2016 has been a strange year globally. Glyn Davies takes a look at GTA’s favourite redneck pervert Trevor, and draws some frightening parallels with a certain global figure. Anyone for GTA Trump?
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and it’s fair to say that during that time, through 15 games and over 200 million units sold, it has risen through the ranks from its roots as a scrappy, anarchic, highly controversial, but utterly seminal sandbox game, to its current status as probably the biggest videogame franchise on Earth. As each new generation of hardware appears, the speculation immediately turns as to when the next GTA game will emerge and what it will be like. It’s the benchmark on which a console generation is judged. If the day ever comes when a GTA game is considered to be poor, that whole generation of hardware will be written off as a massive waste of everyone’s time.
Imagine the chaos: gamers across the globe will throw down their controllers in despair and be compelled to find themselves a more productive hobby. Fire and brimstone will rain from the skies, cats and dogs will have unnatural relations and Tony Blair will return to assume his rightful position as Lord of the Underworld (which, as quangos go, is pretty unaccountable). Basically, it’ll be one massive shit-fest. Happily, that day has yet to come, as each iteration of the GTA franchise has always outdone the previous one, not only on a technical level, but also an artistic one. With each generation, the stories and writing become sharper and more believable, the satire more biting, the graphics more realistic, the gameplay more immersive and the controls more intuitive. Invariably, with every successive release, critics laud it, players adore it and tabloids love to hate it. This is exactly as it should be; the natural order of things.
These kinds of improvements are all par for the course for a long-running videogame franchise; a lot of them are merely cosmetic, the natural result of improved technology. But crucially, as the game has evolved, so have the game’s characters. The characters in the very early incarnations of GTA were as two-dimensional as the game’s original top-down viewpoint. Even in GTA III, the first 3D entry in the series, the main character was merely a mute, ultraviolent stereotype with whom it was very difficult to feel any real connection. It was only with its follow-up, the 1980s-set GTA: Vice City, based on a vastly-improved version of the GTA III game engine, that the series finally offered players a character with genuine personality, in the guise of Mafia enforcer Tommy Vercetti, voiced with some gusto by Ray Liotta. With Vice City, a lot of other things also snapped into place and set the series on its way to becoming the pop culture behemoth it is today: colourful, detailed visuals, a vibrant, atmospheric and fully-explorable game world, an expansive licensed soundtrack, a compelling, engaging story and a certain colour of satirical wit that continues to infuse the series to this day.
As the series has progressed, GTA’s creators, Scottish studio Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design), have attempted to make the game’s protagonists increasingly sympathetic, which to be fair is quite a difficult thing to do in a game where the main character is invariably a criminal and the general objective is for them to steal, hustle, fight and kill their way to the top of the underworld hierarchy. However, they succeeded admirably in GTA IV, the protagonist of which was an Eastern European immigrant and former soldier, Niko Bellic, who, having witnessed untold death and destruction in the Balkan wars, had come to the United States to start a new life, only for his old life to come back and haunt him. Needing money, Niko starts working for the Russian mob, realising midway through the story that he has been used and betrayed, and promptly sets about turning the tables. It was a refreshing change for the series to have a character understand the moral implications of his actions; indeed, Niko could even make specific moral choices at certain points in the game that would alter the outcome of the story. Even in missions where Niko had to kill maybe dozens of people to escape from a situation, it was always with a sense of world-weary resignation, rather than any kind of psychotic satisfaction. Which, when you think about it, is the mirror opposite of the average GTA player, about more of whom later.
Trevor is an exaggeration of an existing stereotype, but he is also very comfortable in that universe to which he undoubtedly belongs: a twisted man in a twisted world that, if we’re not careful, could come to resemble our own all too soon.
