By Joe Delaney
I don’t think that it’s a controversial statement to say that Grand Theft Auto is one of the biggest franchises in gaming.
It’s raked in almost $10 billion since the series launched in relative obscurity in 1997. Depending on where you look, it typically ranks in the top 15 of all time, which is impressive when you consider it doesn’t lag far behind family friendly franchises like Pac-Man and Mario, which nearly have been around almost two decades longer.
What’s truly amazing is that there hasn’t been a new Grand Theft Auto game in nearly a decade (an entire console generation) and it’s still one of the best–selling series in gaming. GTA V brought in $6 billion alone, according to Market Watch. What’s even more surprising is that the data in that article is three years old and very much outdated by now.
Rockstar might never have to release another Grand Theft Auto game again because they keep making millions from a game released in 2013.
Its success is mind boggling. Years after the game released, it was regularly among the top–selling games of any given month.
If you don’t get how impressive that is, imagine if a movie that came out in 2013 was in the top ten at the box office in 2019. It is not only the highest grossing video game ever made, but the top grossing ENTERTAINMENT product of all time. People couldn’t stop buying it. People love it…
… But I don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the game, far from it. When it came out, I played through it and enjoyed it just the same as everyone else. However, something just felt a little off about Grand Theft Auto V.
It’s been less than eight years since it came out, and I’m amazed by just how little I remember about the game compared to its predecessors. GTA V just didn’t leave the same impact on me that Vice City and San Andreas had. And yes, as the clickbait title of the article suggests, I think even the black sheep of the series, GTA IV, is a better and more memorable game than GTA V.
“These hot takes are just getting too hot,” you may be thinking to yourself as you read this. “It was one thing to think that Persona 4 is better than Persona 5, a lot of people think that. But NO ONE thinks that GTA V is inferior to “LET’S GO BOWLING” Simulator 2000.”
You’re right, I’m in the minority on this one. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m being contrarian just for the sake of it. Maybe I just really prefer to the number 4 to the number 5, and this is just a new series of articles about that. Stay tuned for “Why Oblivion is better than Skyrim.” (Calm down, I’m kidding… or am I?)
But all joking aside, I do genuinely believe in what I’m saying here, even though it is far from the popular opinion. So, before I get into why GTA V is trash (and why you’re trash for liking it), let’s get my least favorite part of these articles out of the way: saying nice things about the game.
GTA V is better than IV in two ways and two ways only: the gameplay and graphics. I know, two very unimportant aspects of game design, but I need to give credit where it’s due. Everyone remembers IV’s vehicle controls, where driving a car felt more like controlling a fan boat on a skating rink. Rockstar knew that people hated IV’s controls, and so in V, the gameplay is much more fluid and fun.
It should also be no surprise that a newer game looks better than an old one, but the glow up between these two is ridiculous. IV came out in the late 2000’s, so it has the color palette of a muddy puddle in a gas station parking lot. All entertainment that decade had to be drab and gray, it was the law. But by the time V came out, color was allowed back into video games. Rockstar knew that people hated IV’s graphics, and so in V, the visuals are much more vibrant and beautiful.
As you can probably tell, V felt very much like a reaction to the negative criticisms that IV received. Although IV was critically acclaimed and sold very well, many fans still didn’t like the more dark and realistic direction the series was apparently heading.
It was kind of like the inverse of the response to The Wind Waker. People didn’t like the colorful and cartoonish Wind Waker, so Nintendo reacted by making the gray and grimdark Twilight Princess. And when people didn’t like the gray and grimdark GTA IV, Rockstar reacted by making the colorful and cartoonish GTA V.
Now I don’t usually like dark and gritty, which is why I vastly prefer Wind Waker to Twilight Princess. By that logic, you would think I would also like GTA V more than IV. But whereas Twilight Princess feels dark and gritty just because that was the style at the time, GTA IV earns its darkness and grit by succeeding where GTA V fails: story, characters, and tone.
GTA IV is telling a mature, depressing story, so it makes sense that the atmosphere matches that. They could’ve maybe put in a few more colors to make it look a bit less boring, but at least it’s trying to go for a specific tone, which can’t be said of GTA V, a game that’s trying so hard not to be IV, that it forgot to establish an identity for itself.
