The three protagonists of open-world action-adventure game Grand Theft Auto V are criminals. They’re robbers and murderers who commit a myriad of vile acts. But aside from the joy of running around and experimenting to see how many different ways we can break the law in Los Santos (here’s how you can wash your hands clean of all that sin), do we even like Michael De Santa, Trevor Philips, or Franklin Clinton?
We asked a couple of knowledgeable developers about whether antiheroes are just poorly designed heroes in disguise and whether they need to be likable. We also asked you over Twitter and Facebook for your thoughts on GTA V’s main cast. Here’s what we learned.
Empathy for … criminals?
Pirates do some pretty despicable things. And pirate-assassins are even more extreme. But Edward Kenway, the main character in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, is still a likable if reckless guy.
“Edward has a selfish streak a mile long coupled with a short temper, but he is not a vile or villainous man,” Darby McDevitt, Black Flag’s lead writer, told GamesBeat. “He has a core decency that prevents him from inflicting unnecessary cruelty and attacks only those he feels are responsible for most of the worst miseries in the world — the agents of the various monarchs of Europe.”
McDevitt doesn’t think antiheroes need our approval to be successful characters — but they do need something else.
“I don’t think an antihero needs to be likable, but they must be compelling to some degree, meaning they must have some kind of struggle that we can appreciate despite our distaste for some of their actions,” he said. “This is probably the essence of empathy — the idea that we can still learn valuable lessons from people we don’t necessarily like or agree with.”
McDevitt turned to television and film for some popular examples: Breaking Bad’s school teacher turned meth cook Walter White, Naked’s violent and sadistic Johnny, and Deadwood’s vile-tempered Al Swearengen.
“I should add also that I don’t believe that the interactive nature of games changes this dynamic very much,” said McDevitt. “When players engage with games, they play however they feel the game should be played and don’t typically heed the writer’s conception of the character. Such is the bifurcated nature of many story-heavy adventure games.”
In GTA V, it’s possible to ignore the story altogether, and you don’t have to go around running over pedestrians in your car. You could always try scuba diving.
Daring to be what average Joes can’t
Sucker Punch Productions, the developer of the upcoming PlayStation 4 game Infamous: Second Son, had the same idea about its protagonist Delsin Rowe, a frustrated artist who gains attention when he acquires unexpected powers.
“In Infamous: Second Son, Delsin is confronted with a massive dilemma at the beginning of the story,” said game director Nate Fox. “How he — how the player — chooses to solve this problem illustrates their moral character. Now for me, I’m a douchebag. I’ll do the selfish and easy thing every time. But other players with morals will be confronted with a situation where they’ll need to work harder to do what’s right. It’s this initial dilemma which drives both good and evil Delsin forward.
“And yeah, I’m not telling you what that dilemma is because I don’t want to ruin the story for you.”
Fox agreed that antiheroes don’t need to be likable, but they do need to be relatable.
“You have to feel like you are that antihero when playing,” he said. “If that bond occurs, then even a sourpuss like Kratos becomes highly charismatic. You delight in his victories because they are your victories.”
Fox noted that it’s important to remember that nobody does something “to be evil” or “get the job done,” like we probably associate with GTA V’s characters — especially when we’re playing an open-world game filled with missions and objectives that are sandwiched between casual violence. But that’s just it. We’re the ones playing — controlling these characters and guiding almost everything they do — and that doesn’t make us evil, either.
“An antihero needs to feel completely justified in their actions,” Fox said. “… Doing the dirty work the rest of us are too weak or scared to do. And of course, antiheroes are usually acting to help themselves, not the greater good.”
So what about Michael, Trevor, and Franklin?
One person loved them “for what they are” while another called them “awful and boring.” But you liked seeing what they could — would — do:
@gamesbeat Trevor is hilarious & does what he has to, in order to survive. And imagine the possibilities if we were all as care-free as he.
— Chad Oliver (@EternalCMO) October 24, 2013
@GamesBeat I don’t really like them but I find them interesting and taking part in their lives intriguing and plain entertaining.
— Eino Anttila (@EinoAnttila) October 24, 2013
On Facebook, Ron Bryson Jr. wrote, “Even though they’re a bunch of fuck-ups, they get shit done.”
“Trevor says the bad things that I think every day but I’m not allowed to say out loud,” added Mary Waters.
And isn’t that why we buy games like Grand Theft Auto V? To do what we can’t — wouldn’t dare think to do — in real life? Perhaps these characters are greater reflections of ourselves and our inner desires than we realize.
So who cares if they’re likable? As long as they hold our interest, they’re pretty cool.