And so this series comes to an end. Not with a bang, but with a shrug. Eh. It’s pretty okay I guess. I mean, I had fun sometimes.
For as crazy as this world is, Grand Theft Auto V is surprisingly short on laughs. The main story often occupies this strange space where absurd things are happening and everyone is expressing intense emotions, and yet there are almost no jokes. The dialog constantly feels like it’s in the setup phase for a punchline that never comes. While this franchise has been pretty hit-and-miss with regards to comedy, I think the humor has gone downhill over the last decade or so. A lot of different factors contributed to this.
First and most obviously, as the games grew closer to Hollywood they drifted away from the wacky brand of adolescent humor they were built around. Toilet humor and dick jokes work in a world of outrageous cartoon absurdity. They don’t fit so well within a Scorsese movie. On top of that, the games have intensified their attempts at satire and social commentary, which has made them increasingly heavy-handed and mean-spirited. As I said at the start, a lot of the attempted satire is so far off-base that the jokes don’t land. But here in GTA V there is yet another force working against the humor: The writer has stopped trusting the audience and so they keep stopping to explain the joke.
Get it? Huh? See What I Did There?
In one part of the game Trevor can hang out with the “Civil Border Patrol”, a couple of dimwits who have appointed themselves as protectors of the US-Mexican border. The whole thing is more heavy-handed political commentary, this time on US immigration policy. (And probably a more contentious issue now than it was when this joke was written in ~2013.)
At one point you’re riding in a car with the CBP, chasing down a mariachi band in order to detain and deport them. During the chase one of the CBP agents is yelling about how, “They come into our country and they steal all our jobs!”
To which Trevor replies, “Yeah. Stealing all those mariachi band jobs you’ve got here.”
Damn it, Trevor. I got the joke. I was smiling until you stopped to explain it to me.
In the same mission, the two border patrol guys are supposed to salute in unison, but one of them messes up and gives a Nazi salute and then quickly corrects himself mid-gesture. Maybe you found it funny and maybe you didn’t. I found it mildly amusing until, once again, Trevor stopped to point out that this was the wrong salute.
Like, did the designer really think the audience was too stupid to recognize the Nazi salute? Why? Why would you break the flow of your dialog to explain jokes?
Like I discovered in my D&D Comic, humor has momentum. Two jokes delivered in quick succession will be much funnier than either joke in isolation. If you can add a third joke, it gets even better. A joke that might get a chuckle on its own could be enough to push a chuckle into a laugh. If they’re already laughing, then it might make them laugh harder. There’s nothing to be gained from halting the flow of jokes to explain things. The people that didn’t get it aren’t going to retroactively laugh, and the people who did get it will stop laughing because now you’re annoying them. But Grand Theft Auto V feels the need to stop at least once in every scene to say, “You get it? You see what I did there? Huh? HUUUUUH?”
It’s not just the humor that suffers from this. The social commentary is hobbled by this as well. At one point the middle-aged, world-weary Michel is talking the young and eager Franklin:
Michael says, “You want my advice, you give up [the criminal lifestyle]. […] It’s bullshit. Go to college. Then you can rip people off and get paid for it.”
You know, that’s an interesting viewpoint coming from a career criminal. Michael has noticed that a lot of people take money from others without breaking the law or risking their lives. There are some interesting observations you could make here by contrasting people’s reaction to petty street crime with white-collar crime, or even with corporate practices that are immoral and dishonest yet perfectly legal. Now that I think about it-
“It’s called capitalism,” Michael concludes smugly.
Thanks so much for hitting me in the face with your message, game. I was nearly in danger of thinking for myself.
Just like a joke is funnier if you don’t explain it, a lesson is more effective if you allow the audience to come to the desired conclusion on their own. This writer has no confidence in their ability and even less confidence in the audience. Grand Theft Auto V would sound a little less sanctimonious and a lot smarter if the writer would just stop making everything so heavy-handed and explicit. If they would put The Art before The Message, both would be improved.
I know I’ve been negative. For the record, there’s a lot to love in Grand Theft Auto V. The technology still feels cutting-edge, even five years after release. The sprawling world is spectacular. The heist system is aces. Franklin is a pretty good character and he has a solid arc. The rampages were just the right sort of absurdist shocking violence. The sheer scale and variety of people in this world is amazing. The soundtrack is generous, even by the standards of the series. Side-activities like base jumping and triathlons manage to leverage the open world really well. A couple of the Strangers & Freaks you meet are amusing. The three-character perspective switching was a smart idea that gave the writer the freedom to tell a wider range of stories, which really suits their “Scorsese Sampler” approach to storytelling.
Despite my gripes, it’s not a horrible game. It’s an amazing game with a handful of glaring flaws, mostly stemming from the way the story is a Frankenstein’s Monster of random movie scenes and tropes. It could be better, but I still managed to get over 100 hours of entertainment out of it.
Most importantly, I’m really looking forward to GTA VI. I know Rockstar is really happy with the pay-to-win shop they have going in Grand Theft Auto Online right now and they’re probably not in a hurry to retire that cash cow, but I’d love to see a new GTA game built around the heist system.
Also, a new GTA without a mandatory interactive torture scene would be really appreciated.
So that’s a novella on Grand Theft Auto V. As always, if you enjoy this kind of long-form analysis then please consider supporting my Patreon.
Thanks for reading.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
The Witch Watch
My first REAL published book, about a guy who comes back from the dead due to a misunderstanding.
The Death of Half-Life
Valve still hasn't admitted it, but the Half-Life franchise is dead. So what made these games so popular anyway?
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?