New Game+: Grand Theft Auto V and the narrative split

October 5, 2013


It seems Grand Theft Auto V is on most people’s minds these days, and for good reason. With any new GTA game, there are conversations about its importance in medium, some of the game’s more controversial scenes and, most importantly of all, the three protagonists. While GTA V isn’t the first game to introduce multiple protagonists, it is the first of its scale that split the story between the protagonists and allows you to switch between them at will.

Conceptually, it’s a neat trick, but it adds a whole new dynamic to a series that could have easily become stale. Most importantly of all, it shows how such a narrative can work, which leads me to believe it could have a place in other games as well.

All three of GTA V’s central characters are different. They all have different upbringings, come from different walks of life and allow their unique personalities to shine through with each quip or interaction. They do have a lot in common, however, and that is their innate desire to pull off some ridiculous heists for both the money and the excitement. Each character has their reasons for taking part in these insane operations, but that doesn’t change how well the three work together in these situations, and how their individual stories are impacted as a result.


In my review, I said you could take all three characters and put them in their own separate GTA game, giving you three fairly different experiences. Combining their stories, however, is what makes each story beat more exciting as a result. If their paths didn’t cross in interesting ways and their interactions shine through, the game as a whole might fall flat on its face. It’s far from perfect, but it manages to pull off something remarkable that you almost never see in games. Again, having multiple protagonists isn’t new, but how it’s handled in GTA V is something special.

When given the opportunity, I often found myself switching between the three quite frequently, both during missions and when roaming around. Each character has their own set of side missions to complete, but it was mostly for reasons that would make sense canonically even if it had no impact on the overall plot. For example, any time I prepared for a heist and it involved stealing parked vehicles, I would rely on Franklin, who is shown to have experience doing so. If it involved stealing a more heavily guarded vehicle, I could use either Michael or Trevor, depending on if I wanted to try to be stealthy or just kill everyone in my path. It made no difference who did which part of the heist preparation, yet I found myself buying into each character’s strengths and weaknesses and allowing that to make the decisions for me.


Switching between characters during missions involving all three was something I found myself doing as well. One late-game mission involved all three assaulting a compound for story reasons I won’t get into. Each character went to specific points on the map, which you were able to choose. One of the options for Trevor was to head in through the front, guns blazing, which seemed like the perfect thing for someone as psychotic as him to handle. It may not have been the best choice in regards to his survival, yet it made the mission more fun. As I got to know each character, I began to understand why they were suited for specific parts in missions if given the choice, which allowed me to invest even more in their stories and the overarching narrative.

Playing Grand Theft Auto V made me think about other games that might benefit from having multiple characters. Imagine playing the next Fallout with three characters of your creation. You could design them as you normally would in a Bethesda game, but you would also be able to pick their backgrounds and stories. This would give each of them a specific role to play in the main story, but also unlock unique side missions to embark on based on your choices for each character. It would be ambitious, even for a company like Bethesda, but imagine the potential for a game of that scale if they actually pulled it off.


Or even something less open in terms of gameplay and more in terms of narrative, like Mass Effect. Three characters, like Shepard, that are basic templates with a large number of customization options. Each character could be aboard a single ship, or even have multiple ships, each with different crew members and stories that will tie together in a larger narrative. It could even involve swapping between the different characters, like in GTA V, during certain points in the story. These are basic ideas that might not even work, but the idea of having multiple protagonists in a game with a story on the scale of Mass Effect sounds potentially amazing.

These ideas will probably never come to fruition, mind you, but the potential seems limitless. Grand Theft Auto V has a lot going for it, but its ability to balance a well-written story among three separate protagonists is brilliant, allowing for many moments that just wouldn’t work with a single character taking the lead. It opens up plenty of new opportunities for splitting a narrative between multiple playable characters and also gives other, large scale games a chance to see just how far they can stretch a story without it wearing thing. An idea like this won’t always succeed, but seeing just how well it can work gives me hope that there is more potential for it in the future.