Storytelling Video Games: Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V is a game that tells a story. A story that is fueled by crime and redemption. Rockstar Games lived up to their name of creating a game that is cinematically pleasing but also has a gripping storyline. I wanted to investigate the story mode of Grand Theft Auto V and discover why Rockstar Games used the different techniques they chose to tell this story. Through the use of Bryan Alexander’s “The New Digital Storytelling,” I will link the properties of video game stories to the profile of Grand Theft Auto V.

Growing up playing Grand Theft Auto is a past time that I look back and cherish. I loved the atmosphere the game allowed, the open map, the vernacular of the main characters and random citizens walking the streets. There was something about this series of games that kept me coming back. It could have been merely the violence that brightens the eyes of any ‘too young to play’ aged boy, or it was the freedom that the game provided. Whatever it was, I was hooked. Every single game that Rockstar Games produced I would quickly go out and buy. Turning on the game system and starting the newest story mode of this series is the most bliss moment for any gamer who has a devotion towards rouge-themed-socially-grey-area video games.

To being the relation between Grand Theft Auto V and Digital Storytelling, it is proper to start with the setting of the story. The map that is open for exploration for any curious player is one of Rockstar Games signature features. In “The New Digital Storytelling” by Bryan Alexander he discusses the power of settings in video games. On page 104 he states, “The game must establish some sense of setting. The more deeply a player plumbs a static or limited space and the more time invested in checking individual pixels, the greater the presence that space can evoke.” Focusing on the action of plumbing is one of GTA fans favorite things to do in the game. The map is huge in this game. There are “regions” that represent different areas of the country in one confined space. There are high tower city areas, rural country life, small-town streets, and mountains and ocean views throughout the map. When a player goes through these areas, it feels as if you are traveling in an even larger map than what is offered.

I expressed earlier my admiration for the vernacular of the characters, especially the main playable characters in this series. Rockstar Games knew very well the importance of text and language within a story mode video game. It makes the game playable, it makes it more intimate than merely playing a game to waste time. We become invested in the emotions, the adrenaline, and of course the crimes we see animated in front of us.

Alexander discusses the power of text in chapter six “Gaming: Storytelling on a Small Scale.” On page 101 he writes, “A game’s text is also crucial in shaping the user’s experiences of play and story. Text tags are sometimes the only names attached to objects and events, especially in a small or crowded screen common to casual games … .” This insight makes for a clear understanding that the reasons why I (and I would suspect others as well) fell in love with the Grand Theft Auto story mode. The texts told the story, the texts changed the common narrative of what a video game story can do. The use of explicit words and expressions was a first for the video game world. Rockstar Games took a leap of faith emplacing a vernacular that was “different,” however, without this addition in their games, the value of the story is shrunken.

When I think back to the story mode of Grand Theft Auto V, I recall the “cut scenes.” Alexander touches on these points again on page 101 saying, “on a non-interactive level, many games pause play to offer ‘cut scenes.’ These short video clips can be quite rich in large-scale games, enough so to be termed cinematic.” These cut scenes brought on a different attraction than typical animated scenes in other games. These cut scenes were important and I wanted to follow them. It felt necessary for the game development and functionality of the story. However, what Rockstar Games did that makes this series so iconic is the player involvement within these scenes. Players are not just viewing the action, they are in control. Once a plane crashed, or an argument sprung up, the story is thrown back into the hands of the player who has to make strategic decisions on what to do next.

Touching more on Grand Theft Auto V’s story mode, I would like to focus on the character development and the involvement of the player to create the ultimate story. The beginning of the latest GTA game is a direct pipeline into the past adventures of two of main characters: Michael De Santa and Trevor Philips. Rockstar Games uses this introduction gameplay to teach players the controls for various maneuvers within the game setting. During this introduction period, Michael and Trevor are robbing a bank in Ludendorff, North Yankton. You immediately have to begin making choices on a strategy to avoid arrest and the police that are narrowing in on your location. However, it is here during the beginnings of the video game that a variation of a “cut scene” that Alexander touched on is implemented. The developers created an invisible tunnel for its players. Gamers can only go one way during these initial scenes all the while hearing verbal arguments by the characters as if in a cut scene. The knocking of the truck against an on coming car or the ricksha of bullets on the window causes the characters to react accordingly. 

