I’ve just finished Grand Theft Auto V, and considering I wrote a rather scathing article when I was a few hours into the game, I thought I’d share my perspective now that I’ve experienced the complete arc of the game’s narrative.
Grand Theft Auto V is a sales juggernaut, and has been branded as the biggest entertainment launch of all time. A new Grand Theft Auto is almost always a turning point, creating a “before and after” mark for the current level of gameplay, graphics, and social commentary in games. Games are still considered by a decent chunk of the populace to be “for kids,” even if that stigma is gradually evaporating. Rockstar Games, and Grand Theft Auto in particular, have prided themselves on letting the entire world know that some games ain’t for kids.
Let’s not bury the lead – when the credits started rolling, I had a bit of a mini nervous breakdown. I sat, staring at the screen, and didn’t move until the game dumped me back into the “post-story” city. My wife lounged on the couch beside me, Kindle in hand, and actually reached over and shook me about half-way through the twenty-minute-long credit sequence.
“Are you okay?” she asked me.
“I’m okay,” I said. “I don’t know if Franklin is, though.”
Here’s where the spoilers are going to start coming in, so be wary. And by wary, I mean, I’m going thoroughly discuss the details of the plot, the characters, and at least one of the multiple endings.
By the half-way point of the game, Trevor (the red-neck psychopath) and Michael (the movie-obsessed “family man” bank robber) have lead Franklin (the new guy) down a rollercoaster of baggage that makes the LAX carousel look like something with not very much baggage on it. You see, Michael has the FBI so far up his ass you can see a pair of black sunglasses when he opens his mouth, and Trevor’s murderous, stabby, rape-y ways tend to make powerful enemies at the drop of a trucker hat. By the end of the game, the two of them have pissed off: the FBI, the CIA, a Private Military Corporation (ala Blackwater), a billionaire corporate shark with zero morals, movie producers, the entire Chinese Triad, a state-wide biker gang, a wealthy and murderous Mexican cartel boss, and possibly rampaging aliens, if those drug missions are real. Franklin has pissed off . . . no one. Because he’s a damn professional.
The easiest way to look at the trio of main characters (which I totally didn’t steal from TVtropes.org), is by comparing them to the three main characters of Star Trek – Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Spock is logical, emotion-light, and puts the mission first. Bones is passionate, emotionally-driven, and short-sighted. Kirk lands somewhere in the middle, which is why he also makes a great leader. So, basically, Franklin is Spock (always coaching everyone to chill out and just do the job), Trevor is Bones (a slave to his emotions), and Michael is Kirk (he’s got a level head when he needs it, but he’s got plenty of passion to go around).
So it’s not really surprising then that the end of the game features a big choice – Franklin, the logical one, has to decide one of three finales. His options? Destroy, Control, or Synthesis.
Wait, no, that’s not right.
Franklin can either:
A.) Kill Trevor to appease the FBI. The Feds want to end things calmly with Michael, but they think Trevor is going to cock it up – plus he’s a deranged lunatic, and if the FBI lets him get away it’s definitely going to bite them in the ass later.
B.) Kill Michael to appease a criminal billionaire. Michael blocked the billionaire’s plans to tank a movie for financial gain, which lead to the accidental death-by-jet-engine of the crazy billionaire’s right-hand-woman.
C.) Simply titled “Deathwish,” the third option has Franklin flip the bird to the government and private sectors and decide to go it alone to save Michael and Trevor.
From my own personal trips through internet forums(fora), speaking with gamers, and taking the general temperature of the internet, “Option C” appears to have been chosen the most. It’s not a surprise, really – in any choice, people tend to go for the middle, less extreme path to hedge their bets. Add to that the internet’s general love affair with Trevor Philips and the inexplicability of Franklin wanting to kill Michael, and the third option is the clear choice.
Despite all that, it seems that, naturally, I would pick Option A) Kill Trevor. My dislike for Trevor is well-documented and over-discussed, but even keeping that in mind, I didn’t make my decision with a light heart. But what decision to make?
I’m going to be honest – I was spoiled, very early on, about the choice to kill Trevor. I didn’t know the reason why, I didn’t know who would do the choosing or the killing (I assumed Michael, boy was I wrong), and I didn’t know what came after. However, I held onto the life-preserver of that knowledge – Trevor was going to die, and I was going to do the killing. Whenever Trevor raped his best friend’s cousin “for laughs,” whenever he brutally slaughtered a couple in their home because they were “not nice,” when he stomped people’s faces in or ate stew with “eyelids in it,” I could take it, because I knew I would be putting him down.
