Much though we may love GTA V for its acerbic writing, densely packed world, and infinite modding potential that’s helped the game endure over the many years since its release, it has to be said that it had a pretty poor story. The decision to split the whole thing into three separate characters – who played out like mimics of the heroes from GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas – was ambitious, but it didn’t work out that well, and now it looks like Rockstar are backtracking from that format for GTA 6.
With the latest reports suggesting that Rockstar decided to scale down from an initial number of four playable protagonists down to just two – a ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ type couple, apparently – it seems that the studio has learned that piling on the protagonists creates pacing and story complications that just aren’t worth the hassle. The ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ framing of the story suggests that the lead pair will be causing carnage together from early in the game, rather than having thinly fleshed out stories that later converge into one narrative.
This is almost certainly for the best, because Rockstar knows better than anyone that it’s not easy to put together a story paced around multiple equally weighted protagonists. It’s one thing to have flashback sequences like in, say, The WItcher 3 when you control Ciri, because it provides vital context to the present-day narrative. Ciri is in grave danger, and playing as her and seeing things through her eyes heightens that sense of danger. Simple.
Resident Evil is another interesting case study of multiple protagonists, as the series has implemented them in various forms over the years. In Resident Evil 1 and 2, your story is slightly altered depending on which of the two playable characters you pick at the start of the game, while Resident Evil 7 does a good job of utilising flashbacks within the singular main story. In Resident Evil 6 you get four stories of a similar length, and that was infamously one of the weaker narratives in the series’ history. A bit like GTA V, the focus was spread too thin to facilitate investment into any of the stories, and they became distinctly unmemorable as a result (in fairness, Rockstar’s writing far surpasses that of pretty much any Resident Evil game).
This doesn’t mean that the split-story format is inherently weak, but it’s an uncomfortable fit for the sharp-witted but rather shallow world that almost every GTA game has been set in. The series isn’t renowned for its deep-thinking or complex characters (perhaps GTA 4’s Niko Bellic notwithstanding). Fleshing out the series’ zany and flamboyant cast of caricatures has often depended on pretty linear story progression that allowed those characters to build up a little narrative momentum. Obviously, in GTA’s open worlds there’s always the risk of getting distracted by side-activities and losing track of key story threads, but that problem was exacerbated in the fifth entry when the story was chopped up into three chunks that you could easily forget to switch between. For instance, it would be kind of jarring returning to the psychopathic Trevor (who I really didn’t care for) after hanging out with Franklin and his story for hours – a bit like returning to an RPG you haven’t played in ages.
It was hard to jump between the stories of Trevor, Michael and Franklin without feeling like you were just bouncing around the caricatures of ‘typical GTA protagonists’ – entertaining, sure, but not emotionally engaging like, say Niko Bellic, CJ from San Andreas, or Marston or Morgan from the Red Dead series. Franklin was the most sympathetic character of the bunch, but coming from the south Los Santos hood area like San Andreas’ CJ and not having much screen time to shine in, he was always in the shadow of his spiritual predecessor (and indeed there are a few references in GTA V to the fallen greatness of the Grove Street Families, highlighting CJ’s strong legacy).
A ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ type story, which suggests you’ll be playing as a dynamic duo, robbing banks, going on crime sprees, and (perhaps) falling in love, will be the first time Rockstar will feature a leading pair who you’ll be able to freely switch between. While that comes with its own narrative challenges, it means that the lead pair’s story is likely to be more interwoven, with more common missions, and perhaps even the ability to do some of the same missions. There’s less capacity for jarring story jumps, and more room to build up the characters together.
Having four playable characters suggests that GTA 6 was going to revolve around something of a gang or posse, which would’ve made it a dynamic not dissimilar to Rockstar’s last game, Red Dead Redemption 2. Seeing as we’ve just had that (and it was done so well), it’ll be interesting to see Rockstar narrow the focus down to a tighter group (or pair) of characters. We’ve had plenty of posse-based crime games in recent years – from Red Dead 2, to Mafia 3, and the Saint’s Row series – and a ‘you and me against the world’ type story (that quite possibly goes up in smoke) could be just what the genre needs.