When you think about Grand Theft Auto these days, you probably think about Grand Theft Auto V and the prevalence of the nearly standalone online counterpart, Grand Theft Auto Online. You may also think about how it made one billion dollars in three days. But while the worlds have gotten bigger and the colors more vibrant, it would seem that no one has too much to say about the obvious regression in the quality of Rockstar's storytelling.
Trevor Phillips: Highpoint Of Satire Or The End Of An Era?
Sure, #GTA's strength these days is the online addition but we know that this wasn't the case with the games that preceded the fifth installment. GTA was and is known for telling stories about morally questionable men, their territorial battles and the American Dream. In #GTAV, we have the pleasure of getting to know three protagonists: Michael, the deadbeat dad; Franklin, the token black guy; and Trevor, the supposed wild card in the bunch. But is he really all that wild? Bear with me.
What Is It That People Love About Trevor?
There seem to be many reasons why the people that enjoy Trevor's character are so into him, but there are certainly a few common points that are relevant here. Here are some of the most pertinent perspectives on the man:
- Trevor makes Grand Theft Auto fun again.
- Trevor is honest and "tells it like it is".
- Trevor is not pretending to be anything he's not.
- Trevor lets you do exactly what you want to do in games but can't.
Trevor's character engages in the usual levels of GTA debauchery (and then some) with unapologetic reckless abandon. His character is ruthless, unpredictable and blindly infatuated with his best friend, Michael. His actions tend to be fueled by emotions, as he grapples with his complex relationship with Michael and then, eventually, the wife of a major in-game villain.
Is this stuff fun? Probably. When you consider the fact that most of the things that Trevor ends up doing as part of the story are the things we like to do with the cheats turned on post-game, it can be seen as exciting. Is Trevor honest? Sure. Is he telling it like it is? Well, if he is, I'm not sure that's something to be proud of, whether you're a fan of his or not—because Trevor's truth is a problem.
Why Is This Trevor-Love Problematic?
Not for the reasons that you would expect. The brilliant thing about opinions is that everyone can have them and they don't all have to be the same. However, the consequences of the prevalence of these opinions is a bit harder to dismiss. That's because the world that exists between satire and reality is really more of a fragile bubble that needs the support of a lot of selective attention in order to continue to exist.
Common arguments against the aversion to Trevor and his actions name the fact that a lot of the things that Trevor represents are the ugliest parts of the American reality—namely the senseless torture and violence that Trevor engages in. Those who make this argument criticize the baseless moral high ground that seems to be required to take issue with Trevor's behavior. But even this awareness is not enough to set our experience playing as Trevor apart from the real ideas that make that same experience uncomfortable for even the biggest GTA fans.
Time and time again we make the mistake of thinking that the acknowledgement of a painful reality is the end of it—that we've somehow accomplished something by simply being aware of the fact that the things that Trevor represents are real. The problem is actually within this line of thought and not even the line of thought itself. After a certain point, the subtly of the allusion ends and the very real actions and thoughts are all that's left.
In light of these things, the satire of Trevor falls flat. He is not extraordinary. He does exactly what the other characters do in the game, he just has more to say about it.
If the game imitates life so well that it is indistinguishable from truth—that our excuse for the actions themselves are that they happen in real-life in the exact same way without much notice or complaint—then we become hard-pressed to defend the notion that the joke in that still exists.
High standards for a video game about stealing cars, right? Not when we consider the fact that this is what Rockstar signed up for...
The State Of Grand Theft Auto Today
We've come a long way from the cartoonish, cheeky parody of the past—Grand Theft Auto III's humorous exaggerations of the Big Apple and Vice City's 80s throwbacks are far behind us. At some point, Rockstar decided that Grand Theft Auto was a vessel for more serious satirical perspectives and, while I welcome critical sharpness in the industry, I see this as one of Grand Theft Auto's greatest shortcomings.
Whether or not Rockstar (or any artist) wants to accept this, a tremendous amount of responsibility comes into play when a creator chooses to navigate within the spaces that Rockstar has chosen to navigate in the latest Grand Theft Auto games. Its writers take some interesting moral high ground that the franchise fails to earn when its representations of PoCs and women continue to perpetuate the industry standard, or worse.
When asked about the lack of female protagonists in Grand Theft Auto V, this was and continues to be the only thing that co-founder Dan Houser has to say:
The concept of being masculine was so key to this story.
I'm taking that to mean this story, every story before it and every story thereafter at this rate. No room for women in the world that you created? Makes sense. With passive responses like this, it's hard to take Rockstar's commentary on anything very seriously. It's the pot calling the kettle black in the most mundane fashion possible. Rockstar's deafening silence on the matter is making more of a statement than any of the in-game writing could even dream of doing.
My suggestion is that Grand Theft Auto either finds a way to return to its largely more enjoyable roots or embraces its true form—a soulless sandbox violence simulator. In other words: if Trevor is the best you've got, Houser and team, then it might be time to re-evaluate.
Still have high hopes for Grand Theft Auto VI?