Grand Theft Auto‘s return trip to San Andreas is confused, weary. Even with a populace more lively and colorful than Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Liberty City (a grimdark trail of breadcrumbs stringing along immigrants hoping to bury their demons with the American Dream), Grand Theft Auto V has a trinity of leads with abstract motives, frustrated by the world leaving them behind. Retired bank robber Michael De Santa (formerly Townley, voiced by Ned Luke) is self-destructing a loveless marriage and contemptuous relationship with his brat children, angry that “taking the opportunities given to [him]” hasn’t led to happiness; occasional visits to a therapist are a token effort at self-improvement. Psychopathic methhead/career crook Trevor Phillips (Steven Ogg) tweaks out in trailer parks when not murdering rival drug cooks and bikers on a whim, living on the fringe of overlooked, unloved rural America where he can’t get help (nor does he want it). Starting-out gangster Franklin Clinton (Shawn Fonteno) has been left by his longtime girlfriend and seeks to avoid the same gangbanging lifestyle he’s known all his life, yet even his “legitimate” repossession job is a con. Their meeting (or, in Michael and Trevor’s case, reacquaintance) is happenstance–one which could lead to either disaster or riches, but is born purely of mutual need.
Much has been made of the game’s misogynist tendencies. Stripper minigames which double as dating minigames, hookers (here given slightly more depth when they make phone calls after performing sex acts, giving a window into their own lives), and a female gubernatorial candidate–who lists as an accomplishment her taking 80% of her ex-husband’s income in their divorce–all factor into the overworld. All are variations of elements from previous Grand Theft Auto games, which push a hyper-masculine worldview similar to most video games, only partially kept in check by the series’ satirical nature. This aspect has only become more strained in recent years, the humor leaning increasingly on tired stereotypes of American politics. Rockstar Games substitute witty dialogue with bald-faced rhetoric where politicians and media types say what they’re actually thinking while relying on depictions of corrupt, lazy unions and liberals peddle by the same politicians they mock. There’s nothing as clever here as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘ talk radio show “I Say, You Say,” (the series’ comedic highpoint) which inverted the conservative/liberal dichotomy while expressing its disconnect from actual people. 15 years and billions of dollars in success have likely made Rockstar, and writer/producer Dan Houser in particular, the comedy writing equivalent of Roger Murtaugh: they’re getting too old for this shit.
These problems are addressed somewhat in the narrative, the trio broken down into semi-tragic figures: too aware of their own hypocrisy and moral failings to not remark on their behavior, too well-programmed to change (Trevor, in one of the more controversial missions, hilariously champions the value of torture as entertainment rather than a means of information-gathering). Over the course of the sprawling plot (the kind best-suited for open-world gaming), this only lands them in deep with government spooks, a mercenary company, Triads, a drug cartel, the Ballas (San Andreas‘ antagonist gang), and a manipulative billionaire, looking for any way out of the mess they created. Furthermore, the fates of previous anti-heroes are remarked upon: Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Niko Bellic has “gone quiet,” Episodes From Liberty City biker Johnny is murdered by Trevor, and the San Andreas crew (Carl Johnson and the Grove Street Family) are long gone, their fates the stuff of rumor and urban myth while the home they fought for has been taken over by drug dealers and rival gangs. “Hope” and “change” are definitely not in the vernacular.
Such pervasive cynicism doesn’t excuse the even-more-reactionary tone Rockstar has taken, but it does ground the protagonists in a more personal context. All three cling to outmoded ideas of masculinity entwined with American exceptionalism. 80s action movies and truckers delivering goods across the country (as an idea of rugged, Horatio Alger characters) are alluded to–while messages on their Facebook-lite webpages suggest an unwillingness to engage with modern norms and memes. One pointed conversation has Michael comparing Trevor to the ever-dreaded hipsters. That the rest of the world appears nightmarish and shallow reflects their fears of growing old (Trevor and Michael) or growing up (Franklin). This leaves them turning to each other for camaraderie they can’t find elsewhere–even in sarcasm, Michael succinctly sums it up with “Trevor, my best friend, Franklin, the son I always wanted”–which borders on homoerotic reinterpretation of Catholicism’s Holy Trinity (a joke which pays off when Triads mistake Michael and Trevor for lovers and Franklin as their adopted child). It’s why Trevor never commits to killing Michael despite previous treachery, and why Michael helps Franklin on the path of criminality despite knowing the depressing endgame. They’ve only got each other to blame.