I think I get what the writer is trying to do with Trevor. And to a certain extent, I think they succeeded. The writer is trying to alleviate the case of ludonarrative dissonance the series suffers from. The story tells us one thing, and the mechanics tell us the opposite. This dissonance peaked in GTA IV, and here in GTA V the designer is finally taking some steps to smooth this out.
On one hand the story is telling us that the protagonist is a generally sane and reasonable criminal and not a mass-murdering supervillain. But then all of the mechanics, the missions, and the player’s own desire to have fun work against this, turning our otherwise relatable protagonist into a madman. Even if we ignore the player’s behavior in the the open world and their crazy driving, the scripted missions themselves require the player character to kill literally hundreds of people. That would be fine, except the cutscenes then depict the character as a much more grounded person. And that would be fine if this was some absurd romp, but the cutscenes usually demand that we take this melodrama seriously.
But Shamus, you don’t have to overthink this. Just understand that the story and gameplay are separate, or that gameplay is exaggerated for the sake of fun.
Yeah, that’s what ludonarrative dissonance is. We have to mentally compartmentalize parts of the experience because they don’t quite fit together. Dissonance doesn’t mean “automatically bad”, but a work where all the elements are in harmony is often better. It’s fine if you can enjoy the gameplay and the cutscenes despite the harsh seams between them. I usually do. But it’s frequently distracting. It can also cause confusion when we find ourselves in the semi-scripted gameplay moments when it’s not clear if the content in front of us is taking place using the movie logic or the gameplay logic.
Trevor doesn’t fix this problem, but he does mitigate it.
This is usually portrayed as a conflict between gameplay and story, but you can also think of it as a conflict between the designer and the audience. The player wants to play with all of these systems and enjoy the empowerment of running rampant in this simulated world. The writer wants to take a bunch of scenes out of different Scorsese movies and string them together into a crime drama mixtape. They want the player to inhabit this story as one of the characters, and not as an outsized god of mischief. The player wants chaos and the writer wants restraint.
Don’t Judge Me
Lots of players casually engage in absurd levels of violence. Confession: I’m one of them. When I get a little tired of the story mode and find myself becoming restless, I sort of default to blowing things up and seeing how far I can go before the police catch up with me.
This activity can look pretty shocking to people unfamiliar with the hobby. They see the resulting carnage and imagine that this is an exercise in sadism. The assumption seems to be that the player is acting out some sort of fantasy about hurting others. I can’t speak for everyone, but this is very much not the case for me.
For contrast, Hatred is a game about shooting innocent civilians. Just watching the Hatred trailer made me physically ill. I can’t endure the Hatred trailer even as a passive viewer, yet I can gleefully blow up the neighborhood in GTA V? This is despite the fact that Hatred has a more distant camera and surreal design, and late-period Grand Theft Auto has far more realistic graphics and presentation. What’s going on here?
As always, context is everything. In Se7en, the entirely bloodless off-screen death of one character was traumatic for a lot of people in the audience, while the on-screen death of the Lawyer GuyI don’t remember his name and neither do you. So let’s just call him Lawyer Guy. in Jurassic Park was played for laughs. Everyone cringed when Tom Hanks had to bash out his own tooth in Cast Away, even though that injury is completely trivial compared to the grievously hilarious damage that befalls poor Nordberg in Naked Gun. We know Elmer Fudd and we sorta like him, but we still laugh when Bugs Bunny hits him with a hammer and gives him an amusing lump on his head. Meanwhile, it’s pretty disturbing when the Mute Girl bashes up all those guys with a claw hammer in The Raid 2, even though they’re nameless mooks we don’t care about.
Our emotional reaction to a work doesn’t just come from the mechanical representation we see on the screen, but from the tone of the world, the stakes of the story, and our own genre expectations. Sometimes a murder is the inciting incident for an entire work of fiction and sometimes it’s a quasi-slapstick joke to lighten the dark mood.
If you were an adult when you saw Jurassic Park then you probably saw Lawyer Guy’s death coming a mile away. Spielberg wanted to kill a character in order to establish the the T-Rex as a serious threat. At the same time, he didn’t want to ruin the mood of this popcorn movie by killing a sympathetic character, which could easily carry the film too far into horror movie territory. So he made Lawer Guy annoying and unlikable. For those of us who’ve seen our share of blockbusters, this firmly telegraphed Lawyer Guy’s purpose within the story. To us he was basically wearing a sandwich board sign saying, “I AM GOING TO DIE AND YOU SHOULDN’T FEEL SORRY FOR ME.” On the other hand, if you were a kid then that moment probably took you by surpriseDid it? I dunno. Kids seem to be a lot more genre-savvy in the internet age, and I’m not sure when that shift took place..
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail there’s a scene where “A Famous Historian” comes out and begins explaining the plot of the movie. It’s framed and presented as a documentary. Halfway through his explanation, a knight rides into the shot and cuts him down. It’s an absurdist subversion of expectations. “Hey! That’s not how documentaries work!” But as a kid I remember feeling literally horrified by that moment. I was feeling unintended empathy for the historian because I didn’t yet understand the cultural cues the filmmaker was usingI was also really scared for Sir Galahad at Castle Anthrax. I had no idea what those women were trying to do to him, and I had no idea why he wanted to stay..
