By Nicholas Nicou

In the long, rich tapestry of Grand Theft Auto folklore, we have seen our fair share of psychopaths and misanthropes occupying the games’ core narrative. Whether we consider the ruthless bloodlust of Tommy Vercetti or the clinical assassinations of Niko Bellic, brutality has, indeed, never been something that Rockstar has shied away from in its series.

Generally, the psychosis of Grand Theft Auto’s principal characters (and, by extension, the violent acts you as the gamer are willing to commit on their behalf) has a firm grounding in the game’s narrative, explained by the back-story of the characters themselves.

Undoubtedly, the prime example can be found in GTA IV’s Niko Bellic, who, upon arriving on the shores of Liberty City, frequently refers to the mental scarring left behind by an unspecified (and unexplained) war in his home country, a conflict in which he seemingly played an integral role.

Faced with his traumatic past, the gamer is invited to consider Bellic’s sometimes unhinged acts of brutality as the actions of a man who was formerly bred to kill, and who is, perhaps, incapable of fully leaving his brutal past behind him, explaining – though not justifying – the acts he commits.

In the case of Vice City’s psychopathic protagonist Tommy Vercetti, the (anti)hero’s actions can, quite simply, be traced back to the context he exists in; after all, Vice City is, overwhelmingly, an homage to and satire of the prototypical gangster movie Scarface.

When your inspiration is Tony Montana – a man whose desire for money, power and influence overcomes any other sentiment and drives him to mindless bloodlust – it is to be expected that your protagonist will be driven by the same paranoid, drug-fuelled megalomania as him.

Simultaneously, since the humble beginnings of the Grand Theft Auto monolith, Rockstar has always prided itself on its tongue-in-cheek approach to violence, lessening the blow of the on-screen carnage by making it so hyper-realistic that it can hardly be compared to the real world.

Indeed, though the original Grand Theft Auto was seen as crude and shocking upon its release, its low-quality graphics and top-down perspective meant the game was little more than an arcade game like any other, a quest for points in which the violent acts which the gamer committed didn’t really provoke any sort of moral dilemma due to their crude execution.

This trend was, largely, to continue into the Playstation 2 generation. GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas (which also provoked the absurdly infamous ‘Hot Coffee’ debacle) all shunned realism for a hyper-realistic inversion of the world we live in.

Combined with the biting satire which would increasingly  become a staple of the series, the violence of this imagined world was geared solely at fun, and not at realism, with arcade qualities from the very first games still very much a part of the game’s core fabric.

Seemingly knowledgeable of the immense graphical jump from the PS2 era to the high-definition era, Rockstar changed their angle for GTA IV. While the increased power of the next-gen consoles would allow for a more realistic game-world, it would simultaneously question the carefree attitude gamers had to the arcade violence which had defined the series.

Whereas before gamers could console themselves by saying they weren’t really killing people, just crude, low-res avatars, when shooting at characters who were coming to look more and more like real humans, they may indeed have begun to call the actions they were committing into question.

As such, GTA IV saw a number of sea-changes for the series. For the first time, choice was to play a large role in the game’s direction, inciting the gamer to actually think about the brutal acts they were committing and choose whether to commit certain acts peacefully or brutally.

Coupled with this, the storyline took a much darker turn: rather than the bright, neon-drenched streets of Vice City or the simplistic narratives of previous iterations (the revenge trope of GTA III; the gangster arc of San Andreas) GTA IV attacked the falseness of the ‘American Dream’ from the perspective of an (apparently) Eastern European immigrant.

As such, the game takes a much more philosophical turn: the protagonist actively questions his actions and place in society; meanwhile, the criminal lifestyle he is gripped in is caused more by circumstance than bloodlust, and he is frequently haunted by past decisions or actions.

In GTA IV, the emphasis was placed on conscience, a key change which actively prevented gamers from approaching the game from a mindless standpoint. This was a game which actively called for debate, for self-reflection and for doubt on the part of the gamer: is what I am doing actually right? Are the ideas and structures which define and shape our societies justified?

And then, in GTA V, we have Trevor. A character whose first appearance in the game sees him engaged in adulterous sex in a filthy trailer. A character whose second action in the narrative is to curb stomp a man (GTA IV: The Lost and Damned’s protagonist Jonny Klebitz, no less) to death for having the nerve to attack him for sleeping with his girlfriend.