Let’s start by looking at the games’ soundtracks, and how each game has used music to enhance the tone it’s going for. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and San Andreas are both set in specific places and times, so establishing a distinct atmosphere wasn’t difficult, but they still went above and beyond what they needed to do. Vice City is mid 80’s Miami, and San Andreas is early 90’s California, so their song choices obviously reflect that. To this day, I can’t hear “Dance Hall Days” by Wang Chung without thinking of blocky PS2 characters awkwardly dancing under pink neon lights.
Unlike those games though, GTA IV and V are not period pieces, so their soundtracks couldn’t just rely on nostalgia to set the tone. What IV does instead is use the soundtrack to reflect the tone of the game’s story, while V just tries to compile a list of good songs with no cohesive vibe or theme.
“Cruisin” by Smokey Robinson, “A.D.H.D” by Kendrick Lamar, “Fortunate Son” by CCR, all great songs. But until replaying V for this article, I didn’t remember that any of them were in the game. This might just be a personal thing, but I do not associate any songs from GTA V’s soundtrack with my feelings for the game.
When I hear “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson, I think of Vice City, and when I hear “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour, I think of San Andreas. The same thing happens when I hear many songs from IV, because the track listing seems to have been crafted with the game’s story and themes in mind.
“1979” by Smashing Pumpkins is a bittersweet song about longing for another place and time and about loss of innocence, which perfectly captures the themes of the game. “The Seeker” by The Who is about a man who is desperate to get what he wants and needs, but sadly will never find it, which reflects the journey of the main character Niko.
The soundtrack even features many Eastern European songs because the main character is an Eastern European immigrant. (Side note: many of GTA IV’s songs have been removed due to licensing issues, so I’m basing this off the soundtrack from when the game released. Seriously, if you ever replay the game, don’t let it update and remove these songs, I believe they’re crucial to the game’s atmosphere.)
Whether or not those song choices were intentional, I do not know. But they are forever linked to the game in my mind because the game’s story and characters left an impact on me, and I cannot say the same for GTA V.
Plot and characters
Before replaying it, I could not remember a single thing about GTA V’s plot, and after playing it again, I still can barely recall what it was all about. Even before replaying IV though, I could still remember most of the story, and that’s because IV has good characters and something to say. V has neither of those things.
You may not agree with the theme of GTA IV, but to sum it up, this is a story about how the American Dream is bullshit. Niko comes to America trying to escape his past, while also chasing it. He wants to start a new life, but he’s also trying to hunt down the man who ruined his old one. While he is far from perfect, he’s easy to root for and relate to because there is so much complexity and humanity at the heart of his character. There is more depth to Niko than there is to all three of V’s main characters combined.
We’ll start with Franklin, the least unlikable of V’s characters, but also the most boring. His motivation is… he wants to make money. His personality is… ambitious? I don’t know, man. Honestly, he’s only a step above Grand Theft Auto III’s silent protagonist Claude in terms of identifiable character traits. Oh! And he has a yee yee ass haircut. I know that one from memes.
Next up is Michael, who is less boring, but way more unlikable. He’s your standard rich, older white guy going through a mid–life crisis. His kids are spoiled brats, and his wife cucks him with her tennis coach. Just like Post Malone, Michael is rich and sad, which makes him hard to relate to already, and he’s also just not very interesting. The only motivations he has throughout the story are trying to pay off the drug lord whose house he destroyed and becoming a Vinewood producer, and I didn’t care about seeing him succeed at all.
That leaves us with Trevor. Big T. T. Rev… I really hate Trevor.
After this game came out, all I heard people saying was how Trevor was the perfect GTA protagonist because he truly embodied the chaotic spirit of the series. Unlike previous playable characters, Trevor was such a madman, you could believe he would do all the crazy shit that GTA games were known for. I agree with this. But I also think it makes him a horrible character.
Whenever I would go on a 6-star wanted level rampage in previous games, I didn’t think that my CHARACTERS were doing these horrible things. I was. In San Andreas, it wasn’t CJ who was driving a tank down the highway, blowing away every cop car in sight. That was my crazy ass doing that for fun. Even as a teenager, I knew my characters weren’t canonically killing hundreds of people, before getting in an airplane and suicide bombing into the Hollywood Vinewood sign, only to just wind up at hospital and walk out after paying a $100 fine. Realism aside, that’s just not in CJ’s character. It’s not in Niko’s character. It is, however, in Trevor’s character, and it makes him a real piece of shit.