Niko was critically well-received as a welcome departure from the usual GTA protagonist, although many GTA players (myself included) found him to be something of a drip, not really in keeping with the darkly humorous tone of the GTA universe. So, with GTA V, the most recent instalment in the series, Rockstar North partially returned to the violent-but-likeable-rogue formula that previous GTA protagonists had adhered to, albeit with a bit of a twist: this time, there were three player-controlled characters, all of whom had their own individual skill-sets, and would need to collaborate with each other on certain missions; off-mission, all three characters could be switched between any time by the player. The characters were: Franklin Clinton, a young African-American man looking to make something of his life and escape from the neighbourhood in which he grew up, which is plagued by a never-ending cycle of gang violence; Michael De Santa, a middle-aged retired bank robber, living in relative wealth and luxury in witness protection, but feeling personally unfulfilled, a feeling not helped by his unfaithful wife and spoilt children; and Trevor Phillips, Michael’s one-time partner in crime, now living in Sandy Shores, a run-down desert town where he operates various illegal enterprises involving the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine and the smuggling of guns into Mexico.
All three characters were popular with players, but it was Trevor who proved to be the game’s real star for a number of reasons, the main one being that he was probably the first ever GTA protagonist who truly belonged in that world. It’s also fair to say that Trevor is by far and away my all-time favourite GTA character. Looking at my playing stats, in the god knows how many hours I’ve spent playing the game in story mode, I’ve been Trevor 51% of that time. I’ve long completed the game itself, but it’s still my go-to mindless chill-out game because it means for a couple of hours I get to be Trevor, and live the day-to-day life of an unhinged drug dealer and gun runner who, despite being a billionaire by the game’s end, still chooses to live in a disgusting trailer next to a stagnant desert lake. Because you know that this is exactly what Trevor would do: Franklin and Michael live in their luxurious suburban homes in Los Santos (the GTA universe’s take on Los Angeles) because that’s who they are; civilised, modern and metropolitan. Trevor lives in a trailer in the desert, amongst a community of intemperate, gasoline-drinking rednecks who mostly despise him, because that’s who he is; uncivilised, unreconstructed and unrepentant. In a game not particularly noted for its realism, Trevor is probably the most realistic part of it, and that’s why it’s such fun to play him.
Despite being incorrigibly corrupt himself, he hates corruption, especially within the establishment…
On first impressions, there isn’t a great deal to like about Trevor. He’s an angry, violent, impulsive, dishevelled, drug-dealing, gun-running, gas-huffing, sexually deviant, borderline cannibalistic sociopath with questionable personal hygiene. But he isn’t all fun. When we first meet him, he’s in his filthy trailer having vigorous sexual intercourse with the meth-head girlfriend of the leader of the local biker gang, one Johnny Klebitz (a former GTA protagonist himself, being the main character in the GTA IV DLC story The Lost and the Damned); moments later, Klebitz himself is brutally murdered by Trevor, who repeatedly stomps on his skull before heading off to take out Klebitz’s allies before they find out. So, it’s immediately established that Trevor is hot-headed and dangerous, a man who acts rather than thinks, and who is more than happy to play with fire, even if it’s bad for business; Trevor seems to value reputation over money, and definitely values loyalty over both. More to the point, he absolutely thrives in chaos.
In some respects, Trevor is something of a paradox: an amoral person who nevertheless has a strong moral code by which he lives, and expects his associates to as well. While he wilfully ignores traditional moral codes, particularly those that involve refraining from murder and theft, he does have notions of justice and fairness. Despite being incorrigibly corrupt himself, he hates corruption, especially within the establishment, something which is played out in the story of the game, as Trevor, Michael and Franklin find themselves being used, in sometimes very dangerous situations, not only by corrupt Feds, but also by a corrupt billionaire, with very little reward to show for it. Being a criminal, Trevor’s argument would probably be that, unlike these people, he is at least “honest” in his corruption, in that if he wants a bigger share of the cake for his business, he just takes out the opposition; he doesn’t hide his intentions and is utterly fearless.
One very crucial point about Trevor is that he is the first GTA protagonist to hold up a mirror to the average GTA player; his behaviour reflects how a lot of people actually play the game. Trevor Phillips is basically Rockstar North saying to us all, “See, this is what you’re all like, you bunch of psychos!”