Obviously in real life a guy getting brutally devoured by a T-Rex would be a horrible, shocking, and even traumatizing thing to witness, even if he was a bit of a jerk. But in movies our emotional reactions are different. The creator has the ability to signal to the audience how much we’re supposed to empathize with the characters and their situation. It’s the same thing in videogames. Like a kid being caught off-guard in Jurassic Park, non-gamers can easily misunderstand the intended mood of the piece.
A lot of these emotional cues come from the characters themselves. If the characters run in terror, beg for mercy, and weep over the slain, then it will probably engender a lot of empathy. If they roll their eyes as if to say, “Oh no, a maniac is blowing up the city again”, then this keeps the world at a distance by making it seem farcical and absurd. While the tone of GTA V is really bad for making us care about the characters at the center of the story, it works really well for reducing the inhabitants of the world to gameplay abstractions.
When non-gamers recoil in horror at Grand Theft Auto and call it a “murder simulator”, it’s like a child feeling sorry for Lawyer Guy. They don’t understand the medium, so they incorrectly interpret the tone and purpose of the scene.
Obviously there isn’t a clear line between these two extremes. I’ve known people to express empathy for your vile little minions in Dungeon Keeper, who are deliberately designed to be disposable cannon fodder. At the other extreme I’ve seen comments from people who found the Hatred trailer “hilarious”. We’re definitely dealing with a gradient here, and everyone is going to have a different point where they cross over from feeling detachment to empathy.
Despite all my whinging about how the series has evolved, I think the designers have been really good about maintaining just the right amount of abstraction when the player begins misbehaving. The inhabitants of the world are just obnoxious and absurd enough to make it amusing to enact violence against them.
The Need For Trevor
The writer really wants us to invest in the story of these characters, while the gameplay is encouraging us to take our protagonist out on the town for some recreational warfare. The gameplay and story are dissonant, and this maybe hurts the story.
The Mafia games solve this conflict by curtailing both the player’s ability and desireBy generally making the combat more grounded and less empowering / fun. to create mayhem. The Saints Row games go the other direction and embrace the mayhem as a central part of the character and their world. But GTA has never been able to choose which of these two masters it wants to serve, and so the internal dissonance has grown as the games have become more “cinematic”.
As far as I can tell, Trevor is the designer’s attempt to balance out this contradiction. If the player is going to behave like a madman during the gameplay bits, then why not just make the main character a literal madman? The writer gives us three main characters. We have two “normal” peopleBy the standards of the world. Michael and Franklin are still dangerous and violent criminals. who can do the drama stuff, and then we have Trevor to embody the player’s inherent desire to engage in pointless violence. He’s an answer to the question, “If we took the player’s actions literally, what sort of character would behave that way?”
The Problem with Trevor
There are two Trevors in this game. Or perhaps they’re the same Trevor, but they exist in tonally distinct contexts. Story Trevor is repulsive. He’s less of a fun-loving mass-murderer along the lines of The Joker and more like a smelly hobo crossed with Charles Manson. He’s not witty or likable. He’s not handsome or clever. His creepiness modulates from scene to scene, but on the whole he’s disturbing. On top of this, he’s a quasi-antagonist for much of the story.
Meanwhile, Open-world Trevor is more like the Boss from Saints Row. He’s still a psychotic murderer, but the world around him is so preposterous that his killing feels more like a joke than a massacre.
Back in the old Grand Theft Auto games, you could find rampage icons around the map. Pick one up, and the game would give you a single weapon (say, a rocket launcher) a goal (kill 25 people) and a timer (45 seconds) and let you go to town. Those rampages vanished in GTA IV when the game committed itself to being less fun and more “cinematic”. But here in Grand Theft Auto V they make a return. They’re only available to Trevor, but they’re integrated with the character and they seem to contain a shot of over-the-top comedy that’s lacking elsewhere in the game.
In one rampage, Trevor gets into an argument with some stereotypical hipsters. Flannel-wearing urbanites arrive en masse via mopeds and bicycles, armed to the teeth and shouting about first-world problems. It’s wonderfully ridiculous, and reminds me of the bits in Saints Row where you have to fight waves of people dressed up in furry mascot costumes.
Open-world Trevor is funny, ridiculous, and in harmony with the mechanics. I found Story Trevor to be grotesque, unsettling, and occasionally frightening. And then we get to the torture sequence, where Story Trevor is nonsensical, frustrating, sanctimonious, and completely disgusting.
We’ll talk about that next week.
 I don’t remember his name and neither do you. So let’s just call him Lawyer Guy.
 Did it? I dunno. Kids seem to be a lot more genre-savvy in the internet age, and I’m not sure when that shift took place.
 I was also really scared for Sir Galahad at Castle Anthrax. I had no idea what those women were trying to do to him, and I had no idea why he wanted to stay.
 By generally making the combat more grounded and less empowering / fun.
 By the standards of the world. Michael and Franklin are still dangerous and violent criminals.
Crash Dot Com
Back in 1999, I rode the dot-com bubble. Got rich. Worked hard. Went crazy. Turned poor. It was fun.
Deus Ex and The Treachery of Labels
Deus Ex Mankind Divided was a clumsy, tone-deaf allegory that thought it was clever, and it managed to annoy people of all political stripes.
C++ is a wonderful language for making horrible code.
Why The Christmas Shopping Season is Worse Every Year
Everyone hates Black Friday sales. Even retailers! So why does it exist?
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.