I’d been jumping for the opportunity, chomping at the bit. My wife, sometime-observer of my GTA V playthrough, sang a repeating refrain whenever Trevor performed yet another monstrous act – “Is Trevor going to die already?” She must have said those words a hundred times, and I must have thought them a thousand more. Sometimes all it would take would be his grating, one-note, throaty voice that would trigger the song. “Is Trevor going to die already?”
Imagine my surprise then, that when Franklin picks up his phone, and the three options pop up – Kill Trevor, Kill Michael, or Deathwish – I froze. My wife almost dropped her laptop in excitement – she sat forward on the couch, taking the literal “edge of her seat.” Then she looked at me. Looked at the unmoving Franklin in his rather fly, white 3-piece suit and aviator sunglasses. Looked back at me.
“Uh, babe?” she asked. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“I thought it was,” I said.
Outside of Franklin’s apartment, the sunlight changed color. The sun was setting – I’d been weighing the options long enough that night fell on Los Santos.
“Well, you can’t kill Michael,” she said.
“Oh yeah, no. Not even an option.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Trevor had been an extremely loyal friend to Franklin, and in the beginning of the story, he’d been devastated when he thought his best friend Michael (who faked his death) was dead. Trevor had bailed them both out of a couple situations – he’d helped Franklin save his friend Lamar, and his street smarts had saved Franklin from getting screwed by a shady drug dealer. Trevor showed up with a sniper rifle to save Michael when he was beset on all sides in a four-way gun battle between the FBI, the CIA, the Merryweather private military, and Michael himself.
If you think I’m arguing for the morality of killing Trevor, think again. Where questions of morality crop up, Trevor ends up in a shallow grave every time. His crimes against humanity, hygiene, and his general disposition make the Joker look cuddly. The man is an unrepentant murderer who is on-record as saying that torture isn’t good for gathering information, but it sure is fun! Huck huck huck.
I am, however, questioning the ethical ramifications of killing a loyal friend, in cold blood, with almost no provocation. The game presents it as such – Trevor isn’t trying to kill Franklin, there isn’t even a fight to be had. If you push “A) Kill Trevor,” Franklin is going to lie to Trevor, lead him out in the middle of nowhere, and murder him because the FBI doesn’t like him.
I stared at the option, frozen, because all I could think was this: “God I hate being told what to do.” I hate bullies, I despise being pushed around, and there is no greater rage trigger for me than being told I “have to do this, or else.” I’m even self-destructive about it – I’d run my car off a bridge if my enemy was in the passenger seat. I’ve quit multiple jobs in a huff over asshole bosses, and I’ve walked away smiling from every single one of those decisions. Keep in mind, I’m not saying “Man, I sure am a badass.” I’m saying “I make dumb decisions because of pride.”
Do you know who doesn’t do that? Franklin. My wife asked the question first.
“Sure, you’d pick Option C,” she said. “What would Franklin pick?”
Just when I thought I’d convinced myself to spare Trevor, I remembered who Franklin was. Franklin was the voice of reason, Franklin was logical, Franklin was out to get paid, to be professional, and to get away clean. Choosing to take on the entire federal government and a crazy criminal billionaire is a decision he’d never make. An emotional, proud, angry “fuck the world” decision – in short, the choice Trevor would make.
I clicked “A) Kill Trevor,” and much to my surprise, my heart sank.
Franklin calls Trevor, and asks him out to an oil field in the middle of nowhere. The flawless white suit Franklin is wearing no longer gives the illusion of status. It has the look of corruption, suddenly, of decadence. Franklin looks older, too. His sunglasses are gone. Trevor pulls up in his ridiculous orange truck with the sex-toy teddy bear strapped in front and the steer horns mounted across the roll cage. Trevor is wearing the plain, filthy white shirt he began with, one I never dressed him in. He has a bald head and a huge beard, and he greets Franklin exuberantly.
Franklin holds a silenced pistol behind his back, awkwardly, like a child hiding a stolen cookie.
“This is about Michael, right? That traitor,” Trevor says, or something like it, I’m not looking the video up again.
“You gotta go,” Franklin says. He tells Trevor that he’s too dangerous, he’s a psycho, he’s gonna ruin it for everyone. He pulls the pistol out and points at a heartbroken Trevor.
Trevor has been betrayed again, by the one he views as his last loyal friend. Trevor leaps in his old truck, and Franklin in his fully upgraded sports car, and it’s a foregone conclusion.
