When I write a big series like this one, I usually imagine I’m talking to other people that have played through the game. On the other hand, I know anecdotally that a non-trivial portion of you will be reading this without being familiar with Grand Theft Auto V. So before I start in on the analysis, let’s go over the story in broad strokes.
Normally I do this sort of thing a little bit at a time as we step through the plot, but the structure of GTA V makes this difficult. There are numerous side-plots. Some of these rejoin the main plot much later, while others conclude in isolation and still others peter out or hit a dead end. Some are isolated stories that don’t connect to the main missions at either end. Some of it can be tackled in any order, while other parts form choke points that require you to have completed all of the dangling plot threads before you can proceed.
To give you an idea of how convoluted it can get, here is the chart Campster made of the “plot” in his Errant Signal video on GTA V:
That chart leaves out a lot of plot threads: Trevor’s feuds with the Lost MC and the O’Neil brothers. Trevor’s short-term relationship with Mrs. Madrazo. Michael’s becoming a Vinewood producer. Tonya’s towing jobs. The bail bond missions. The Paparazzi missions. Franklin’s run-ins with the adrenaline junkie. Michael’s dealings with the Epsilon Program. The jobs for the weed advocate. The Civil Border Patrol. The stuff with Cletus. The efforts of Lester and Franklin to manipulate the stock market via assassination. Some of those things are irrelevant side-plots but some of them are connected to the main plot in unexpected ways. (Like, the first assassination job is required to progress the main plot, but the subsequent jobs are not.)
Hopefully you get the basic idea. This game doesn’t have a proper story arc that builds over time. It actually feels like someone took about four seasons worth of some Sopranos-style crime show and shuffled all the scripts together without regard for pacing, theme, tone, or continuity.
My point is that doing a chronological analysis of this story would result in this series being just as random and aimless as the plot of the game. GTA can sort of get away with being aimless on account of being an open world game, but aimless analysis is not a lot of fun to try to follow. (And it’s confusing to write.)
So here’s the plot of the game, with as many extraneous elements removed as possible:
The game opens with what seems to be a heist gone wrong. Michael, Trevor, and Brad are cornered by the cops. Brad and Michael get shot and Trevor barely escapes. Then afterward we see that Michael has faked his own death. He didn’t really die when he got shot, and in fact he doesn’t even look injured. He observes his own funeral at a distance, in secret.
At this point in the game we don’t know the characters yet. The characters were wearing ski masks and calling each other by first initials during the tutorial heist. They do eventually take the masks off, but this is a third-person game so we spend most of our time staring at the back of everyone’s heads. All the characters are white guys of medium build, so none of them really stand out under these conditions.
I dunno. Maybe I’m just thick or bad at recognizing videogame faces, but this scene seemed a little too disjoined to me. I’m curious how everyone else responded.
We cut to 9 years later. Michael is in therapy. He’s wealthy, retired, and completely unhappy with his life. He’s living near Vinewood (Hollywood) with his family. From there we cut to Franklin, another one of our main playable characters. Franklin is a young man from the ‘hood, looking for a way to escape his current life. He’s looking to go big time as a way out of this dead-end life of two-bit crime and poverty. Not because he’s greedy, but because he can see there’s no future in it.
At this point the player can switch between these two main characters at any time. If you jump back to one character after playing as the other, you’ll find them in the middle of their normal daily activities.
Over the course of a few missions, Franklin and Michael meet and bond. Michael is restless and just looking for an excuse to get back into his former life of crime, and Franklin is an eager and capable protégé. While all of this is going on, there are side-stories revealing that Michael has a lot of conflict with his family and Franklin has friends in the ‘hood that keep dragging him into idiotic schemes that end up being stupidly dangerous and which never seem to pay out.
Eventually Michael’s temper gets the best of him, and he ends up inadvertently pissing off a dangerous drug lord. He needs to pay this guy 2.5 million dollars, which means he needs to pull a major heist. Michael is oddly relaxed about the situation, since this is the first time in 9 years where he’s felt like he’s alive. He has a purpose and his skills are useful again.