After the game’s prologue where we get to see a little of Trevor, we’re introduced to him properly a few hours into the game. He’s having sex with a meth head in a disgusting trailer, and we find out that the woman he’s boning is the girlfriend of Johnny, the protagonist from GTA IV’s “The Lost and Damned” expansion. Johnny wasn’t as great as Niko, but he was way more likable than Trevor. In an act of character assassination, he’s now a sad junkie, and we see Trevor brutally murder him.
From then on, he only gets more and more charming. There are the scenes where he terrorizes his cousin and his girlfriend, right before he kills them for no reason. And, of course, there’s the infamous segment where the game makes the player torture a guy as Trevor. The worst part is that afterwards, Trevor says “oh actually torture is wrong and doesn’t work.” The game wants to have its cake, and waterboard it, too.
So yeah, I don’t think Trevor is emblematic of the GTA series, but I do think it’s emblematic of GTA V: cruel, nihilistic, and shallow.
The villains in GTA V are not much better, they’re mostly just boring and forgettable. There are like four main villains, I think one of their names is Steve, and obviously none of them hold a candle to the villains of IV. Dimitri is IV’s one true antagonist, and he has plenty of time to truly earn the player’s hate. Then there’s Darko, the man who betrayed Niko in the past and led him on his path of revenge in America. Although only gets one scene, he leaves a much bigger impact than Steve or any of GTA V’s underbaked antagonists.
Regarding the side characters in V… and I’m sorry for sounding like a broken record, but they’re all either unlikable or forgettable (aside from Lamar, who should’ve been the game’s protagonist). I know people don’t like Roman because he’s annoying and always asks Niko to go bowling, but at least he has a personality. You can tell he really does care about Niko and his family, despite his many fuck ups. When he gets killed during one of the game’s endings, it’s a heartbreaking moment, and it really makes the player wonder what they could’ve done differently to change this.
There are no happy endings in GTA IV, which is thematically fitting considering the rest of the game. No matter which choices you make throughout the game, whether they’re right or wrong, either your cousin dies, or your love interest Kate dies. After their deaths, Niko tracks down their killers to the GTA equivalent of the Statue of Liberty and exacts his revenge, but it’s a hollow victory. He will find no peace from this act of vengeance. Niko came to America to escape his old life, but that old life found him again. On his quest to find the American Dream, Niko’s life became a nightmare.
GTA V has multiple endings as well, and unlike IV, one of them is “happy.” Franklin is given the choice to kill either Michael or Trevor, but if he’s feeling extra generous, you can work together with them to take down Steve and all the game’s other forgettable villains. This is framed as the “good” ending, but a true good ending would’ve resulted in both Michael and Trevor getting killed, while Franklin gets a haircut and a personality.
Since IV came out, Rockstar games have almost all had sad endings, so it’s ironic that the one that offers a happy ending for its characters also has the worst characters. While IV has a sadder ending, I feel that V’s finale is darker. GTA IV is about a decent but flawed man who cannot outrun his mistakes, no matter how hard he tries. On the other hand, V is about three despicable men who do horrible shit, and if you get the true ending, all get away with it. The bad guys win.
You know that guy who thinks that being cynical and nihilistic makes him smart, when really it just makes him an asshole? GTA V is that guy in video game form. Everyone’s known a guy like that. Maybe you are or were that guy. I was when I was younger, but when I grew up, I also grew out of that kind of thinking.
I think Rockstar wants to grow out of it, too.
The only game they’ve released since GTA V has been Red Dead Redemption II – in my opinion, their best game to date. It’s a dark and brutal game, but there isn’t an ounce of the mean–spirited cynicism that plagued GTA V. RDR II is so full of sincerity and goodness, with characters you grow to genuinely care about. Like Niko, RDR II’s protagonist Arthur isn’t a perfect man, but he was dealt a shit hand in life, and has tried to make do the best he could. The only truly evil main character is the villain, Micah, and you could argue that even he is more likable than Trevor.
Between the Red Dead games and GTA IV, it’s obvious that Rockstar wants to tell more mature stories, with deeper themes and more complex characters. People used to say that GTA IV was the black sheep of the series, but among Rockstar’s most recent output, V is the true outlier. It doesn’t feel like the game Rockstar wanted to make, but instead the game they thought everyone else wanted them to make.
When GTA VI releases in twelve years, maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Maybe they’ll double down on the irreverence, the cynicism, and the irredeemable characters. The game will make $10 billion no matter what they do. But is it too much to ask for a game that makes me care about these carjacking, hooker–banging, cop–killing characters?