The most curious demonstration of Trevor’s complex morals is seen in one of the more controversial (even by GTA standards) parts of the game, in which Trevor is co-opted by the aforementioned corrupt Feds to torture and extract information from an American citizen of Middle Eastern origin. The player, controlling Trevor, has to administer various types of torture: from extracting teeth or busting kneecaps, to electric shocks and waterboarding. From a player’s perspective, even in a game like GTA, this is uncomfortable stuff, although it is also a fairly potent demonstration of the general futility of torture, in that the victim will tell their torturers pretty much anything they want to hear in order to make them stop. However, having done this and extracted the information that was required, the victim is left by the Feds in the care of Trevor, with the obvious presumption that Trevor will now kill him. But instead, Trevor takes him to the airport, urging him to flee and “tell his story”. This goes some way to defining Trevor as a character. Having had no personal grudge against the man he has just brutally tortured, he sees no reason to kill him, and lets him go; on the other hand, his loathing for the Feds who made him do it knows no bounds, and even while he’s doing various dirty jobs for them, he is always looking for ways to orchestrate their downfall.
One very crucial point about Trevor is that he is the first GTA protagonist to hold up a mirror to the average GTA player; his behaviour reflects how a lot of people actually play the game. Trevor Phillips is basically Rockstar North saying to us all, “See, this is what you’re all like, you bunch of psychos!” If you’re a fan of GTA, you will know exactly what I mean. The GTA games are the ultimate sandbox games, in which the player has the freedom to do pretty much anything, and yet there are any number of off-mission activities that don’t involve committing any crime at all. Outside of the story missions, violent crime is purely optional, and rather than go around the city or surrounding countryside causing random, gun-fuelled mayhem, you can instead just cruise around – by land, air or sea transport – and explore the exquisite scenery, or go and play a round of golf, or have quick game of tennis, or take part in a street race, or jump off something high and parachute to safety, or just sit in your house and watch TV. Franklin even has a dog he can take for a walk and play fetch with.
But sometimes, just being completely amoral, going on a random shooting spree and provoking a police chase that will, more often than not, end in a bloody or fiery death, is just too much to resist, and this is where Trevor comes in. This kind of thing has always been part of GTA, but doing it with characters like Niko Bellic or Tommy Vercetti, while always fun, never really rings true because you know that, even in the warped GTA universe, Niko is too even-tempered to get involved in a firefight intentionally, while Tommy, as a professional crook, would rather stay under the radar than draw attention to himself. With Trevor, however, you know that he would absolutely revel in it; Trevor doesn’t care about consequences, any more than the players who control him. He’s the perfect medium through which players can vent. If Trevor represents anything, it’s the heady mix of anarchy and escapism that the GTA universe has always offered its players.
All videogames are essentially harmless escapism, and none more so than GTA. What a lot of GTA’s detractors fail to understand about the games is that they are essentially exaggerated parodies of the modern world, nothing more. Far from being the mindlessly violent, degenerate videogame the tabloids love to portray it as, GTA is actually a very thoughtful, razor-sharp satire on popular culture as a whole, targeting the media, politics, celebrity culture, the internet, consumerism and even videogames with equal venom. As you explore the world and consume its in-game media – the TV and radio stations, the internet (complete with social networks), the movies (viewable in the in-game cinemas), the roadside billboards – you realise that a lot of effort has gone into mercilessly scything the more vacuous and shallow values of the real world. There’s a gag on every street corner, on every billboard or shop-front, in every snippet of conversation from a passer-by, in every TV or radio commercial, and even in the in-universe brand-names: Budweiser becomes “Pißwasser”, Ford becomes “Vapid”, Facebook becomes “LifeInvader”, and even the FBI is re-branded as the “FIB”; there are hundreds of similar gags throughout GTA, some obvious, others very subtle, but always hitting what they aim for.
The GTA universe is basically a worst-case-scenario version of the world we know: a shallow, selfish, cynical place where the more negative human traits – self-interest, greed, corruption and an endless obsession with the trivial – are cheerfully indulged and celebrated. It’s a world entirely devoid of goodness, compassion or hope, a world where the lowest common denominator is king, and where campaigning politicians will unapologetically push every possible racist or sexist button without a second thought (thank heavens that could never happen in the real world, eh?). Sure, it’s an amusing and entertaining place to visit for short periods, but it would be a crushingly depressing place to live in. It’s also a place where you get outlandish, but strangely likeable characters like Trevor Phillips. Like the rest of the game, Trevor is an exaggeration of an existing stereotype, but he is also very comfortable in that universe to which he undoubtedly belongs: a twisted man in a twisted world that, if we’re not careful, could come to resemble our own all too soon.