Except Michael swings out of nowhere during the chase, T-bones Trevor’s truck, and sends it tumbling into the side of a gas truck. There’s no big Hollywood explosion, just a loud crash and a lot of gas puddling on the truck, over Trevor, on the ground. Trevor falls out of his truck and starts crawling through the gasoline, and I already know what’s going to happen. Another foregone conclusion. It doesn’t serve as an anti-climax, but rather stews a strange sense of foreboding. Regret. Maybe there’s a way out of this, you might think, but you know that’s not the case.
Trevor’s legs are broken, and he can barely crawl. Michael and Franklin stand beside the pool of gas, watching him, listening to his final indictments. Trevor calls them traitors, because they are traitors, in reality this time, and not just in Trevor’s warped brain.
The cutscene ends, and you are given muted control of Franklin. Trevor is crawling on the ground, broken, in every sense of the word, in an expanding puddle of gas.
“Put Trevor out of his misery,” the game prompts, or something like it, I’m not watching that video again.
I hesitate a second or two. I pull my silenced pistol, that guilty treat I’d hidden before, and put a round in Trevor’s head. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t give you that small mercy, and despite what should be an instant-kill shot, it predictably lights the gasoline on fire, and Trevor screams in agony as he dies, and the gasoline truck explodes and the foregone conclusion concludes.
Michael and Franklin walk away, singed by the explosion, both of them in numb shock, surprised, perhaps, by the player’s cruel choice. Michael babbles on about gasoline being Trevor’s favorite thing, about why it’s not their fault, about why it had to be done. Franklin, stoic and emotionless as usual, shakes his head.
“It’s been an education, that’s for sure,” Franklin says.
He waves Michael off, and Michael takes his explanations and his justifications with him. Franklin walks to the edge of an embankment and we see the camera behind him, and the glittering towers of downtown Los Santos stretch out before him, and he cuts a grand looking figure, tall and young and well-dressed against the city.
Maybe I imagine the slump in his shoulders. Then the credits roll.
It took me the entire run of the credits to decide that there was no other way the story could end. I hear “Option B – Kill Michael” is confusing and weird, understandably, because it turns Franklin against his own personality, following the orders of some rich chump he hates to murder a guy who he sees as a (flawed) father figure. Just two or three missions earlier, Frank risked life and limb to save Michael – suddenly killing him rings false.
“Option C” is the “middle ending,” and will probably end up being the canon ending from sheer numbers. I haven’t seen it, though I plan to at some point, but I’ve heard it’s a much more happy, upbeat, best-buds-forever ending than the bleak tableau I was given.
GTA V is the story of three characters, but there’s no question that Franklin is the central mover. He’s the new blood, he’s the audience surrogate, and he’s the only character that enters the story with no real baggage. GTA V is the story of how Franklin goes from cheap hood and repo man to a millionaire bankrobber living in a castle in Beverly Hills, but more importantly, it’s a story about scars. We saw how Michael got his scars, his dark back story – he lied to his friends, he took a corrupt deal from a corrupt government, and he faked his own death. Trevor’s scars are deeper – he’s been betrayed, he was heavily abused by both of his parents, and he’s spent his entire life killing people and hurting others.
Franklin betrays and murders Trevor, a bad man but a good friend, to keep the feds off his back, to get away clean. We got to see it in real time, how a man could do such a thing. Why he would. GTA V is the story of how Franklin gets his scars.
It’s also a classic mentor story – Michael betrayed Trevor, Michael teaches Franklin, Franklin betrays Trevor. The circle closes.
Do I like Trevor more? No. I still think he’s a piece of bad writing, and I think a less monstrous figure would have made for a more effective final scene. I detested every moment I played as him, and he’s responsible for the only time I’ve ever felt ashamed playing a video game.
But . . . does he do his job, in the story? I don’t know. I don’t know if the feeling I walked away with is what Rockstar was shooting for, or if it was just the “bad ending” in the style of Silent Hill’s “it was all a dream you died in the car”ending. A punishment, for making the wrong decision.
I do know this: I’ve never, ever chosen the “evil” ending in a game where they allowed choice. Not once, in my entire life. My Revan was a hero, my Shepard told the Illusive Man to go fuck himself, and my Lee was the nicest dad Clementine ever had.
Maybe it took a monster like Trevor to finally force me to make the darker choice. Or maybe the choice to kill him was just Rockstar’s “get out of jail free” card, a perfect defense for accusations that Rockstar had finally gone to far with a character like Trevor: “Sure, he’s bad, but you can kill him!” Or maybe they just liked the idea of Trevor as a perfect parody of the exaggerated Grand Theft Auto player, a chaos-loving, shootin’, stabbin’, sex-filled maniac, and they loved the idea of throwing that behavior in our faces.
I do know this: Trevor’s a disgusting asshole, and I won’t be forgetting the end of GTA V anytime soon.