In the long line of GTA misanthropes, Trevor truly rises above them all: psychotic, unflinchingly brutal and a man who refuses to even think about justifying the acts he commits.

Through this one character, Rockstar appears to have rolled back the key changes it implemented in GTA IV. With Trevor, both choice and conscience are stripped away, and the baseless violence which dominated the early games in the series is thrust back to the forefront of the game’s design.

However, as we usher in a new gaming generation which promises even greater realism, this about turn in narrative terms is not a cause for celebration. Indeed, while GTA IV emerged at the start of a gaming generation which was still experimenting with the vast graphical improvements new consoles would present, GTA V represents the generation’s pinnacle.

Character models are rich and varied, and the protagonists in particular possess a level of realism never before seen in video games. Aided by the photo-realistic motion-capture technology previously used in LA Noire, the characters look and sound real, or at least as realistic as a game can depict characters at this current time.

As such, the brutal acts that Trevor commits (or, rather, that you commit on his behalf) cannot be accepted with quite the same mentality as the arcade violence of the series’ past.

For this very reason, when the gamer is forced to torture a man in one scene in GTA V, it is incredibly hard to understand why they are doing so.

Although some people have justified this scene as a satirical interpretation of the brutality and absurdity of torture, any satirical aspirations are irreversibly crushed when the gamer is rewarded for torturing the on-screen victim in the cruellest manner possible (it is literally awarded with mini achievements including ‘It’s legal!’ for water-boarding.) Carolyn Petit from Gamespot puts it best in her review of the game:

Trevor states that torture doesn’t work, and the person ordering the torture is an arrogant and corrupt government official, suggesting that the scene is meant to be a critical commentary on the United States’ use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” methods. But the fact that Trevor (and you, if you want to progress through the story) tortures the man regardless, and that he does end up spilling more information as a result, sends a very different message. These moments of hypocrisy and inconsistency diminish the otherwise strong characters.

This scene is not at all tongue-in-cheek in the vein of the hyper-stylised violence of earlier games in the GTA series. Not only does it recall real images of torture which have emerged from recent conflicts, but the level of detail shown in the both the process and consequences of the torture you commit borders on the sadistic.

Of course, the content of this scene would not be so problematic if Trevor’s actions had some grounding or attained some meaning as the game’s narrative progresses. Yet such explanations never arrive. Instead, we are simply left with Trevor: a mindless psychopath who, as such, would not have to think twice about enacting such brutality.

It is also worth noting that the torture scene is not a mere anomaly in GTA V: at other points in the game Trevor will be charged with massacring a certain amount of ‘rednecks’ after a simple roadside disagreement; or wiping out an entire biker gang because one of them disrespected him; or slaughtering an entire family in order to eradicate a rival drug cartel.

Crucially, none of these actions have wide-reaching consequences for the character. He will not feel a sudden pang of remorse, nor will he reflect on the gravity of his actions and how they affect others.

If anything, he is rewarded time and time again for his brutal actions, and, simultaneously, no reason is ever truly given for why he has turned into what he is (aside from the feeling of betrayal he harbours for Michael, a man with whom he committed great acts of violence in the first place on bank heists and other robberies.)

In the past, it wasn’t necessary to justify the actions of GTA protagonists, as the tongue-in-cheek, hyper-realistic storylines and crude graphics lessened the blow of the virtual violence.

But, now, as we stand on the brink of a new gaming generation which promises even better graphics and even richer gaming experiences, Trevor’s psychopathic tendencies appear to have returned to make for a more enjoyable gaming experience with no strings attached: the thought of GTA IV abandoned in favour of self-indulgent fun; any modicum of conscience replaced with unbridled vice.

At a time when choice and consequence in gaming are progressively seen as essential factors in the creation of impactful, thought-provoking narrative experiences, GTA V reverts – more often than not – to an arcade style emphasis on fun game-play over engaging story, with a one-track narrative which compels the gamer to commit heinous acts rather than making them reflect on why they are committing them.

While GTA IV appeared to maintain the core principles of previous Grand Theft Auto titles while hauling it into the present day, GTA V could indeed be deemed a regression in narrative terms, and, in a game which is the most expensive to have ever been conceived, this is a cause for disappointment.

(Image: Pablo Vidal Gálvez [])



  1. It is refreshing to see some actual literary psychological analysis of “Grand Theft Auto” and an appreciation of the cathartic as separate from controversial notions of electronic babysitters.

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