The story mode’s beginnings throw players into an emotional attachment to Michael De Santa. We are shown the visuals that Michael has faked his death and “turned a new leaf.” We get a cut scene into present time right after this discovery and Michael is living the good life. No longer is he in the slums or doing dirty work for money and cheap thrills. We are guided aerially onto the backyard of Michael’s mansion as he lays next to the pool. So it is here that Rockstar Games gives us a bone, they present to us a changed man—a protagonist. They show us that you can change, however, what they slowly being to show is the strength that the past can have on our future.

For a good portion of the initial starting of the game, players are embodying Michael. We drive to the golf course, we pick up his kids from the store, we even get into arguments with his wife, Amanda. It isn’t until Michael’s son Jimmy De Santa gets his car repoed by a scummy used car dealership. Michael is not happy and it is here that we see again his aggressive criminal side approaching the surface. Once again, Rockstar Games includes an interactive cut scene. Players have to drive Michael and his son to the dealership. In the car, Jimmy is getting yelled at by Michael. Audible conversations between characters seems to be the only thing in this game not controlled by players.

Alexander touches on the interactivity of players and character development on page 106 stating, “A dual narrative results: given a sense of “our” progress as the protagonist, we also construct a sense of our own embedded reactions.” This dual narrative is seen throughout the game progress from the three main characters players can control (Michael, Trevor, and Franklin). However, we also get to experience sub-narrative stories through the perspective of companion charters of the respected main three. These characters include Lestor Crest who is Michael and Trevor’s business partner and hacker for all their crimes. We learn through cut scenes and interactions that Lestor is one of the only people who knew that Michael did not die in the beginning scenes. So players can start making connections between alliances and inside knowledge between Lestor and Michael.

Focusing now on the narrative of Trevor, I would like to dive into how we are introduced and how his characteristics are displayed for players. We are welcomed by Trevor when Michael and Franklin go and seek his assistance on a big heist. He lives on in the boonies in another “region” of Los Santos called Blaine County. His expressions and attitude towards seeing Michael who was believed to be dead for years draw us closer into the relationship development of Michael and Trevor. We start to relate to Trevor, which is surprising seeing he is a cannibal who does meth routinely. Yet he is relatable.

Every main character has their own sub-story within the context of the larger more grander story mode. Alexander refers to this as multiple levels of sequence and it is a main part of large-scale video game story modes. In the GTA V story mode Michael is dealing with issues at home, the lack of freedom he once cherished as a criminal and working with the FIB (a play on the FBI). Franklin has his mother down is his neck and his gang banger friends trying to tempt him into falling back on petty crimes. And Trevor is dealing with the drug gangs he has been doing business with for some time. Rockstar Games does something that really makes the story mode so incredibly addicting— there is the option to switch characters at any given time to explore through the perspective of that character. When a player decides to change between the characters the camera zooms out then repositions over the respected area the newly selected character is and then zooms in on him. The player receives a quick introduction cut scene of the chosen character getting up or out from something whether it be the floor, bed, the strip club, or their cars. Alexander addresses this personal control on page 105 where he says, “The most effective casual-game character is probably the player.” We the players are a character in this game. We direct paths. We make the moves. We decide the hard questions.

Falling back into the story more intimately, family issues aside Michael’s exploits do not sit well with the FIB agents who gave Michael his get-out-of-jail-free card we see in the beginning scenes. They force him to help cover their tracks as well as help the FIB as an organization against their rival government agency the IAA. Michael, Franklin, and eventually Trevor are brought in to help while keeping Michael’s deal a secret. The fact that we are intertwined in the mischievous deception on Trevor is what makes the story mode so interesting. We are the “casual character” that Alexander addresses.

Throughout the story, players are consistently involved in the progress and foundations that create the basis of the story mode. For example, the ability to decide who dies and who lives. At the end of the story,  we get to decide who Franklin will choose to kill either Trevor and Michael. This is just one example of the hundreds of personally decided avenues the game can take. 

Rockstar Games allows players to experience the land of Los Santos and the people living there as if they are living in “second life.” This game’s story mode allows for players to embody the characters they are afraid of in real life. Even though it has been years since the release, Grand Theft Auto V will remain a fantastic storytelling video game for all who wish to experience the true power of personal involvement in a video game.

Works Cited

Alexander, Bryan. The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. Praeger, an Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2017.