Michael calls up his old criminal contacts and puts together a crew to rob a jewelry store. Franklin joins in, and the heist is a success.
The Middle Part
As Michael and Franklin celebrate, we cut to the desert and rejoin Trevor, who we haven’t seen since he ran off into the snowstorm at the start of the game. Trevor is watching the news, and from things said at the crime scene he realizes this jewelry store heist must have been the work of his old friend Michael, who he thought was dead.
Trevor is running his own criminal operation from his filthy trailer. He’s got a meth lab, a gun running operation, and some ongoing conflicts with the other criminal enterprises in the area. His operation is sort of sad and the only thing keeping it going is how personally dangerous Trevor is, but he talks about it all in terms of being a multinational empire. Instead of making a beeline for the city to find out what’s up with his dead friend showing up on the news, we spend a few missions on his quarrels with a biker gang, a gun-running operation, a rival drug lab, and his attempts to expand his business. During this point in the game you can’t switch back to Michael or Franklin, since they’re “laying low” after the heist. Eventually Trevor finishes tying up loose ends in the desert and heads for the city.
Michael is summoned by Norton, his contact at the FIB. We learn that Michael sold his friends out at the start of the game. To keep himself alive and out of prison, he set up that original “heist gone wrong” situation. Agent Norton got a bump in his career by bagging this famous stick-up artist, and also Michael has been sending him a monthly bribe for the last 9 years. In return, Norton set Michael up with a new identity and an off-the-books arrangement with “witness protection”. If all had gone according to plan, then Trevor would have died in the shootout 9 years ago and there would be no more loose ends. But both men are worried that Trevor is still alive somewhere. He’s violent, unstable, and incredibly focused. If he ever figured out what happened, then there’s no telling what he might do.
More importantly, right now there’s a lot of inter-agency drama going on. Different agencies are bickering, with each one trying to make the case that their operation needs more funding and their rivals need more oversight. Maybe this FIB program that’s been protecting Michael will be exposed. And since Michael is back in the game and pulling scores, Norton decides it’s only fair that Michael should help sort things out. So Michael gets dragged into doing dirty jobs for the FIB.
Meanwhile, Trevor scouts the docks, puts together a crew, plans a job, steals the required materials for the heist, and pulls it off. Sort of. It doesn’t totally work out, although it does bring Michael into the adventure and push him into planning another score. After that is a bit of story wrapping up some loose ends with this crew.
Additional Middle Part
Trevor shows up and Michael is vague about what what happened 9 years ago. They begin an uneasy working relationship, with Trevor asking lots of pointed questions.
The FIB decides to drag Trevor into the work Michael is doing, despite the fact that Trevor is impossible to control and having him this close only increases the odds of him finding out what really happened. Even more preposterously, Trevor decides to go along with it, despite the fact that they have no leverage over him and he hates the government in the abstract and these FIB agents in particular. (I guess the plot needs to happen somehow.) In fact, FIB agent Steve is one of the most relentlessly obnoxious and irritating people in the game and it really is amazing how many scenes there are where Trevor doesn’t casually murder Steve and dismember / defile / eat his corpse.
So we spend a stretch of the game working to help one crooked government agency fight another crooked agency. The FIB can’t even give them funding for the equipment they’ll need, so the crew has to pull heists just to get the money to buy the equipment to do the work the FIB is making them do.
Is This Still The Middle? Is All of This Going Anywhere?
Franklin hooks up with one of Michael’s old friends, who sends Franklin out to assassinate people in an attempt to manipulate the stock market and dish out some justice against the evil strawman “satirical” corporations that are part of this world.
While all of this is going on, Michael’s family leaves him and he starts to go a little crazy. Then after a while they come back and decide to try being a family again. It’s an uneasy truce, but Michael seems to recover some of his sanity.
