It's hard to have a thesis about "Grand Theft Auto V," because the game really has none of its own.
I waited a little longer than I usually would to review Rockstar's latest monocultural crime spree. That's partly because I wanted to include my impressions of "Grand Theft Auto Online" (see side note), and partly because I didn't want to succumb to the kind of love at first sight that, in hindsight, makes early reviews of the merely good "Grand Theft Auto IV" such embarrassing hyperbole.
But the real reason I waited until now to review "Grand Theft Auto V" is because I wanted to be sure I'd gazed long enough into the heart of what might be the most ambitious mainstream video game ever. And that's where I've stalled.
I'll get the superlatives out of the way first: "Grand Theft Auto V" is fun. It's fun as hell. It's the most fun "Grand Theft Auto" game I've ever played. It's got the best gun play, the best driving and by far the best sandbox: Los Santos, a SoCal simulacrum that will take your breath away. It will chew you up in cranberry sunsets over knotted freeways, then spit you out onto vivid, abyssal Pacific waves.
From the littlest things — like the absolutely perfect tilt of the camera when you turn a motorcycle — to the Bruckheimer-big freeway, skyscraper and airplane set pieces that tent-pole the impressive single-player campaign, "Grand Theft Auto V" is relentlessly, imaginatively fun to roam and raze.
And yet, for me, somehow it all felt sort of alienating. Nihilistic, even. Because you don't experience Los Santos as one person, but three: Franklin, Michael and Trevor. Not one is a savory character in the first place, but the game's splintered point of view makes each as flat and hard-up for pathos as the last.
Trevor is the game's id. A dirtball meth lord with obvious borderline personality disorder, he's the guy who makes you feel OK slaughtering innocent people. He's very likely Rockstar's defense against the ludonarrative dissonance that clouded "Grand Theft Auto IV's" Niko, who spoke in cut scenes like he wanted to get away from violence, but acted in the game like he couldn't get enough of it. With Trevor, there's no such disconnect. He's pure psycho.
Franklin and Michael are neither ego nor superego, though. They're just an odd couple of Hollywood stereotypes: the wide-eyed gangbanger who wants out of the ghetto and the reformed robber who traded lockup for a McMansion full of nutcases. As they partner up, pulling jobs for an ever-changing list of reasons that include debt, government blackmail and near-death exhilaration, they draw Trevor out of the Blaine County boonies and into their big-city capers.
An arresting cinema verite camera, joined seamlessly to the in-game one, captures the trio's buddy-cop squabbles. But it can't conceal the glut of cliches and bad dialogue in "Grand Theft Auto V." Almost every character shares the same half-drunk sophomore liberal arts major's lexicon. Beneath Franklin's gratuitous "homeboys" and N-words, you can even hear the same cadence and agnostic moralism as "Red Dead Redemption's" John Marston. The plot itself is no better, meandering through intergovernmental feuds and backlot muscle jobs toward a final "Grand Theft Auto IV"-esque Sophie's choice. That's what it's called when it's really, really easy and mindless to make, right?
"Grand Theft Auto IV" showed an ambition on Rockstar's part to tell affecting stories; "Red Dead" and even "Max Payne 3" fulfilled it. For "V" the studio got either cocky or careless, because storytelling feels like the last of a million puzzle pieces snapped into place to make the game. It doesn't detract from the fun, but it adds nothing to it, either. The only memorable thing about Trevor is the homicidal rage that seizes him when someone spies his Canadian accent. Any attempt at a touching moment in Michael's story is plunged so deep in cynicism and caricature that it can barely muster the emotional punch of a "Sopranos" porn parody. And Franklin is all but forgotten about for the middle third of the game.
Almost everything in "Grand Theft Auto V," from company names to a jarring torture scene, takes the form of satire that rarely moves past the stage of identifying the irony Rockstar wants to mine for laughs. Where most fiction would take that message and reverse-engineer a good gag that allows you to get the joke on your own, and maybe feel smart at the same time, Rockstar just leaves the message there, naked and obvious. And that's when the studio actually grasps the joke. Naming Facebook riff LifeInvader misses entirely the sad truth of social media: Our willingness to surrender intimate details of our lives, no invasion needed.
Much of the early criticism aimed at "Grand Theft Auto V" concerns its depiction of women. And rightly so. From neglecting to make one of its three main characters female to putatively letting you hunt hookers for sport, Rockstar has become a magnet for accusations of misogyny. But in "V," what's concerning isn't violence against women, because everyone's a victim of that. Nor their poor characterization, because everyone's a victim of that, too. The problem is agency. While the men overcome their pitiful shortcomings and do things, no woman in "Grand Theft Auto" does anything. The only one who isn't totally unpowered — Molly, a no-nonsense lieutenant to one of the game's (male) crime lords — suffers so ignominious an end as to make her more of a joke than Franklin's crack whore hanger-on or Michael's fame-hungry daughter.
Defenders of "Grand Theft Auto V's" take-no-prisoners tone will say that's the point: The game holds a dark carnival mirror up to society. That may be true, but with "South Park," The Onion and "Saturday Night Live" regularly showing us how to do so with wit, insight and even compassion, Rockstar's mirror has no worth. And considering that's all the game is trying to be narratively, it feels like a waste.
More importantly, with its game play, "Grand Theft Auto" points a mirror toward you. How do you get by in Los Santos? With only the crudest of moral systems in place, do you hold up your end of the series' most well-worn stereotype and just kill hookers for hours? Or do you play it as cleanly as you can, only attacking in self-defense? In a way it doesn't matter, because you can't complete or even accomplish anything significant in "Grand Theft Auto V" without some wanton violence. That's why Boy Scout Niko failed to resonate in "IV," and that's why the no-kill options in "V's" otherwise terrific heists are baffling. I've already killed hundreds, so what's another to me and this character with whom I have no emotional bond whatsoever?
To make crime even more tempting, even sympathetic, "V" cleverly throws a few instances of tedious day labor into the campaign. At one point you're asked to pick up cargo containers and put them down in some other arbitrary spot, all because some jerk told you to. Later, you have to mop a floor in surprisingly complicated fashion just so you can keep up a janitorial facade on a major job. It's a smart, simple way to show why we cut corners in life — and at the crowded intersection. But, again, it's not like you have a choice in "Grand Theft Auto V."
I know, I'm kind of having a "what else is there?" moment here, carrying on about a thesis and a heart in "Grand Theft Auto." It's only because "V" is such a phenomenal, landmark game — among the most fun and most liberating of this generation — that I focus more on the few things that it isn't than the many wonderful things it is. But I'll stop. Even if it is a great, glorious empty, I want to go back and never leave.