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‘Grand Theft Auto’ Needs a Real Criminal Protagonist

‘Grand Theft Auto’ Needs a Real Criminal Protagonist


In Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games’ sprawling, open-world, epic crime series, you assume the role of a criminal, tasked with amassing wealth, evading the cops, and taking down those who have wronged you. This plot holds true in virtually all of the major releases by the New York based studio. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it allows casual players to enjoy the game without being bogged down by a story, but it also allows fans of the story to be engrossed by it. It’s a happy balance.

At the same time, that’s where the problem arises. Behind all the explosions, car chases, and gunshots, Rockstar tried to put a heart into it’s protagonists. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. Bringing the protagonist to life is great, it lets the player get more emotionally attached to the character, their trials, tribulations, and essentially, that character’s life. However, there is a trend emerging, and it could spell the end for the ‘heart’ of the protagonist.

In Grand Theft Auto 3, you played as Claude Speed, the mute protagonist, who was betrayed by his girlfriend, and left to die after a bank heist. You get busted out of a police convoy, and go on a bloody streak to exact your revenge, doing whatever you need to in order to achieve it. You were a bad boy. Claude truly embraced the role of a criminal. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, you played as Tommy Vercetti, a newly released member of the Forelli Crime Family, who is immediately sent to sunny Vice City, Rockstar Games’ version of Florida, to broker a drug deal. The deal goes wrong, and you, again, go to work to get revenge on the person responsible. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you play as Carl Johnson, a gangster, who goes back home to Los Santos, based on real-life Los Angeles, to attend his mother’s funeral. Once again, things go south in a hurry, and you and Carl are pulled into a chain of events to even up the balance on the people that wronged you and your family. The next major release was Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, in which you played as the criminal Toni Cipriani; better known as the last real criminal the Grand Theft Auto universe ever had.

From here on in the series, you play as a military-man-turned-reluctant-criminal (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories), a former military man now searching for someone to exact revenge on (Grand Theft Auto IV), a tired biker who is trying to go straight (Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned), and a ‘partner’ in a nightclub empire who is desperately trying to figure out what he wants (Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony). Grand Theft Auto V tries to right the boat with the character Trevor Phillips, a man who seems to truly embrace his lifestyle of being a criminal, but his proclivity to go on a psychotic rampage, binge drink, huff gas, and do crystal meth leaves many gamers conflicted about identifying with him. Couple this with the fact that his two other criminal associates, Michael De Santa and Franklin Clinton, are in the midlife crisis and reluctant gangbanger stages, respectively, and it would seem that the series hasn’t made much movement back to what made the series so thrilling, narratively speaking, in the first place.

This franchise used to be about a protagonist that loved being a criminal, and that’s who they were. A lot of the missions fell in line with that motif. Now, these games make the player feel like a reluctant errand boy; playing a character who doesn’t want to do the bad thing, but does it because they need to, in order to progress the story. We need the bad boy protagonist back; the one who is calling the shots, not just watching and waiting.

-Mitch Stewart