by the fact that Los Santos in GTA V had a much more solidified feel to it than the one in GTA: SA.

CJ had a similar problem. I liked the casting of relatively-unknown hip hop artist Young Malay to bring a fresh take on the series, but unfortunately his writing had nothing to define him. He feels passive in the face of other, stronger, and bossier characters. Despite the fact that he still ends up with a vast criminal empire spanning three cities, almost none of it felt like his idea. The voice actor’s talent was squandered by generic reactions and one-liners.

GTA IV didn’t really do much to correct this problem. Nico had a personality that was bursting at the seams with charm and earnestness. Yet, because Liberty City was designed to feel overwhelmingly big and imposing, he was swallowed up by an overall lack of control in his environment. Like CJ, Nico is led to most of the things he chooses to do, or he is obligated to do them out of a sense of duty. Powerful story? Yes. Fun to play? Not quite so much.

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The Current Gen

Now, we have three GTA protagonists and I don’t particularly love or hate any of them.

  • Franklin plays the young underdog who works his way sort of to the top – a typical protagonist arc.
  • Trevor embodies the psychotic nature of the actions most GTA players choose to perform. Fun to watch, but not terribly investing.
  • Michael feels both over and underwritten; he has lots of personal stakes but reacts to pressure in pretty much the same way. He whines and then gets pissed.

I liked a huge chunk of the game’s dialogue, and the story missions and overall plot were serviceable, but yet again the city stole the show. Los Santos is glitzy but shallow. Lots of fun can be had, but there’s no real sense of gritty realism.

This characterization places Los Santos the closest to Vice City in that regard. Like GTA itself, the environment wants you to feel like you can enjoy yourself with little consequences. The fact that a minor bit of drama permeates it is nice, but that’s like having a good garnish in your bloody mary.

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In the end, environment rules when it comes to sandbox games. Arkham City makes you feel like Batman not because your character says or does anything particularly interesting without your input, but because you can use your gadgets to traverse a crime-ridden hell-hole. Having a good story or use of IP only makes the game more immersive, but you could have had almost as much fun playing as “Swoopy the Face-Punching Roof Guy” if the game was able to nail down a good style separate from the Batman license. It’s doubtful that Rocksteady could do the great job they did without the Batman license, but still possible.

My take-home point would be that an open world or sandbox game must always be able to showcase its engine’s possibilities in a colorful, cohesive manner and in a setting that matches its sensibilities. Characters are just a small portion of that.

All of the gorgeous art courtesy of Patrick Brown’s deviantART page.

Jarrod Lipshy is a UGA English almunus and freelance content writer. He collects old video games and loves all the new ones he just mentioned despite his nit-picking.

  • I usually hear San Andreas was the best. That’s the only one I skipped since GTA2 because at the time was just kind of GTAed out after the Xbox double release of III and Vice City. IV is definitely my favorite. The story was just excellent, Nico was a great character, and it blew my mind at the time that the game had its own internet to surf and television programming. I was playing a video game and in that game I spent hours surfing a fake internet and watching my character watch television. And I loved it.

    I adored the social interaction too. A lot of people disagree with me, but I think being able to call up a buddy to hang out or go out on dates and get special dialogue from each character was just awesome. It really invested me in the world and offered something you pretty much never see outside of some RPGs and Sims games in terms of character development. Seeing it scaled down in GTAV made it feel like a big step backward, even though Los Santos itself was amazing.