Multiple Protagonists in GTA V Pt. 2 – Erasing Ludonarrative Dissonance

(Click here for Part I – The Legacy of “Episodes from Liberty City”)

By giving us three characters to take charge of in GTA V, Rockstar has given us three different lives to inhabit. Michael, Franklin and Trevor are so different and operate in such different worlds within the same physical location that playing as each of them will feel completely unique. Rockstar has given each character their own animations, special ability and traits based on a handful of statistics, making each of them fundamentally different to play as. Michael will start with a high level of weapon proficiency and with the ability to initiate a type of bullet-time to aid with accurate shooting. Franklin is the driver of the crew, able to drive like a street-racer, able slow down time to weave through traffic with pin-point precision and reckless (and hopefully wreck-less) abandon. Trevor is in charge of air transportation and so is a skilled pilot, with access to planes from the start. His special ability… Well, it’s just getting really goddamn angry and hitting people really hard. These differences are only the beginning.

Each character also has their own bank account, assets and ongoing concerns, as well as their own personal interests, hobbies and leisure pursuits. All of this will encourage people to role-play their characters more than in past GTA games, and this is where the true beauty of what Rockstar has achieved starts to emerge. If people want to go and do yoga, they will do it as Michael, because it seems like the kind of thing he’d do. A drive-by on gang-bangers in the hood would probably star Franklin, and Trevor is probably the character to choose for dirt-bike races in the desert. Rockstar is giving us a gigantic, hugely detailed open world, and a way to interact with it that doesn’t remind us that we’re playing a game or force the player to break the fourth wall with out-of-character but fun behaviour. Almost everything that players could wish to do in GTA V can be made sense of within the context of the narrative. This avoids a huge problem – ludonarrative dissonance.

Ludonarrative dissonance is when the story the game is telling you and your gameplay experience somehow don’t match up. As an example, this was a particular issue in Rockstar’s most recent game, Max Payne 3. Max constantly makes remarks about how terrible he is at his job, even though he does more than is humanly possible to try to protect his employers – including making perfect one-handed head shots in mid-air while drunk and high on painkillers. The disparity and the dissonance between the narrative of the story and the gameplay leave things feeling off kilter and poorly inter-connnected. It doesn’t make sense or fit with your experience so it feels wrong and damages the cohesiveness of the game world and story. It’s like when you go on a old-lady only murdering spree as Niko, who is supposed to be a reluctant killer with a traumatic past, not a gerontophobic misogynist.

In GTA V, this is hopefully going to be remedied. Multiple protagonists help to make our actions make sense. You fancy going on a killing spree in the woods with a truck and a baseball bat, wearing nothing but your underwear and a scary mask? Well, you should probably seek immediate psychiatric help, but if you wanted to do that in GTA V then you would use Trevor, as his actions would broadly fit within the character Rockstar has created. This also means that you don’t have to contrive reasons for a single protagonist to do activities that make no sense for them or to meet people who they have no sensible reason to come into contact with. The story can be much more organic and take you through a dizzying array of situations without ever once needing to ask that you suspend your disbelief regarding the actions and activities that the protagonists take part in.

By giving players more freedom, more choices and more approaches to the world they allow us to create a natural structure for our gaming sessions that emerges from the tools they have given us. No open world game before has tried anything this radical on anything like this scope. The multiple protagonists of GTA V are proof that Rockstar are making use of their massive budget to innovate and evolve the story-driven sandbox game, and are determined to innovate and push forward the potential of video-games as an interactive and narrative medium.

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