Eventually the crew meets Devin Weston, a narcissistic billionaire douchebag. They begin doing jobs for him. He promises them that the jobs will pay well. That shouldn’t be much leverage over Michael, since he’s capable of scouting, planning, and pulling his own jobs and shouldn’t need the help of this dingbat. But The Plot Must Go On, so it does. Then Weston decides to not pay these three incredibly dangerous and self-sufficient career criminals he’s been mocking and provoking. Then he gets in a tiff with Michael and decides to attack Michael’s family. Michael saves them, and then for some reason he doesn’t immediately go and kill Devin, despite that fact that there’s nothing stopping Devin from attacking them again so Michael’s family can’t really be safe until Devin is dead.
The FIB jobs continue to escalate in terms of scope and devastation. All the work they’ve done to “quiet things down” has simply fanned the flames, to the point where the two rival agencies are now in an open shooting war with each other.
Michael, Franklin, and Trevor gather in Trevor’s strip club. This is it. They’ve decided it’s time to do “the big one”. They’re going to rob the Union Depository downtown. Michael and Trevor have been dreaming of this since their old days. We do a series of missions to scout the job, plan the operation, and steal all the required equipment. Then they pull the job, which earns the team about $200 million.
This is a pretty good ending for the game, although I think it needed a little more buildup and it didn’t-
Oh, hang on. The game isn’t actually over.
Devin Weston casually stops by Franklin’s house and tells Franklin to kill Michael. Devin still hasn’t paid them at this point and now he’s asking Franklin to kill his mentor and father figure. Devin has no leverage over Franklin and he could easily afford to pay some other third party to kill Michael, so we can’t attribute this move to anything other than willful stupidity.
Furthermore, Franklin’s solo missions have featured him killing captains of industry to manipulate the stock market. He literally specializes in murdering famous rich guys, yet for some reason it never even occurs to him that he could just kill Devin Weston. The game never gives us a reason why Franklin feels obligated to obey this obnoxious dingbat who owes him money.
At this point the FIB has asked Franklin to kill Trevor and Devin has asked Franklin to kill Michael. The player is given a choice to kill Trevor, Kill Michael, or to take on both the FIB and Devin Weston.
The first two choices make no sense from a story or gameplay perspective. I think the third option is the intended / canonical choice, so let’s just look at that one and ignore the other two for now. We’ll come back to the branching end choice in a later entry.
The three characters get together and realize they need to take out their enemies. It’s not clear why this is possible now if it wasn’t possible in the past. Indeed, the player has probably spent a lot of the game asking, “Why don’t we just kill these assholes and be done with it?” Apparently our leads could have made this choice at any point and they’ve been uncharacteristically tolerating their foes for no reason.
The final mission is an odd one. Michael goes to the ‘hood and kills Franklin’s old lowlife nemesis. Franklin kills the Chinese Triad boss who’s been plotting against Trevor. Trevor kills Agent Steve from the FIB. So instead of them teaming up, and instead of each person facing off against their own nemesis, they all kill each other’s enemies.
It’s not strictly wrong, but it’s like having a version of Return of the Jedi where Han Solo settles things with Darth Vader while Luke Skywalker deals with Jabba the Hutt. This is not the most dramatically potent way of resolving these conflicts.
Then Trevor kidnaps Devin Weston and takes him to a cliff overlooking the ocean. All three characters meet up and murder him, throwing his car over the cliff and watching him die in the resulting explosion. They drive off into the sunset together. Roll credits.
So that’s the main(?) plot of the game, hacked down to the bones. I left out far more than I included, and it still feels like about four stories worth of events. Our big finale had us killing a dumbass billionaire that wasn’t even introduced until the third-ish act.
Like the previous GTA games, the introduction presents us with a problem, then we stumble around for a few dozen hours killing dudes for a series of bosses we don’t care about, then suddenly at the end the story swerves hard back to the original problem and wraps it up without producing anything that might feel like character arcs, raising stakes, or rising action. It’s like a version of Star Wars where Luke Skywalker spends twenty hours dicking around on Tatooine before he finally jumps aboard the Falcon and they fly off to blow up the Death Star.
Next week we’re going to talk about that ending choice.
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