Grand Theft Auto 5 straddles a fine line between poignant social commentary and outright offense. Parents question the game’s moral compass and media, the line between social commentary and offense. How far is too far and how much is too much are the golden set of questions that have forever hung over the now legendary franchise. A pair of questions that I don’t really feel like answering, because honestly, addressing moral outrage seems like a lot of work and very little fun. What I want to talk about today is something a bit more primal and untamed. The fact that one of the most dynamic and interesting characters in GTA5 is a villain, a particularly evil one at that.
People tend to only love evil when their guilt is forgiven by context. Where the sins committed are done so for a valid reason. Take the modern trend of blockbuster revenge thrillers as an example. John Wick and Taken are both films whose main characters are killers. Yet all the killing is done in the name of “justice.” In one movie a group human traffickers kidnaps the main character’s daughter and in the other some Russian mobsters kill the lead’s dog. In both cases the audience gets to watch a thrilling movie about men who are essentially mass murders and yet they don’t really feel like it. The action is badass and the characters brutal efficiency highlights some small and forbidden flame within us. Because of this we write off their evil actions as socially acceptable.
If the context is not there then the character immediately falls into the classic black white dichotomy. Take Bioware’s Mass Effect Franchise where one of the core storytelling conceits of the game is to make meaningful choices. In these games every major event revolves around dialogue wheels that the player controls. There are usually three options, good, evil, and neutral. If the player chooses evil then they are not slightly dickish – they go full blown psychopath. And if they pick good they they are a saint. Neutral is a middle ground but it tends to lean in either direction given the situation and context. The point of all this is that there are very few examples of media that give viewers a protagonist that is bad without being evil; who is a villain but isnt obsessed with mindless killing or world domination.
Trevor from GTA5 is one such character. Everyone’s favorite white trash meth-head is not only one of the most likable characters in the game he is also unapologetically vile. From the not so subtle hints that he rapes his male friends as a sign of dominance to his wanton love of extreme violence, nothing is explained away or given that vital context. And yet, Trevor doesn’t fall into that iconic category evil. Instead he falls firmly in the grey. Even if its shade looks about as black as dirty motor oil his character isn’t limited to one direction of the scale.
Rockstar took a huge risk in letting the player get inside Trevor’s head. His thoughts are not relatable and his ideas of fun, perverse. Still, there is something fun about how the character operates. Which is to say that Rockstar’s risk paid off in spades as Trevor’s “Fuck it” attitude is actually quite endearing. Not matter the content of his actions it is really hard to hate someone who so shamelessly follows his heart. Especially if the people he is with are just as evil as him. This is where the audience connects on a deeper more primal level. There is a small part of humanity that yearns for a world without all of those nagging everyday limits and rules. As crazy as it sounds, Trevor manages to somehow tap into that wildness in all of us and instead of being scary it’s actually quite fun.
Maybe this is the meth talking, but Trevor is one of the greatest characters ever written in a video game. He would be fun to read about or watch, but the magic happens when GTA5 gives the player control over his story lines. Playing Trevor is like living vicariously through a psychopath. You kill people. You torture others and sometimes there is a bit of trailer park romance. I am not saying it feels good to do all these horrible, awful things but there is certainly a strange mixture of uneasy excitement. A combination of disgust at how far the story has gone and a rush of adrenaline that follows the disbelief at some of the things you have done.
In one such scene there is an interrogation sequence where you are forced to brutally torture a bound man. Trevor by his very look seems evil but man, this scene was over the top. There are quick time events that see you pulling out teeth with pliers, striking with a monkey wrench, shocking with a car battery, and dowsing with gasoline. The game forces you to choose which implements to use and the entire order of the scene is left to you. It is in moments like these that Trevor shines. It didn’t really dawn on me until after I was done that I had treated the entire sequence as if it were just another simple part of the game. I chose the most efficient methods, I made the hardest choice, unconsciously I had been fully moved by the character. It wasn’t until after, when I had successfully and efficiently tortured a man that I realized how fucked the entire situation was. On one hand I was horrified at the implications and on the other I was floored by how smart Trevor’s design and function is.
The GTAs have always been about showing people how warped their own humanity is. I mean at a basic level you can simplify the idea of the game’s mechanics into a mass murder simulator. From the very first game to GTA5 playing evil has always been the point, it’s just that until Trevor most of the players’ guilt was cleverly hidden in the background behind game mechanics and action. With GTA5 Rockstar decided to put that guilt front and center. The long time developer has always maintained that the GTA’s are a social and cultural critique. That their goal is to make fun of how subconsciously sociopathic society has always been but never wanted to admit. Which is what makes Trevor such a fun and interesting character. He gets people to identify and act like their worst nightmares.
Rockstar created a monster and it wasn’t the white trash meth-head I had grown to know and love. He is the evil inside of all of us just waiting to bust out and take a cold hard ripe of the ole’ crack pipe. And you know what? That is what good games do. They create characters and stories that live and breath and connect with the people who play them. Like any good piece of storytelling it shows you something about yourself. Say what you want about the series as a whole but the GTA’s have always given their games unique and engaging characters. They push boundaries and despite whatever else you have to say about them, they know how to make a damn good character.